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The Transition From Pen and Paper to BIM

By H. Champion


I am sure there are many similar stories that could be told by those who have been in the business for a while. This is part of my story. When I was in high school (1972/73), I studied architectural drafting. The teacher, Murray E. Webber, had been a draftsman before becoming a teacher, so he knew his stuff. We spent one week learning how to hold a pencil properly and how to draw a consistent line by rotating the pencil as we moved it along the edges of T-squares and set squares. That was the most complex aspect involved in learning how to use the tools of the trade.

The rest of the year was spent practicing drawing lines while learning the conventions and techniques of how to represent real world objects in a 2D space (plans, elevations, sections, oblique views, and 1 & 2 point perspectives).

When computer assisted drafting and design (CADD) came along, those trained in manual drafting just learned how to use a new tool to achieve the same results, but those learning drafting for the first time now spent months learning all the options, settings, and commands needed to make the tool work in order to end up ultimately with lines on paper. Often, this learning about how to use the new tool took away from the time available to learn the conventions and techniques of how to represent the real world in 2D.

As time continued to pass, CADD became much more capable (i.e. complex and obscure), and even more time was spent learning how the tool worked to the exclusion of what to do with the tool. A symptom of this - and possibly a partial cause also - was the multi-volume manuals describing all the options of all the commands without examples of how or why you would apply those options in the task of representing real world objects on screen or on paper. This failing was common to all software at that time, and can still be seen in much software.

With manual drafting, conventions and relationships developed that were designed to make it easier to communicate using drawings and easier to revise physical drawings. There were relationships between paper size, drawing scale, text height, line thickness and reprographic/archiving technology. These conventions and relationships were formalized in the “Manual on Drawing Practice” and the subsequent “Manual on Metric Drawing Practice”. These manual conventions were brought into the CADD world when CSA Standard B78.5 was created in the 1980’s. It was believed to be the first national CADD standard in the world.

The relationships developed for manual drafting were still appropriate for use with CADD at that time because physical drawings were still produced by putting pen to paper or mylar using a pen plotter. When pen plotters gave way to ink-jets and laser printer technology, and microfilm/microfiche gave way to digital storage, the underlying reasons for the relationships no longer existed, and the relationships were for the most part abandoned, giving way to a free-for-all. For example, you could have any line weight you wanted, you weren’t limited to pre-defined thicknesses (0.12, 0.18, 0.25, 0.35, 0.5, 0.7, 1.0, etc.)

In architect’s offices, this manifested as each drawing in a set having its own look and feel depending on which CAD operator(s) had worked on a drawing, rather than all the drawings having a cohesive feel and seeming to belong together as a set. The responsibility for this does not belong solely on the CAD operators. The managers and job captains often did not adjust to the new technology and weren’t able to effectively enforce office standards.

For all its complexity and capability, CADD for many firms was not much more than an electric pencil. Some offices insisted on using the software straight out of the box with no customizations. That way they didn’t have to invest in training operators to use the customizations, they could hire anyone off the street and put them to work immediately. They could also let them go at the end of a project without losing time spent training them to use any customizations. Few firms saw the possibilities or took advantage of what could be done differently, better or automatically using CADD.

There was no paradigm shift in transitioning to CADD. What a novice draftsperson was assigned to do in a drafting office (title blocks, door schedules, copying details, etc.) were the same tasks that a novice CADD operator would be assigned to do. As a draftsperson or the CADD operator gained experience, they learnt how buildings went together.

Often, CADD was introduced into an office, not by the senior staff, but by a young staff member who was intrigued by the new technology and who learnt to use CADD at home using pirated software. It is said by some that AutoCAD became the dominant software, not because it was good or because it was better than the competition, but because unlike most CADD software which ran or originated on mini-computers and was strongly copy protected, AutoCAD was developed for the PC and had ineffective copy protection. The result was that most of the early enthusiasts learned AutoCAD, subsequently introduced AutoCAD into the offices they worked in, provided a support network, and an already trained labour pool. This combined to lower the entry cost threshold. Initially, the use of many of the competing software packages required the purchase of an expensive mini-computer, networked terminals, dedicated training and both hardware and software support contracts.

The transition from manual drafting to CADD was at times bumpy, but it proceeded steadily, and now it is rare to find an architectural office where the once obligatory drafting table is used at all. If you do find one, it is likely used by someone nearing retirement age.

The same cannot be said for the advent of Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM is a paradigm shift. As such, it holds much promise and potential to change the industry. It also has the potential to cause much pain and disruption.

BIM automatically generates the schedules and performs many of the other tasks that were assigned to novices, more importantly, in order to use BIM effectively, you already have to know how a building goes together in the real world. With so much more to learn in order to use the tool effectively, and with the tasks that used to be assigned to novices now automated, how is a draftsperson/operator supposed to learn the trade? Architects have been trying to figure this out since BIM arrived in the marketplace. To date there is no definitive guide on how to do this. Until it is figured out, BIM will not achieve its promise.

I have made the transition during my career from manual draftsperson to CADD user, to CADD programmer, to CADD guru, to manager of CADD users, to manager of the managers. I never made the transition as a user to 3D CADD or to BIM. I did learn enough to understand the limitations of the technology, and to know whether I was assigning a 5 minute task or a 5 hour task.

As I near retirement, I thought this brief history of some of the technological changes that have occurred in the industry might encourage those facing the impact of the current changes.

In many ways BIM is already yesterday’s news. Practices are implementing it and developing appropriate processes to manage it. The real challenge is artificial intelligence (AI). AI is showing up in many different guises, from Apple’s Siri to self-driving cars to apps that focus on discrete areas of knowledge. If AI can take over the mundane, dreary, repetitive tasks such as code checking and interference checking; if it can do energy analysis, quantity take offs, and generate materials lists leading to automatic specification generation; then we as members of the profession had better come up with a more robust and believable value proposition as to what architects contribute and why we are essential to city building and building design.

Part of that proposition might be… Unlike AI, architects can make value decisions between options, and choose the ones that increases firmness, commodity and delight even if the definable and measurable parameters would favour other options. Architects can make creative leaps of imagination that ignore the rules and standard processes to come up with something new or innovative. Architects can rise above the mundane. Give several architects the same programme and you will get multiple design options. Added to creativity, the training and experience of architects in working with different materials, and with different (and constantly changing) municipal approvals processes adds value. Architects can draw inspiration and solutions from both related and unrelated disciplines. Architects can converse with clients, read the body language, intonation, and emotional state of the client, not just the dictionary meaning of the words used. Most people can’t reduce their aspirations to a set of logical statements. Architects can empathize with the client and can intuit things the client may have difficulty verbalizing. AIs struggle with these things as anyone who has used Siri or Cortana knows.

Change is inevitable, and not always predictable, but it can be managed. To be successful, a practice needs to be pro-active and manage change effectively. Draw on the past, but become the future.