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BIM and the Elephant Problem May 28, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.

“With notoriously bad eyesight, forest elephants tend to follow their trunks, using the appendage as a blind person might use fingertips on a stranger’s face-to identify, visualize, gather clues, communicate.”    John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) on the famous Indian legend

“Over the last couple of years, the term ‘Building Information Model’ or ‘BIM’ has gained widespread popularity. It has not, however, gained a widespread consistent definition—it’s like the blind men describing the elephant. But there’s a lot of fuss being generated over this particular elephant.”    Jim Bedrick AIA, Director of Systems Integration, Webcor Builders


No matter your stripe, architect, we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about BIM of late. This blog is no exception. (Those of you who are reading this and are heavily engaged in it can skip the rest of this sentence. All others read on.)

BIM is many things to many people. Short for Building Information Model (the thing) or Modeling (the activity,) depending on whom you ask or where you look, BIM is the process of generating and managing building data during its life cycle. Or, if you prefer, BIM is the 3D, real-time, dynamic building modeling software used to increase productivity in building design and construction. Oh, did I mention BIM is a common name for a digital representation of the building process to facilitate exchange and interoperability of information in digital format. Got that? And that’s just three of several dozen descriptions and definitions .

One complaint I’ve been starting to hear is that BIM is something else to everyone who uses the term. Forget interoperability, the logic goes, we can’t even agree on what it is or what it means. As one plucky architect put it the other day, BIM is like Obama: it’s whatever you want it to be.

Two analogies might help clarify. One, the story of six blind men that try to describe an elephant. The second comes from Italo Calvino’s ethereal fiction, Invisible Cities – a favorite among architects everywhere.

From a familiar (and rhyming) version of the legend of the blind men trying to describe an elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”…

The others go on to describe the elephant as a spear, snake, tree depending on which part of the 3D model, or elephant, they happened to grab hold of. The message for those of us wrestling with BIM is clear: like the blind men, it is all in how you approach it. (And, like BIM, there are Jainist, Discordian, Buddhist, African, Sufi and Hindu versions of this tale.)

Charles Darwin used elephants to illustrate the point that organisms produce more offspring than can survive in the world. He called this The Elephant Problem. Analogically, BIM has produced more definitions than can possibly survive. Something must be done about it. But what?

In Italo Calvino’s resplendent fiction, Invisible Cities, as Marco Polo describes the cities visited on his expeditions to Kublai Kahn – about the city of Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” or the spider-web city of Octavia and many other marvelous cities – he is actually describing details (and different takes) of his native Venice. Kahn believes he is learning about many cities when in actuality there is only one.

One city. Many descriptions.

And so there you have it: Many definitions, but only one BIM: a mercurial and multivalent wonder!



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