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Church Design, BIM, Simulation, Et Al.

2010 - December


So have you ever taken a great leap of faith and had everyone around you question your sanity?
In October 2010 after almost nine years of employment as a Church designer at a design / build firm, I had a vision about doing Church design better. This vision was so compelling that I left my job, and cashed out my retirement account to create a firm to serve churches better. With a ton of ideas and no real business plan, each day is a mystery and an adventure. Some things just seem so clear though.


So what are you doing about BIM? Building information modeling (BIM) is sweeping our industry with amazing speed and acceptance. The biggest firms are already on board. Many design firms are ignoring this because of the expense of training, new hardware requirements, new software and the down time to set it all up. Did you know Warren Buffet is heavily investing in BIM for the housing industry?
The move to BIM is being driven by clients and contractors, not the architects and designers that would benefit from the increased efficiency and capabilities. Once a building information model is created, it has endless uses such as renderings, animations, design drawings, construction documents, consultant backgrounds, etc. And all of these from the same integrated database and flawlessly coordinated. The Capitol Development Board and numerous state governments now require some implementation of BIM on every project.


Not that long ago I really thought doing photorealistic renderings from BIM was the ultimate in cool. I could have a design idea and by the next day have a photograph of what was in my mind. Then a project manager came to me with the color and material selections from our interior designer and asked if I could re-render the interiors using the selections. That was no problem because I had a BIM model of the project. But wow! The implication of this is transformational. I am going from creating a rendering (artistic) to creating a simulation (realistic). There are many other possible simulations with the software I use such as sun studies, lighting levels, heat loss / heat gain, utility costs, and optimum building positioning just to name a few.
Ok, here is an example of how this is going to change my life and serve the Church so much better. Lighting is the secret to a great rendering. In the rendering process, you adjust the lighting levels and placement to make the space beautiful in the rendering. Now with the current tools, I place photometric lights in the model and render. If the space is not beautiful, it is not the rendering that needs adjusting, it is the lighting design that needs to be changed. Fix the design, not the picture! Hmmm… design simulation? As designers get better and more realistic feedback from their models, they will make wiser decisions. This method will literally make you a better designer.
Another simulation your clients will appreciate is cost estimating. Imagine being able to see the cost change and update as you work on the project? In the design / build world, isn’t this a no brainer? How about coordinating civil, structural, fire protection, plumbing, and mechanical system design engineering? Clash detection?


Does your cell phone shoot video? More and more, video seems to be the universal medium for communication. Just look at what the kids now do. They have video games that are amazingly realistic, surround sound, huge high definition TV’s, cameras and phones that shoot video, DVD’s and Blu-ray, Google earth, and YouTube. I am totally amazed by YouTube. I can find concert footage of obscure bands from the 70’s that I was at. Are you showing your clients videos of their designs? What kind of thinking is required to create good video?


BIM models are useful for many other purposes than design. How about passing the model on to the contractors to be used for construction logistics and staging, scheduling, as-builts, and shop drawing creation? Imagine 3D shop drawings that show the impact of the providers work for your review? I have read numerous articles about forward thinking contractors that used BIM and saved a ton of time and money on changes, and revealing and correcting design problems. The architect on the project used 2D line based AutoCAD.


Data reuse? Prior to CAD we had systems drafting with pin bars and reprographic techniques and standard detail libraries and sticki-bak’s. Data reuse, that was the promise of CAD. Didn’t really work out though, as blocks were just inefficient. As a CAD manager, I have some amusing stories. With object-oriented BIM (Autodesk Architectural Desktop) we had object styles, way better. In Revit Architecture we have parametric families, a visual programming language, way cool! Now we have some serious data reuse.


Here is the implication I see, building prototypes. Some people call them stock plans, off the shelf plans, pre-made plans. It really needs a better name. A complete Revit model can be easily be reworked to quickly create an infinite variety of arrangements. This is also an ideal way to store families for reuse. So without too much additional work, I believe that every design firm can create a catalog of their work. This catalog could be used as a starting point or idea generator for new clients in addition to an advertising piece. In addition, the catalog can be used for selling already completed or prototype projects. These projects can then be sold on a web site, or to clients with smaller budgets. Once you get this side of your business going, you will have standards you can use to train new staff and have something useful for your people to work on during down time.


