Sometimes it takes going very fast to be able to slow down and appreciate what is happening around you. About two years ago, rolling back and forth along one of my many weekly train rides down to Seattle prior to moving here, it suddenly dawned on me all at once: What is it about BIM that is so inaccessible to many firms? Below is a version of what I captured on that bumpy ride. It somehow seemed appropriate now that we are finding our way, hopefully out of this deep recession. Either that, or I finally watched Unstoppable. Strongly recommended, especially if you are a train nut, and have a decent home theater sound system. Anyway… about BIM – this is applicable to new firms thinking about BIM, but also a reminder of why we decided to do this in the first place. Let’s not lose site of the reasons to embrace process change.

Resistance to Change

I hear this all the time: “BIM can be too rigid, forcing you to commit to design decisions.” Didn’t people say the same things about CAD? Wasn’t it that we discovered it was more flexible at making changes. We made those changes, and changes, and changes… That could be why, even though it was a superior tool to the drafting table and layers of canary tracing paper, we never saw any real productivity gains.

Architects using CAD went too far, too fast. Why? Because of the perceptions of easy changes. Well, certain changes are easy, right. But what about the changes that never get coordinated. Did we forget to follow through the change? Usually. Was it more efficient? Only during design. Did we stop charging additional services for changes that used to be very time-consuming? Yes, although the time it takes is lessened, it still causes late nights and over-consumption of caffeine.

Let’s not repeat those same mistakes in BIM. Building is of course a messy process. It is by it’s nature, laborious, fraught with errors and intentionally slow. If you build too fast, things fall down and people and property are damaged. Why should virtual building be any different?

One could certainly see the benefit of putting all the detail in real-time, but at what cost to the schedule, the ability to iterate, and respond to change? It’s time we slow down, and think about strategic design. Go outside, take a walk and get some fresh air – if you can find any.

Change is Medium

It can be less than easy, but so many are doing it and succeeding, so one must ask themselves: “How hard can it really be?” There are several obstacles, however the most critical might be knowledge gap. They need a “perceived reality re-alignment”. The fact is, change is happening.

There’s always someone out there that thinks they really “know” what BIM is. They might even tell you they’ve been doing it for several years, or there entire career has been using “3D” modeling. Well, then you ask them what it was like to exchange data with consultants, the general contractor and client, and they either look blankly or state that they exported to DWG. So where is that “I” in BIM?

The knowledge gap of not just what the existing tools can do, but what process change is necessary to succeed in the new face of architecture needs to close quickly, or as participants in the creation of the built form we will all fall deeply into the abyss.

Remembering: Why BIM?

Did we simply want a better chariot? Isn’t CAD simply the same old truck and grooved-road concept which ultimately became the 19th century train? Don’t get me wrong, trains have their place for moving cargo, and short haul commuter lines. Now Maglev, that’s traveling. Removing friction, and floating above it all allows moving at far greater speeds, and a safer, smoother ride.

It is then hard to understand why Amtrak has decided to base their long-term strategy on existing old technologies (CAD), when they could leap forward (BIM) like some other places in the world (see image below).

We really want to do something greater with BIM, not just the same old deliverables, same old pay-schedule, and want to spend more time designing and less time creating coordinated construction docs. We wish to be more collaborative, assume less risk, and share in more rewards when projects succeed. We also now see our competitors getting there ahead of us, and want to be more efficient, and capable. Remember your passion for design during this time of transition. If we lose sight of that, it is possible that we will not be able to compete.

Choosing Efficiency or Flexibility?

Do you really have to choose? Model to anticipate change. These two ideas seem on the surface to be polar opposites, but in fact:

Flexibility = long-term Efficiency

If you build for efficiency of the moment, you’re just doing CAD. We know that nothing is static, as change is our constant companion. Embrace it and you will learn the true power of BIM. Do go ahead, and dive in. You can’t stop, unless you start. BIM really can be like a train. You may be going incredibly fast, OK not as fast as you want to, or as fast as a the new Shanghai Maglev, but to an observer standing off in the distance, you are going very slowly.

Photo from my trip to Shanghai in 2010 - This Maglev train travels 300 km/h from the airport to Shanghai, and 450 km/h (280 mph) in the open countryside.


How do people make the transition to something new? Instant gratification is not the right expectation. We all tend to think things are not moving fast enough. Try this sometime: stare at a train, or an airplane in the sky for a while and if you look quickly enough, it sometimes appears that the object is standing nearly still. It’s just a matter of perspective.

The opposite is a phenomenon that occurs when you are moving slowly being passed by some other moving object traveling in the opposite direction. You almost feel like you are traveling backward. A slight vertigo feeling can form in your belly. That is the anticipation of change. But once you really get going, you must always remember that you are moving fast, and must be ready for the consequences when you must again slow down and stop. Buckle up, this journey is a little bumpy.

All are welcome aboard the BIM train, but be sure to mind the gap.

4 comments on ““Thoughts on a Train”, or “Mind the BIM Gap”

  • My issue with the BIM tools like Revit are that they are mainly object oriented which is the current darling of the computer programming industry. The objects like walls and doors are first class objects meaning they are on top. When you interact with the program you interact with them. When you want something done you ask the object. What is missing is a series of functional meta commands that manipulate and contain the objects. The next step in BIM is to allow funtionally driven solutions where you can rotate the west wing 15 degrees and it still will heal with the east wing without going down to the object level to draw new walls. I would prefer if the Revit project file was open and could be accessed and changed without using Revit. But I guess that is the next paradigm shift!

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