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AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (May 28, 2008)

Proto-Building: To BIM is to Build

John Tobin
Principal, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering PC

For generations, architects have viewed drawing as the best way to understand and communicate design intent. Building Information Modeling is generating a new awareness. More than just a new representation tool, genuine BIM is a building enterprise in its own right.


In a famous 1929 painting, The Treachery of Images, Renee Magritte painted a pipe under which he declared “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” which translates toThis is not a pipe.”

Initially puzzling, he later explained—“Could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation.” Magritte’s work is a well known commentary on the limits of representation in capturing important aspects of real-world objects. The painting was a good facsimile of a pipe, but it lacks crucial aspects of “pipeness.”

Rene Magritte – La Trahison des Images.
© René Magritte Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

There is an obvious similarity to the world of building design. Buildings are intensely complicated, and so immense, that the most reliable way to convey design intent has been to rely on drafted views which try to describe their configuration.  As a result, the architect’s work has traditionally become an exercise on paper trying to represent something that has a different, more physical reality.

As a profession, we have devised standards and workflows in which drafting and specifications, produced with standardized graphic conventions, serve to reasonably document the 3D building.  We understand however, that there are limitations to this drawing-based method, with its multitude of related 2D viewpoints on numerous disconnected sheets.

To minimize the potential for confusion or conflict, many of us have “General Notes” paragraphs which in effect say, “This is not a building.” (We actually say, “Do not scale drawings”; “In case of discrepancies, call architect”, etc.) This is because we understand the limits of representation and know that drawings are just our best conventional tool to represent a building.

Building Information Modeling (BIM), it can be argued, offers an entirely different proposition, one that allows us to move beyond representation and into a simulated building process.

Though many designers continue to use BIM to produce drawings—and a recent industry survey (Top Criteria for BIM Solutions: AECbytes Survey Results, Oct. 2007) favored that issue over several others—this is probably a transitional phase for BIM. We would be better served to look beyond using BIM merely as a more powerful representation tool, and instead to treat the models we create as proto-buildings.

The Greek Proto—as in prototypesuggests something that is a first version of an entity which will later be replicated. BIM models clearly fall under that rubric, being the first iteration of a building. The process of creating these proto-buildings we might call proto-tectonics, but more recently it has been called virtual construction.

After two decades of continual advances in 3D object-oriented technology, architects now have the opportunity to build information models with the same rigor as one would build a building.  If we are sufficiently motivated, we will not model to merely show others the intended outcome of a different, separate process. Rather we will proto-build—that is, make a first-building.  In doing so, we will gain an unprecedented advantage over any previous architectural era—the opportunity to build twice.

BIM representation. © EYP Architects

Generations of BIM Activity

To understand how this opportunity will materialize, it would help to look at both the current state and also the likely future trajectory of BIM.  For the purposes of our argument, it helps to think of BIM as having three different generations, which we will call BIM 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0.

Let’s examine the generations in sequence.

BIM 1.0 - CAD on Steroids: In the BIM 1.0 era, model-based software emerged against a background of a 2D CAD production workflow, where the major benefit was better-coordinated and faster production of documents. The goal was to model with objects and to minimize tedious drafting by having one 3D object handle multiple 2D representations when placed in a project.

Over many years of development, increasingly sophisticated object-based CAD programs emerged that improved drawing coordination and also added data fields to the objects. These tools now permitted real-time generation of schedules and 3D representations.  In comparison to previous software, these applications were like CAD on steroids; smarter than reams of 2D CAD, reducing drafting chores, and also eliminating tedious counting.

Because the tools were now incorporating data, the term “Building Information Modeling” was soon born. The objective was to use the data features for schedule generation, which would ultimately end up on paper. Though sometimes troublesome to work with, the software grew in acceptance largely for these coordination benefits. It’s worth noting that the BIM 1.0 workflow was still tackling traditional representation tasks.

The most significant characteristic of the  BIM 1.0 era however, is that it was still in the realm of the A/E alone, so designers could elect how deeply they wanted to implement the new techniques.

Detailed BIM models. © EYP Architects

BIM 2.0 - The Big Bang in Reverse: The second phase of BIM—the 2.0 era—dawned when the realm of people involved in building models expanded beyond the A/E professions. 

We could call this stage The Big Bang in Reverse because the diverging galaxies of designers and builders—which had been hurtling away from each other over several centuries—suddenly reversed direction. Two groups that had grown apart now found themselves drawn quickly back together by the potential of this new technology.

In contrast to BIM 1.0, the BIM 2.0 situation becomes far more complicated for architects, because various groups are seeing completely different possibilities—and requiring different performance—from the same artifact. What architects continue to need as a production tool for documentation now also becomes a bill of materials or a logistics tool for contractors, as well as a facilities management tool for owners. In the BIM 2.0 era, contractors are helping to popularize terms such as 4D (time) and 5D (money) models, which allow contractors to use them for phasing and quantity takeoff purposes.  Not to be outdone, design sub-consultants start to see BIM models as an engine for energy and environmental analysis. The expectations of the BIM process thus increase significantly.   

