Livin’ Large with BIM

9 Apr, 2008 By: Heather Livingston

How building information modeling operates in a large design firm.

A few months ago I spoke with architect William Badger, AIA, in Manchester, Vermont, to get a feel for how the transition to building information modeling (BIM) was progressing in small design firms. Bill's take on the process was that it was slow going, but overall was good and worthwhile. To find out how a large firm is dealing with the transition, I spoke with Jordan Goldstein, AIA, managing director at the Washington, D.C., office of Gensler. Because of the substantial resources available to large firms, many have taken the lead on the adoption of BIM and 3D technologies, and Gensler is no exception. Its point of view is unique because of the vast number of users in each office and the size of the projects. How has BIM changed the firm's practice? Here's what Goldstein says.

HL: Which program is Gensler using?

JG: We're one of the largest subscribers and users of [Autodesk's] Revit, and we've had it in the firm for well over a year-and-a-half as a main staple program. We've been experimenting with it longer, but to actually weave it into projects has been a year-and-a-half, at least. We are striving to do every new project that comes in, whether it's architecture or interiors, in Revit.

HL: How did Gensler handle adoption: by office or firm-wide?

JG: [Implementation for] the entire firm would be the lens through which we've looked at it, [although] I think the larger offices have certainly been great testing grounds for it. We tried to do it on projects that range in size and scale, but it certainly has been used more comprehensively for larger projects that are complex and involve architecture and interiors: projects that really allow us to explore not only potential phasing of a project but also integration of multiple trades.

HL: How many in your office are using Revit?

JG: Well in Washington, D.C., we have 275 people, of which about 220–225 are architects. Everyone's gone through our internal Revit training program, but obviously if they don't have a chance to use it right away, it's hard to refine the skills. Of active users, I'd say we're probably about half of that.

HL: Have you had any unexpected glitches?

JG: File size is the one thing that we've had to manage, especially in the large projects. When you get up there in building size and multiple floors, it can be a little challenging. So that means we've had to adjust our hardware to increase the memory capacity that's needed to make something like this work efficiently and also work well in concert with other programs that we use regularly to get drawings and presentations suitable for presentations. The Adobe suite is something that we rely on heavily with Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, and Acrobat.

The benefit of the Revit technology definitely is that it asks a lot of questions of the design process earlier on so that we are able to have a deeper, richer dialogue about the design direction earlier in the project, [allowing us] to make a lot of decisions with our clients and consultants earlier in the process rather than during construction documentation. That has its pros and cons because it's great to be able to do that, but it's not the conventional process, which means a lot of people aren't used to that.

HL: Are you now interoperable with your consultants?

JG: I'd say yes. I think it's been more readily adapted by structural engineers because there's an ease of use there for them and a language that works well. I think it's not quite there yet for MEP. Civil's using other technology, so there are trades you can integrate and others that aren't there yet. Contractors are getting increasingly savvy with the technology. There are several of them that are hiring or training staff to pull up Revit models, understand what's going on there, and use that for their pricing, take-offs, and for their own CA process.

HL: What do you find most useful about Revit?

JG: If done right, the best thing about the Revit technology and BIM in general is that instead of creating a 3D model that doesn't have smarts, you're creating a 3D database of your job that for us is terrific. Everything's living in 3D as a database, and I can then filter that out to get what I'm looking for, whether it's 2D drawings of elevation or sections, or 3D views of key details. As someone who grew up in a CAD environment and spent a lot of time in digital design, where I see this being the most helpful to practice is understanding the full implications of your design intent early on and doing it in a collaborative manner with your clients and consultants using your 3D model as the sum-all of your design.

Damage from a tornado prompted the reskinning of this historic tower, the first high-rise in Indiana. Using Revit, Gensler created an innovative solution that involves welding new outriggers of steel to the columns to create a slab that allows the reskinning of the modern glass facade to occur from the exterior. (All renderings courtesy of Gensler.)

An axonometric rendering of One Indiana Square shows the attachment of the new steel outriggers to the columns.

The new skin, designed in Revit, at One Indiana Square floats lightly beyond the original facade.

HL: How has BIM affected the client relationship?

JG: The clients that see it embrace it readily. They are on board instantaneously. To be able to sit in a meeting and spin your space around and immediately look at what this means in 3D is fantastic. There are a lot of questions that they ask like, "What does this mean for the overall process? Does the process get shorter? Does the collaboration get easier?" I think that the industry as a whole is still identifying the full implications of the process because it is a new, but well-served direction.

[One issue we have to face now is that] when they see a design in 3D, they assume two things: one, that it's done and two, that it was easy to get it there. If I move a ceiling plane or adjust a key mullion detail, [the clients expect] that I can press a button and it just happens, but the reality is that it's a domino effect. It not only takes time to make those adjustments but to think through the domino effect. If I change my ceiling height six inches in a building or move a slab up, then all of the sudden I have this whole domino effect of what is this doing to my curtain wall? What is this doing to my elevator shafts, or if it's an Interiors project, how is this affecting my partitions and finishes?

I think communication is key for us to be able to articulate what it takes to make a change and explore the next step. I think they want to know because they want to understand the schedule of the project and how and when they're going to be able to see the next iteration and revision. For us, we want to be able to explain it because we feel like the more communicative we are, the more dialogue there is around the process.

HL: Do you think Revit is saving you either time or money?

JG: I'd say probably more on the time right now and not necessarily the money. I think that it has the potential to do both. There are more and more opportunities to use it, and it's one of those great waves of technology that will definitely change the industry for the better, but with it comes the [varying] ability for our staff and others to embrace it and allow it to flow into their process. We are very careful not to say to anybody on our staff that using this tool will shave two weeks off of x, y, or z. We believe that each team needs to get in there, get into the program, and understand how it will work with their project because every project has its own specific issues. From a time standpoint, what we've seen so far is that when it's truly humming, it can certainly make things more efficient. I'm not drawing something three or four times. I can do it once and use that one drawing for several different things.

Click to view PDF
This shell and super structure rendering shows the plan for recladding the historic Boilermaker Shop in Washington, D.C. Built in 1919, this shop is being renovated into 46,815 sq. ft. of retail space. (Click image to view larger PDF version.)

HL: Are you using Revit to its full potential?

JG: I think we're getting there. We're doing a competition right now. We're competing against another firm for a build-to-suit headquarters for a project in D.C. In a couple of weeks, the team has put together a full building. Looking at this thing, it looks like it's built. Every floor is in there. It's a collaborative process between workplace and architecture. Not only is every office figured out and every floor and an atrium and exterior skin, but there are desks and furniture and a reception area. Clients see that and realize that this could be [their] building if they say "go," and that's a pretty amazing thing. It's a perfect example of using the tool to its full potential.

HL: What do you wish it did better?

JG: If you [had asked] me that question a year ago, [I'd say] the renderings weren't as good as I could get in a 3D Studio, as an example. We would have to take things out of Revit into 3D Studio to get the quality renderings we were looking for. I'd like to be able to stay in the program and have rendering be a natural byproduct of the design process. But, I think [Autodesk] recognized it and made adjustments. I think it's getting better. For this competition that I told you about, the team was able to stay in Revit to do the renderings.

HL: Final thoughts?

JG: I think tools like these are fantastic enhancements to the design process and allow us to take the profession to a whole different level, but we also recognize that it is another tool in the designer's toolbox. We know that the toolbox itself is ripe with other things that also make the process richer, so there are still so many other things that help communicate great design: physical models, Photoshop, and the ability to hand sketch an idea quickly are examples of other tools in the toolbox. All those things hold great benefits for communicating design.

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