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How BIG’s influence can reframe the role of BIM in Architecture

Architosh is pleased to present this special feature on Bjarke Ingels Group, famed Danish architecture firm. Several weeks ago we got a chance to talk to BIG’s Jakob Andreassen, BIM Manager at BIG Copenhagen, about the architectural practice, its design methodology and perspective on the use of computerized software—particularly BIM.

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Revit vs ArchiCAD: No ‘Battle Royal’ Here

While the IT press may favor the “battle royal” format for sensationalizing technology’s ongoing progress, when it comes to BIG the scrimmages between combatants are down-played. At BIG the firm has adopted two different BIM software platforms—ArchiCAD and Revit. Yet “adopted” might be too strong a word.

“We are currently not planning on choosing one over the other,” remarked Andreassen.

Andreassen, who is BIM Manager in the Copenhagen office, said he was initially pulled into BIG about one and a half years ago to implement Autodesk Revit. However, the Copenhagen office is currently working with Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD.

“The reason we decided to try out ArchiCAD in Copenhagen is we had a perfect opportunity to try out something new. We had just finished up a lot of work and had the time to try out alternative software.”

Andreassen added that it has been a process getting architects to accept Revit and BIM tools in general. “Since BIM platforms, and Revit in particular, can appear boxy and not very intuitive—it has been hard to get architects using them, as we are insistent on pursuing experimental and innovative architectural ideas.”

03 - BIG's Danish Pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China, exhibits Danish virtues through interaction, allowing visitors to experience the city bike (ultra common in Copenhagen), the harbor bath, and Hans Christiansens' Little Mermaid. (photo by FHKE, distributed under CC-By 2.0)

03 – BIG’s Danish Pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China, exhibits Danish virtues through interaction, allowing visitors to experience the city bike (ultra common in Copenhagen), the harbor bath, and Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” (image: photo by FHKE, Distributed under CC-By 2.0 License)

“That is the reason we wanted to try ArchiCAD,” he adds. “It doesn’t solve every challenge we as architects face with BIM software but it does seem to have a different appeal among architects. The response among the architects, at least in Copenhagen, is they are actually using it a little earlier in the process.”

BIG’s primary design tool is Rhino, in both Copenhagen and New York City. At the moment the firm is using two different BIM platforms. “Our approach is to always choose the best tool for the job,” he says. “And I can’t say that we wouldn’t choose Revit for a certain project in Copenhagen…and it might also be possible that at some point we run a pilot using ArchiCAD in New York.”

Looking ahead, what is important for BIM at BIG is what Jakob Andreassen refers to as their “BIM Environment,” a flexible arena for data and file formats where information—not proprietary file formats—reign supreme. Not getting “locked in” to one file format is an imperative issue for the firm.

BIG IDEAs—The Role of Technology and Information

One of the more interesting factors at play in BIG’s current and future work is the formation of BIG IDEAS, BIG’s technology-driven special projects division. Led by partner Jakob Lange, and including experts like Tore Banke PhD, BIG IDEAS is responsible for leading the technology management behind the smoke rings at the Amager Bakke energy plant, among other things.

Jakob Andreassen adds, “Tore Banke is an expert at scripting Rhino and Grasshopper and he can do all kinds of customized environmental simulations.” BIG is well aware that its new BIM tools can also add value—to energy calculations in particular—but right now he says “they are kinda going for the low-hanging fruit and getting the designers to bring BIM into the design process.”

“With ArchiCAD we have full-scale models,” he adds, “and we are starting to use the built-in environmental simulations.” For Jakob Andreassen this is one way BIG sees architects starting to gain back control. “We still use external consultants for final details and such, but we use BIG IDEAS for simulations and tests in Grasshopper to get us pretty close to the values that are required by law.

Despite BIG’s abilities and interests in Rhino, scripting, and Grasshopper, Andreassen admits the company doesn’t currently have interest in “in-house” custom software development. The firm does industrial design through BIG IDEAS but it uses its own design staff for that work. With 100 in Copenhagen and over 140 in the New York office, BIG is easily big enough to be a force and influence on software tools development at the software provider level.

