Sunday, July 20, 2014


This is a talk I gave at the inaugural "BIM Breakfast" (Dubai version) organised by ITP at the Ritz Carlton DIFC on 11th June.  I was speaking on behalf of GAJ, who co-sponsored the event, but I chose to present a personal view in order to reach a mixed audience of experienced users and interested "novices"

The title is something of a mixed metaphor.  You probably picked up on the reference to Shakepeare: his idea of life as a journey, a progression like the acts of a play.  The phrase "BIM addict" is intended to evoke a passion, bordering on compulsion.  BIM generates strong feelings, for and against.  Hence my first slide, based on the standard Alcoholics Anonymous greeting.

So the talk is about BIM as a passion and a journey. Reflections of an architect who first dabbled in "proto-BIM" around 20 years ago & has been using BIM at GAJ on a daily basis for more than 8 years now (full-on Revit).  During that period, and especially the last 8 years, my perception of BIM has evolved, and continues to evolve.  So imagine me as Shakespeare's player, strutting across the stage, changing my costume with each new scene.

When I first got my hands on Revit I saw it as a new and very powerful way of drawing.  By then I had been drawing for 50 years and I was bowled over by the fact that a new drawing tool could empower me so dramatically.  The next image is from the first set of tender drawings I produced using Revit.

You can see that I was Carried away with the ability to visualise and document in a single integrated environment. To place a set of live views from the model onto a page, adjust my design in any of these views, and watch as the drawings update everywhere.  It's easy to forget how powerful this idea is when you first encounter it.  A year or so later and using visibility controls to create a time-lapse effect. Exploring the sequence of trades, detailing in 3d. 

A couple of years further and I was starting to develop a style, but till loving the combination of orthographic and perspective, the holistic approach.  Drawing is a tool for understanding.  How you draw makes a difference: attention to detail, clarity of thought. 

These are intensely personal things that come across as a style. The style of a writer, or a speaker makes all the difference to how you receive their ideas. The same is true of drawing. We used to know this, but sometimes the disruption of technology leads to amnesia, we become drunk with power, and forget the basics of good drawing technique.

 An example of the ability to disect, to get inside, to deconstruct closes my first phase of "BIM as a better way to draw".  The next big thing to hit is the power of data.

One day you suddenly wake up to the fact that your model is packed with information.  BIM objects are intelligent.  A wall knows that it is a wall. You can keep a running count of floor areas as an urban scheme develops, real time feedback to validate design ideas. 

At a more prosaic level you can count doors and windows.  This seems like a trivial thing now, but for someone who has churned out door schedules by hand on large projects it seems like magic. The first encounter with BIM schedules is breathtaking.  A huge weight falls from your shoulders.  Mind numbing tasks fall away and you actually have time to think about what you are doing.

Thinking outside the box a bit, you can study options for apartment buildings or hotels.  Keep track of the balance of room types. 

And the other side of data.  Analytical tools.  This is a wind study we did for a project just a couple of weeks ago.

So far it's been lonely BIM.  I'm sure lots of you know what that feels like.  Trying to persuade the other consultants to jump in.  The water's lovely in here.  Let's hold hands and paddle off together.

Stunned silence, then:  "Yeah we've got a couple of licences, but the guys are not confident yet.  Maybe next time." or "The programme is too tight." or "But we already started in CAD."  Happily things have changed over the past 2 or 3 years and it's much easier now to assemble a BIM team, at least for the main disciplines.

These are images from a project I am currently working on in Oman, just outside Muscat.  Ducts and pipes appearing in your ceiling voids in real time. 

 Coordination meetings when everyone can see straight away where the problems areas are.  Another exciting phase as the addiction takes firm hold.

My catch-phrase for the next leg of our journey is stolen from Autodesk who also helped to sponsor the event. I hope they don't mind.

At some point you realise that all this stuff that has crept into your private life: email and smart phones, facebook & twitter, dropbox ... all this stuff is cut from the same cloth as BIM.  Digital tools that transform the ways that people interact with other people, opening up connections and the accellerating the flow of ideas.  Brainstorming at the speed of light.

I was doing a tender review the other day: contractors in Oman that I had never heard of.  They all have web sites.  Information that would have taken months to compile a few years ago is available in minutes. 

