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.


Top 5 Buildings of 2015

It is that time of year when we reflect on the past 12 months and think about what we’ve accomplished – or not – and then wonder what the next 12 months will bring. For many of us in the publishing world, December is when we take stock of our work, which in the case of Masonry Design means looking back at the projects we profiled this year.

In 2015, we profiled some amazing buildings from across the nation and around the world. Below we have assembled a short list of our favorite structures – in no particular order. After you check them out, tell us what your favorite masonry structures are. Perhaps we can feature them in the magazine. Send your suggestions to

Grimmwelt Kassel
GRIMM2_5291©JanBitterThe Grimmwelt Kassel museum – a reinforced concrete and natural stone structure (Gauinger Travertin) – at the Weinberg in Kassel, Germany was designed to present the Brothers Grimm’s works. It translates the historical and topographical features of a surrounding park into a continuous open space and invites visitors to explore the exhibitions at their own pace. On display are a multitude of presentations about the Grimm Fairy Tales, the brothers’ biographies, and even personal artifacts from their homes. READ MORE

The Apiary
Apiary -34There’s a new architectural gem in Lexington, Ky., that is getting national attention. The Apiary is a catering company and 15,500-square-foot event space on Jefferson Street in the so-called “Horse Capital of the World’s” emerging restaurant district. While the food and service from Cooper and Mandy Vaughan’s kitchen deserves praise (and it has many times), it is the design of the Apiary’s brick and stone facility that is turning heads from the media including Garden & Gun magazine, Keeneland magazine, and Sophisticated Living magazine. READ MORE

Museum at Prairiefire
MuseumAtPrairiefireDesigned by Verner Johnson Museum Architects & Planners (established in 1978), the $17.3-million Museum at Prairiefire opened in the spring 2014. Its main exterior feature is a wall of colorful dichroic glass that is meant to reflect the imagery of the tallgrass prairie, including one of its most unique aspects: the prairie fire burns. According to Verner Johnson, “The expansive lobby is enclosed by ‘lines of fire,’ facetted vertical planes composed of tinted vision glazing, dichroic glass, and iridescent stainless steel panels, set in a composition invoking flames. The glass and steel are color shifting, depending on the viewing, creating a vibrant animated glow of color around the building.” READ MORE

Rijksarchief in Bruges
Rijksarchief 2In the center of Bruges, among the medieval churches, old-world homes, and Brick Gothic structures, sits a modern, new building that wouldn’t look out of place in any major European or American metropolis. Yet this building – known as the Rijksarchief – blends beautifully with its surroundings and is changing attitudes toward new construction in Bruges. The $17-million project consists of a newly built public library with a reading room at street level, as well as the restored convent, which is being used as office space. Both structures are connected via a glass-enclosed bridge that provides breathtaking views of a new courtyard (public space), the canal that flows past the Rijksarchief, and the nearby, famed towers of Bruges. READ MORE

Waltham Watch Factory
Watch,  Bruner Cott, arch.For nearly a century, throngs of area residents of Waltham, Mass., made their way to work in the iconic 1854 factory of the Waltham Watch Company along the Charles River. The first enterprise to produce watches on an assembly line, the company operated in its expansive, 405,000-square-foot facility until 1949, after which a few light industrial and office tenants occupied the buildings. Today, the factory is enjoying a second life, thriving once again through a mixed-use renaissance by Bruner/Cott and Associates (Cambridge, Mass.) that provides innovative living and working spaces in its restored and renovated buildings. READ MORE

Spring Issue Preview

We are very excited to show you a preview of some of the articles included in our upcoming spring issue of Masonry Design, which should be published soon. That issue will include a feature on a remarkable restoration project in Massachusetts, an in-depth look at a revived train station outside Chicago, an article examining the many and varied definitions of the basic building material we call stone, and much more. Have a look at a few preview images below, and look for the issue landing on our website or in your inbox (free subscription) soon.

Waltham Watch Factory

The Waltham Watch Factory in Massachusetts (circa 1854) was transformed by Bruner/Cott and Associates into a mixed-use development. Photo: Richard Mandelkorn

Stone Avenue Train Station

Legat Architects worked with local officials and preservationists to restore the Stone Avenue Train Station in La Grange, Ill., which was constructed in 1901.

