Q&A: Phil Bernstein

 

When the new book, BIM in Academia, published recently by the Yale School of Architecture, landed on my desk, I immediately thought of engaging Phil Bernstein (co-editor with Peggy Deamer), in a conversation about how technology is reshaping architecture pedagogy. (Full disclosure: Phil, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, is also a vice president at Autodesk, the software giant whose Revit program is a key player in switching the architecture and construction industries to BIM.) Then I remembered one of my visits to Phil’s practice class at Yale where students are masters at ferreting out venal conflicts of interest, and knowing Phil’s commitment to advancing the skills of the architecture profession, I launched confidently into my interview. Here we talk about the current tensions in academia, the potential for change, and the ever-hovering economic recession that’s taken a huge toll on the profession.

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Susan S. Szenasy: Building Information Modeling (BIM) software comes into architecture education at a time of high stress. Traditional curricula are struggling to integrate the principals of sustainable design, for instance, which requires an understanding of the biological sciences, among other things. The academic reaction to these new needs for integration has been uneven, mostly add-ons to exiting ways, often overburdening the system. Enter BIM, another stress point. Yet we know, from watching every other area of our culture that use of interactive technologies is on the ascendant. What, in your judgment, needs to change in architecture pedagogy to shift instruction into the 21st century? Please be specific.

Phil Bernstein: My friend Daniel Friedman has put it best when he said that the "tension" between issues of integration and design is a false binary. The move to integration, with BIM as catalyst, is the broader question that we have to face as teachers and ask ourselves what is really necessary to train a relevant architect for the near future? There is strong resistance to both trends–BIM and integration–because the former is considered "just another tool" and the latter an attack on the design sovereignty of the architect. (Not to mention that the leadership of many schools is technologically disinterested baby boomer-generation architects who find most digital technology unimportant.) So we need two fundamental pedagogical shifts: the means of representation from graphic to model-based (and I mean even from 3D digital tools that are essentially graphic shape/form makers) and the definition of the design process to integrative and much closer to the means of production (engineering, construction). That means a re-examination of the fundamental principles of design education and acknowledgement that designs’ relevance in the future is partially contingent on understanding and embracing these issues. We have to find a way to educate architects that empowers them as individuals with sound design sensibilities. Those sensibilities must be deployed in the service of a much more collaborative, inter-dependent process that respects and relies on the participation of engineers and builders. Such a process needs leaders who can guide design with more influence than the tip of an HB pencil. BIM is just one digital tool in the arsenal that makes that possible. The eighteenth century construct of the design studio may still be useful, but needs re-examination accordingly. The future is most likely going to be found in multi-disciplinary curricula.

SSS: Since the Yale Symposium in 2008, “Building (in) the Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture,” and the book that resulted from it in 2010, have you seen some encouraging changes favoring a more tech-savvy instruction? If yes, what are they, please describe. If no, what's holding things up at Yale? Where do you see signs of integration?

PB: At Yale we make no apologies for being a training-ground for tomorrow's design leaders; we see that as our mission. Dean Stern also emphasizes the need to produce practicing architects who are prepared for the realities of the marketplace, a context he sees clearly as the leader of a major architecture firm [Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York]. We have an enduring tradition of digital design training and digital fabrication, yet BIM has only recently begun to be more carefully and deliberately integrated into our curriculum at several touch-points in a multi-year, phased "campaign." Our students are introduced to the basic concepts in first year during our Building Project. This is part of the visualization training sequence. They become deeply immersed in the second semester of the second year in our Systems Integration studio taught by Martin Finio, where BIM-based deliverables are required. Dean Stern recognizes the market demand for BIM but acknowledges that we can't just "shoe-horn" it in into various spots in the curriculum. Autodesk's Education team has been collaborating with the Yale faculty to figure out the best sequence and content needed to prepare our students to use BIM in the service of the curriculum. This is an on-going and iterative process. We are now starting the third year of the experiment.  There's growing, if begrudging enthusiasm–remember, we have to show the faculty what it means to teach in a BIM context as well as prepare the students to work with the tools. The trick seems to be to build BIM capabilities slowly, and in parallel with other pedagogical outcomes; including how to represent a building, or how to keep the water out of a wall section. There are tradeoffs. If you try to both train on software and accomplish an otherwise full syllabus of material, something will have to give.

SSS: As the architecture profession itself struggles with BIM–they seem to get the software's management and metric capabilities, but seem flummoxed when they try connecting it to design innovation and creative problem solving–what needs to happen in academia to lead the discussion on tech integration into the ways of making architecture, not just buildings? You can be as polemical as you like here. Argue it out.