You've all seen the shots of someone pointing their tablet at the ceiling and seeing what is (theoretically) inside. What about compiling snagging lists on a device that knows which room you are in; scanning the barcode on a piece of equipment and checking if it meets the specification. (At this point I hold up my Surface and my Windows smart phone, just to prove that I take my own path through life :-)

CLOUD-MOBILE-SOCIAL is where we are right now.  New cloud collaboration platforms are springing up on a daily basis.  Manufacturers and suppliers are investing in content services, looking at new ways to interact with BIM users.

Which brings us to the next phase of our journey.

The next big realisation is that for BIM to really work (get the full benefit), we need to involve everyone, the entire industry.  That's why the experience of the UK is so exciting, a national initiative.  It's something we really need to encourage here.  Contractors are coming on board in a big way. 

This is a job we are working on right now.  Design & build with a BIM savvy contractor.  I built a parametric crane for them. Type in the height, adjust the radius, off you go.  And suppliers are beginning to wake up to BIM at last.  Some really good content services developing. 

But we need to go beyond lecturing suppliers with "BIM is the next big thing, you need to get on board"  We also need to listen to them.  They have their own digital tools.  How do they envisage the future ?  And it's not just about downloading objects from a web site.  The real value has always been the personal interactions.  Experienced designers and contractors interfacing with experienced specialists.  How can BIM supercharge that process ?  content, suppliers, contractors, get everyone involved  I think this is going to be huge over the next few years.

But meanwhile my mind is racing on.beyond the day job.  Extracurricular BIM.

Pencils are very adaptable tools, you can write a shopping list and if you are Leonardo you can invent fantastic machines or explore the muscles of a dissected corpse.  We shouldn't keep BIM locked inside the business box. 

Beware of dividing the world up into separate compartments.  BIM is the most amazing educational resource.  Study the highlights of classical architecture (one of my favourite weekend hobbies)

or maybe you are into documenting technologies before they disappear from memory.  Sash window. 
And what about art ?   Where exactly is the dividing line between everyday life and a work of art?  Can we do art with BIM?  What would that be like ?

In the early days people thought photography was too mechanical to become an art form.  How wrong was that?  So that's my current phase.  BIM spreading into all spheres of life.  And here in the Middle East, lift can sometimes feel like a "Rat Race".  What does BIM have to say about that ?   

Most discussions of BIM are locked into an old school business paradigm.  ROI.  Geta competitive edge. bigger better faster.  But that's such an old fashioned business model.  We need to catch up with the cutting edge of business thinking. 

sustainable business concept, Building a long-term brand based on trust and respect. CSR.  So lets take a quick look at  4 pronged model ... starting with

environment - energy modelling, recycled content.  This is not new or controversial.  It's a steadily growing aspect of mainstream BIM, something we all need to embrace.

Marketplace. The images above are from a scheme in London called "considerate contractors".  It's an issue we need to address.  Rightly or wrongly the industry doesn't have a very good reputation for considering the needs of the general public.  Can BIM help us to address that in a typically UAE manner, using cutting-edge technology to communicate with the public and to conscientise contractors about the need to operate responsibly ?  Perhaps Dubai Municipality should require contractors to operate web sites which display virtual models of their projects, warn residents about activities such as all-night concrete pours, and allow them to register comments and complaints.

Workplace.  This is a matter of some concern in the UAE.  The sad fact is that we have gained a reputation for treating our building workers rather carelessly.  Recently at GAJ, we have been working with a BIM-aware contractor that intends to use BIM as a tool for site orientation & planning, fostering awareness that is critical to Site Safety.  This is great & I hope we can continue to build on that.  But what about housing conditions, labour camps.  Can BIM make a contribution here ?  These are open questions.  The kind of questions I am starting to ask about BIM right now in the 7th phase of my addiction.

Community - There are many ways in which BIM could help our industry to contribute to te community.  Lets take a brief look at one: community planning.  This is a well-established idea in many parts of the world: the belief that ordinary people have a right to be involved in decisions about building projects in their neighbourhood.  Here in the UAE we are used to a top-down approach, but it can't go on for ever.  Can BIM help us find a UAE approach to consultation and community engagement ?  Could we soon see virtual models on-line that allow residents in the UAE to envision development proposals before they are finalised and to share their reactions with clients and consultants.

BIM is new, BIM is "happening", everyone can contribute, help to shape the future.  Why not get on board ???

So that's a brief review of my own personal BIM journey, during the past 8 years with GAJ. Yours may be similar in some ways, different in others. But the challenge facing us now as an industry and as a nation (as a species) is can we come together, hold hands and take the BIM journey together.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014



When Robie House was nearing completion, Frank Lloyd Wright had spent the best part of two decades building houses in and around Chicago.  It stands like a ship in dry dock, poised above the street and was for Wright the ultimate expression of his vision of a new type of house, suited to the Prairie, with it's horizontal lines and overhanging roofs.

