The BIM Moment: What We’re Losing in the Robot-Age of Architecture

By Duo Dickinson


Featured image via

For most architects today, Building Information Modeling (BIM) is the elephant in the room. We know BIM and Revit take the efficiencies of CAD drawings and launch them into a near seamless technological integration of the entire design/build process that will ultimately change the way every architect works.

But change is always hard. Especially change that is both not chosen and involves alien technologies. Involuntary change causes great fear and often angry rejection. When huge machines began to eliminate artisanal labor in 1811 textile mills in England, some radical rejectionists began smashing those machines—Luddites, named for a possibly apocryphal young textile worker, Ned Ludd.

I may be closer to Ned Ludd than I want to admit. I am 61 and cannot draw a line in Autocad, let alone Revit. My firm has been CAD-centric for the 21st century, but my job description has not changed since I founded my firm in 1987. I scribble, communicate with clients and builders, visit sites and redline my staff’s CAD drawings (derived from my scribbles). Most of my contemporaries had to make the choice to dive into the CAD world themselves or spend money to have others do it.

It’s now Round 2: the BIM Moment.

Given the scale and rapidity of these changes, it’s easy to be nostalgic. Nostalgia is usually delusional, and when nostalgia mixes with the fear of the unknown, “the good old days” can be an excuse to “Make America Great Again.” In architecture the permanent resizing of expectations post-2008 crash has had a collateral depressant: another new way buildings are designed, spec’d, and even built. Some say this BIM wave has had more impact on design and construction than any seen in the last two millennia.

Clearly, this technological revolution has cost jobs, just as it did in textile mills in the 1800s. Beyond the fear of underemployment, or simply not having the newly required skills to be hired, there is a professional undercurrent that BIM’s impact on the creativity and value of the built product has been hurt by the latest round of technological tools.

Clearly, this technological revolution has cost jobs, just as it did in textile mills in the 1800s. Beyond the fear of underemployment, or simply not having the newly required skills to be hired, there is a professional undercurrent that BIM’s impact on the creativity and value of the built product has been hurt by the latest round of technological tools. Despite the quiet desperation and  uneasiness in many small firms headed by older architects, there are zealots in the cause of The New Way, especially in larger firms. Architect Randy Deutsch has written profusely about the BIM’s virtues as “a convergence of buildings as data,” essentially seeing buildings as “databases.”

However, the old guys, being old guys, are not so sure. The late Michael Graves lamented the “lost art of drawing” in the New York Times. Yale had a 2012 symposium “Is Drawing Dead?” David Ross Scheer has written “The Death of Drawing,” a book that declares this change in means and methods greater than anything experienced in 500 years (since the creation of the Master Builder Architect in the Renaissance). He warns of a “pervasive social and cultural movement towards virtualization and predictive control through digital simulation” that will compromise the reality of built structures.

In ZDNet, CC Sullivan writes that BIM is becoming part of governmental policy to reduce our carbon footprint. McGraw/Hill notes that BIM is being imposed on architects by their consultants. Unlike CAD—which was a new language that made communication and revision so much easier, but followed an architect-centered mode of project execution—the fundamental shift to treat “Buildings As Data” has transformed the role of architects in the design/build process.

It’s a world turned upside down, where the role of the designer has been subsumed by the tools used. When combined with a fully cloud-based world of instantaneous universal data sharing, this new era of design-as-data makes the human touch seem quaint and retrograde.

The virtues of extreme data integration are obvious: infinite and instantaneous autocorrecting of structural, mechanical, material specification, oversights, even cross-referencing zoning and building code compliance. You would think all architects who are designers (instead of technicians), would be as giddy as architect Bob Borson, who wrote in 2011 that architects should “love the BIM” because “mastering the process…leads to exceptional results, both aesthetically and financially.”

