Triantafyllidis / Building Information Modelling (BIM) beyond an efficiency and costs’ saving method.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) beyond an efficiency and costs’ saving method. The use of BIM as a mediator towards collaboration, sustainable design and design exploration.

Author: Georgios Triantafyllidis, TU Graz

Supervisor: Roger Riewe, Prof., TU Graz

Research stage: Initial Doctoral Stage

Category: Paper

Anybody who asks, " How can we apply the computer to architecture?" is dangerous, naive and foolish. He is foolish because only a foolish person wants to use a tool before he has a reason for needing it. He is naive because, as the thousand clerks have shown us, there is really very little that a computer can do if we do not first enlarge our conceptual understanding of form and function. And he is dangerous because his preoccupation may actually prevent us from reaching that conceptual understanding and from seeing problems as they really are. 1


Building industry is accounted for contributing around 47% of the total CO2 emissions, and the use of almost 40% of all the extracted resources. In addition, low recycling and reuse rates of construction material, and building elements from the existing building stock are causing almost 40% of waste generation, while at the same time 11% of global CO2 emissions is related to the manufacturing of building materials and products. 1

An implementation of new design strategies that consider the behaviour of buildings throughout their life cycle could contribute towards the reduction of use of energy, reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) and other hazardous by-products. New technologies and on-going research are trying to give answers and establish methods and frameworks on how the building industry could become more sustainable and will enhance human health and well-being.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a relatively not new concept, whose goal is to quantify the energy and the environmental impact of building materials during their production stage, their transportation on the construction site, the energy and environmental impact caused during the operation and maintenance of buildings, their demolition and their potential to be reused for future buildings materials and elements. However, LCA analysis is a complex operation which requires a lot of information and calculations especially if one considers big and complex buildings. For this reason, the LCA is mostly performed at the end of the design stage. This therefore minimises the room for significant changes and therefore to significantly reduce the CO2 emissions. In addition to the rising complexity of building standards and regulations and the often-conflicting interests of the different actors, together with the big amount of data related to the calculation and production of different design solutions on one hand, and the digitalisation of processes and development of different reuse scenarios on the other exceeds the capacities of the architects, engineers, planners and policy makers.

(Sustainable) Design as Wicked Problem

Architecture and design disciplines are transdisciplinary fields that deal with wicked problems. Design problems, or else wicked problems as described by Rittel and Webber 3 and they have the following 10 characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong

The nature of those problems is not following a linear process, but a messy one which is unique for each case and cannot be repeated.

In the pluralistic society where no absolute good or right decision can be considered, what a designer has to face during the decision making makes this task hard to cope with. This is one of the main principles upon which the distinction of wicked problems has been made. Consequently, architecture and design urges for a collaboration between as many people that can formulate as many possible consequences as possible. In this sense, wicked problems do not provide solutions, but rather temporary solutions, which can continuously get improved, re-appropriated and reshaped. This makes the whole process an open source, open ended process which runs in feedback loops and in which every output is used as input for another sub-process and all this interaction web which they form constitutes the system.

The complexity rises even more, once we consider global measures related to the sustainability and future of the planet itself and establishment of measures that will need to be achieved.

Architecture and design problems are disciplines based on the social realm and they result from the interactions between the different actors, including the designers, stakeholders, the users and the environment in which those interactions are taking place. In this sense, the final product is shaped by the interaction between designers, materials, processes and users.

The approach towards the development of wicked-problem solutions according to Rittel 4, is giving importance among others to:

  1. The presence of the subjective observer who is part of the system and acts both as an actor and controller
  2. The circular causality as quality
  3. The value of conversation in the “solution-finding” process
  4. The collaborative practices and the refusal of the figure of the specialist – expert

The conversation as condition for designing

Designing, according to Glanville 5, is unfolding as a conversation between a self and various possible kind of others, such as a pen and paper, a person, an imagined person, computer soft- and hardware, physical models and so on. The crucial requirement is for the self to allow the other to “speak back” and to accommodate the unexpected so that self affects others, and other affects self.

