Increasingly, young architects and emerging professionals are being required to adapt and expand their skillsets. In addition to the standard set of skills - which have been required of architects for many years-- are the technical computer skills which are rapidly changing and expanding. These skills have revolutionized many parts of the architectural process, but with that comes the need to critically assess how it affects the more nebulous processes involved in the act of design.
Building Information Modeling (BIM), and Revit in particular, is often seen as the single most encompassing required skill. What does this mean, exactly? This is occasionally very intimidating to a young designer who may have used or learned different programs in school. Even with some rudimentary knowledge, Revit might be used a little bit differently from office to office, so being eager to learn and showing aptitude to learn quickly is perhaps as important, if not more, than already having down the basics. This is especially true because technology is rapidly changing, more for our generation than previous ones.
Because this particular software is so powerful, there is often an assumption that if there was a single program to know, this would be it. Furthermore, As 3D and BIM software become both more powerful and more prevalent, firms will be tempted to use these programs to streamline the design processes for efficiency. However, is Revit - or any single tool, fully effective for all phases of design? Can one design in the computer? Can one design in Revit?
Early tools of expression.
Invariably, the answers to the questions posed above are as diverse as the people who comprise the role “Architect.” One generation largely insists that design still occurs in the form of the sketch, in the connection with one’s hand and the physical act of putting hand to paper. Drawing is one of the oldest forms of expression and tied intrinsically to what it means to be human. Drawing affords one with an immediate form of expression that is unconstrained, if also imprecise.
But humans, for millennia, have also built as a way to express and create. Not only is the act of building as part of the process of design the most analogous to the final outcome – a built project – but it also allows the individual to still explore with the hand, while exploring three-dimensionality and testing against gravity. In both drawing and sculpting, the immediacy of getting from idea to form, and the immediacy of exploration are both maintained.
So where, in the era of parametric design and Building Information Modeling, and maybe more importantly, in an era of consolidation and increased efficiency, does that leave a burgeoning designer? Are there some aspects of hand sketching and sculpting that can be translated to newer technologies?
The art of the mistake.
The power of BIM is arguably its downfall – at least in the eyes of many designers. There is sometimes a notion that design occurs in the genius of one’s mind, that putting pen to paper is merely an act of expression. If that’s true, then one could bypass that step and build their vision in Revit. But can Revit truly replace the sketch, the model, or even the more “primitive” forms of 3-dimensional drawing? One of the common critiques of those who do no design in Revit is that they simply do not know how to put a building together, or, perhaps more fairly, don’t know the software well enough. Undeniably, in its current iteration (though it’s always getting better), BIM favors complete information and geometric and mathematical accuracy. Its conceptual massing tools offer the ability to bypass some of this, but they still rely somewhat on interpretation and assumption, and the masses “break” when certain constraints are not properly defined or if the form does not adhere to these definitions. Revit is highly precise. It requires precision inputs, and as a result, outputs the precise and “smart” objects. This process, however, is inherently highly constrained. This takes away a level of immediacy from connecting an idea to a form.
3D programs, like sketchup and Rhino, attempt to capture the immediacy of sketching by creating intuitive tools that don’t always require precision inputs, but can output precise forms. This differs from the sketch which is imprecise both in terms of its input and output. By not requiring precision inputs, these programs remain relatively unconstrained. This benefit is that not only can they then be used for generating and idea, but they can also be used to begin to evaluate and test the idea. The short distance from thought to form, however, is only part of the usefulness of sketching and these looser forms of 3D model building.
In Revit, if an idea isn’t fully formed, shapes that aren’t geometrically possible, quickly break. Of course, Revit does this for good reason. As the ultimate tool for describing the building for construction, it would be a mistake to allow this. The issue, however, is that it prevents the spontaneity of design, separates the user (and the brain) from the physical manifestation the full investigation and iteration that is often essential to a Designer’s process. The other issue, is that one might spend hours or days troubleshooting model errors (we’ve all been there), which can become an easy distraction from the real task at hand (designing!). The idea is lost to the process.
A sketch does not “break”. Sketchup and Rhino seldom “break,” - at least not before creating a lot of wonky results first. It’s not just that these tools are immediate, but that they offer the opportunity to make mistakes, to explore, to discover new ideas. This is one of the most powerful aspects of this way of working.
Time and Place?
The “mistakes”, or “broken” geometries, however, must then be contextualized and made to work as a built object. It is at this point that having a software that doesn’t allow the “break” becomes the most powerful tool in the arsenal.
Furthermore, once the key relationships and spatial components have been established, Revit offers powerful tools to study nuanced aspects of the Design through the use of Design options. In this instance, when the Design has graduated from a mass or form to a building, and the study is of building components, Revit’s intelligence can be leveraged to quickly evaluate options. Ultimately the question is not “should one be proficient in Revit,” but rather how to get the most out of that - and other - programs, and how to incorporate a computer work-flow into the design process.