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Architecture Students Benefit from 3-D BIM Collaborative Technology During COVID-19

June 22, 2021

Across many fields and disciplines during the pandemic, technology allowed people to conduct their day-to-day life as normally as possible. For students in the School of Architecture and Design, technology actually enhanced their learning experiences in unforeseen ways. Professor of Architecture Jason Van Nest, M.Arch., spoke with The Box contributor Shreya Shahane about how 3-D building information modeling (BIM) technology introduced in remote classwork helped students work and collaborate, while providing them valuable experience with a tool that many employers in the design world rely on every day.

What is BIM 360?
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is an Autodesk cloud-based solution that has largely replaced traditional CAD (computer-aided design) tools in most architecture offices. It helps architects first model their designs, and then it partially automates the representational process—making plans, elevations, 3-D views, and other documents.

As a club-based common data environment (CDE), BIM 360 helps architects, engineers, builders, and others to collaborate to imagine, design, and build buildings. So, designers can be in different cities, states, or countries and work simultaneously on the same model.

What classes incorporated BIM 360 in the 2020-2021 academic year?
At least two courses used the technology for two different purposes:

ARCH 327: Construction Documents is a course where we teach students graphic standards and legal interpretations of technical drawings they will be making for the rest of their careers. BIM 360 helped students work in teams to collaborate on drawing sets of an existing building. The sets made by teams are much more robust than those made by individuals. Since we can help them collaborate like they would in an office, the students were able to make much more technically complex sets than they could achieve alone. It’s inspiring.

ARCH 423: Project Integration Studio is the capstone studio where students collaborate as well, but they used BIM 360 to design a new building (from scratch). In this case, student teams were literally having non-verbal design conversations in a virtual space. They moved walls, windows, and roofs, building something from nothing.

Why did you choose this technology to integrate into your classroom?
At first, it was a necessity. Because of the pandemic, we had to teach and learn remotely, which was going to rob our students of important collaborative experiences. That’s when [School of Architecture and Design] Dean Perbellini scrambled to work with our information technology office to assess and find immediate solutions. We’ve since extended our relationship with BIM 360 another year since its benefits are still valuable in a hybrid-remote setting.

Has it leveled the playing field for all architecture students, improving their access to important tools and resources?
This was such a wonderful surprise and important for our school. For years, students had been collaborating with BIM tools, but digital security issues forced teams to meet in our computer labs. I didn’t realize how much this policy favored students who lived close to campus, were not reliant on public transport, or had more free time during the week. Employed students or those traveling to campus at great expense were not able to contribute or experience as much. With the connect-anywhere feature of BIM 360, I’m seeing a lot more contributions from all team members and thus more robust conversations.

How does using BIM prepare students for their future careers? Is it an industry-standard or something employers are seeking?
I practice architecture but still do a lot of BIM/VDC (video design and construction) consulting with New York City-area firms. All of my clients are either using or had adopted this technology when the pandemic hit. It’s become industry standard within months, and every firm that asks me to recommend interns minimally requires BIM skills and prefers the work-sharing experience that BIM 360 enables.

What was your students’ feedback?
The technology puts a bright focus on teamwork, so most feedback has been amplifications about the benefits and drawbacks of group work. Foremost, students are gratified to be using state-of-the-art tools and to be empowered by a medium that simulates real-work construction issues. They’re also seeing the value of choosing collaborators wisely.

One of my students in my Project Integration class, Paul Poblete, provided this assessment: “I find it fascinating how the human spirit can adapt and combine technology to facilitate a process of collective work through global connectedness. Revit BIM 360 has been immensely helpful in meeting deadlines and provides the autonomy of a ‘work in progress.’ My classmates and I have been able to streamline communication and our files into one cohesive design with many parts, which benefits us with time savings and rapid design modifications.”

To show my age, I marvel that our students have grown accustomed to this environment so quickly. The folks teaching these courses have spent half a career dreaming of such robust collaborations, and our students will probably enjoy full careers where these workflows are standard.

This interview has been edited and condensed.