BIM is more than a technology or a tool. It represents a sea change to the design process. How we prepare our firms for this shift will have everything to do with our future success.

BIM is more than a technology or a tool. It represents a sea change to the design process. How we prepare our firms for this shift will have everything to do with our future success.

Building information modeling is transforming the way we design. In a relatively short time, using this technology for designing buildings has challenged conventional thinking and begun to create a new standard for the entire industry. The technology is nothing short of revolutionary.

However, managing BIM’s effect on a firm’s design culture has its challenges. Firms are made up of people with varied design expertise, experience, and tenure. For many people, rapid change can be difficult, and nearly all culture changes take time. Implementing BIM across the firm needs to be seen as more evolutionary than revolutionary. Correctly evolving to use BIM to deliver outstanding design to clients while collaborating with partners and developing new talent can mean the difference between being better positioned and more profitable or being left behind.

Perhaps more important than the technology implementation, we are discovering the positive impact — as well as some of the challenges — that BIM has on our design culture, our design process, and how it can help us achieve design excellence.

BIM and Design Culture

Successful design firms want to be at the leading edge of innovation and technology. Implementing data-driven design and modeling tools presents opportunities and challenges for any firm’s design culture.

The front end of the BIM design culture change requires education and training for those who lead the firm’s marketing and design efforts so that competency, capacity, and expectations are well known. It also calls for better understanding of BIM among all the staff.

The design culture is affected by three interrelated factors: collaborative design, generational differences, and mentoring.

Collaborative design, as with design iteration, is a keystone for design excellence. At HDR, fully integrated multidisciplinary design and technical expert teams from across the company work in multiple office locations to provide design services. This creates a team with a wide diversity of design backgrounds. This diversity is brought to bear on projects, resulting in better designs. BIM helps to facilitate this critical collaboration.

Models and data can reach across the wires to all corners of our practice. Because BIM asks that we quickly conceptualize buildings, the result is that more designers start working on a project sooner than traditional methods require. Previously, you might have seen a lead designer working with a junior designer or an intern architect to develop a concept. With BIM, there may be two or more designers and representatives of multiple disciplines at the outset of the project. It is important to note that with BIM, everyone on the initial design team needs a higher level of knowledge and understanding about how buildings go together.

Of course, including higher-value people earlier in the process can have implications for both the project and the client due to higher billing rates earlier in the process. At HDR, we have been able to track metrics indicating that more design effort and therefore more cost goes into a project at earlier stages with BIM, but costs are subsequently reduced later in the project.

Generational differences are very apparent in design firms today. As with all new innovations, BIM implementation can boil down to how generational differences are managed. Changes to the design culture of a firm can greatly affect tenured professionals. It is not a function of age as much as it is years spent practicing a certain way. While not all architectural study programs are teaching students BIM yet, an increasing number of interns and younger architects have some experience designing in 3-D software platforms and are likely more interested to learn and practice in a BIM environment than their more experienced counterparts. That is not to say that longer-tenured architects will necessarily struggle to use BIM. For some experienced professionals, learning new work habits and design leadership skills to manage the earlier phases of a BIM project could be the bigger challenge.

We must acknowledge that certain jobs in our profession are challenged by BIM. Put simply, BIM is dependent on someone who knows how to put buildings together. This provides an additional challenge because many careers have depended on drawing lines as directed by someone else. So how do we bring a less experienced employee who knows how to use these advanced tools together with a seasoned professional who knows how to put the building together? Mentoring is an effective process to help make that happen.

Mentoring is essential because the design culture of a firm is always affected by new talent. The process of mentoring or developing that talent must also evolve with BIM.

On the plus side, students coming out of school now have 3-D modeling experience. So it is a small leap for them to start drawing with building components in 3-D software platforms or understanding BIM concepts and technology. Again, the challenge is that to use most BIM tools to best effect, you need to know how a building actually gets built. While interns and new hires might know how BIM software works or learn it quickly, they probably aren’t as well-versed in how a building’s systems and elements fit together. That is where the relationship between the more experienced architect and the intern (or less-experienced architect) reaches its nexus.

Until recently, mentoring young professionals concentrated on getting them to learn how to draw details first, then having their work marked up by more-experienced practicing architects, which led to an eventual understanding of the bigger picture. It was not always a relational process. BIM gives interns the opportunity to learn how a building gets built much earlier in their careers. This calls for more proactive design leaders and mentors who coach and develop younger peers in more aspects of a project as it develops. It is a much different type of relationship, especially for the mentor.

Mentoring can be made easier by using BIM. Most BIM software platforms are intuitive tools, and an experienced professional can learn BIM in a relatively short period of time. And young or new staff (especially those who learned BIM in their education programs) can learn how buildings go together in software rather than through theoretical concepts and menial tasks.

New talent stimulates the design culture of a firm. Not only do young designers bring fresh and innovative ideas, but they also have the opportunity to become a part of the firm’s leadership quicker. In this light it is important that new talent understand the full impact of BIM on the entire practice as well as appreciate the firm’s valuable history. It is vital that design leaders and mentors connect and nurture these young designers for the future.

BIM and Design Process

BIM has serious implications for the design process. Of course, every designer is different and has his or her own unique process. This is one of the biggest challenges to implementing BIM. Comfort is partly defined by what each of us knows. This means that change by its very nature can be uncomfortable. We can look at projects being designed from the inside out or the outside in. Either way, BIM helps professionals resolve design decisions faster and earlier in the project.

The design of some institutional facilities (hospitals and research laboratories, for example) can be strongly program driven. This usually means that a lot of data is generated before the aesthetic concept is developed. It is sometimes only after a floor plate is established that the three-dimensional aesthetic is discussed. BIM is very well suited to this kind of inside out design development. BIM room data sheets are easily translated into databases, and our designers frequently create concepts based on early program requirements.

The design of civic/community projects and commercial buildings typically are not as strongly driven by program, taking more of an outside in approach. With these types of projects, BIM superbly supports the sculptural art of shaping a building’s design form and our understanding of how light responds to various nuanced changes to exterior and interior design.

It doesn’t matter if you start from the inside with programmatic room requirements and space layouts and wrap them in a shape around those requirements or start on the outside with a conceptual shape and then fit programmatic spaces and functions within. In BIM, all data is in one place and stored the same way. You can approach a project from both directions.

BIM can make it easier to see where things are working and where they are not. It can help facilitate the resolution of a design much better and earlier than has been done in the past. Previously, it was much more difficult to resolve design issues by marrying two-dimensional layouts and plan views with concepts for the shape of the building. This is where the BIM evolution is really quite useful. BIM allows an earlier understanding of the relationship of all design elements. The 3-D building model makes a big difference.

BIM and Design Excellence

Excellent design encompasses both form and function. Design excellence is a core value at HDR and a goal on every project. To us, this means striving for the best possible technical and aesthetic design solution for our clients. With BIM, our designers, architects, and engineers produce higher value designs by collaborating in a rapid iterative design process and by creating better, clearer presentations. Our clients are able to experience our design in a virtual model; therefore, they are able to see their requirements fulfilled in the design.

Architecture is not a commodity; it is a service based on expertise and experience. This opportunity is not just about reducing the time to market. BIM offers the opportunity to provide higher value — better design refinement leading to design excellence. Simply put, BIM allows us to provide better design services.

BIM also allows for more rigorous design analysis. Our models and data can be linked to other digital design tools for analysis of such things as structural stability and energy consumption. The central data can act as constantly updated DNA for the project. Only as we continually scrutinize and revise our designs do we move toward design excellence.

Better collaboration can occur between all related parties because of BIM. For example, HDR architects and engineers can share design information in many dimensions. Sharing both data and graphics enables us to see the whole design. This is also true when working with specialists or contractors as well as with clients. This collaboration increases the value of a project because it drives increased communication among partners across disciplines. Everyone can be better informed sooner. Working from compatible models or a single repository of data ensures greater consistency and execution from design to construction.

Iteration allows a greater understanding of the possibilities for design. The more a design is reviewed and revised, the more refined it becomes. BIM projects develop differently and more quickly than traditional approaches. This ability to apply changes dynamically allows us to refine our intention and hone our design to meet client requirements at a speed never seen before.

As soon as we begin to create a prototype building model of our design, the iterative cycle begins. Working with BIM allows designers to see the changes and make choices and decisions quickly and earlier in the process. And those changes can be evaluated as they relate to the building as a whole. This is an enormous departure from the past, when numerous drawings were marked up to reflect even a single change.

BIM technology also helps automate lower-value tasks (call-out boxes, for example). You still have to drive the software and make design choices. But automation makes things much more efficient and allows the emphasis to be on design.

Managing this new style of design process presents some challenges. Project scope and schedules must be respected and controlled. We can get lost in the forest of thoughts, ideas, and changes. It can be too much information, too quickly, and necessitate too many decisions at one time. Project leaders must work closely with their design teams and clients to be sure to give them the information and get from them the decisions needed to proceed appropriately and in a timely manner. This is a big reason BIM can enhance our expertise rather than diminish it. BIM technology is a tool. It does not make choices.

With today’s state-of-the-art tools, we still encounter problems sharing objects and data between applications. For HDR, the greatest challenge is sharing architectural models with MEP models. We have devised work flows to deal with this issue and use another software product to help with model coordination.

Design presentation in BIM departs greatly from previous methods. Clients are presented with a more holistic and three-dimensional view of the project through the use of animations and renderings. Clients no longer have to review numerous sketches and assemble the building design in their mind. With BIM, it is right in front of them. Additionally, review tools exist that present the 3-D model but don’t require a detailed understanding of the tool in order to explore the model.

This goes beyond the aesthetic. The ability to visualize the project immediately dramatically increases clients’ ability to comprehend the design. They can achieve a better understanding of the project faster. With all of the building data available to look at as a rendering or plan, communication can reach greater depth and detail, allowing designers to manage expectations, provide expert advice, and show the design results in a meaningful way.

This new presentation method comes with challenges. Sometimes a client or partner is not ready to see a building in a fully rendered state or cannot properly understand all of the data. Sometimes it is best to show what is appropriate for a particular decision point. Thankfully, BIM allows this and can show just one part or aspect of a project at a time. It still takes skillful and talented professionals to make judgments at the appropriate time and act as consultants to help a client’s decision-making process. So again we see that BIM does not replace the value that a professional must bring to a project to ensure its success.

This is a clear call to action for project leaders. In the BIM age, the best architects will be able to manage information, capture clear design expectations, and guide projects that iterate much more rapidly. This is very important at HDR in light of our goals for design excellence.

The BIM Effect

BIM has and will continue to influence our firm’s design culture. We are quickly embracing significant changes and massive challenges to our practice. The design process changes are radically affecting how we formulate design solutions. These design culture changes are enriching our firm with new ideas, creating new design leaders, and giving design professionals a new way of practicing architecture. As we absorb these design process and cultural changes, we are better equipped to solve the challenges of our clients and, with full implementation of BIM, we will realize excellence in design.


Merle Bachman is president of HDR Architecture Inc., where his management style and leadership skills allow him to influence the firm’s leadership. With more than 35 years of diverse professional experience in the architectural and engineering design communities, Bachman wields a broad skill set in design, project management, and coordination of technically complex projects for federal, state, corporate, and health care clients. He is active on the AIA Large Firm Roundtable and is well-known for handling challenging projects.