Fond du Lac Tailored Blend 50 percent Rockfaced, good masonry installation, joints, 2 to 1 example

The list of “stone” products today is so long, installation options so varied, and specifying requirement often so complex that stone used in masonry could have its very own Wiki-style encyclopedia to try and explain it. Photo: Buechel Stone

Pontificial Lateran University Library

Pontificial Lateran University Library

Blending modern design into an orthodox setting.

In 2003, a team led by King Roselli Architetti (an English/Italian partnership that quickly was establishing a name for itself) embarked on a challenging, three-year project to expand a university library within The Vatican while adhering to considerable site constraints such as a narrow building corridor and an underground vault full of priceless antiques, artifacts and books. The determined team of international professionals didn’t flinch; instead, they used the constricted job site to their advantage, creating a unique, brick-clad building that is modern in design but timeless in its efficacy.

The team was hired by Pontificial Lateran University Chancellor, Mons. Rino Fisichella, to add new reading rooms to the university’s library as well as restore its auditorium, which basically was modernized with projection facilities, new seating, sound diffusion, and acoustic control. The chancellor’s goal for the library extension was to bring the activity of reading and the consultation of books as the central occupation of the school. Prior to the project’s completion, many of the university’s reading rooms were scattered about several buildings. The library extension not only would bring them together under one roof, but provide plenty of climate-controlled space for the school’s thousands of volumes of texts, including 25,000 antique books. But with limited horizontal space in which to build – the library’s extension was to be placed between a central block of lecture halls – the team needed to build vertically.

Here, too, King Roselli would encounter limitations, as zoning laws kept the structure from rising beyond four stories. However, the team was triumphant in its final design, creating a 2,000-square-foot addition that not only blends with its surroundings in terms of exterior materials, but reveals in its very shape the purpose of the building: the extension’s four floors virtually shift and teeter like a tower of books. Further, the spaces between the floors provide plenty of playful light and shade.

Pontificial Lateran University Library interior

The book stacks are as low as possible to avoid the use of ladders to reach the highest shelves and, given the thin floor slab, are made to look like a set of bookshelves themselves.

According to King Roselli: “The library is arranged so that for every two floors of book stacks one sloping ramp, ‘U’ shaped in plan, connects them. The book stacks are as low as possible to avoid the use of ladders to reach the highest shelves and, given the thin floor slab, are made to look like a set of bookshelves themselves. They are connected vertically by a staircase set between the containing wall and an interior façade of bookshelves facing the reading ramps dedicated to publications, to form in effect a book tower. The slope of the ramps is determined by joining the regularly spaced floors of the book stacks to the irregular cuts in the façade, which creates the reality [not simply the effect] of volumes floating in light.”

The building’s façade is clad in the same type of handmade brick as the existing structure (built in the 1930s), and is equivalent in proportion and color to the ancient Roman brick still found on many buildings within The Vatican and in surrounding Rome. The building’s cantilevered construction, however, is purposefully and intentionally modern, striking a perfect balance between old and new.

Pontificial Lateran University, The Vatican
S.E. Mons. Rino Fisichella (chancellor)

Project Team:
King Roselli Architetti (architect)
Proges Engineering (structural engineer)
Ovidio Nardi (service engineering)
Donato Budano (electrical engineering)
iGuzzini, Massimiliano Baldieri (lighting design)
Vatican Authorities Technical Services (site management)
C.P.C. Technodir (general contractor)

Project Costs:
Building: Approx. $10.8 million
Interiors: Approx. $1.5 million

Project Size:
Auditorium: 660 sq. meters (792 sq. yards)
Library Extension: 2,000 sq. meters (2,400 sq. yards)

In 2008, when we first launched Masonry Design as a print publication, I would write an article for each issue about a unique masonry structure in another country. I thought I would give these older articles new life by posting them here. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue.

MARTa Herford Museum

Photos courtesy of MARTa Herford Museum and Tomas Mayer Photography.

Photos courtesy of MARTa Herford Museum and Tomas Mayer Photography.

In 2008, when we first launched Masonry Design as a print publication, I would write an article for each issue about a unique masonry structure in another country. Since we don’t do this anymore in the magazine, I thought I would give these older articles new life by posting them here. In July, I shared with you the story behind the beautiful Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Now, I bring you the magnificent MARTa Herford Museum in Herford, Germany.

One look at the MARTa Herford Museum and it’s obvious whose hand was holding the pen, drawing the first conceptual designs for this playful structure. Frank Gehry began putting his distinctive touch on the brick and stainless steel structure in 1998. It is, at once, both a unique design and a signature building that obviously is of Gehry’s artistic mind. As one of the industry’s so-called star architects or “starchitects,” you just know Gehry’s work – or at the very least his inspiration – when you see it.