Here is where I have grave concerns. Financially, those at the edge of the new technology can benefit from its efficiencies, just as early adopting CAD firms and consultants did for that technology’s first decade. But less time spent in creation always, ultimately, brings billables down to their actual worth, once the rest of the competition gets just as fast and productive as the front-runners.

The unknowable rub is aesthetics. There are unending examples of deadly dull, unthinking, schlock-stock design getting the Revit/BIM gloss that is often more than enough for a zoning board or time-sensitive client to sign off on, simply because the presentation seems legitimate and professional. The endless spam of BIM and Revit consultants heralds a time when a tiny percentage of creative humans out of the hundreds of thousands of professionally degreed architects will actually lead the techno-herd of “Building As Data.”

It’s inevitable that the extreme distillation of the “creative” side of architecture will morph architects into becoming consultants for the BIM building design industry. Architects will be further pushed into the fashion, graphic and fine arts worlds of hands-off design, further detached from culture, construction, and context.

It’s inevitable that the extreme distillation of the “creative” side of architecture will morph architects into becoming consultants for the BIM building design industry. Architects will be further pushed into the fashion, graphic and fine arts worlds of hands-off design, further detached from culture, construction, and context.

I am sure the most intensely devoted design-driven practitioners will still make exquisite expressions of architectural genius, but the vast majority of buildings will become like the vast majority of fabric: mass-produced, elsewhere, by machines, vs., say, a tiny percentage still loomed in some town in Vermont…

To the outsider (me), there is a palpable sense that BIM manifests a high-tech dumb-down of design when buildings are ripped out of the architect’s loving hands into a software design machine. Perception is one thing, but will BIM-built buildings actually be “worse” than those done in the “traditional” methods we all got used to in the 1990’s? Probably not at the low end, where low-budget hack work has historically made lousy outcomes on every level: durability, efficiency, and aesthetics. Universal standards of data integration will likely mean more competency in generic building production.

The highest level of design: “signature,” “starchitected” buildings have already greatly benefited from BIM—sculpture can be built with a minimum of miscalculation when the BIM program crosses all the T’s and dots all the I’s.

It’s the middle class of architecture, the custom designed modest structures, like Louis Sullivan’s exquisite local bank branch offices or Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street parking garage in New Haven that will simply cease to have value in the BIM machine product’s land of easy answer, high-competency mediocrity.


This proposed $60-million parking garage in New Haven is the architectural equivalent of a book-without-an-author. Image via New Haven Register. 


Before you say I am just a Boomer Luddite in the sad whine of being passed over by the super-charged Gods of Progress, consider Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, proposing a $60,000,000 parking garage for New Haven, essentially on the BIM model when there is an entire little city of hungry architects to choose from. Embodying the shallow mindlessness of click-it-into-place computer glossed construction, the scheme is literally a meme: an undesigned collage of components masquerading as a building.

Whenever things change, something is lost. The cuteness of our babies gives way to their surly adolescence, but ultimately the surliness gives way to the goodness of the adults most humans grow into. I am sure BIM and Revit will create a new bottom line of competency in construction. But I do not want my children to just be competent—I want them, all of them, to be beautiful.

This article originally appeared on and is published here with permission.

About the author:
Duo Dickinson has been an architect for more than 30 years. His eighth book, “A Home Called New England,” will be released later this year. He is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register and writes on design and culture for the Hartford Courant.


Minis & Marble



Tate Elementary in Tate, Ga. Photo: Tate Elementary


For most working Americans, free time is a precious commodity these days. I would wager that most of you don’t know a single soul who works a “standard” 9-to-5 and then spends the weekends doing whatever he or she pleases, never checking their smartphone for that all-too-important email. I certainly don’t know anyone like that, and I don’t fit the description either.

However, when I do find myself with a free Saturday or Sunday, I often spend them with a small group of fellow auto enthusiasts. Specifically, we all own Mini Coopers, and we enjoy driving the twisty roads of the North Georgia Mountains. If you’re not having a good time with these folks, then you’re not driving fast enough.