Stages of designing dialogues according to Glanville

Figure 1: Stages of designing dialogues according to Glanville

A similar approach is seen in the writings and experiments developed by Donald Schön. For Schön, the value and role of conversation during the design process is of great importance. Conversation again here is seen as the result of a reflective process in which the designer is confronted with the situation 6. During this process, sketches, models, simulations, drawings and confrontation with other human and non-human actors are building a non-predictive whole with which the designers are continuously confronted and try to develop solutions to the design problems. In such a process, [The designer] shapes the situation, in accordance with his initial appreciation of it; the situation ‘talks back’, and he responds to the back-talk. 6

Glanville’s design conversation diagram

Figure 2: Glanville’s design conversation diagram

During the design process seen under those lenses, we can say that:

  • the definition and understanding of the design problem are dependent on the position/perspective from which the designer is focusing.
  • the development of the problems’ solutions are depended on the definition of the problem itself
  • the designer is not an objective observer but is embedded inside the process from which she affects and is getting affected by in a circular-causal fashion
  • the reflective understanding and conversation cannot be predefined and cannot be predicted
  • is open-ended and each part of the system may contribute equally to the emergence of new dimensions/solutions of the problem

BIM as agent towards design problems solutions and collaborative practices:

BIM is the method by which 3D objects and buildings are designed in a virtual environment. Buildings and their parts contain sets of properties and information regarding a wide range of different sorts of information for the early conceptual design stage to the operation and end of life of the building. The inclusion of such information makes the model the carrier of knowledge which includes the participation of all different stakeholders that take part in it. At the same time, makes the information easily retrievable, updated, shared, stored or cancelled. The main advantages of this methodology are to be seen during the development of big complex projects that accordingly include the analogous amount of information. BIM is promoting collaborative practices and integrated design by the participation of the different disciplines. This structured information then, can be accessible from different stakeholders that are collaborating from the very beginning of the project and therefore promote the swift towards an Integrated Design Process (IDP).

Accordingly, BIM is seen as:

… a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. A BIM is a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition. A basic premise of BIM is collaboration by different stakeholders at different phases of the life cycle of a facility to insert, extract, update or modify information in the BIM to support and reflect the roles of that stakeholder. 7


…collaboration describes the cooperation of complementary partners with a high level of trust and reciprocal support. An important objective of collaboration is the creation of collective knowledge in order to develop solutions for complex problems. Collaborative processes are frequently highly creative, and all partners are of equal standing. 7

In this sense, BIM methodology recognizes and tries to bring together different actors during the creation of the building, and therefore towards the IDP. The Integrated Design Process is integrating knowledge from different disciplines in order to solve complex problems. 8

The inputs and knowledge that is exchanged during the design stage in an ID process, tries to find the best possible solution by including through the conversation of the different actors. This open-ended conversation can develop new design solutions that could have not been predicted, and therefore could contribute towards the design exploration and a deeper understanding of the problem itself.

Integrated Design Process (IDP)

Figure 3: Integrated Design Process (IDP)


BIM in academia is seen with scepticism both from students and academics. On the one hand, BIM is seen either as a technological tool, that is taught in form of uncredited seminars and that are mostly focusing and limiting the scope of BIM to the scope of learning a software. On the other hand, BIM is seen as a tool that is mostly used for management purposes, and therefore has no place in the design studios. 9 10 11

Focusing on the academic environment of the German speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), we see that courses on BIM are organised mostly under the Engineering and Informatic faculties, or under Masters that are focusing on environmental planning of integrative technologies. 12

We see therefore that there is still a lack of an Integrated Design Approach inside the schools of architecture. This is caused among others due to the lack of trained lectures. 12

In addition, often BIM is seen as a tool that limits architecture creativity and therefore gets mostly negative connotations and is seen as a thread that has no place during the creative process of building designing and that is mostly useful for economical and management purposes. 13

Although several digital tools are used in academia especially in the design studios, most of them are used towards the experimentation of form-finding. Parametric design in particular is celebrated in many universities but again focuses mostly for the generation of forms. From the generation of those forms, the understanding of the complexity of construction-performance-sustainability aspects are not mostly in focus. Therefore, the use of such tools in such constellations are reducing the scope of the design studio into a form-giving process.