The museum, which houses mostly contemporary art, opened in 2005 after four years of construction. Its name reflects both the purpose of the facility – M for Möbel/furniture, art (ART), and architecture/ambience (a) – and the town in which it is located. Herford is known for its thriving furniture industry, which represents 20 percent of the furniture made in Germany. Each year, the town hosts two major industry trade shows that act as both international forums and barometers for the industry. In Gehry’s mind, according to articles published about the building, the main idea behind the museum’s design is to highlight and redefine the contradictory links between art and business.

MARTa_smallThe 21,500-square-foot facility, which features a combination museum/centre of excellence/event forum, is a from-the-ground-up renovation of an existing structure that has been standing since the 1950s. That old, industrial site (once the home of a clothing manufacturer) was incorporated into the design with the museum’s new structures to its north and south. Thus, the old building now acts as the museum’s centerpiece, welcoming visitors as they make their way through each of the five galleries. In addition to the lobby, this renovated section also contains a retail store, as well as a furniture testing area on the upper levels.

The former manufacturing building is shielded by a semi-transparent metal screen and connects the different parts of the complex. According to Bollinger + Grohmann, the structural engineering firm of record for the project, based on precise 3-D data, all components for the sculptural steel structure of the roof were CNC-fabricated (computer numerical controlled). CNC-milled stainless steel panels were mounted like overlapping shingles on the secondary structure of the double-curved lattice shell, the firm says. The manufacturing of the complex formwork for the curved reinforced concrete walls also was based on CAD data and subsequently insulated and clad with cement on the exterior before applying the brick.

With no windows at street level, the interior of the MARTa Herford Museum is flooded with natural light through a series of skylights, which are carved out of the 72-foot-high domed roof. Incidentally, Gehry designed each of the galleries as single-story units so that visitors would have unimpeded views of the artwork as well as the sky. Inside and out, this building truly is a sculpture itself – a brick-clad work of art designed to house works of art. In fact, Germany’s tourism website describes the museum as “a fantastical-burlesque creation located somewhere between Duckville, Gotham City and cyberspace.” It certainly sounds like a place worth seeing in person.

Project Team:
Gehry Partners, LLP (architect)
Archimedes GbmH (executive architect)
Bollinger + Grohmann (structural engineer)

Brick (3,744 square yards)
High-grade steel (6,000 square yards)
Anti-vibration pillars (13,200 feet)
Steel (440 tons)
Construction steel (308 tons)
Reinforced concrete (17,500 cubic feet)

Historic Nashville Structures

Union Station building in Nashville, TN.

Union Station building in Nashville, TN.

As I’ve stated previously on this page, in my personal travels around this nation I often find myself exploring the local architectural histories of many of the cities I visit. Admittedly, I only scratch the surface of the building histories in America’s cities (I do this during vacation, not on a research grant.), but I do make a point to visit certain structures while vacationing, or to at least keep my eyes open for interesting masonry buildings. I’m sure many of you do the same.

So during the Independence Day holiday weekend this year, I made the short drive from Atlanta to Nashville for a little R&R. I have been to Nashville before, but never had the opportunity to explore the city freely. So on this most recent trip I soaked up the holiday atmosphere (Music City truly knows how to commemorate the 4th of July!) while seeking out some interesting architecture. And sure enough, Nashville didn’t disappoint.

Among the standout buildings I came across was the Union Station building on Broadway, which is now a beautiful hotel. Originally, the structure was built as a railway station in 1900. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the Gothic stone structure was a key link in America’s railway economy. Today, the restored Richardson Romanesque landmark stands as a welcoming milestone to downtown Nashville and an easy visual cue for visitors exploring the town’s trendy West End neighborhood.

Just a short walk down Broadway from Union Station and into downtown Nashville, one can find the old Customs House building. Opened in 1882, the stone building was designed by Treasury Department architect William Appleton Potter. From its ornate stone block, a central clock tower rises. The many opulent details, such as the Gothic lancet windows and an inset triple-arch entrance, make this a remarkable example of Victorian Gothic architecture. For nearly 100 years, federal officials used the facility before declaring it “surplus” and turning it over to the city.

Nashville is lucky to have these two, historic structures – and many others – for us all to enjoy. I certainly don’t consider them surplus, and I’m glad Nashville doesn’t either.

The Customs House in Nashville.

The Customs House in Nashville, TN.