Teaching the second year undergraduate construction sequence of courses is challenging.
Students, already smitten with studio, see required tech courses as unnecessary evils.
They have had so few architecture courses at that point, it’s like teaching students how to put a car together before teaching them how to drive.
While the courses serve as a wake-up call that there’s more to architecture than the making of form, not everyone is happy about it.
So, how best to spark and engender a lifelong love affair with building technology?
One model is mutual mentoring.
In this model, emulated from practice, senior team members (TAs, the course instructor) work with emerging professionals (students) on building technology, while the emerging digital natives (students again) share what they discover in their digital models.
In a perfect world, this is how things would work.
Due in part to the 2008 economic downturn, when many senior firm members were let go, this model doesn’t materialize as often as one might expect.
In class, I play the surrogate seasoned firm member – the technology principal – teaching my students building technology in lecture.
Ideally, students incorporate what they learn in lecture in the lab section of the class.
The teaching assistants redline their work, the students pick up redlines, and in doing so some facsimile of the office workflow is recreated.
The problem with this model is that there is no evidence that students – let along emerging professionals – always understand what the redlines mean.
So, this past semester, I tried an experiment.
What if students learned building technology at the same time that they learned to work in BIM?
What if, in other words, these two activities occurred simultaneously?
The convergence of building technology and digital technology
Each student was provided with a set of architectural and structural CAD documents to work from.
By the end of the semester, over 100 students, mostly sophomores no older than 19 years old, each completed a 30pp set of BIM documents of a 16-story high-rise under construction near campus – a student apartment building with duplex units.
This was no drafting exercise in construction documentation: students had to think, and make critical decisions, every step of the way.
The course’s fabulous teaching assistants offered in-class tutorials, and Lynda.com was made available to students.
Revit Architecture was offered free to students from Autodesk’s education community.
By the end of the semester, our students
- compared/contrasted the CAD documents with those produced from their BIM models;
- visited the construction site, met with the architect and contractors, wrote a field observation report and compared as-built conditions to their BIM model;
- redesigned portions of the façade; they redesigned the tower’s units;
- learned how to collaborate in BIM, create BIM standards and families, and how to leverage BIM as a searchable database.
Most importantly, they demonstrated that they learned how to put a large-scaled, complex building together as they were still learning the digital technology, bridging the lecture/lab divide along the way.
Did students really need to produce 28-30 sheets of documents to demonstrate that they learned how to put a building together?
If they were drafting in pencil or in CAD, then the answer would be “no.”
But with BIM, the question is irrelevant, because the documents are merely snapshots of the model, slicing it this way or that.
This in itself was a revelation for many students.
As the instructor, my motivation in conducting this experiment was
- To teach students how to put a large, complex building together
- To help them to learn from each other
- To help them recognize the benefits of just-in-time learning
- To encourage them to ask questions
- To have them understand how BIM differs from other tools
- To have them create a set of BIM documents
As demonstrated in their work, students learned
- the difference between BIM and CAD tools
- that BIM is not just a super-charged version of SketchUp
- that in BIM, unlike CAD, a wall knows it’s a wall
- that you must know what wall type you are modeling and why
- that a change in one place is a change everywhere
- that the model it is a searchable, mineable database
- that the higher uses of BIM are where the spoils are
- that you cannot fake it in BIM the way you can in other tools
- BIM standards and the value of clear communication
- that they are capable of accomplishing a lot in a short period of time
What about collaboration? Why didn’t students work on teams? Teamwork is critically important, starting in school. But in terms of learning the fundamentals early in their architectural education, I felt it was important to assess each student individually.
Doing so teaches students self-sufficiency so that teamwork and collaboration becomes a strategic choice, not a crutch to lean on due to a perceived weakness in one area or the other.
The ultimate goal is collaboration.
The general wisdom goes something like this: due to increasing complexity of buildings, no one person can possibly know it all.
Or can they?
With this experiment, I decided to find out.