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Building Information Modelling: What is the architect’s role?

Some argue that design technology and other factors have diminished the architect’s role. I disagree.

By Jim Marchese, Buildings Associate, Philadelphia, PA

True story. Several BIM experts, myself included, walked into a bar and began sharing war stories about modeling. The good. The bad. The ugly. 

“What makes someone decide to model something?” 

“When is modeling to a high degree worth the time and effort?”  

“When can data be used in lieu of modeled elements?” 

“How can we better communicate our designs to other stakeholders?” 

And most importantly, “How does the decision to model or not model make us better designers?”

That discussion got me thinking: How has the architect’s role changed in this era of new project delivery methods, ever-growing project teams with specialized expertise, and the increased use of technology—to name just a few factors? Is the perception of the architect as a master builder still relevant in today’s world?

The architect as master builder: A thing of the past?
Some of my industry peers believe that the onset of these factors have lessened the need for an architect as master builder. Project delivery methods like design/build put the contractor in charge. Project personnel—like curtain wall experts specializing in exterior façade—take sometimes major design decisions out of the architect’s hands. And the advent of technology leaves some architects disconnected from the design process.

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But I think that each factor has actually increased the need for the architect as master builder more than ever. The number of moving parts on any given project continues to increase, schedules continue to get more aggressive, and team sizes have exploded. Project teams need someone who can see opportunity in these challenges and coordinate a project’s complex and sometimes competing priorities. Today’s architect must be the “integrator of everything.” They must establish and deliver the project’s design vision by understanding and utilizing every expert’s skill set, all while keeping budget, schedule, and scope on track.

Furthermore, the architect’s role as a designer is still as important as ever. As Yale School of Architecture professor and Autodesk vice president Phil Bernstein recently stated in Architosh:

In the western paradigm architects are supposed to function as the “head” or integrator of the process, acting on behalf of the owner who wants the building.

If we want to maintain that role that means taking on different kinds of responsibilities and leveraging technology in different kinds of ways. Or—we can just become “design consultants” … and just be the people who make some space and fix some colors, and choose some building shapes…but I don’t endorse that as the proper professional route.

BIM: The architect’s best friend
What does that have to do with modelling, you ask? Everything. An architect must see BIM (and other design technologies) as a holistic solution to a range of design challenges. That means continuing to be a master of their craft and understanding when and where to use any given tool in their arsenal.

Take a look at my colleague Matt Eastman’s recent blog post, The Need For Speed. He and his team took a “model less, think more” approach in a design-build environment to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of opening the ground-up West Shore Hospital in two years. Instead of doing a lot of modelling early in the design process, they exchanged data between the design team and contractor to reach the guaranteed maximum price.

And this recent post shows how the design team on the award-winning Lee Elementary School incorporated a laser-focused modelling approach to maximize the team’s time on critical design features, allowing more resources to be put toward other project goals such as achieving net-zero energy.

In both of these examples, the architects understood how tools like BIM can improve collaboration with all project stakeholders. In other words, they were able to answer the questions that were raised that night at the bar.

Jim Marchese leverages design technology to help colleagues and clients find the best way to solve project and design problems. He will explore the ideas above in more detail at RTC North America, July 14-16 in Scottsdale, Arizona, in his class “WTF Would You Model That For?” which  focuses on changing methods of information delivery and the role of the architect in the era of BIM. 

Embracing BIM and other design technologies can help architects maintain their role as master builder. 

Today’s architect must be the “integrator of everything.”They must establish and deliver the project’s design vision by understanding and utilizing every expert’s skill set, all while keeping budget, schedule, and scope on track.”

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