I only bring this up on this blog because during one recent trip, I found myself asking my wife/co-pilot to quickly look up some information on a building as we drove past. You see, even while navigating sharp turns and undulating hills, and trying to keep up with my car club friends, my job is never far from my mind. The structure in question—Tate Elementary School in Tate, Ga.—I would come to learn was constructed in 1927 and is built entirely of Georgia “Cherokee White” marble. The school was made possible by Georgia Marble Company president, Colonel Sam Tate. The column-flanked, two-story structure truly is a site to behold. In fact, in 2005, Tate Elementary, along with the Georgia Marble Company and Tate Historic District, was placed on the State of Georgia, Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division’s National Register of Historic Places.

For the unaware, Georgia has long been a source for quarried marble. It’s not all Italian, you know! In fact, many historic structures in our nation’s capital feature Georgia marble, including the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol building. The state is rightfully quite proud of its marble heritage. There’s even an annual Georgia Marble Festival that has been held every fall for nearly 40 years.

Oddly, I might not have discovered any of this had it not been for a free Saturday where I went for a long drive in my Mini, but wound up researching marble.



Minis in my rear view from an Oct. 1, 2016 ride in North Georgia.


ASLA Releases New Guide to Resilient Design


Photo courtesy of ASLA


A new online guide launched by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) explains how communities can better protect themselves from natural disasters through resilient landscape planning and design. The Resilient Design Guide is found here:

Mangrove forests like the one shown here protect shorelines from damaging storms. These trees are a great example of a natural system that can help communities better protect themselves from natural disasters.

According to the guide, the goal of resilient landscape planning and design is to retrofit communities to recover more quickly from extreme events, now and in the future. In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multilayered systems can maintain their vital functions and often are the more cost-effective and practical solutions.

The guide is organized around disruptive events that communities now experience: drought, extreme heat, fire, flooding, and landslides. Biodiversity loss is an underlying threat also explored.

The guide includes hundreds of case studies and resources demonstrating multi-benefit systems as well as small-scale solutions. It also explains landscape architects’ role in the planning and design teams helping to make communities more resilient.

Resilient design involves working with nature—instead of in opposition to it. It provides value to communities, including:

  1. Risk Reduction. As events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, communities must adapt and redevelop to reduce potential risks and improve ecological and human health. It’s also time to stop putting communities and infrastructure in high-risk places. And communities must reduce sprawl, which further exacerbates the risks
  2. Scalability and Diversity. Resilient landscape planning and design offers a multi-layered system of protection, with diverse, scalable elements, any one of which can fail safely in the event of a catastrophe.
  3. Multiple Co-Benefits. Resilient landscape design solutions offer multiple benefits at once. For example, designed coastal buffers can also provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; urban forests made up of diverse species clean the air while reducing the urban heat island effect; and green infrastructure designed to control flooding also provides needed community space and creates jobs.
  4. Regeneration. Disruptive natural events that are now occurring more frequently worldwide harm people and property. Resilient design helps communities come back stronger after these events. Long-term resilience is about continuously bouncing back and regenerating. It’s about learning how to cope with the ever-changing “new normal.”

In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multi-layered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often more cost-effective and practical solutions, ASLA reports. In an age of rising waters and temperatures and diminishing budgets, the best defenses are adaptive, like nature.

The Resilient Design Guide has been strengthened through the expert guidance of Alexander Felson, ASLA, assistant professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale School of Architecture; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design, University of California at Berkeley; Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, graduate program director and associate professor, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning; Nate Wooten, Associate ASLA, landscape designer, OLIN; and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean, Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape.

