BIM in the academy

Lessons for the AEC industry.

May 07, 2012

As BIM continues to exert its explosive impact on the AEC industry, one component that has been comparatively quiet is academia, specifically the world of architectural education. BIM in Academia looks to reevaluate BIM’s place in the architectural education world—the Academy, as it is referred to in the book. The book, edited by Peggy Deamer, AIA, and Phillip G. Bernstein, FAIA, both of whom teach at the Yale School of Architecture (Bernstein is also a vice president at Autodesk, maker of the Revit BIM platform), examines the questions raised by having BIM in an academic setting and provides BIM case studies from faculty at a number of U.S. architecture schools. Although unabashedly written by academics for academia, the book has several noteworthy themes that cross over between the AEC industry and the Academy.


One of these has to do with why VDC-enabled construction firms are seeking out the graduates of architecture schools. The fact is that a number of construction companies (including Gilbane, where I work) are hiring architecture graduates because the curricula and highly demanding class loads of these programs make their graduates ideal candidates for VDC projects. As a VDC manager myself, I have found that architecture graduates often make fantastic VDC professionals. They also find this role highly fulfilling. Asked why he liked doing VDC at a construction firm, a recent MArch graduate replied, “One of the most rewarding aspects of the VDC industry is our influence on how designers and builders interact.” This is exactly the sort of answer one would hope for from the people who are best suited for BIM’s collaborative environment.

The supply of talented VDC candidates still does not meet the demand—a gap that will only widen as the industry recovers and project loads increase. That’s why AEC industry professionals who focus on advanced VDC implementation are eagerly watching developments related to the Academy’s evolving relationship with BIM.

Furthermore, with the unemployment rate for new architectural graduates at nearly 15%, and with professional internships at design firms few and far between, there is a dire need for architecture students to make themselves as marketable as possible. Employers—design and construction firms alike—are looking for new hires to be highly functional in extremely short periods of time. These demands put tremendous pressure on new architecture graduates.

Fluency in BIM can be a critical differentiator for a new graduate. If the Academy truly wishes to see its recent graduates thrive in the AEC industry, making BIM an integral part of the curriculum is imperative. This also creates an opportunity for the profession (both design and construction) to positively engage with Academia to provide lessons learned, technical expertise, and best practices in BIM and VDC.

If there is a single valuable takeaway from BIM in Academia, it is that the Academy is moving beyond “Should we be involved in BIM?” to clearly addressing more functional concerns around “How do we integrate BIM into the curriculum?” The institutions that are producing the next generation of architects and VDC professionals are in the beginning stages of a curriculum revolution that can have the long-term impact akin to that of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus School.

This shifting attitude in many ways mirrors how the industry and individual firms adopt BIM. It usually starts out as a process where the firm attempts to understand the ramifications of BIM, what resources BIM implementation requires, and how BIM fits into their particular business model. As the firm begins using the tool on projects, the question becomes “How do we improve or reinvent what we’re doing?”

The recent BIMForum meeting that focused on VDC deliverables across the AECO market also concluded that, as an industry, we’re beyond “Should we?” and are now entering a period of rapid growth centered on how to implement BIM most effectively.

The contributors to BIM in Academia and AEC industry professionals agree on one thing: Change is here, and more change is coming. “BIM threatens all hierarchies,” the book states, and this holds true for both academic and professional settings. After a firm pushes seriously into VDC, nothing is untouched. From the early design phase in an architectural firm, to building turnover at a construction management firm, standard business practice changes when integrating BIM. Such change isn’t always comfortable, easy, or smooth, as the numerous case studies in the book (and in real practice) demonstrate.

Many practicing designers fear that BIM is a homogenizing tool that inflicts a limited set of parametric tools on the project, takes the designer out of the driver’s seat, and replaces the professional with a set of soulless mathematical constraints. This is a common topic of discussion, both in the Academy and in design firms.

The above statement is true to some extent, but only insofar that it is true that a mechanical pencil—an earlier “soulless tool”—can manipulate the design process. Such is the case only if the person operating the pencil isn’t capable of using it effectively. The same argument applies to BIM software.

Fluency with the best tools for the job is critical, but lack of operator capability should not be confused with perceived deficiencies of the software. Look no further than the AIA-award-winning work of the parametric wizards at CASE Design in New York City to appreciate how BIM tools can allow the realization of pure design. These BIM tools are so flexible that they are used for modeling the sets of blockbuster movies the likes of “The Fantastic Four” and “The Watchmen.”


One question that the book touches on, and which often comes up in industry discussions of BIM and IPD, is “Who is the master builder, and how does BIM fit into that role?” With the advent of BIM, the master builder is now is the whole team. At last December’s AIA Student Chapter National Forum, two Gilbane VDC engineers presented a discussion of how the role of the master builder has evolved and where they see it headed. What is interesting about these two VDC professionals is that they are both IDP-logging, card-carrying Associate AIA architecture interns. Although their professional affiliation is obviously not an objective source, they argued that BIM and VDC tools are pulling the “master builder team” together in a cohesive way after a more than 40-year period of separation. An important component of this trend is the advent of highly collaborative project delivery methods like Construction Management at Risk with Design Assist and various types of IPD contracts that are critical to making the team-based master builder concept work.


In his essay, John I. Messner, PhD, an associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State, wrote that the AEC industry needs more “T-shaped people” on such composite BIM/VDC teams. T-shaped people have a broad field of knowledge across disciplines, with great depth of expertise in a single field. Finding such T-shaped team members is a critical step for any AEC company looking to start, expand, or assemble a VDC-enabled organization. Implementing such a strategy will create the best building project teams.

BIM in Academia suggests several possible routes—much like those AEC firms are taking—for the Academy to accelerate the development and integration of BIM/VDC into their programs. The industry-leading BIM/VDC firms are already starting to push BIM tools into the hands of field and office staff alike, as well as assigning traditional project roles like assistant project manager or project engineer to VDC staff members.

From my reading of BIM in Academia, it is clear that the front-running academic institutions are not far behind professional practice in BIM thinking: the sooner they catch up, the better the AEC industry will be for it. AEC industry professionals with BIM/VDC experience have a responsibility to provide feedback, assistance, and resources to make sure that our most critical supplier, the Academy, continues to provide the human capital necessary to sustain the integration of VDC into the design and construction industry. BD+C
John Tocci, Jr., is Manager of Virtual Design and Construction at Gilbane Building Company and a BD+C “40 under 40” honoree.



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