BIM 2.0 is producing a divergence of opinion in how BIM models should be built, who will properly build them, and what their purpose is.  Architects are struggling to absorb how to build these models correctly. Though it does not seem unreasonable, it takes us outside of our comfort zone, and certainly our typical education. BIM 2.0—which is currently ongoing—is a highly tumultuous era with architects trying to learn the new techniques that BIM models enable.  

The Association of General Contractors (AGC) added significant momentum to this reverse Big Bang when they published their Contractors Guide to BIM in late 2006.  Somewhat in response, the AIA accelerated the shift in gravity by developing an initiative known as Integrated Project Delivery, which encourages close cooperation between designers, owners and contractors. Owners groups such as CURT have also acknowledged shared common needs between owners, contractors and designers with the 3xPT initiative.

Before too long a familiar term, interoperability—meaning how various information gets exchanged from one partner to another—emerged with new urgency as an industry-wide issue, and designers are now faced with creating models unlike anything they had previously seen. Clearly the BIM 2.0 model has moved beyond a tool for representation and is being thought of as an intricate work in its own right.

Detailed BIM models. © EYP Architects

BIM 3.0 - Post-Interoperability: Though interoperability is currently a thorny and seemingly insurmountable problem in BIM 2.0, we need to take a look beyond to a third, future phase for some direction. There are several efforts afoot—such as the IFC and BuildingSmart initiatives—to promote inter-disciplinary exchange of information and expertise across disciplines. The BIM 3.0 era—the Post-Interoperability era—imagines what BIM will be like when working together is a seamless proposition.  InBIM 3.0 and beyond, the various parties will construct a model, not as a representation for their intermediate purposes, but as a full dress rehearsal for construction, working with the model as they would a real building.

The BIM 3.0 sandbox will probably be a net-centric database, one where BIM models, now proto-buildings, are constructed and populated collaboratively in a web-hosted 3D environment accessed from anywhere. All participants including contractors, trades and owner will understand how to collectively contribute through their own discipline-specific modules.  The architect’s initial proto-building will ideally have continued value throughout design, construction and fabrication efforts. It may alter form and overall content, but it will be a continuum of activity.

BIM 3.0 may appear at first glance to be a rather idealistic scenario.  But the intent is not to ignore real present-day problems, but to look beyond them for a moment so we can make some steps now towards a better BIM process. The interoperability challenge will be overcome eventually, and architects need to be prepared for our role when it does happen.

Innovations in computing technology will provide a piece of the puzzle necessary for BIM 3.0 to occur—faster WAN speeds, and more robust software will enable the networked model to become the vessel for all manner of design input.  But attitudes will also be an important ingredient, one that technology alone cannot overcome. One of the hallmarks of success in BIM 3.0 will be a cross-disciplinary attitude that looks at buildings as a shared enterprise, especially between designer and contractor. Also important will be a belief that architects can initiate a process that continues throughout construction.  

This prompts the question—if the trajectory of BIM materializes as imagined above, what will be the impact on, and the role of, designers?

Build It As It Will Be

As outlined above, the development from BIM 1.0 to BIM 3.0 is marked by a shift from representation to proto-building. In the BIM 3.0 era, drawings will not be a critical component of the design-build workflow. What will be important is how well the model is built to embody and enable the building process.  The act of building BIM models therefore will in fact become a credible building process in its own right. It may be digital, but it will still feel like a process of construction.

Some early BIM adopters are already getting a taste of this. Throughout many years of using BIM tools, there have been numerous points where, confronted with a documentation issue, the question arises—“How should I model this?”   The inquiry inevitably turns to the question—“First, what is this element in real-life?” Usually the path to success is found from a deeper understanding of the element being modeled, and then modeling it as such.

This prompts two observations. First, architects are now often forced to ask basic, fundamental questions about something we thought we already knew quite well—such as creating doors. It is difficult to believe something as mundane as a door could prompt a deep philosophical discussion, but that is what appears to happen as we try to grasp the construction implications around a simple BIM component.

Building BIM Doors © EYP Architects

In traditional 2D work, a door is often signified by a panel swing and a frame. Other information gets added in a schedule, and yet further elaboration is created in a door legend. In a BIM environment, deeper thought is required.  This is because how that single door object will get transferred throughout the downstream processes influences how it gets created in the first place. (Is it a frame with a panel inside, or a panel with a frame surround?). Take the thinking behind the door and apply it to all aspects of buildings—windows, ceiling, finishes—and you begin to see a trend.