Daily Download


Recently, I have been reacquainting myself with a TV series I loved as a teenager—Star Trek: The Next Generation. While watching an episode one evening, it occurred to me that there is at least one lesson we can take from the series (as well as the original series from the 1960s if that’s more to your liking) and incorporate into our professional—or personal—lives. If you’re a Star Trek fan, then you know that in every episode, the captain—and sometimes other members of the crew of The Enterprise—verbally enters reports into the ship’s log. In the show, the purpose of the log is to provide news and information to Starfleet, the governing body for the crew of The Enterprise. For viewers of the program, the logs deliver a narrative that moves the story along and offers summations from lengthy commercial breaks.

What I think that we can take from this act is to start a daily log ourselves. Whether you prefer to use pen and paper, a blog, or desktop notes doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you “download” your thoughts. Journaling is a great way to clarify and organize your thoughts (especially critical from a business perspective), to get to know yourself better, to reduce stress, and more. Not only are you likely to become better organized at your job and perhaps more productive, but you’ll be healthier too. Experts tend to agree that journaling has multiple health benefits.

I intend to start journaling myself—more so to help organize my thoughts than anything else. I juggle so many different tasks during my day, and usually I manage these tasks with Post-it notes and reminders in my iPhone. Plus, I often have other good ideas that I don’t bother writing down—article ideas, book ideas, etc. Usually, I tend to rely on my memory for these, which isn’t the most reliable means of preserving thoughts. So taking a cue from Caption Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, I will be conducting a daily download to organize my thoughts, set my agenda, clear my head, and ultimately make myself a better editor and business professional.

Tell me, do you already have a daily download routine? What is your process? Has it helped you improve your work? I would love to hear from you. Tell me your story! Email me at

When Intellectual Diversity Mattered

arch students via

Featured image via

By Duo Dickinson

In August 1973 I was one of 140 freshpeople entering Cornell’s top-ranked BArch program. We were clueless. It was a bumper crop, as 40 females were admitted to take a stab at diversity in the extreme male playpen that was 1970’s architecture. But attempting gender diversity was not the story at Cornell that year.

Amazingly enough, it was intellectual and pedagogic diversity that was headline news in the spring before we got there. We were the first class to matriculate after an ideological purge. Today, if you heard of an architectural school having an ideological purge, you would assume a closet Modernist was outed out at one of the few Classical Architecture Programs, or a subversive Non-Modern/Traditionalist mole was expunged from the other 100-plus schools.

Earlier that spring Alan Chimacof, Fred Koetter and Roger Sherwood, were fired from the architecture faculty by then Dean Kermit C. Parsons at the encouragement of Matthias Ungers who ran part of the graduate program. The departed were, apparently, acknowledged to be great professors: but with a hiring freeze, the only way to get new faculty was to fire old faculty.

Why fire these men if they were good academicians and beloved teachers? Perhaps to hire—gasp—a woman, or an African-American? Well, maybe later, but the immediate reason was they were part of a small herd of then young professors (all white men BTW) from the new University of Texas Architecture Program formed in the early 1950’s where they, among others, had created a “formalist” academic pedagogy that had pure fine arts abstraction in its origins. The purity of their intellectual product was so galvanizing to this young expatriated crew that they were dubbed the “Texas Rangers.” That original group included Bernhard Hoesli, John Hejduk, Robert Slutzky, Lee Hodgden, John Shaw, Werner Seligmann and their pied piper Colin Rowe, who was to become my thesis adviser. Their abstracted outlook of fine arts education principles applied to architecture was soon offloaded from Texas to any number of schools, but chiefly Cornell.

Freshman in this approach started with concepts like “space,” “line” and assorted other universal design principles to initially dissociate architectural design from building, and unify its origins to fine arts abstraction. Architecture was merely one venue for this conceptual enterprise. It was a radical idea in 1954. The Texas Architecture program described its mission in the “Conduct of Courses In Design” portion of the its official handbook, stating its perspective in perfectly sexist language of its Mid-Century origins: “The purpose of architectural education is not alone to train a student for professional occupation, but above all to stimulate his spiritual and intellectual growth, to develop his intellectual faculties and to enable him to grasp the meaning of architecture.”