Do you ever get email from people in China or India offering to do CAD and rendering really cheap? I find this terrifying, people working at my level who want to get paid what I made when I started out in the mid 70’s. In the book “The world is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman this theme is fully explored. Web sites such as provide an easy way for this to occur. To some extent architectural design is local because of architects licensing, building codes, the imperial measurement system, style and local construction practices. Still some American Architects have national or international practices. This is eased by using cell phones, cheap flights, fax machines, email, FTP and online storage, web sites, virtual conferencing, and a myriad of other ever increasing technological advantages. Perhaps having your design work taken by a foreign entity is not so far-fetched?


In other industries, outsourcing to foreign countries is the norm. Things you would never imagine like doctors reading x-rays and accountants doing personal taxes. This is accomplished by developing complex systems that involve people in both countries. The customers that the work is done for never know that a portion of it is being done overseas. This could be done in architecture by creating design document content and delivery milestone standards.


With a flatter world and more labor choices, it seems inevitable that specialization will increase. In an internet based marketplace, an employer should be able to find the ideal candidate for an open job position and the employee, the ideal job.
I am an Architectural designer specializing in Churches and working with Design / Builders using Revit Architecture for design and construction drawings as well as using 3DS Max Design with V-Ray for rendering and animation. I am a telecommuting independent contractor developing a national network of Architects, Designers, Engineers and Builders.


When I was writing proposals and competing for work in the environment of a design firm, there was always one business model that could beat our price, the self-employed architect working from home. He has little overhead and can be very flexible depending on his work load. I remember once reading that almost half of all licensed architects are self-employed and work from home. With today’s technological focus, the serious home based designer has a large investment in his business as well as continuing overhead to keep up with the industry changes. Wouldn’t someone with that kind of investment have confidence in their ability to deliver a quality product?


I believe that with our current technology, the concept of a virtual office is the ideal way to build a new design firm. Imagine creating or joining a network of highly competent independent architects, engineers, designers, and BIM technicians. This would give you the advantage of the low cost with the advantage of high quality. In most firms, designers and architects interact for a small percentage of the day, and do their actual work in a rather solitary manner. The office can be distracting reducing production efficiency.
A virtual firm would require those design document content and delivery milestone standards I wrote about earlier. An ideal payment method based on these standards could be by the square foot per milestone (or some other objective standard). This would put the incentive on the designer to be efficient and to have the latest fastest equipment, get needed training and provide quality service. Another advantage is it would give designers is the opportunity to specialize in certain design phases, software or building types. I am sure there will be plenty of problems to solve creating a new way to work. Outsourcing is coming fast, and I want to be in on it as opposed to being outsourced out of a job.


I know the economy is really awful. Architects and designers don’t want to spend money on training and new hardware when they have no work or money. I know of architects and construction people changing careers or retiring because of their lack of work. You have to ask yourself “has every church that society needs been built?” Will there ever be design work again?


If you believe in a future for architecture then you may share my belief that this is the great opportunity to prepare for the future. Once the economy changes and work starts flowing again, it may be too late to change as your competitors who have prepared for this time will be way ahead, and if you get busy, you most likely will not have the time or interest to train and set yourself up. In the 90’s when CAD became the norm, many architects retired and many design firms closed because they did not change with the technology. It was also an opportunity for those who could make the technology work for them. The BIM revolution we are in the middle of will be a bigger change then that. It is hard to predict the near future, but the distant future is almost unimaginable.


What Am I doing? I love BIM and am embracing it with maximum enthusiasm. I don’t believe everything that’s written about it, but it has made me a way better designer. I work way faster, and more accurately. I typically generate 20 to 40 renderings from the live model per project. I know what every wall surface and space is going to look like. My drawings are perfectly coordinated. It is a video game for architects and it is laugh out loud fun.
After a time of contemplation and planning, it is now time for me to build my virtual network of like-minded clients, contractors, architects, designers and engineers. I am choosing to write to you and share this because I feel we are working for the same Church and have the same industry obstacles to overcome. I am available now to do Church design / BIM modeling, to be taken out for coffee, or just chat on the phone.


Mark Palacios,
Mar 22, 2011, 2:36 AM