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Designing the Design Pedagogy: Optimizing the Integration of BIM in Effective Design Teaching

Residency Dates: April 1 – May 15, 2014

An examination of advantages and challenges associated with the integration of BIM in Architecture Design Studio. The study includes case studies of best practices nationwide including interviews with select educators.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) are powerful enablers. Embedded (and coupled) with increasingly robust parametric tools, analysis instruments and visualization capacities, BIM is a disruptive technology that enables the management of greater complexity, facilitates predictive analysis, promotes integrated thinking and collaboration, and bridges a variety of previously discreet building industry sectors. This project posed the question, “how can it be made most effective in teaching the next generation of architectural designers?”

Aimed at proposing the most effective ways of teaching design in relationship to BIM, this project sorts through the divergent objectives between practice and education to identify strategic alignments between teaching applications, contemporary workflows and design skills. It points out that Architectural design/production workflows and the most effective pedagogical methods to teach them are not the same. BIM enhanced workflows are optimized to develop and actualize design from the earliest stages of conceptualizing bulk and mass to the latter stages of construction (and beyond) enhanced by information-­‐rich, integrated construction documents and fabrication files. While the principle of full-­‐spectrum, cross-­‐disciplinary integration is key and should be introduced in schools, the quantity and fidelity of variables and information can quickly overwhelm the inexperienced designer’s agency to think hierarchically (establish values associated with one variable vs. another) and make decisions. Furthermore, the ever-­‐increasing number of computationally automized tasks suppresses students’ exposure to (and awareness of) fundamentals underlying background operations. This project (forwards) a set of principles important to design teaching and suggests how BIM can best (and should) be taught in relationship to them, first principles, and the development of those aptitudes and skills needed for effective design practice.

As a platform BIM can open an understanding of workflow that is inclusive, integrated, moves from 3D to 2D, is associative (parametric in relationship to information) and relates to analysis and predictive modeling, all of which are crucial to 21st century practice, but how can students be taught to understand, internalize and integrate the underlying design principles in a contemporary design workflow? Tools taught and well integrated at the right time have capacity to assist in the development of the designer. At the wrong time that same tool may do just the opposite. But we know that as the tool changes, so do the process and the outcomes. One key to this conundrum is developing a balance of when to teach the tools separately, based on their underlying assumptions, structure, biases and potential and when to integrate them. In either case, how to maintain a critical perspective of their potential and limitations is essential to guard against a dulling of the mind and provoke progressive thinking and decision-­‐making -­‐ design.

Designing the design pedagogy must be linked to the tools that are employed, but should not be beholden to them. Through Revit and its associated applications students can BOTH be made aware of its capacities (expanded integrations, embedded information, associative parametrics, predictive analytics) AND the potential of these transformational tools to stimulate and inform creative outcomes. An examination of best practices across schools engaging Revit in the curriculum provided insights into enabling and limiting factors.

Two underlying assumptions formed the basis of the work:

  1. Learning design thinking and effective design skills is a highly specific and challenging proposition, and 
  2. Learning BIM (the principles and functionality) is critical to 21st century building design and production

Key Images:

Whether, where and how these two intersect was the question and subject of the investigation. The venn diagram [fig. 1]– suggests that there are three effective Design and/or BIM learning environments; 1) “Design”, independent of BIM as we know it, 2) BIM independent of “design” and 3) the two together. Were the circles collapsed into one we would have a fully integrated model, fully separated a ‘dis’-­‐integrated model and as shown in the diagram a hybrid.

Building more constructive relationships between the Architect, Engineer(s) and Constructor is enormously important. The tool promises significant benefits in practice and has great promise to do the same creating a shared environment for engineering and architecture students. The collaborative virtual environment created by the integrated or overlapped model, particularly when exercised across disciplines, promises to sharpen communications, collaboration and integration. The different ways of seeing afforded through Revit offer significant possibility for the individual design student and the team. While these potentials are significant the following concerns – with respect to the un-­‐mastered student arose.