This fine arts “above all” approach meant European Modernist precedents were the fundamental architectural indoctrination for 18-year-olds, that soon became dogma in the course of a 5 year layering up of a distinctly abstracted and theoretically based perspective. A 1971 study at Cornell’s architecture school had recommended that the school “broaden” its curriculum. (Imagine a school of architecture reaching that conclusion in 2016?)  But the result in 1973 was to swap out faculty to achieve intellectual diversity. It’s odd to think of abstracted modernist pedagogy as an island, as today it is far and away the largest intellectual landmass in the world of academic architecture, but these first outposts of making building secondary to theory were the tender shoots of the invasive rain forest of intellectual collectivism that followed.

That Mid-Century reductionism has now predominantly triumphed in academia, but at the time, there was resistance to its ideological purity in a profession that traditionally had building as a starting point and end product for its educational institutions. For the Texas Rangers, buildings were only the last part of a long path of intellectual aesthetic canon, a canon that dovetailed perfectly with the era’s dominant Modernist aesthetic paradigm as seamlessly as computer software applications have been cast into the sculptitecture of the present day.

In 1973, when I walked into the former 19th Engineering School factory space in the north wing of the architecture school’s Sibley Hall, the first year drafting tables all faced a blank wall. It was blank because the Modulor Man that all those desks had faced before the purge had, reputedly, been white washed over. The removal of the Modular Man as the central focus of 140 empty 18-year-old minds was the symbolic creation of a blank canvas, where a varied, diverse, open-ended educational platform could expose students to different ways of thinking about buildings and their design.

Rather than a central initial focus of purity of aesthetic elements applicable to any artistic expression, we completely clueless froshlings actually designed building-ish things in freshman year. We thought nothing of it, but that had not happened recently until the purge. It was an initial, now almost quaint, rejection of what has now come to be the typical path for students.

Perhaps Cornell’s program wanted to nip a fundamentalist cult of “formalist” theory in the bud, before its overwhelming orthodoxy prescribed an ironically unthinking intellectual outcome. Indoctrination at a tender age tends to make one approach to anything the only approach, whether it’s the Catholic Church before the Renaissance, Marxist theory in Soviet Russia, or the panoply of politically correct canons overwhelming campus life today.

Cornell’s reformation was sadly temporary. The forced infusion of diversity encouraged the formation of a faculty that I found to have wildly divergent ways of teaching and exquisitely distinct built product in their portfolios—yet the program itself maintained a cut-throat, full-on, no-holds-barred ethic of  “swim or sink.”

Demographic diversity was also attempted at Cornell my freshman year as well. We had several Asian and African American students, some exotic foreign representation, all paralleled by several new professors amid the large contingent of Rangers that still dominated the faculty. But only one attempt at diversity ended up being successful. While fewer than about half of our 140 matriculants graduated on time, a much smaller percentage of BArch graduates were female. However forty years later more than half the students in the program are women.

I have yet to discern, from all the alumni propaganda received, that the 1973 Cornell experiment in intellectual diversity survived beyond my generation. This generation’s version of the fired “formalists” seem in full control: focusing crop after crop of young clueless folk like me, in 1973, into a perspective that most will find hard to see beyond, just as Dean Parsons feared.

When do polemic and pedagogy combine to create orthodoxy? When does education slip into indoctrination? It happens when a dominant paradigm—like architecture being the exclusive province of white males, like me—is allowed to narrow facts to the point where the paradigm creates a canon that prescribes prejudice. Absent demographic diversity any organizational outcome is distorted.

Despite some newly achieved gender inclusiveness, I sense aesthetic diversity is leaving or has left the halls of architectural education. The resultant prescribed aesthetic “truth” creates some very beautiful things and some exceptional designers, but less and less diversity of celebrated built outcomes. It would seem that bandwidth is valued more in technological application than architectural expression.

