Ruled By PaperOrigins of the Construction Map

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BIM has forever changed the way we imagine, design, and construct buildings today. But this is not an article about the benefits of BIM–if you still need to be sold on that idea, please move on to the next article. This is for those that believe we still have a long way to go to improve the process of communicating design in the AEC industry.

One early example of design communication from the ancient world can still be seen today in what is now Turkey, sketched into the walls of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma by a mason in the 6th Century BC. Communicating in stone or animal skin was the norm for thousands of years until paper made its way to Europe during the Early Renaissance. Easy to produce and highly portable, paper would reign supreme for 600 years until a software engineer at Adobe changed all of that with the Portable Document Format, better known as the PDF.

While the form of design deliverables has changed over the years, so too has our methods for creating them. I’m part of a lucky generation that got to experience how rapid that change could be. In high school I learned to draft (and letter) by hand. During my undergrad we were taught CAD and by the time I made it to grad school, terms like parametric modeling and BIM were just starting to get thrown around. Unsurprisingly, I landed my first engineering job where I was expected to do all three.

Maybe it was all those Legos as a kid, but the idea of designing and documenting a design in 3D really made sense to me. I committed my career to advancing the use of Building Information Modeling in design as well as construction. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that while BIM was an invaluable tool for the architect and the contractor, many of those involved still relied on information printed onto little 30"x42" pieces of paper.

At a conference the other day, I heard an owner say "what good does it do me for you to design my building in BIM, if at the end of the day you are going to run it through a `deli-slicer’ and turn it into a bunch of PDF’s?" But what other alternative do we have? Aren’t we constrained to documenting things using what fits on an E1-size sheet? No. We aren’t. We live in a world of 3D printers and self-driving cars why on earth are we still living by paper rules?

Recently, these questions intrigued me and a few colleagues. We had all just worked on projects that were sliced up by matchlines just to get them on paper. In some cases, hundreds of plans were created just to represent information to build one level. Hyperlinked PDF’s helped manage the volume of documents, but a comprehensive view with enough detail still had to be hacked together. Finally we settled on the idea of using a map.

After all, aren’t the drawings we use just maps to our buildings? We set out to see if modern mapping techniques like those from Google could help us better communicate design. It would work just like a map: zoom in to see more detail; zoom out to gain a better perspective; toggle on different layers of information; or click on an item to query its properties. You find information easily, naturally, and all without ever turning a page or having to go back. It would be an atlas for your project.

Our first concept was nothing more than a graphical mockup meant to stirup the industry and spark discussion. Instead people were lining up to buy it. Obviously others in our industry had felt the same pain we had and wanted a better way to display project information. There remained many questions though. Where does this information come from and how should it be displayed? Will we truly benefit from this new way of looking at drawings and will it get us closer to a model-based approach? Would it work on small projects as well as large?

Rather than waiting, we decided to build it and see. We picked a relatively small, 3-story senior living project that we were building instead of a giant hospital or airport. We poured through the architectural drawings and found 21 different sheets representing information on the first floor alone. We combined overall plans, area plans, enlarged plans, finish plans, and unit plans all into a single layer, automatically turning on different information at each zoom level.

Not only were we able to easily access information for each level, we could quickly compare multiple disciplines by overlaying each one in a different color. This is a technique every designer is familiar with while using their design tools, but we had never had that option with paper plans or mobile PDF viewers. Something else was radically different: we could see section cuts and details in their context without having to leave the plan.

By the time we found our first discrepancy between drawings, we knew we had something. The experiment had worked. We could visualize design communication in a whole new way; we just had to escape the boundaries of the page. We have to look outside of our industry for inspiration–sometimes into our daily lives. We also have to fashion new tools when the current ones aren’t working any more. Paper still has its place and turning it into digital paper only makes it better, but if we are truly going to redefine the way we communicate, then we have to play by new rules.

Joe Williams is the Director of Technology at Rogers-O’Brien Construction and a cofounder of Project Atlas. He is an engineer and technologist living in Dallas, TX and can be reached via twitter @vdcjoe.

A 1.608Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE