AECbytes Viewpoint #51 (April 7, 2010)

Notes on the Synthesis of BIM

Randy Deutsch, AIA, LEED AP
Architect and Educator

These notes are about the process of BIM; the process of creating virtual models which result in a unified order for the AEC industry.

A Building Information Model (BIM) does a remarkable job of organizing disparate design and construction data for others to then extract and use as needed. While a BIM contains an abundance of data—construction and fabrication, facilities and maintenance, cost and specifications, environment and topography, design and contractual—design professionals and others on the construction team synthesize this information into a comprehensive end product. BIMs collect—and designers and constructors synthesize—the information contained in the model.

BIM does a better job at optimizing often conflicting information than those who use it. Optimizing, but not unifying. As Christopher Alexander wrote in his seminal book, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, published in 1964: “A design problem is not an optimization problem.” Design is a problem of synthesis. Design professionals and constructors are hardly alone in their ability to synthesize large and complex data into concise recommendations for action. Operations data analysts synthesize complex data into meaningful, action-oriented reports with charts and graphs—something anyone with exceptional analytical skills can accomplish. Music technologists do so in the process of making music from digital electronic equipment; chemists in executing chemical reactions in the making of products.

And synthesis, of course, is what design professionals and constructors are trained to do. For many years, I was personally involved in their training, having co-taught building science to graduate architecture students in an integrated technology/design studio, until the course was eliminated because the idea of designers being influenced in school by building technology—however integrated—was seen by some as unsavory. This is also true for the teaching of BIM, where it is expected that students pick it up as though it were any 3D software, but without simultaneously picking up an understanding of how to work effectively with others in a BIM environment.

Those who see BIM as just a tool, and Integrated Design as just a delivery method, are missing the point. They would tell you that no school of architecture would have a curricula on “band saw studies,” so why do so for BIM? Still others would tell you that they address this already—with one part focused on interoperability, another on the legal/liability implications, and a third on roles and responsibilities. All of this work is critical but none of it gets at the heart of the matter.

Author and architect Finith Jernigan commented recently: “This issue was one of the major reasons that I wrote the book, BIG BIM little bim. If the profession doesn't 'get over itself' and learn to really integrate with the world that we live in and to capitalize on our ability to synthesize complex data...someone else is going to do it and architects will be relegated to the artistic side of architecture only.”

BIM and Integrated Design offer an opportunity for the profession and industry to transform itself in ways unseen in over a century. Together, these subjects could lead to research and study, facilitation and application—and methodology, an area of study with its own branch of learning and curricula, for not only managing the technology but the process—in much the way that Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form did, however inadvertently and ultimately independently, almost 50 years ago. So too could be the case for Integrated Design.

Uniting Dualities

People working in and around BIM—voices in academia, in research, in organizations, in the ideasphere and blogosphere, and here at AECbytes—are starting to coalesce into a congruent whole. Elsewhere, we’re witnessing a proliferation of authors, journalists, reference books and white papers, educators, trainers and resellers at industry conferences, seminars and conventions, software specific or vender neutral user and discussion groups, Slideshare presentations and YouTube videos, commenting—if not in unanimity—then at least in unison.

We have wikis and taxonomies, order and organization, anthologizing BIM and Integrated Design—but not yet a synthesis. These attempts to filter information are a start in that they intend to be an all-in-one clearinghouse of information, but instead they inadvertently form the organizational hub from which spokes extend out—these sites always end up sending you outward and before long, you realize you did it again. We must resist the temptation to both oversimplify and elaborate upon, to further organize the information we already have at hand. Synthesis doesn’t deny reality but instead bravely accepts the inherent complexity of our situation, moves forward despite imperfect visibility, and makes amends.

There is a tendency—with each new release, with each new product, posting and revelation—to add to what is already known instead of clarifying—and solidifying—what we already have. What our industry needs right now is not more information or analysis of information: the pieces are there. What is needed is a coming-together, a coalescing of knowledge—a synthesis of BIM and Integrated Design. None other than Frank Lloyd Wright said: “Get the habit of analysis—analysis will in time enable synthesis to become your habit of mind.” What is needed now is the synthesis of the data we already have at hand to help us move forward as an industry. It is time we make synthesis our habit of mind.