01 The learning curve (of the tool) was not insignificant, but more significantly it became clear that Revit introduced a number of biases that were / are difficult to overcome, especially if one is in the learning process and unaware of what they do not know. To be specific, the bias toward levels, horizontal surfaces and Euclidean geometry presume (and favor) relatively conventional building types – floor plates wrapped in a skin. This is not to suggest that the application will not work outside those modalities, but it is not trivial to someone who is not yet a mature designer, does not know the software well and who is being encouraged to think from first principles.

02 Second is the matter of speed and commitment. Sketching, diagraming, “mocking-­‐up”, testing and iteration are key rhythms in the design process for mature designers who understand the need to pass through a number of experiments and the ‘ugly stage’ in order to see, evaluate, and adjust one’s work. Tools that lower the threshold of commitment (input to output ratio) can increase the degree of objectivity and vulnerability even mature designers assume in relation to their work – and much more so with students. While parametrics promise enormous benefits in this area – BIM’s high input to output ratio (on the front end of a project) demands substantial commitment that tends to consume both time and will to objectively evaluate and iterate. Over reliance on Revit in a design education setting, particularly for those who have not mastered it can not only consume limited time available for the design (learning) process but can also diminish willingness to iterate, be objective, analyze, critique and go back. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be employed – or to suggest that it does not offer tremendous potential and benefits to the design and production process – but the when and the how are questions that we will be addressing.

03 Third is the problem of presets. Parametric elements and libraries that presume for the student what walls, stairs, windows or doors are bypass the pedagogically necessary step of designing from first principles in order to learn the nature of those elements.

The question of when and how BIM is integrated into the curriculum must be tied to first principles (of design teaching design) including:

  • Developing an awareness of the Timeless concerns of Architecture 
  • Understanding that drawings (and models) are the means – not the end 
  • Defamiliarizing students from biases – developing objectivity 
  • Putting first principles first 
  • Understanding the need for and relationship between reflection and action 
  • Zooming in and zooming out to understand the multi-­‐scalar relationships of all things 
  • Teaching systems / performance / operational thinking. 
  • Learning the value of iteration.

The challenges not withstanding, Building Information Modeling as a learning tool (not merely a tool to be learned) performs exceptionally well in enabling several understandings including:

  • Collaboration 
  • Parametric design thinking 
  • Integrated information management and 
  • Performance based design through integrated analysis

It can be employed as the glue that not only binds individuals in a cooperative enterprise, but can do so across disciplines and distance, expanding an awareness of the many related disciplines and enlarging the reach of the school and student. Engaging the parametric possibilities can enhance the ease and speed with which iteration and associated critical feedback provides intelligence and objectivity both with respect to geometric possibilities and their performance(s). The power of integrated information management is potentially not unlike the shift from two to three-­‐dimensional tools in opening up possibilities and the integration of analysis tools, early in the design process leads to a more robust understanding of performance based design and the consequences of one’s work.

BIM can and should be taught with intentionality in a combination of ways that build a consciousness of its (like any tool’s) values, biases and challenges and when so employed has great potential as an assistant teaching technology.

About the Resident: Mark Mistur is the Associate Dean of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His teaching and research focuses on innovations driven by performance criteria but he remains equally concerned with phenomena, the human experience and social consequences of architecture. He studied at the ETH and at Rensselaer where he received his Master of Science, Bachelor of Architecture and Bachelor of Science in Building Science degrees before launching a career combining both teaching and architectural practice.

He teaches the fourth year comprehensive design studio and Bedford A/E Initiatives that in 2005 received an NCARB Award of Excellence for the ‘Creative Integration of Practice and the Academy’. He received the Rensselaer Alumni Association Outstanding Teaching Award in 2003 and the Rensselaer Faculty Early Research Career Award in 2005, served as the Acting Dean of the School from 2008-­‐09, directs and is the author of a new book, The Architecture of EMPAC: the Tangible and the Tantalizing.