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Power Tools

By Alan G. Brake

As the community of interior design embraces technology, not just dips its collective toe into the techno-water, it’s transforming firm practices. It revolutionizes the way designers work, the speed with which they design, their ability to design sustainably, and their modes of presentation and interaction with clients. But it’s mostly larger practices or those working on large-scale projects that are capitalizing on technology’s integration efficiencies. And while software is changing the deliverables designers bestow to clients, the resulting forms and the processes of fabricating interior elements are only just beginning to be tapped.

In the last five years, designers at mid- to large-size firms have been harnessing the potential of Building Information Modeling (BIM), a holistic process that merges design with all of a project’s specifications. BIM has rapidly gone from the hands of the technological elite to the mainstream of firms. According to Joy Reidelbach, IIDA, an NBBJ senior associate, her firm previously used four separate programs to do the work it now does entirely through Revit, Autodesk’s BIM software. The software allows for integrated design and visualization processes and enables faster construction and life-cycle analysis, particularly useful on larger projects. It also permits collaboration between teams within firms and beyond as well as between engineers and contractors across a highly detailed and information rich platform.

The ease and low cost of visual communication technologies is more of an equalizer, however. Now—with commonplace technologies like video-conferencing and Skype, where clients and designers can collaborate without burdensome travel and mailing costs—the global market is even more accessible to firms of all sizes. And here’s where smaller practices, such as the 15-person RSA Architecture and Interior Design, with offices in Beijing and Los Angeles, can leverage the investment of BIM. “Using BIM and video fly-throughs, we can walk clients through a project in three dimensions,” says RSA principal Mitchell Sawasy, FIIDA, FAIA. “It allows us to give presentations and share documents without being there.”

Janice Stevenor Dale, FIIDA, president of JSDA, a 10-person “virtual office” with employees in three cities, has been harnessing various digital technologies for a decade. The firm has been working exclusively in ArchiCAD, which is more commonly used in Europe, while AutoCAD has been the standard in the U.S. ArchiCAD developed more advanced 3-D modeling techniques earlier than AutoCAD, which Dale says has been essential in designing the kind of “sculptural” interiors her firm has created for clients like Boeing. As BIM developed, JSDA quickly integrated its capabilities into their already digitally focused practice. “Anyone doing large projects with big budgets should be interested in BIM,” she adds.

Sustainability is another area where BIM leads to more precise and faster design decisions. “What BIM and Revit enable us to do is model projects quickly and run them through various analysis tools. A certain façade choice, for instance, could impact the mechanical loads on the interior,” said Paul Audsley, director of information technology practice at NBBJ. The firm uses Ecotect, a sustainable design analysis and modeling software, in combination with BIM for solar and shading analysis. “When you’re looking at the interior design of a patient room, for example, the level of daylighting is very important. It will effect the placement of the bed and the amount of support lighting that will be needed.”

Another area where practice makes things faster is building a BIM library. Sawasy says that the initial process of using BIM was slow, but, each time you work on a project, things progress more quickly because of familiarity with the platform’s power tools and the additive nature of the program’s library.

The practices that have made significant headway with BIM began with investing in time and internal education. “RTKL is very committed to adopting new technology,” states Jennifer Barnes, IIDA, a vice president at RTKL, the global design firm. The Baltimore-based firm has been using BIM for nearly five years, starting first with a few large-scale pilot projects. Those projects served as training for a core group of early adopters, who were then deployed as core team members on later projects. “Those people were really like seeds,” Barnes continues. “Now nearly the entire firm is Revit-savvy.”

The firm’s familiarity with Revit means project size is less of a barrier, but it still matters. “I was initially skeptical that it would be useful on smaller tenant-improvement projects,” she says. But the platform has become so favored by RTKL that it’s now used on projects as small as 30,000 square feet. “You really don’t reap the benefits on projects any smaller than that,” she adds.

Yet even for larger projects that are destined for BIM, the process often requires cobbling together different software. Like RSA, the designers at RTKL use Revit in combination with other programs. They might begin a project in SketchUp and continue working on it to make quick changes early on in the process, then import the SketchUp files back into Revit. This process—which requires a lot of technological savvy on the part of designers—shows the restrictions of BIM’s fully integrated approach. “Sometimes you need to be able to make big changes quickly, and BIM can just be too cumbersome initially,” Sawasy says.

One area where many designers see limitations with the software is with modeling furniture and finishes. Though many manufacturers offer plug-in ready data for furniture and finishes, it tends to be so information-rich that it bogs down the model. So most designers avoid modeling furniture in Revit—other than in small vignettes—or use their own, much simpler furniture, essentially place holders, instead of the exact products. Manufacturers, it seems, could benefit from creating much simpler versions of furniture models to make sure their products become fully integrated, as with mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) engineering.

In the architecture community, with its greater use of fabrication software, the discussion has moved from when to take the technological leap to a debate around when software is no longer an enabling tool and becomes the driver of design. For the most part, the kind of parametric modeling, advanced fabrication, computer numerical controlled (CNC) milling, and 3-D printing that are becoming more commonplace in certain architectural circles have yet to filter down to the commercial interior design sector. There are exceptions, of course, such as Shimoda Design Group’s sculptural fiberglass elements inside the Steelcase showroom at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. But right now it seems like many designers are still grappling with the power of the tools.

Another obstacle to successful employment of technology can come from those designers who are waiting for the technology to adapt to the practice instead of discovering how existing tools may be relevant to the profession. Jonsara Ruth, director of the MFA program in the interior design program at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, believes designers need to rethink the way other disciplines relate to the practice. Her program’s students, for example, learn about Ecotect, typically used by lighting designers and MEP engineers for its lighting- and temperature-analysis capability. “Understanding light and temperature is enormously important for how you experience a space,” she says. “We need to ask, How can we better use these technologies to shape interior design?”

It’s likely that a more sophisticated and pervasive use of technology by interior designers will be spurred on by young designers newly entering the practice. Students not only possess a greater technological fluency, but they also may have less tendency to mentally segregate digital and analog processes. For example, the ubiquity of technologies, including programs such as the modeling tool Rhino, which can be fed into a laser-cutter, is leading to a greater interest in craft and unique elements. “Our students are very fluid in the way they use technology, images, and small pieces of text, even more so than five years ago,” says Ruth. “At the same time, there’s a growing interest in the handmade, in human presence. So we’re constantly asking, How can we integrate the two?”

As a thesis project, one Parson’s student created custom wallpaper with a pattern in electrostatic paint. When charged, the paint would collect dust in a pattern across the surface. When turned off, the surface could be wiped down and returned to pristine condition. The project, Ruth says, captured the desire to allow for imperfections, for chance, coupled with a fascination with the new. “We need to get back to basics,” she notes, “but also think beyond the technology we are given.”

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