Having achieved his goal, Wright was ready to move on, abandon wife and family, take up with the wife of one of his clients and head for Europe (via Wisconsin).  What else would you expect from a creative genius, driven by the desire to do things that "never happened before" ?

Although we are beginning to question this notion of the creative superhero it remains central to the world-view of industrial society.  We idolise highly competitive, egotists like Wright, Steve Jobs, Ronaldo, Donald Trump.  We love to believe that they have changed the world forever, invented new ways of being, expanded the art of the possible.  But perhaps it is just a game, part of the never-ending spiral by which our consumer society fritters away the resource capital that our world has accumulated over hundreds of millions of years.

I am exploring two ways of making stuff: Vanilla & Point World.  We have been using mass profiles hosted on a straight-line rig, to make a parametric planting bowl, specifically the one that Wright designed for Robie House.  I want to go on and use this planter as a metaphor for Wright's creative process.  He churned out houses by the dozen, endless variations on a theme.  Most of them featured long low walls, spreading out like the roots of a tree, anchoring the house to it's site.  And to accent these garden walls, two or three strategically placed planting urns.

And just like his houses, these planters re-invent themselves with each new commission.  He couldn't stop fiddling, exploring new combinations of materials, structural gymnastics, different roof pitches.  I never thought much about the planters until I visited some of his Prairie Houses, 2 or 3 weeks ago.  Lately they have become something of a passion.

This one from the Heurtley House features a square base, then a cross, and finally a circular bowl.  These are the three motifs in the logo he used during his Oak Park period.

My third Point-World planter is from his own house & studio.  Built using a loan from Sullivan, this was his base right up to the Robie design: the family home he abandoned when he left Oak Park with Mamma Cheney.  The planters are outside the entrance to the studio, itself an addition to the original house.

Louis Sullivan was his mentor and the source of some of his design ideas, particuarly the obsession with ornamental detail which can be a little embarassing to those who like to claim him as a modernist.  But perhaps the more important skill he acquired from Sullivan was the ability to harness a team of draughtsman and drive them like a maniac towards his goals.

We idolise the creative artist, but in reality most of them ran studios.  From Brunellischi to Gehry, the "great man" produces master-works from an assembly line, often using cheap semi-volunteer labour and almost always claiming the credit (and if you are Steve Jobs, the copyright)  This is not to belittle the skill and vision of such men.  The draughtsman is always free to set up on his own, perhaps by breaking his contract, as Wright did to Sullivan when he designed his "Bootleg Houses" less than a block from his own house, while serving out the 5 years exclusive service he had contracted in return for the building loan.

There are many more Wrightian planters.  Please feel free to send me examples.  Here are a few.

Winslow House was the first of the houses Wright designed after breaking with Sullivan.  The house itself could almost have been by Sullivan, and the planter is conventionally classical.  From here on the urns become more abstracted and geometric.

But what can Vanilla do ? (the challenge in my title)  Can we achieve the same scalability using standard Family Editor geometry ?  I chose the Nathan G Moore house.

The planter may date from the renovation that followed a fire more than 20 years after the original design.  Difficult to be sure. The house itself is rather fussy and steep-pitched, not at all typical of his mature prairie style, whereas the planter is somewhat simpler.

Whereas Point World relies on the Normalised Curve Parameter (NCP) for much of its scalability, Vanilla prefers Reference Planes and equalisation constraints.

The formulae for isolating "Height" and "Slenderness" as the 2 primary user inputs are common to both methods however.

I didn't attempt a "Depth Factor" in Vanilla.  Firstly I don't think it can be done.  Secondly it's questionable how useful it is in this particular case.  To be honest the oval/oblong versions of the planter look a little odd.

So what's the verdict?  I enjoyed pitting the two worlds against each other on a similar task.  I think the Point-World approach to scaling is more elegant, but Vanilla families are more servicable at present for use in real projects.

I had to cheat a little to get the various segments defining my vanilla revolve to snap to grid intersections.  The NCP approach makes small adjustments much easier to achieve.  Equalised dimensions are a little crude in comparison.  I ought to mention that the Vanilla method makes use of the ability of splines to scale proportionately when their two ends are stretched apart.