And about the rest…? The rest are details, as in Einstein’s: "I want to know God's thoughts; the restare details." There will always be details to figure out—this will come with patience and ingenuity. For the big picture, the wider swatch, the larger horizon, it is critical to the process that someone steps forward to provide this vision and GIS-level view. Historically, the architect has exemplified and performed this role in design, as has the general contractor in construction. This could be a collaborative effort in keeping with the spirit of Integrated Design.

Bridging Crossroads

Important work is being undertaken—on the periphery, the margins, and along the edges—where innovation so often takes place. We have found our corners and pieces to explore and exploit, but not along the roadside where the hard work of synthesis is needed right now.

It has become something of a cliché to say that design professionals today are at a crossroads. The road in question separates design on one side of the road from construction on the other, with the designer venturing from their familiar comfort zone to the unknown, untested and unprotected. Continued use of this crossroads metaphor further polarizes the two sides.

Seemingly stuck, design professionals maneuver workarounds in order to move forward. The creative energy expended in finding alternate routes ought instead to be invested in resolving what appears to be an intractable roadblock and in finding a comprehensive solution. Because they believe the obstruction is in the road—and not in themselves—they’re proceeding cautiously and skeptically by way of happenstance, piecemeal and makeshift bridges of their own device. These one-time use bridges fall apart as soon as they are crossed and are unsustainable, contributing to our throw-away culture. We are in need—and deserving—of a permanent solution. Rather than cross the road to the other side, it would be better to close the road altogether and return it to the fabric of Integrated Design.

Stitching Time

Alexander rejected the architect’s separation of design and execution, ostensibly saying that for an architect to design a chair and for another to build it is ludicrous, backwards and counterproductive. All of his work grew out of this seemingly simple observation. With his focus on process at a time when the fixation—much as our own—was on products, it led to his pattern language influencing a whole generation of architects.

In sewing, temporary stitches are called tacking: usually hand-sewn lines of stitching to keep the garment together for fitting. Tacking stitches hold something in place during production and are sewn to temporarily join two sides of fabric together until the piece can be permanently sewn. Taking the time to tack helps save time in the long run, allowing you to test the fitting. Sutras also literally mean a thread or line that holds things together. Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX, noted architect who has spoken at both Yale and TED conferences, alluded to the stitching of creation and execution. We ought to be building bridges that stitch design and construction into a single whole without losing what is essential to each. Through the use of BIM on integrated teams, the line narrows. Weaving over the void between design and construction makes our cloth whole again. The separation is healed and the fabric repaired through the reweaving of BIM and Integrated Design.

A Unifying Map for the Age of Integration

What is needed is a map that unifies and clarifies and helps us move forward. What is needed is a roadmap—a plan—for how to proceed, answering not why we need to move forward but how.

Who will provide this map? I would venture it will come from someone who is reading this.

Where is our Ken Wilber who’ll step forward with a map that clarifies everything for us with a unifying theory? Where is our E.O. Wilson with a consilience for BIM and Integrated Design? Where is BIM’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to serve as a map for our generation? Where is BIM’s Sutra? Who will be BIM’s poet laureate?

Beginning with the Christopher Alexander versus Peter Eisenman Harvard debate of 1982 pitting intuition against rationality, the last nearly 30 years has presented us with a number of seemingly irreconcilable dualities: Process and Technology; Design verb and Design noun; Process and Product; Sociology and Software; Design and Construction. An integral vision ought to unite these dualities.

BIM accentuates the chasm between design and construction that now defines the AEC industry. As projects move from design, designers need to make the first move toward construction. They must see themselves as capable of changing, of retraining, cooperating and envisioning a new role for themselves. And they do this through the deep and wide use of BIM technology in integrated design teams. BIM, as a process, is the design profession’s salvation. But this cannot happen alone.