PB: This goes directly to the heart of the question. Last year when we were introducing Revit to our second-years before Systems Integration (our course about defining and integrating systems design to execute a project) one student asked, "Where's the serendipity in Revit?" The implication was that a BIM tool–which by definition operates in highly specific representational mode that creates buildings, not amorphous shapes–somehow limits the freedom of the designer. And if one were to define the design process exclusively as form making I concede the point. The design process is, by definition, at least partially contingent on the available tools, as the ‘blob-o-rama’ of recent years can attest. But as I like to argue, we need to look at a remediated definition of design, much as Tombesi suggests in Building in the Future, and deploy tools in the service of that idea. Software is a proxy for process, and it is fascinating to me that BIM is one circumstance where a major, transformative trend in architecture is being defined and vetted almost exclusively outside the realm of the academy. As teachers, do we want the marketplace–a dangerous zone of risk, low margins and high unemployment for architects–to redefine the role of architects? These changes are happening out there whether the academy engages the question or not. Building in The Future was one attempt by the academy to put some theoretical frame around the issues, but there's much more work to be done.  I'd like to see a series of experimental, explorative courses/studios/curricula that assert a future state of the profession, and test ways to prepare folks for that future. But we have to redefine the profession first. Of course, this is a non-trivial objective.  Our curriculum is already filled with material that wasn't even there when I was at Yale in the early eighties:  theory, computers, sustainability, digital fabrication, and even professional practice (!) just to name a few.  Accreditation requirements put further pressure on the capacity of the curriculum to absorb new or experimental ideas.  It is possible that our current construct–the so-called three-year professional degree–can't hold up under the pressure and a new model is needed.

SSS: How are you using what you have learned from your own experience with BIM, when Autodesk's Waltham, Mass. offices were designed a few years back? That was a real project with real lessons in collaboration and a rethinking of who does what, when and how it all gets integrated into one, efficient and beautiful solution, with the aid of technology. Are you using the Waltham project as a case study to discuss BIM's positive outcomes? If yes, how? If not, why not?

PB: Yes, this has been an incredible ‘experiment’ and case study. As you might imagine, the Autodesk Waltham project has influenced my experience and thinking greatly. In my corner of the curriculum (practice) I teach using a dialectical construct: I have to explain the basic principles and procedures of "normative" practice but I do so with a parallel critique of practice and it's challenges, and how those challenges might improve under the influence of integration and BIM. I try to draw out some opportunities for creative change that might blossom years down the road when my students are in practice. They learn the basics of design/bid/build, CM at Risk, and IPD [integrated project delivery] for example and how to analyze and negotiate a fee. I also teach the Harvard Business School case about the Waltham project so they understand the technical and sociological aspects of BIM and alternative project delivery and see first-hand how things could be radically different. I have to do so, of course, acknowledging my conflict of interest but I can always rely on my students for a healthy dose of skepticism on that front. For several years I was the only source of information about BIM at Yale, but they are hearing and seeing enough of it out in the world that I'm no longer (implicitly) accused of pitching the idea alone. My second-term seminar (which you have visited in the past) has several visitors like John Tocci, Peter Gluck, Scott Frank and others who bring a BIM perspective that just comes with their work. There is an emerging understanding of BIM in the studio and a decent appreciation of the issue in other classrooms. And it doesn't hurt that, in the current market, BIM skills make a recent graduate much more employable!

SSS: It seems to me that the piece-meal, fragmented, mechanical production approach of the 20th century needs to give way to a whole new way of thinking about systems, flows, webs–a kind of interconnectedness that ecologically-sensitive solutions demand. Where is the chink in the armor of the old system, through which the bright light of new ideas can enter?

PB: The vulnerabilities of the system are well understood: unreliable, unsustainable outcomes produced by a system fraught with high risk and low reward. Technology is one vector for looking at an aggregated approach, and there are some rays of light out there challenging the darkness. Folks like Kiel Moe at Harvard and Billie Faircloth at Kieran Timberlake are each redefining the design process as the understanding and control of related systems of performance and materials. A real sustainable design stance means looking at the deep implications of a network of design decisions, and in a funny way BIM makes some of that possible through simulation before construction. Our students seem to be much more interested in these questions these days than slavish adherence to the latest ‘formish’ fad. I'm hoping that there might be some "magic alchemy" emerging soon–a heady mix of recent graduates with great digital skills and a desire to change things finding themselves not just in traditional practices but working for builders, owners, engineers, consultants, and fabricators who might meet a similar new generation of clients who want to build responsibly–that could change the system from the inside. Of course there are other sources of these ideas as well. Somewhere in Brazil right now I hope there is a young, brilliant architecture student wondering why office buildings in a modern city collapse, looking at the huge opportunities for construction over the next decade there, and realizing that she could help re-invent the very means of design and construction in a place where innovation is desperately needed to face the challenges of modernization.  

SSS: Finally, let’s discuss the jobs issue that's at the heart of today's national political debates. Architecture grads are having a heck of a time finding jobs. And even when the banks let loose and start granting construction loans, there will be a backlog of young professionals, now out of work, who with their experience will be the first to be hired. What can a savvy architecture grad, fully versed in BIM and a brilliant designer, bring to firms that are accessing the global talent market? 

PB: In my moments of optimism I wonder what's going to happen when the credit market loosens and that backlog of work is unleashed. The design professions and their construction counterparts, in their recession-decimated states, are not going to be prepared for the volume of work that will result, and there will be even more pressure on the industry as a result. Here's what I tell my students (who I think can be fully BIM-enabled as great designers): Match your digital skill and design enthusiasm up with an older, non-tech savvy architect and fly as pilot and co-pilot. You understand the technology but little about how the building you are trying to represent is actually built; this is a lethal combination in a BIM context. But your baby boomer generation colleagues have the opposite challenge: they know building but are clueless about the technology that is no longer optional.  Join forces! The power of that collaboration will bring the best of the profession to bear on the challenges at hand. When that Baby Boomer finally does retire you'll be ready to take his job, and then some. And global market or no, the U.S. is still absolutely the best place to be BIM-trained, at least for now.

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