BIMBeing: The Journey #19
#19 – Jack of all, master of the dark art…
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As an individual working in a BIM role you’re required to have an immensely broad range of knowledge, even when you’re still in some of the more junior positions. This is particularly relevant if you work for a multi-disciplinary practice or a main contractor; you’ve got to know more than a bit of everything.
Most individuals typically start their BIM career from a single discipline background, for example in an architectural practice or structural engineering consultancy. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s a good place to start, especially if you want to remain focused in that specific field; the problem is that eventually you need to gain knowledge beyond that to be truly successful in BIM – this is not easy. Here’s why.
As an architect you have an overall responsibility for the design of a building, which includes the spatial layout, building functionality and aesthetics (I’m simplifying here, I don’t want to rile up any Architects). Unfortunately, your building design doesn’t operate without two very important things: a structure to hold it all up and a network of mechanical and electrical services to bring it all to life.
As an engineer you have a critically important role to ensure the building is physically stable, that the structure is sufficient to support everything (again, I’m simplifying). Once more you cannot work alone and, although the structure often takes priority in a coordination environment, you still need two things to get this project to work: an architectural design that wraps around the structure to make it a building and a series of building services to weave through that maze of steel and concrete.
I’d argue that this role is one of the most complex – MEP is considered to be the ‘dark art’ of construction after all. Not only do you have countless mechanical, electrical and public health services to design but you have to carefully thread them all through the architectural and structural elements, usually invisibly, to bring the otherwise cold, dead shell to life. At the same time you too can’t do any of this without the other disciplines, your services are nothing more than a knot of pipework and wiring otherwise.
The point is that only by having all three major disciplines in unison do we produce successful buildings. As a BIM coordinator (or above) you need to have a sound knowledge of all three to be truly great. You can’t possibly understand your clash detection results if you don’t know the functions of the intersecting elements, you can’t offer coordination solutions without knowing what needs to go where, you can’t create and document a BIM process without knowing how it will impact each discipline and you can’t populate or verify attribute data without knowing what anything is; you have to be a ‘Jack of all trades’. The difficulty is that you need to be a very good ‘Jack’; be a ‘Jack’ that’s trusted to do a wide range of tasks to a good standard, not a traditional ‘Jack’ that puts up wonky shelves and fixes leaks with chewing gum – that won’t get you anywhere.
If you started your career in MEP services then I honestly believe that you’re at an advantage here – you’ve already mastered the ‘dark art’. The reality is that Architectural and Structural components tend to have a recognisable form and function, even to an outsider or total novice the basic principles of the components are easily understood: columns, beams, walls, floors, doors and furniture all have obvious functions within a building. It’s easy to understand that you can’t just move a column because you feel like it or place large, immovable objects in front of door openings. You can quickly gain enough knowledge in these disciplines to stand a good chance of coordinating with them. MEP, on the other hand, is far more difficult to understand.
Even at a basic level Mechanical, Electrical and Public Health systems are incredibly complex, with thousands of individual components and stringent (often conflicting) requirements. A novice to the MEP world may not understand or even recognise that a particular pipe must be ‘laid to fall’ and can’t simply set up and over something else, that you can’t just drag that smoke detector to another part of the ceiling or that the inlet breeching valve (what?) poking through a wall in the model is not a clash, it’s there for a very good reason. To become a ‘Jack of all trades’ without any prior MEP knowledge leaves you with a lot to learn.
At this point the heads of many MEP experts are bursting with over-confidence! Just because I think MEP knowledge is advantageous, does not automatically make you the best. Hard work and experience trump everything, so don’t get too cocky. You too must learn from the other disciplines.
What do we do then? Not all BIM wizards can or will start life in the MEP, we still need Architectural and Structural teams in equal measure. What you need is a crash course; you have to learn what these things are, gaining at least enough knowledge to get you from total novice to competent coordinator and above. I believe that this is one of the hidden keys to BIM success.
Although I’ve focussed heavily on MEP, and I do believe that’s important, the recommendations below are relevant to anything; always look to expand your knowledge in areas or disciplines outside of your own.
Learn from the project
Learning ‘on the job’ is a brilliant way to improve your knowledge. Go and get involved with the other consultants/sub-contractors, ask to attend coordination meetings and see first-hand the difficulties of bringing together an entire building – understand and learn from these real project challenges. Also, on a live construction project, get down onto site. Watch the construction process, understand how a building is really put together – physically, not digitally. Don’t pass up on any opportunity to engage with your surroundings.
Learn from colleagues
If you work for a multi-discipline practice or a main contractor then you need to find a friend in one of the other departments; sit with them from time to time, ask them to explain their role and understand what they’re working on. What are the challenges they see? How can improvements to your job role also improve theirs? And vice versa. The vast majority of people are generally willing to help you learn, especially if you’re the one showing interest and initiative.
You can’t and won’t learn everything by being a ‘fly on the wall’ in other peoples meetings or by watching other people work, you need to do your own research too. We’re very fortunate in this digital age that information on almost anything is available at the click of a button, so use it. You’ll find endless hours of videos and tutorials on sites like YouTube or Lynda. Searching a specific question or problem will also lead you to relevant forums, blogs and websites all of which may contain some useful information. Don’t know what that object in a model does? Search for it, you’ll know for next time.
A word of caution here; how trustworthy is your source of information? Are you gaining real knowledge from reputable sources, or are you being misinformed by unsubstantiated forum comments? Always tread carefully, and never assume anything (see Posts #1 and #13).
Some casual reading
Once you’ve started to build a basic level of knowledge you’ll probably (or hopefully) be keen to learn more. Beyond the more casual learning environments noted above come the Chartered Institutes, governing bodies and standards. When you want that next level of detail this should be your port of call; referencing standards (i.e. BSI and ISO) and recognised industry publications and guidance (RIBA, CIBSE, BSRIA etc.) will provide you with a greater depth of understanding. This will take your knowledge and ability to the next level.
The final level
If you want to go beyond that (although many will not want, need or have the opportunity to), then you’re heading back to education, my friend. If you’ve exhausted the options of your current project, your colleagues, industry publications and somehow completed the internet then you’ve little other choice than to seek further education. Whether this be a short course on a particular subject or a whole new certification or qualification, options always exist to continue learning. Although certificates and qualifications are not the ‘be all and end all’ (they certainly don’t replace good experience), holding certification can be a very useful thing, especially for your CV. If these educational opportunities present themselves, 9 times out of 10 you’ll want to take them.
The summary is this: whatever you’re currently doing, and whatever you think you currently know, there is always scope to learn more. You can never have too much knowledge, especially where your BIM role interfaces with many disciplines, so go out and educate yourself. I’d recommend that you start in the MEP department…
Remember that part of the target for this year is greater reader engagement (see post #18); drop your comments below!