The job of the Architect is shifting from mere form-giving to creating systems that enhance collaboration, conversation, and exchange of information from all the participants-observers. At the same time, the design of those systems requires well-coordinated actions and an explicit communication of goals and methods between teams, so that the artefacts are coherent. 5

Purpose of this PhD project is to focus on how BIM can act:

  • as a facilitator for design collaboration and design exploration
  • as a mean for sustainable design, and
  • as a tool for enhancing education of young designers

For this purpose, there will be organised architecture studios, seminars and workshops that will focus on the Integrated Design Process. Together with other Institutes, the participants will have the opportunity to collaborate and share knowledge in the form of digital models, in an attempt to develop design solutions that produce lower CO2 emissions by focusing on different strategies such as:

  • circular design principles and reuse of materials
  • investigation of adaptive building typologies
  • the use of new materials for interior systems
Design Optimisation Process

Figure 4: Design Optimisation Process

As foundation for those seminars and workshops, there will be used the material which is at the moment under development as Research Project by the Institute of Architecture Technology at the Graz University of Technology, entitled “City Remixed - Fields of action, decision-making principles and recommendations for a circular economy in the construction sector Graz “ and the project “Joining Cards” whose aim is to gain comprehensive knowledge of the joining of cardboard components, to develop concepts for standardised and detachable interior systems (joining technology, design, construction processes).

The organisation of those hands-on experimentation will follow a causal-circular process. As a first step the participant in forms of groups and teams will have to analyse-understand and define the design problem that they will try to solve, and then develop a strategy for it. The overall experience will follow the following process as shown in (fig.4.)

Expected Results/Conclusions:

The overall goal of this research is to see how the computer as a tool can be part of a collaborative dialogue between the designers and other human and non-human actors. In this sense, the use of computers according to 1 is to examine a much larger range of alternatives than a designer would have the time or patience or insight to examine. 15

The use of computers in architecture and design is seen as a tool, which contributes the designers towards their attempts to solve complex problems and allows them to compute faster complex and repetitive operations. Digital computer then, is seen as

…essentially, the same as a huge army of clerks, equipped with rule books, pencil and paper, all stupid and entirely without initiative, but able to follow exactly millions of precisely defined operations. There is nothing a computer can do which such an army of clerks could not do, if given time. 1

The way in which the digital tools are embedded inside the architectural design process, is focused not on the necessity or trend to use the computer itself, but it’s use should be clearly articulated and focused on in which ways this army of clerks could be helpful to solve those design problems. 1

As explained previously, the solution of a design problem depends very much on the perspective in which the designer approaches, frames and analyses the nature of the problem. The use of the digital tools therefore can bring to a misleading formulation of purpose and focus of a problem which is not the main – or the original design problem which should be solved. The main purpose should be not just to use the digital tool, but first to know what and in which way this tool is going to help the designer solve the problem which has been defined in an earlier stage.

The importance then of using the computer according 4 lies in the fact that it can make possible what could not be treated by the unarmed natural human brain.

In this context, BIM can play an important role towards the management and preparation of the data that need to be computed. BIM capacity to store, re-use and extract information directly from the geometrical 3D model, is raising on one hand the productivity while at the same time it reduces the errors by avoiding the constant manual re-entering of information. By following standard formats and data architectures commonly accepted by other platforms, the information can be easily used in order to compute or simulate the performance of the building, either inside the same software by the use of plug-ins, or in cloud.

As a closing remark, it is important to mention the “dangers” of digital tools in the field of architecture. Those dangers are caused by the misuse of the tools and the purposes that they fulfil. It should be clearly stated that despite the development of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the role of the designer is still actual and of great importance. This role cannot be substituted by technological tools, since it involves a plethora of data that are unique and present in each individual, including emotions, memories, intuition, ethics.

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