The 1970’s saw Charles Moore, Louis Kahn and Parsons as deans of Ivy architecture schools. They were, in fact, (once again) all white males, but I know that their pedagogic, professional and aesthetic diversity was liberating to 18-year-olds, like me. I wish that kind of diversity for the increasingly diverse demographics that are enriching my profession—but, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

This article originally appeared on, and was republished here with permission. To view the original post, visit: Common Edge is a non-profit organization dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve.

What is your favorite business tool?


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Image courtesy of Leuchtturm 1917.

Recently, I was asked: “What is your favorite business tool?” I didn’t have a quick answer, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Of course, I like my laptop and smartphone; I use one or the other for most hours of the day. But is either of them my “favorite?” Not really. I don’t collect MacBooks or iPhones, after all. So what did I depend on most to get my job done? And did I have some level of affection for it beyond its basic purpose? I started looking through my briefcase and around my desk when I realized that I really like notebooks. I have many, and I use them when conducting the most vital part of my job—interviewing.

Yes, I still take handwritten notes—lots of them. And yes, I still prepare for interviews by writing down the questions I want to ask. Both tasks help me to organize my thoughts and better remember what it is I want to accomplish. Research proves that people who use longhand remember more and have a deeper understanding of their work. So I’m not alone; my old-fashioned approach works.

My notebooks of choice come from a German company called Leuchtturm 1917. Their hardcover pocket-sized and medium notebooks are both durable and easy to pack for business trips. They are sold in a multitude of colors, though black is my preferred choice as it looks the most professional. I make sure to take one everywhere I go, since most of my business trips involve interviewing people—often at trade shows. And I keep at least one Leuchtturm notebook handy at the office for telephone interviews and general note-taking required of most editors.

Could I live without these notebooks? Could I do my job with something else? Of course I could, but that’s the point. I have many options when it comes to notebooks—from cheap multi-packs of legal pads to the spiral-bound notebooks of school days—but I choose the Leuchtturms because they please me. The cover protects the pages. The elastic band on the back keeps the notebook closed. The built-in pocket at the back provides convenient storage. And the included label stickers allow for reliable organization once the notebook is filled. What’s not to love? Give them a try! And let me know what your favorite business tools are.


Masonry Design is on Pinterest!

Pinterest_Screen ShotThere’s a great deal of hype and hyperbole surrounding social media and its efficacy to business. There’s an endless supply of experts to tell us that if we’re not “social” then our businesses are as good as dead. And there are an almost endless number of social media outlets clamoring for our content—and presumably our ad dollars, or at least our contact information. But there also are stacks of data to support the premise that your business could die a slow death if you’re not active on social media.

With all of this information, it can be difficult to discern which—if any— social media channels are right for your company. Truly, the best way to determine this is to experiment. You will realize rather quickly from which social channels you gain the most traction. But one thing is for sure: the larger presence you have on social media, the better the return on SEO (search engine optimization) for your company name and any products you produce. Publishing companies such as ours rely on this fact to get people to visit our websites, where hopefully they stay long enough to read several articles and then decide to return regularly. Attracting “eyeballs,” as the industry parlance, is how we retain advertisers. They want our readers’ attention too.

I am a big proponent of social media, both personally and professionally. I try to keep up on developments and changes in the technology, as well as new applications and browser extensions designed to make using social media a more pleasurable experience all around. In fact, I developed the social media guidelines that we use here at Lionheart Publishing, cobbled together from best practices suggested by some of the savviest marketing pros and tech-minded editors I could find. I learned a lot in putting together those strategies, as well as through experimenting with certain social sites on my own time.

Thus, I am happy to report that Masonry Design magazine now has a Pinterest page! Pinterest is an online catalog or bookmarking site of ideas, interests, and projects—much like a real-life corkboard you might hang in your office to pin inspirations for a new building. Currently, it has about 100 million active users; that’s a lot of potential clients, customers, or readers! So please check out our page and follow it if you’re a Pinterest member. We will follow you back.