TOOLS of the Trade
We recently held a workshop in our office to train our designers to develop skills using the cutting-edged drawing production software Building Information Management, or BIM. An incredibly sophisticated tool, BIM is rapidly becoming the globally-required platform for documentation of construction information for architects, engineers and contractors; we’re probably seeing the demise of Autocad and other well-established mainstays of digital drawing production. BIM is the latest major development in the way we draw and convey information, and if we don’t keep up with this and other new drawing technology, we’ll quickly be left behind.
Some of the more archaic tools of the trade. Photos by Dan O’Connor.
Things were very different only 20 years ago. Most architects’ offices didn’t use computers for drawing. We now reminisce about the days when we used technical ink pens, generally in four thicknesses, which had to be kept meticulously clean and were prone to constant blockage. We drew on sheets of tracing paper or vellum fixed to a drawing board with strips of masking tape, using a set-square and scale ruler against a parallel motion rule which spanned the width of the board. If a mistake needed to be corrected, or a change introduced into the design, we would scratch the ink off the paper with a razor blade. At the end of a project, drawing sheets could look ragged and battle-scarred, riddled with holes, patched with invisible tape and with worn-down wafer-thin areas. Everyone developed their own unique style and method. We all had our favoured tools: lumps of putty to clean up smudged pencil; brushes to dust off debris; stencils for lettering, circles and ellipses; and French curves for exotic shapes. The room would resound with the constant squeak-scratch of razor blades.
Of course, all these items are now a thing of the past. We now have only one drawing board left in our office as a kind of sentimental relic. Architectural academics agonise over the apparent demise of the art of drawing. A recent symposium was held at Yale University School of Architecture to ask: Is drawing dead? Is the proliferation of digital tools killing off skill and creativity, or is it opening up previously unimagined opportunities for design and construction? Personally, I like to try to strike a balance. I like to keep a sketchbook for exploring ideas on paper with a nice sharp pencil, then to quickly test the ideas for scale on the computer, then to develop thoughts in more detail by overlaying sketches over basic computer drawings. For me, any design issues that need to be resolved are best done away from the computer, on a sheet of rough paper, where the mind can feel free to explore possibilities. I know I’m not the only one; most of the designers I know still enjoy the freedom of hand drawing and the satisfaction of producing a one-off sketch.
In the recent past, if we needed to test our ideas to try to visualise building designs in three dimensions, we would have drawn a perspective view, or made a physical model: a time-consuming labour of love using card, wood, glue, paint, Plexiglas and any other suitable materials we could find. These time-honoured methods are now all but obsolete with the rise of Sketch Up, a beautifully simple and fluid digital tool for exploring designs in 3D. We can now model an idea for a building very quickly and accurately, locate it on the contours of a topographical survey, geographically place it to depict the sun path and shadows at any time of the year, view it from any conceivable angle, tweak it and change it with complete freedom. The design can then be rendered with incredible photo-realistic materials, and the digital file can be fed into a 3D “printer” to create an instant physical model.
A BIM rendering of a hillside property. Renderings provided by OBMI. A modern design, drafted with modern software.
BIM now takes this even further, where we create the design for the building as a full working “parametric” model. Instead of the abstract lines of Autocad, BIM creates a living 3D representation of the design using actual components. An incredibly intelligent and powerful tool, BIM effectively eliminates the possibility of error; the model will not allow a window to clash with a wall or a staircase!
So, we embrace the new technology and all the possibilities it offers us. Last month, I had an online virtual “meeting” where I shared my computer desktop with a client located in France, zooming him around the model of his house design to illustrate and experiment with various roof arrangements. Our days are now full of these kinds of mind-boggling possibilities, which make “remote” designing for overseas clients so much more interactive and productive than in the past. But I still keep a favourite pencil and a sketchbook with nice thick paper at hand at all times.