Lessons for the Future of Practice

With two Progressive Architecture 2015 honors this year, a global practice which has grown tremendously during the worst years in economic memory, and the ability to fund its own advanced technology and information design division, there are many lessons in BIG from which other architecture firms can draw from.

Insofar as they impact the role of information technologies and their abilities to enable architects to add marked value to society, perhaps the most stunning lesson is the role sheer imagination and invention has played at BIG. As a result, what we hear clearly from BIG’s Andreassen is that software prowess is important but that no one tool—especially a BIM tool—is so important that it rises to the level of the overarching ideas impacting the practice.


Bjarke Ingels’ vision of the architect as midwife squarely puts the architect’s position and responsibility with society on helping mankind adapt in the larger Darwinian sense. This counters the notion of the architect as a stylistic God…and BIG’s work is therefore not always recognizable stylistically. This is also why information has become so important, and partly why, to Andreassen as BIM Manager, the use of BIM in the earlier stages becomes more imperative and critical.

As for the de-Protestant-ization of sustainable design (“it must hurt to do good”) that Ingels suggest architects must embrace, BIG sees each environmental situation as a major ingredient in the narrative way it drums up compelling design visions. Such is the focus of their Washington DC “Hot and Cold: An Odyssey of Architectural Adaption” exhibition. (Edit. note: It runs till 30 August 2015).

Developing BIG IDEAS—its own kind of research and development division—is another lesson to the wider field of architectural practice. The idea of embracing a “lab” or research culture mindset within the practice of architecture fundamentally acknowledges the opportunity architects have to gain back control of the “build process” of architecture. BIM symbolizes many things but one thing it doesn’t yet commonly symbolize is its ability to dissolve the artificial break between the architect and the builder. In our current era, and more so in our near future, architects have the capacity to design direct to manufacture. It is only natural to hear that BIG IDEAS is involved with industrial design—and using its own architectural staff. This is fundamentally no different than learning that Jony Ive, Apple’s famed industrial designer, is heavily involved in the design of Apple’s new corporate headquarters.

At the same time BIG gets it when it comes to the value of information—hence a built-in resistance to file type entrapment. The firm seems to use information to both fuel novelty and narration in its architectural concepts. Both the idea of BIM—as a powerful open and flexible environment—and the notion of empowering the architect to combine his or her design skills with technology and information, contribute to giving the architect back more control to ensure high-level creative work that generates value to society.


Footnote: Additional Comments

1—The term phrase “bridge firm” was first heard by the author by architect Pete Evans AIA, senior associate editor at Architosh, who was also on the interview call with Jakob Andreassen. To Evans, it equated simply to a firm that is using BIM but has many “traditional values” about practice. This is a very general and debatable concept, and in the article it was greatly expanded towards a type of specificity that centers a firm between a more Luddite (craft…old ways) culture and a more IT-oriented (automation…new ways) culture.

If we recall the history of the Luddites in the 19th century, the debate in our context boils down to architectural craft versus automation. In the larger architectural sense, BIM’s history put forth its value from a traditional CAD (computer-aided design) perspective, suggesting its efficiencies over 2D CAD. But it also suggested its design benefits in its explicit 3D nature. However, both CAD and BIM, as vehicles of efficiency, can be admonished (by some perspectives) for focusing on the wrong values within architecture.

Creativity, as exemplified by BIG, demonstrates that finding value for architectural clients—especially “discovered” value—or what Bjarke Ingels calls Architectural Alchemy, means that no matter how sophisticated software may become, it is simply no match for the creativity of the human brain and its ability to mix and blend the unexpected. As such, at BIG, as Andreassen said several times in the interview, “software is just a tool.” As such, the BIM Environment at BIG is about being “open” so that blending and mixing are possible. For an architectural alchemist needs his tools to function like a blender that can taken everything.

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