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New School: Emerging Professionals are Leading the Way with BIM

In many cases, as soon as architecture students graduate, they have something to teach about digital design tools

By Layla Bellows

A little more than two years ago, Jonathan Rodvien, AIA, a principal at Bowie Gridley Architects in Washington, D.C., oversaw the firm’s transition to the popular building information software Revit. While implementing the change, one young architect, Kevin Moran, Assoc. AIA, proved to be particularly adept with the product.

“Kevin emerged as a leading player,” Rodvien says, “and has become one of two BIM managers in the office.”

Moran, who had finished up his master’s in architecture just four years earlier, recognizes that his skills with BIM (building information modeling) have propelled him into leadership roles he might not have otherwise had access to. His experience is not unusual. More and more, young architects are finding that their skills with digital technology are making them more employable.

“I think it becomes something on your resume that you get hired for,” says Chuck Eastman, Assoc. AIA, an architecture professor and director of the Digital Fabrication Laboratory at Georgia Tech. “Companies are out there looking for people who have either the capability for using the BIM technology or management expertise in how to coordinate and utilize it in a project.”

Practical expertise
The success emerging professionals are experiencing isn’t so much their depth of skill in one particular program so much as their ability to adapt their tech know-how to BIM programs. Tu-Anh Bui, Assoc. AIA, for instance, helped her firm, Minnesota-based LHB Inc., implement BIM through Revit while learning the software on the job. “I had never had any formal training,” says Bui, who received a 2011 AIA Associates Award. “I just started using it on a project, and learned it with a support group. Emerging professionals [are] used to just jumping right in and experimenting with a lot of software.”

Eastman has noticed students often propel the use of digital technologies, and sometimes even pick up on how to use them faster than the faculty. “Each faculty member grows up, learns a series of practices or ways of doing things,” he says. “Students coming into the university 20 years their junior don’t have these pre-set ideas, and they will learn in the newest way possible. So, in some ways, the adoption of these new ideas is quicker at the student level than the faculty level.”

For Moran, digital skills have placed him in a position to see a broader side of his firm. “I’ve definitely been more heavily involved in the business end of things than I ever would have been at this age and stage of my life if I hadn’t been involved with BIM,” he says. “[My co-manager and I] make primary decisions on what software to buy, when to upgrade, who’s capable of doing certain things—that kind of stuff.”

In the world of BIM, it’s not unusual to see new job titles and roles centered on the successful implementation and ongoing use of the software creating a niche for younger architects to fill as they graduate during one of the toughest economic climates they might ever face. And when young architects approach it correctly, deftness with the software doesn’t mean getting pigeonholed into the realm of tech operator. “I think it gives them an excellent entry-level opportunity to move up in the firm,” Eastman says, “but because they have these specialized skills, I don’t think any of them want to be typecast and limited to being an implementer [for] somebody else’s design.”

Cross-generational collaboration
Galen Hoeflinger currently trains architects to use Revit software for Alexandria, Va.–based CADD Microsystems. He first learned about Revit 10 years ago, when he was an emerging professional and his supervisor at DMJM, Rob Smedley, AIA, gave him a challenge: Build a physical model of a project, or a digital one in Revit. “I’m only about two years out of school, so I thought, ‘Wow, that would be an interesting idea to try that,’” Hoeflinger says.

What Hoeflinger learned is that because the program thrusts practitioners into the 3D realm from the get-go, architects need to have some understanding of constructability early on in the process. This can create something of paradox in architectural firm office culture: The people who are fastest on BIM software are often the youngest members of the staff, but have the least experience actually building buildings.

“[Emerging professionals] might know the software, but they’ve not taken a building through its pieces of design documentation to the level that we have in the practicing world,” Smedley says. “It forces young architects to get up to speed very quickly.”

The key to overcoming these impasses is some simple cross-generational collaboration—and maybe an opportunity for each party to learn something new. “I’ve sat down with people and had a bunch of 3D sections that aren’t fleshed out, but clearly identified problems,” Hoeflinger says. “I’ve been able to put three or four pages down and say, ‘I know I have a problem here. I don’t know how to solve it; let’s work together.’”

“I think the greatest thing BIM has produced,” Bui says, “is this multigenerational exchange.”

Seeing the future
All of this front-end learning for younger architects is a shift from the way the profession has traditionally viewed the training process, and, in many ways, successfully embracing BIM requires a similar shift in the way architects view a project.

“It has the potential to change in sometimes profound and sometimes subtle ways everything about the way we work,” Rodvien says. “Only now that we have become comfortable with the tool itself are we able to step back—the managers and principals—and understand the cultural changes: the processes of making architecture with this tool.”

Smedley believes that for industry veterans, one of the harder aspects of BIM to embrace is the way it requires projects to be thought out. “It’s really about shifting the culture of how you man a job,” he says. “You’re shifting your technical capability to the front of the job.” When younger practitioners take the reins of these projects, they might meet some resistance, he says. But they might also find an opportunity to help senior partners understand that using BIM technology requires some significant design process adaptation.

For architects really ready to embrace a change in project culture, BIM is also becoming appreciated for its ability to enable integrated project delivery.

Jennifer Knudsen, AIA,of CO Architects in Los Angeles, a 2011 AIA Young Architects Award recipient, has seen this happen firsthand as the architectural team leader for several healthcare projects. In these cases, BIM enabled the full use of integrated project delivery (IPD), ultimately leading to a more efficient process, improved design, and better outcomes for both the firm and the client. For her, BIM supplies the platform for architects, contractors, and clients to engage in IPD. “You really get the actual trade contractors involved, and getting their input and real cost information and real constructability information earlier is resulting in a much more streamlined process,” she says, “and much better results.”

Bui notes that, beyond BIM, younger architects are more open to the idea of IPD as well. In many ways, that shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the first generation to grow up with social media, the idea of diffusely sharing knowledge across subject matter and individuals. As such, their approach will tend more toward collaboration and information sharing.

Eastman, who has been advocating for the use of digital technology in practice since the 1970s, has watched the industry transition from one that shied away from digital tools to one that is entwined with it, and that each successive class of graduating students reinforces that trend. “I think they see the future,” he says. “They’re definitely pushing it in this direction.”


The Phoenix Biomedical Campus Health Sciences Education Building, designed by CO Architects. Jennifer Knudsen and the CO Architects team used BIM on this project to exploit the increased efficiency and collaboration inherent in IPD.


Recent Related:

AIA Michigan Mentoring Network Helps Students Make Connections to the Practice of Architecture

Recession Takes Its Toll on Emerging Professionals, But Most are Bouncing Back

AIArchitect Special Report on Emerging Professionals—July 2010


Visit the AIA’s Center for Integrated Practice website.

Visit the Technology in Architectural Practice Knowledge Community website on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the AIA’s Young Architects Forum website.

Read the AIA Best Practices article “Understanding Work Preferences of Emerging Professionals.”


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