Carl Galioto, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s partner-in-charge of the firm’s New York Technical Group, and Paul Seletsky, SOM’s director of digital design, are two of the architecture profession’s leading experts on BIM: building information modeling (also commonly referred to as virtual design and construction).
The pair discuss how BIM facilitated a major redesign of the Freedom Tower; assess the technology’s strategic impact on the profession; address common misperceptions; explain BIM’s potential benefits for smaller practices; point out how BIM can lead to increased compensation for architects; and lay out the potential ramifications of BIM—both positive and negative—on the architect’s overall role in the realization of buildings (“I believe this moment is a very critical hinge in the history of the practice of architecture—and that architects do have the ability to take a much greater responsibility in the implementation of their designs”).
Bryant Rousseau: Paul, in an essay on building information modeling, you wrote that there is a “tremendous cultural shift occurring … architectural production methodology is about to be turned on its head.” Can you elaborate on that? At the 10,000-foot, strategic level, what impact is BIM having now on the way that the profession is practiced?
Paul Seletsky: Traditionally, we’ve had a very linear process in the way we practice architecture. One goes from the conceptual to the early stages of design and into development and so on. What we’re seeing now is we’re going into a more elliptical process.
As a very good example, take specifications—which is traditionally coming as a post-rational application to something that has already been designed. But what we’re going to see is where the specifications become embedded into the rules of a building information model. We’ll see more and more examples of taking knowledge and applying it at the very early stages of design rather than applying it later.
BR: Carl, what’s your assessment of what the strategic impact will be?
Carl Galioto: One can ask: What is the effect email has had on business over the last 20 years? BIM, or virtual design and construction, is a similar kind of huge shift on how information is created, how it is shared—and we simply need to look at this as a new way of working.
BR: What is the most common misperception among architects about the implications of BIM?
CG: I think the first question that comes to architects’ minds is, “BIM looks great, but how much more will this cost us?” The answer is, once one overcomes the initial hurdles of the initial implementation, it doesn’t cost any more. So that’s the first misconception.
The second misconception is that BIM is purely about three-dimensional geometry, that this is about form-giving or, maybe at a more developed level, about interference checking, and that’s the extent of it.
But there’s so much more. Essentially, this is about building a data-rich model where really no one owns the data: People exchange data, people borrow data, and then they pass it on as part of a circular process. What it’s really about is creating an enormous database, which is a virtual building that is actually constructed in the computer.
BR: For an architect who has been practicing for 15, 25, 35 years, what are the changes that might be a little bit uncomfortable to make as a result of this new way of doing business?
CG: Some of the changes that are necessary would be to exhibit less of a concern for liability, less of a concern for ownership of information, and to operate in a more open and collaborative environment with material fabricators, with the constructors, and with consultants.
BR: And what sort of a cultural shift does that entail for the architect who might not be used to that sort of collaborative work?
CG: It is definitely up to the individual professionals, as well as the profession as a whole, to regain a leadership position in the entire process of the realization of buildings. Not merely the conceptualization of buildings, but their actual implementation. To do so, it takes an attitude shift on the part of the profession, including modification of legal guarantees and a movement and a willingness to take on greater responsibility.
BR: Looking three years down the road, five years down the road, how is the architecture profession going to be different as a result of BIM?
PS: Well, we’ve already seen examples of its [implications] with projects both large—such as on the design of the Freedom Tower—and small as well. We did a school [the Koch Center for Science, Math & Technology at Deerfield Academy; see the ], where there was a skylight system that needed to be designed [so that] a point of light was cast in a figure eight on this wall over the course of one year. We had to study the form of the skylight that would enable that point of light to be cast. When we arrived at that form, it wasn’t because we liked the shape of the form, or we thought aesthetically it was pleasing. It was actually a performative design. And the whole nature of performative design is going to take on a much greater significance.
BR: It’s interesting, Paul, that you mention using BIM on a school project, which was on the smaller side. Is that a common misperception, that BIM is really for large, extraordinarily complex projects and not something that if I’m designing a church in a small town or a single-family home that I will ever need? Does BIM deliver benefits for small, relatively simple projects?
PS: Absolutely. I was at a round table about a year ago and someone stood up and said, “Well, you’re with a large, well-known firm, and you can afford BIM.” And I said BIM is the greatest thing for a young architect that ever existed. There’s more opportunity here for the single practitioner and the small firm than ever before. Tremendous. And so to say it’s just for the large firm is a terrible misconception.
BR: Why does it pose so much benefit for the smaller firm?
PS: Look, one can look at the Internet as a means to accessing knowledge that we’ve never had on such a global scale. BIM offers an equivalent level of accessibility of knowledge—and that is really what’s the transforming instrument here. And that is available to a small firm as well as a large firm. The question is: How do they utilize the knowledge? And if they’re smart, whether they’re large or small, they’ll take as much knowledge and rethink the process. And in doing so, rethink the role of the architect.
BR: When it comes to BIM’s impact on the stature of the architecture profession, two dramatically opposed potential outcomes have been discussed. One is that architects, as a result of BIM, really assume a new leadership position in the industry. The other is that they become subsumed into the engineering and construction process and play a more secondary role. What do architects need to do to make sure they’re utilizing BIM to achieve a new position of leadership within the industry?
PS: If architects merely see BIM as a means to a more efficient production of representational documentation, then they will, I believe, lose out to construction-management firms. If architects merely see BIM in terms of geometry, and they forego understanding the really significant part of this—which is their role in a greater understanding of simulation and analytical-performative analysis applied to that model—then they will lose a tremendous opportunity really to elevate their stature and their responsibility.
What architects are powerful at is the interpolation or the interpretation of a range of solutions or a range of ideas. It’s not black-and-white—“Well, if we press this button, we’ll get this answer.” It’s really taking the technology to get a range of answers, and then allowing ourselves to interpret what we have at hand.
CG: I believe this moment is a very critical hinge in the history of the practice of architecture—and that architects do have the ability to take a much greater responsibility in the implementation of their designs. Architects and engineers are the conceivers of ideas, and we should be responsible and take full responsibility for the implementation of our designs by understanding systems and materials and interfacing with the fabricators. My own preference is to directly interact with the fabricators of structural steel or building curtain walls and to work from our models, working with them to collaborate with them in the design and fabrication of the systems.
PS: BIM also doesn’t necessarily portend a competition between architects and engineers. What BIM does, and what simulation and analysis does, is raise the level of the discussion among all these existing participants. I don’t think we’ve yet fully grasped how the level and nature of collaboration between these parties will be transformed. We still see this in a very linear fashion. Once we see this in a different way, we see the roles of all these participants as still there, but the way in which they collaborate will be changed.
CG: I’ll give you a simple example: the use of various analytical tools for thermal performance on building envelopes. We as architects are using that to analyze our building envelopes and we’re using the same tools to study daylighting of spaces. And it isn’t for the purpose of replacing the MEP engineers; it’s to have a more informed, more productive dialogue with these engineers and to advance that up to a higher plain.