Architecture Ed Changing to Keep Up

14 Mar, 2007 By: Heather Livingston

BIM and 3D are among the technologies affecting the way architecture schools design their curricula.

Everything changes. It is a universal truism but one that previously was applied very slowly in educational institutions. Not anymore -- at least in architecture school. With the AEC industry moving rapidly to 3D modeling and BIM technologies, universities are nipping at its heels in an attempt to remain viable and keep their students in demand in the marketplace.

"The challenge in architectural education today is that the practice of architecture is changing," said Chuck Eastman, a professor in the Colleges of Architecture and Computer Science at Georgia Institute of Technology. "In the same way that the architectural practice has to adapt, architectural education does too."

According to American Institute of Architecture Students President Jonathan Bahe, most schools are now incorporating 3D modeling and BIM but are, as is true for companies, at different stages of integration depending on budget and interest. Bahe also reports that the schools are applying the new technologies to fit their strengths. For example, architecture schools that are design-focused are using it to explore methodologies and information behind the model as well as how BIM changes fundamental design. Technology-focused institutions are using BIM in the practical application of basic model and building construction.

CAD in the Classroom

Although CAD courses are offered as electives, most schools of architecture don't require CAD for coursework. "We don't teach word processing for people to write," said Eastman. "We assume that people know how to write. It's the same with CAD. At the university level, it's very hard to justify giving course credit toward a professional degree based on how to use a tool." But, Eastman notes, although it is not formally taught, experience in CAD is gained through assigned exercises.

"Most students just pick it up along the way," Bahe explained. The programs have become so intuitive that students typically learn how to use them through the software tutorials. Although AutoCAD is the preferred program at most design schools, familiarity with the myriad CAD, 3D modeling and BIM programs is expected and encouraged. Among the programs used by the New School of Architecture and Design in San Diego are AutoCAD, Revit, Studio VIZ, FormZ, Rhino and SketchUp, according to Len Zegarski, AIA, professor and fifth-year coordinator. Georgia Tech's Eastman concurs, "I think we have all of [the programs]."

Vendors Making CAD Software Accessible

Fifteen years ago, CAD was cutting-edge technology that was available only to students in the architecture lab. It was expensive and only the fastest and largest computers could accommodate the program, putting it out of reach for the average student. Today, most schools require students to have their own laptops, and students are able to download CAD programs free of charge, rendering the technology common and ubiquitous.

Software manufacturers, recognizing that a full software package wasn't in most students' price range but that it was in their interest for students to learn how to use CAD, began offering free one-year student licenses. Says Bahe, many students now download multiple CAD software packages so they can become adept with features and functionality. "Some programs have different strengths and weaknesses," he noted. "Even in a 2D product, there may be things that are easier to do in one than another, so some students like to play in all of them. [Others] like to get experience in just one and become experts in the program."

Bentley's BE Career Network works with academic institutions to provide design software to students and educators, with the hope of producing "career-ready engineers and architects." Bentley offers more than 45 software solutions and makes their programs available to universities through subscription, with students receiving free licenses and a student guide. Subscribing educators have access to training, textbooks and other curriculum materials from the Bentley Institute.

Autodesk's Web site notes that, in addition to providing free student editions of Autodesk software, it also offers a community networking site for students in architecture, design, civil engineering, manufacturing, gaming and animation. There, members can discuss projects, share work, ask and answer questions, learn from experts, follow industry and educational trends and take self-paced tutorials on all downloadable products.
On the Future of Architecture Education

How does all this new, readily downloadable technology affect architecture education? And will the universities' rapid move to 3D and BIM soon render 2D CAD obsolete? While 3D modeling and BIM are becoming widespread in architecture schools, Bahe believes that traditional CAD will continue to be a valuable tool in education. Citing the use of AutoCAD to draw a floor plan, then export it to SketchUp, he says, "It's really being used as a tool to use another tool better because you can construct that same floor plan in SketchUp, but it wouldn't be nearly as accurate. It's using the strengths of each individual program to the best of their capacities."

As for the potential effect in the classroom, Bahe says, "I think BIM and 3D modeling tools like Revit and ArchiCAD have the tremendous possibility and perhaps opportunity to change the studio environment because they require a different thought process. That's where the 3D version is different than the 2D because it's a change in thought process and methodology."

Bahe believes that's one area that needs to be better addressed in architecture education: how to use 3D modeling and BIM to think about design differently. Where traditional CAD was a tool to design quicker and make change implementation easier, the new technologies are influencing conceptual design and design development -- and the potential effects of that need to be given deep consideration in the classroom and lab.

"Use of BIM allows students to integrate analysis applications with their design work, do cost estimation and integrate design with construction planning," noted Eastman. "Those are big steps in architectural curriculum that haven't been practical or possible before because the tools weren't there to help students do that kind of integration. In many ways, learning to use the new tool is just the beginning."