Can BIM Be Used as a Design Tool? Of Course It Can!


BIM Projects Getting Good Press

A few years ago, I got to work on a large federal building project here in Portland. The client was very interested in using new tools and techniques to optimize the design and construction process, and ultimately save taxpayer money. I was involved as the BIM lead on the design team, and we were able to accomplish a great deal by maximizing the use of BIM, which in turn aided constructability analysis, cost estimation, and collaboration. The collaboration part was very important, as there were a lot of members on the project team. On the design side, the firm for which I was working was the architect of record; the design architect was a well-known Pacific Northwest architect.

The project was a success, especially from a BIM standpoint, and there was even an article on the AIA website extolling the virtues of using BIM on the project. Interestingly, there was a quote from the design architect regarding the use of BIM on this project:

“[BIM] will allow people who don’t draw—and therefore have a less developed sense of the third dimension—to see the building better. I think that [BIM] is an exceptionally useful tool for larger projects, but it’s unlikely that BIM adoption will ever stop drawing from remaining an essential part of the design process. The language of architecture is drawing.”

I was amazed that he was quoted for this article, as he came across as rather technophobic during the project – I’m not even certain that this guy could even check his own email. From what I could discern, this fella didn’t know BIM from bologna or Revit from roast beef. (Can you tell that it’s getting close to lunchtime?) His contributions to this project came in the form of hand drawings which our team subsequently had to take the time and effort to add to the BIM model. Not that there’s anything wrong with this way of designing, mind you – it just seemed to me that this person was not someone who should be publicly discussing the pros and cons of BIM.

Older Generation of Architects Hostile to BIM?

I want to make clear that I’m not slagging this architect; he’s a good guy and a fantastic designer. It is his attitude towards digital design tools that bothers me, and it is one not uncommon to older architects: that of dismissive-going-on-hostile. One doesn’t have to read too far between the lines of his comments to catch the “damned by faint praise” flavor. I first encountered this attitude in architecture school. My school’s architecture program was indifferent at best about providing students the opportunity to learn AutoCAD and other widely-used digital design tools. Many students had to take external classes at the local community college just to pick up this basic architectural tool. When one of the professors was asked about this gap in the curriculum, she sniffed, “This is a design school, not a vocational school.”

This comment cuts to the core of the problem: many architects, particularly those that entered the profession prior to the widespread adoption of AutoCAD in the 90’s, look upon digital design tools as mere drafting shortcuts, and not as design tools. The conventional wisdom for this generation of designers is that REAL design can only be accomplished with a pen or pencil, and that using a computer somehow depersonalizes the experience and makes it less authentic, less intuitive, less design-y.

I have heard this argument repeated over and over, almost entirely from older architects who began their career with hand drawing, and who continue to denigrate the use of BIM and other digital design tools. Their mantra is that you design with a pen or pencil, and not with a computer.


You design with your mind, and the tool – be it goose quill or BIM software – is just a vehicle through which you explore and communicate that design.

One argument that I heard in support of the notion that good architecture must come from the nib of a pen is that people are much more used to using pens and pencils, and that it allows one to more directly express design ideas than would a computer mouse. There is some validity to this argument, I think. However, the generation that grew up manipulating crayons, pens and pencils is rapidly being supplanted by one for which the mouse is the more familiar tool, and for which traditional drawing implements may seem an outdated encumbrance.

BIM is a Tool in the Design Toolbox

The prejudice that one needs to be skilled at hand sketching or drawing to be a good architect is faulty. Le Corbusier was no great shakes with hand drawing, and he was one of the most highly regarded and innovative architects of the twentieth century. Likewise, Louis Kahn’s sight failed rapidly at the end of his career, and along with it his ability to draw. That did not in any way diminish the breadth of his skill and design ability. I’ve known people who have fantastic graphical skills, but whose design ability was not so good. Likewise, I’ve encountered others whose drawings were crude, but who could conceive and execute fantastic designs.

Personally, I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. I like to use hand drawing as an early design exploration tool, then quickly switch to something that is a little more accurate when developing those ideas. There have been too many instances when I’ve spent a great deal of time developing an idea in freehand, only to discover that the idea was unworkable when drafted with “real world” dimensions or construction systems (“Damn, this hallway can only be 18 inches wide”). In some instances, it’s a lot more efficient to express simple ideas with a digital tool than hand drafting. I recently had a very simple massing concept that I wanted to express to the client. (I designed it with my mind.) I could have spend thirty or forty-five minutes drawing this out and coloring it, perhaps taking two or three tries to get it to look the way that I wanted. Instead, I just cranked it into SketchUp and was able to present it to the client in a matter of minutes.


Let me finish up this axe-grinding exercise and get to the core of the issue: the old-guard architectural prejudice against BIM and digital design tools often limits neophyte architects’ ability to gain the experience they need to achieve IDP hours, get a license, and flourish in their chosen profession. All too often, intern architects who display strong BIM skills run the risk of getting pigeonholed as “the BIM guy/gal,” and will be consigned to drawing production purgatory. I had an interview where the hiring principal didn’t even ask to see my portfolio, and I knew that I was being sized up as the next potential Revit monkey. Needless to say, I was not interested in following up on that position. On the Archinect website, I ran across a great blog post entitled “Want to be an Architect? Don’t Learn Revit” that sums up some of the frustrations that young architects are encountering as they start their careers. I completely empathize with the author’s problems; I’ve been there myself.

 The antiquated notion that hand-drawing is the only proper way to design is technophobic and myopic. If the architectural profession really wants to “reposition” itself, one of the issues it needs to overcome is the old-school notion that the apogee of the design process occurred around the time that Frank Lloyd Wright went to that Big Drafting Table in the Sky. BIM is here to stay, and it’s just as legitimate design tool as a fountain pen, paintbrush or HB pencil. We should embrace all of the possibilities for expressing our ideas, and continue to utilize all of the tools at our disposal to improve how we design.

For more information on Tesseract Design’s BIM services, please see