Towards an epistemology of BIM / Building Information Modeling

Februar 6, 2016

Thesis presentation for the 1st Phd-Colloquium of Prof. Jörg Gleiter’s and Prof. Marco Biraghi’s Berlin-Milano based architectural research group History and Political Critique of Architecture.

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The focus of the thesis lies on the epistemological description of BIM-based design processes. I am interested in how the proliferation of BIM-technologies changes architecture on the conceptual and formal level. In order to investigate the subject, I have broken down the thesis into 3 compartments: (1) the historical formation of BIM-technology, (2) BIM as a from of knowledge and it’s cultural embeddedness, and (3) BIM as simulational knowledge based on diagrammatic symbolic representation.

(1) Historical development of BIM technology and general scheme of BIM-software

Since it’s advent, BIM has seen a transformation from being used as an information management tool to becoming an active design medium. The main trigger for the development of BIM-software was the intention to minimize cost via the reduction of planning errors1. Since these early beginnings BIM has developed into a full-fledged  design medium which has it’s focus on the simulation of the performance of projected buildings by way of a virtual model based on computable data. By sketching the hereditary tree growth of BIM-software I intend to extract the main schemes of the architecture of BIM-software. The scope of this part of the thesis is to describe the epistemic modelling capacity of BIM-technology on the level of it’s software architecture. The deliverable is thus (a) to examine the historical formation of BIM from CAD, and (b) to give an epistemological model of BIM’s central concept which is the design of the software based on computable objects organized in libraries, called ‘model repositories’.

(2) BIM-based design processes as forms of knowledge embedded in epistemic cultures under the perspective of cultural epistemology

My epistemological starting point is Bernd Mahr’s definition of models: a model consists of the proposition that something is a model. So in order that a BIM-model can be an epistemologically productive model engaging in making-architecture, it has to be judged by us to be a model. This model-judgement depends on three necessary conditions, i.e. everything that is a modell must be (a) an object-for-itself [ger.: Gegenstand für sich], (b) a model-of-something, and (c) a model-for-something2. With this conceptualization as a base, I intend to look at BIM-models in the perspective of Cassirers philosophy of symbolic forms, i.e. at BIM-models as culturally embedded forms of knowledge. What kind of object is a BIM-model, what is it a model of, and what is it a model for? As the model-judgment is dependant on symbolic forms in the sense of historically specific cultures of knowledge, the deliverable here is to describe the epistemic cultures within which model-judgments about BIM-models are made and justified. The cultural epistemology-approach takes into account that these questions do have an irreducible political-economic aspect to them, which must be addressed to understand the rising adoption rates of BIM in architectural practice and the facilitation of BIM through the public sector3.

(3) BIM-models as complex symbol systems: simulation by way of diagrammtical representation

The second perspective or methodological framework I intend to apply in the thesis is the perspective of Peirce’s semiotic pragmatism, and in particular the specific epistemic capacity to create – the term taken in it’s widest intension – something new as bound to the iconicity of signs, i.e. in the resemblance-relation to that which they represent. My specific focus is on one of Peirce’s subcategory of icons, the diagram. With regard to what Frederik Stjernfelt has dubbed the ‘operational icon criterium’4, I intend to analyse BIM-models with regard to the operational resemblance they bear with what they are used to create in design processes. It it this operational resemblance that allows BIM-models to simulate properties and aspects of projective designs, and in a way so that through the use of this ‘simulational knowledge’ further insights about the projective design can be achieved. Simulations have been addressed as new genuine forms of knowledge in the natural sciences5, but mainly in their role as analytical models, as for example numerical models in weather forecast. In BIM-models the dominant direction of reference is inversed: they do not aim at representing objectively what is there, but at the realization of something that is not yet there. The deliverable for this part is thus to describe BIM-models as ‘symbolic machines’6 that allow for the experimental design of buildings by way of simulation based on diagrammtical representation.

  1. David Ross Scheer, The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation (New York: Routledge, 2014), 106. []
  2. Bernd Mahr, „Ein Modell des Modellseins. Ein Beitrag zur Aufklärung des Modellbegriffs“, in Modelle, hg. von Eberhard Knobloch und Ulrich Dirks (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 2008), 187–219. []
  3. Scheer, The Death of Drawing, See for the situation in the US; an see ZukunftBAU (BMVBS), BBSR, und BBR, „BIM-Leitfaden für Deutschland“ November 2013 for the situation in Germany. []
  4. Frederik Stjernfelt, „Diagrams as Centerpiece of a Peircean Epistemology“, in Semiotics, hg. von Frederik Stjernfelt und Peer F. Bundgaard, Bd. 1 (Philosophy) (London/New York: Routledge, 2011), 332. []
  5. See e.g. Gabriele Gramelsberger, Computerexperimente. Zum Wandel der Wissenschaften im Zeitalter des Computers (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010). []
  6. See Sybille Krämer, Symbolische Maschinen. Die Idee der Formalisierung in geschichtlichem Abriss (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988); Sybille Krämer, „Kalküle als Repräsentation. Zur Genese des operativen Symbolismus der Neuzeit“, in Räume des Wissens. Repräsentation, Codierung, Spur, hg. von Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Michael Hagner, und Bettina Wahrig-Schmidt (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1997), 111–22. []

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