This leads us to the second observation: if we are deliberately creating individual components in the manner that they would be built in the real world, then why don’t we do it comprehensively, and model the entire building as it would be built?  When done in this manner, a design model approaches a proto-building, emulating many real life aspects of buildings in construction. After working with BIM for several years, many architects find themselves modeling in ways that don’t necessarily make sense if 2D representation is the end-goal. But the goal is no longer 2D representation—instead, knowing with some certainty how a building works in 3D is invaluable even if it appears many aspects will not make it onto a sheet of paper,

Though it may take some effort for designers to re-examine how construction objects should best exist in a BIM environment, this new awareness can only prove to be beneficial in the long run, because it prompts architects to learn even more about components they are using all the time.  In our firm, and in several others I know of, we already strive to build our models according to accepted industry standards. For example, projects are broken into ‘worksets’ according to the UniFormat system of Substructure, Core and Shell, Interiors, etc.  Furthermore, when we create BIM models, we try to mimic construction—place foundations, columns, beams, and slabs on beam, then wrap columns, and then have finish walls separate from enclosure walls. We do this so that we might better understand the process of construction we are initiating.

There is considerably more for architects to understand before we attain full proto-building, but as far as possible we are moving to shadow construction activity as closely as the current software will allow. What this means then is that a segment of the architecture profession is moving beyond representation, and embracing a proto-construction mentality, carefully but inevitably.

Detailed BIM models. © EYP Architects

One Model? Several Models?

The impetus for this article was triggered by a simple exchange of viewpoints.  Not too long ago, I attended a joint Architect-Contractor AGC workshop where contractors were becoming resigned to the view that the architect’s BIM model was a throwaway, that it was often useless for the purposes of construction and that they would simply build a new model for the construction phase of a project. This is a dire development in my opinion.

To the extent that it is true, architects are missing a tremendous opportunity to re-align the efforts of the architect and the contractor. The architect’s model should not become a throwaway. It may be a basic first effort that can be developed later, a first prototype, but it should not have to be thrown away.

Separate design and construction models would be disastrous for many reasons:

  • It is a waste of time to duplicate modeling work.
  • We may lose important design intent in the shift from one model to another.
  • It would reinforce the notion that the architect’s design work essentially lacks value.
  • It supports the idea that design can proceed separate from construction implication.

One of the reasons the Architect’s BIM model is being viewed as a throwaway may be related to current software shortcomings where BIM applications cannot yet deconstruct an assembly into the trade-by-trade subcontracting tasks that contractors need. This is not just another software glitch, it precipitates a difference of vision between architect and contractor and for that reason we need to work with others to overcome this kind of obstacle. An excellent source of discussion on the limitations of architect models to construction teams can be found in numerous posts at, especially some excellent early posts on wall composition.  

If BIM 3.0 is our ultimate goal, we will want to keep our focus on what will be possible when these obstacles are surmounted. As long as architects continue to remain the primary contact in the design process, we still have the opportunity to make that first BIM model. Whether it will become the final BIM model depends on how seriously we take it as a proto-building.


Contractors have understood the value proposition of “virtual construction” for several years, and architects can assist them in maximizing it. Architect’s models—based on representation—are not yet conveying important aspects that contractors’ BIM models are expecting to find. So why not?   Part of the answer is due to limitations of the tools we use. But it is also that we are not yet embracing the full potential and implications of BIM, and its ability to emulate building. This may be because we’re not expected to do it, but it may also reveal a hesitation whether we should shift beyond our role as “representers.”

Yet another factor is that we need some input on what to model, and how to model it as we are designing, so contractors can use it. One of the great hopes for the recent, ongoing (…and ongoing…) National BIM Standard (NBIMS) process is that it will clearly articulate a course on how BIM models can become “virtual buildings” with value throughout the entire construction process. Just as the previous National CAD Standard was a set of graphic representations that codified the construction document phase for 2D CAD work, the NBIMS will hopefully propose a set of standard conventions suitable for proto-building.  In the interim, a growing number of firms, and some large agencies like GSA, have started to lead the way and are pursuing a variety of ad hoc BIM model standards. Many of these standards give us a peek at how we can begin to build proto-buildings which can emulate certain construction processes.

This is a great and exciting time to be an architect.  Digital proto-building presents us with an opportunity to fashion our designs into significant, valuable building prototypes that offer better control and feedback over the design outcome, and to heighten our contribution to the construction and operations process.  Our chance for success may be as much an issue of attitude as it is technology. What can help to propel this endeavor is a vision of BIM as more than just an extension of an architect’s documentation drawings, but to understand it as a legitimate form of proto-building in its own right. To BIM is to build.

About the Author

John Tobin is a licensed Architect and a Principal with EYP Architecture & Engineering PC, a firm with offices in Albany, NY, Boston, MA, Washington, DC, New York City, and Orlando, FL.

Tobin has spent his career on the subject of technology in architecture, most recently with a focus on 3D technologies.  A long-time Revit user, he is currently charged with implementing BIM across all architecture and engineering disciplines at EYP, including structural and MEP work. Prior to joining EYP, John spent ten years as a faculty member at Rensselaer School of Architecture in Troy, NY, where he taught design and technology courses. He can be reached at

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