All in all, I don't think there's a clear winner: just 2 different methods for making stuff that are worth practising and perfecting.  Sometimes one will suit your needs better, sometimes the other.  Point World can make shapes that are impossible with Vanilla.  Point World only exsists (at present) in family templates that are not ideally suited to objects like planters, furniture, or plumbing fixtures.

So "viva la difference" and keep playing with both methods.  Hope you found this useful.  And if you are a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, please don't take offence.  He was a lovable rogue, by all accounts and I prefer to love him "warts and all" rather than worship at the feet of my idol.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


I just want to get something off my chest before I start.  I'm not setting out to make families that we can use in our day jobs.  There may well be some spin-off that we can use in fee-earning work, but what I'm doing here is pure research.  I'm reflecting on forms that Frank Lloyd Wright used, exploring abstract shape-making, reflecting on underlying meanings.

How do I justify this ?  Let me ask one question.  What is the higher priority for our species today: making more stuff (bigger,better,faster) or figuring out where we are coming from (and where we are going) ?  It worries me a little that "the factory" frames everything as a business proposition.  They are making tools for tomorrows visual thinkers.  The old fashioned business paradigm based on growth & profits is not going to solve our problems.  I don't think so.  If my grandson is going to inherit any kind of world at all we need to think outside of the business box.

In my view, tools like Revit should be designed to facilitate visual thinking in its most generalised form.  Young minds in our universities should be using them to understand the buildings and cities of the past, to explore the evolving technologies that have made those buildings possible, to envisage alternative futures.

So let's look at young Frank's frolics through the world of planters.

I travelled to Robie House on Monday.  I was deflected by Rain, which turned out to be a blessing that nudged me into the architecture foundation shop which is definitely worth a visit.  Here I bought a tree of life umbrella which in the event was never needed but became a nice present for my daughter.

Robie House is one of the icons of early modern architecture, the pinnacle of Wright's Prairie Homes period.  There is an interesting parallel with Villa Savoye by Corb.  Both have been hugely influential.  Both are extremely powerful design statements by architects of immense talent.  Both had very brief lifes as dwellings; failed in fundamental ways to deal with climate and fell into disrepair and misuse for an extended period before emerging as protected monuments hosting thousands of visitors each year.

I'm going to use a Straight Line Rig.  A vertical reference line erected at the origin, with a height parameter.  Host a point, change the value of the "Show Reference Plane" parameter to "Always" select this plane to set it as tbe current work plane.  Drag a profile in from the browser and host it on the plane.  Use groups of profiles to create forms.

The Robie House planter like the house itself takes horizontality to extremes.  I'm using the two profiles from the previous post, rectangle and ellipse, with the depth factor initially set to 1 so we have a circle and a square. It took 12 points and 14 profiles to create the solid forms (two points host both a square and a circle)  Another 3 profiles for the void cut (all circles)

Something like that anyway.  I may have lost count somewhere along the way.  There are 6 separate pieces of solid geometry: 2 square "extrusions", 2 circular "extrusions", and 2 circular lofts.  The "extrusions" are really blends, but the top & base are identical.

The depth factors are linked up to a matching parameter in the host family.  Ditto the scale.

Here's the thing.  We want the height to be able to scale independantly from the width & depth.  To put it another way we want to vary the proportions in all 3 dimensions.  So in the project we have 3 instance parameters: Height, Slenderness & Depth Factor.  A simple formula does the magic behind the scenes.

The result is a family that flexes nicely in plan & section.

Same thing in axo

So what's the point ?  Why make them parametric ? Why use point world.  Wouldn't plain old vanilla extrusions and revolves do the job?  I'll answer that last one when I get round to making a vanilla version.  I'm using Point World because it still fascinates me and I think it's important for us to keep plugging away at the relative merits of the two ways of making stuff.

As to "what's the point" ... well drawing is understanding, and it seems to me to be worthwhile to get deep inside Frank's skin.  He may have been an arrogant S.O.B. but he created some remarkable buildings.  And just to prove a point, the process of recreating these planters eventually made me look a little closer at the images I began with.  What do you know, the planter over the entrance has a different size & proportions to the ones on the street front.

Or so it seems to me.  I'm just estimating on the basis of photographs I took 8 or 9 days ago.  If I lived in Chicago I could go back with a tape measure, but this post is being finished off in an old school-friends living room in Reading, England.  Last night we played music in the garden to a small gathering of friends and neighbours. Tomorrow night I will be with my son in London, and a week from now, back home in Dubai.

More planters to follow.