Harvard Critical Digital Conference 2008 paper

In April I presented a paper at the GSD Critical Digital Conference at Harvard University. The paper was co-authored by my supervisor Mike Donn. The conference itself was pretty good considering it was the first time it had been run. You can find my paper along with all the others online at the Critical Digital website. However for posterity (and Google) I have included the text of my paper below.

Using Project Information Clouds to Preserve Design Stories within the Digital Architecture Workplace


During the development of an architectural design a series of design stories form. These stories chronicle the collective decision making process of the diverse project team. Current digital design processes often fail to record these design stories because of the emphasis placed on the concise and accurate generation of the virtual model. This focus on an all-encompassing digital model is detrimental to design stories because it limits participation, consolidates information flow and risks editorialisation of design discussion. Project Information Clouds are proposed as a digital space for design team participants to link, categorise and repurpose existing digital information into comprehensible design stories in support of the digital building model. Instead of a discrete tool, the Project Information Cloud is a set of principles derived from a proven distributed information network, the World Wide Web. The seven guiding principles of the Project Information Cloud are simplicity, modular design, decentralisation, ubiquity, information awareness, evolutionary semantics and context sensitivity. These principles when applied to the development of existing and new digital design tools are intended to improve information exchange and participation within the distributed project team.

Identifying where BIM ends and the wilderness begins

The term Building Information Model (BIM) is used fairly loosely in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) technology industry. Most of the software 'formerly known as CAD' is now referred to as a Building Information Modeller (i.e. Autodesk Revit), or at a minimum reference the term in their marketing blurb. In the field of AEC research many papers reference the Building Information Model as a hypothetical construct holding boundless quantities of data about a building. This approach avoids a commitment to a particular technology (which in research is not a bad thing) but it does mean the definition of what is and is not a BIM becomes even less clear. Perhaps the best general description of what a Building Information Model is without resorting to either “whatever program X supports” or “pretty much anything” is from Jerry Laiserin when he first proposed that the industry stop using a range of terms and focus on just one.

“Combined, "building information" implies, to my ear, a strong sense of what the design, construction and operation of buildings is about. It avoids techno-jargon, yet remains evocative of technical goings-on. "Modeling," although a near-jargon word, does connote the mathematical or digital description of objects or systems, we have econometric models and weather models as well as physical models of 3D objects. "Modeling" also implies a process of description or representation that provides the foundation for building performance simulation (essentially, modeling future behavior) and for the management of building information (information models serving as the frameworks in which information is managed).” - Jerry Laiserin

Behind the Building Information Model Buzz

Last week I was invited to attend a meeting of a few local architects where they discussed the Building Information Model and its relationship to documentation. Before attending I prepared the following document which I distributed amoungst the attendents. In it I aimed to clarify what BIM is (or more importantly what is isn't) and give them an indication of the issues surrounding the concept of BIM from a macro-perspective. Most attendants were very familar with the power of BIM tools such as Autodesk Revit but in general there was a lot of confusion between BIM and parametric modeling. There were also mixed feelings on the capabilities of BIM as a collaboration platform. For the practices involved it had helped internal processes but it was acknowledged that getting disparate information from design team participants into a BIM was a challenging task. Interoperability between various BIM platforms was an issue but there was the greater factor that many people working within the industry still produce relatively 'dumb' (i.e. basic 2D/3D drawings) that need to be practically recreated in BIM if it is to be of use within the model.

What follows is a web version of the printed document I distributed for reference:

Behind the Building Information Model Buzz

The 'Building Information Model' (BIM) is a marketing buzzword that has been heavily promoted by many Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) software vendors. But what exactly is it, how will it effect the way you work and will it solve all of your problems?

Reinventing Collaboration: An Adobe Perspective

The September 15th edition of the AECBytes email newsletter it featured a very good article from Patrick Aragon from Adobe. Entitled Reinventing Collaboration across Internal and External Project Teams, the article focused on findings from collaboration research conducted by Harris Interactive (on behalf of Adobe). The research concentrated on how Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) professionals collaborate digitally. The research was undertaken using an online survey undertaken during April of 2006.

From the perspective of my own research the most significant finding from the article is that 72% of respondents collaborated outside their office location. This is a clear indication that the concept of a consolidated ‘office space’ where all design/construction activity takes place is eroding (or perhaps never existed). As a consequence the value of centralised, firewalled project databases or physical documentation repositories is brought into question because if project information cannot be accessed when and where it is needed what immediate value does it hold to the process? Of course these repositories are required for long-term reference and legal purposes but in the interests of moving a project forward it would appear participants are limited to the project knowledge they can personally recollect or store in a mobile device (be it laptop, phone or briefcase).

The other interesting finding was the collaboration file format breakdown as it illustrated the overwhelming majority of exchanged data is by and large straightforward text, numeric and image data stored in Word, Excel and jpeg formats respectively. The other very significant format used by participants is PDF which typically contains textual data but is capable of transferring any printable information (from pixel-based image to vector-based plan) making it difficult to classify. What all these formats have in common is that they are not semantically rich or typically considered part of a greater Building Information Model. In fact from the study it would appear that only approximately 21% of participants use some form of 3-dimensional computer model as a means of collaboration whilst 2-dimensional CAD representation is slightly higher at approximately 38%. These findings highlight the following issues of relevance to my thesis:

1. Given the emergence of Writable-Web tools like blogging, image sharing and the so-called Google Office (and equivalents) what is the future for the bulk of AEC collaboration?

2. Considering the majority of AEC collaboration takes place in formats not suited for integration with the Building Information Model does this validate the need for a looser, broader concept for dealing with design project information in an intelligent manner?

The future role of the Writeable-Web in AEC collaboration

The underlying motivation behind adoption of blogging and online photo-sharing is that these tools make very simple the publishing, consumption and feedback processes. Prior to these tools sharing information over the Internet took place primarily via email. Whilst email has the capability to ‘just work’ it is not as useful for sharing complex or time-sensitive data and requires recipients to be explicitly stated when the message is created. Consequently these issues add collaboration barriers and potentially limit the target audience.

Two articles on Building Information Modelling

Recently two useful articles on BIM have been posted. The first from Cadalyst is a general overview of the BIM product space providing a brief overview of all the major vendors offerings (with links to more info). Light on content but still a useful point of reference none the less. The second is a more in-depth article that reviews the AIA Integrated Practice 2006 conference. The interesting idea put forward in this piece is that architects are not really using BIM tools to model the complete building model but rather are focusing on the drawing aspects of it (referred to as DIM - Drawing Information Model). Conversely it is proposed that the only people currently using BIM for its proper purpose are contractors who are less worried about documentation and more concerned about nuts and bolts (literally).