This is a time to integrate and make things whole—to synthesize—and avoid the temptation to further analyze. A time for circling round back, revisiting where we’ve been, without denying where we are headed, by acknowledging where we are and how far we’ve come. As Li Ka-Shing, one of the richest and most influential investors in Asia, said, “We are approaching a new age of synthesis. Knowledge cannot be merely a degree or a skill... it demands a broader vision, capabilities in critical thinking and logical deduction without which we cannot have constructive progress.” When professionals are valued as much for their outreach and empathy as they are for their depth and specialized knowledge, so too will flourish Integrated Design.

Technology and Sociology

When asked how he came up with the Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander explained, "Well, it was not so very different from any other kind of science. My colleagues and I made observations, looked to see what worked, studied it, tried to distill out the essentials, and wrote them down. But," he went on, “we did do one thing differently. We assumed from the beginning that everything was based on the real nature of human feeling and—this is the unusual part—that human feeling is mostly the same from person to person, mostly the same in every person. Of course, there is that part of human feeling where we are all different. Each of us has our idiosyncrasies, our unique individual human character. That is the part people most often concentrate on when they are talking about feelings and comparing feelings. But that idiosyncratic part is really only about ten percent of the feelings which we feel. Ninety percent of our feelings is stuff in which we are all the same and we feel the same thing. So from the very beginning, when we made the pattern language, we concentrated on that part of human experience and feeling where our feeling is all the same. That is what the pattern language is—a record of that stuff in us, which belongs to the ninety percent of our feeling where our feelings are all the same.” (From Christopher Alexander’s 2001 book, The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Book 1.)

Despite the GSA's Charles Hardy broadcast of the now famous, “BIM is about 10% technology and 90% sociology,” ninety percent of what has been written, analyzed and studied about BIM so far is the technology. While the 10% technology works itself out, we would as an industry do well to turn our attention toward the 90% that we share, the sociology of Integrated Design.

(Last) Call for an Integral Practice

The unifying map is not enough. We also need an integral practice in order to evolve as an industry. Not sidestepping and workarounds, not either BIM or Integrated Design, but a synthesis of the two in practice. The ideal synthesis—of design and construction, BIM and Integrated Design—will allow for

  • BIM’s inherent complexity
  • the complexity of construction process
  • the design profession’s discomfort with addressing means and methods
  • the constructor’s discomfort with addressing design intent, and
  • technology to work hand-in-hand with sociology

Allowing for still unanswered questions pertaining to responsibility, liability, interoperability, and so on, these will resolve themselves in time and ought to be treated as one would a building project, with the belief and goal of creating an elegant and efficient synthesis of competing parts. We ought to act as though we already have all the elements needed and in place to form and appreciate BIM and Integrated Design as a complete process. Instead of coming up with a “kluge” —a configuration that succeeds in solving a problem, however inelegant, inefficient or clumsy—we need to come up with a satisfying working model that is more than the sum of the parts and easily apprehended by all. For, as Jacques Ibert, a French composer, wrote, “The result of this union would be, not the fortuitous result of a series of approximations and concessions, but the harmonious synthesis of two aspects of a single thought.” BIM and Integrated Design—the synthesis of the two, each enabling the other—so that they may coexist as one.

BIM and Integrated Design need the designer’s and constructor’s ability to synthesize a great deal of information into a synthetic whole. This is perhaps their greatest design challenge of all. While design professionals are equipped to put all the pieces together to create a new unity, their next move will require courage and boldness. Technology alone cannot provide this. This must come from somewhere else. The two must be considered—together—in order for the industry to flourish and for BIM to become ubiquitous. The answer is in the synthesis of BIM and Integrated Design.


About the Author

Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP, is an architect, educator, speaker and thought leader focused on new technologies and work processes in the AEC industry. He is the author of the upcoming book "BIM + Integrated Design" (Wiley, 2011) concerning the social impacts of the new technologies and collaborative work processes on the design and construction industry. You can read his blogs at and

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