Sunday, August 18, 2019


I’m about to go on vacation. Weekends will be spent with my grandsons, but on weekdays I will be wearing my “The Way We Build” hat. From 26-30 August I will be in London, looking at buildings and meeting people. The following week I will be based in South Yorkshire and from 9-13 Sept, somewhere between Hastings and Basingstoke. I am particularly interested in meeting people involved in Heritage Work and stone masonry.

I want to connect with people who can contribute practical insights into our work, which applies Building Information Modelling to the study of historic architecture. We are an international team of enthusiasts, using digital tools to ask probing questions about structures like Notre Dame de Paris.

How were the zigzag vaults around the ambulatory built? Why do the spiral stairs at the four corners of the Transepts terminate are different levels?   We intend to embed information in the model and to make it accessible online. Input from people with deep knowledge of traditional building crafts will be crucial. 

BIM is all about collaboration: bringing together multi-disciplinary teams and integrating their contributions. We are applying this approach to study how societies have chosen to build, in different times and places. 

Prior to starting Project Notre Dame, we spent 4 years piecing together a Revit model of the Bank of England, as it was when John Soane retired almost 200 years ago. 

I’ve always been a visual thinker. From as young as I can remember, drawing was my favourite way of analysing the world. I still use hand sketching as a way to gain fresh insights.  The fluid and intuitive nature of this hand-eye-brain process makes it a wonderful complement to the more constrained and systematic work of building a BIM model.


I love using the power of my “BIM pencil” to think about buildings. It forces you to think about function, structure and sequence in a way that simple mesh modelling (digital cardboard) fails to do. This is what we are doing on Project Notre Dame: taking lessons learned on Project Soane & using BIM to explore the “Way We Build”.


The term BIM is a catch-all label for digital tools and processes that facilitate collaborative thinking about buildings.  BIM uses data-rich models, to integrate contributions from multiple participants in a central location, where conflicts and queries can be discussed and resolved. We can create arresting visuals & VR experiences from the same data set we use to generate measured drawings, spreadsheets and analytics.

BIM is normally confined to commercial building contracts, but we believe that it has enormous potential for collaborative studies.  Almost everyone is fascinated by the way different human civilisations around the world have built towns and cities over the centuries. Increasingly people are applying BIM tools and processes to heritage work, archeology, art history, interpretative studies aimed at the general public.

BIM models have the potential to integrate contributions from a wide range of participants interested in understanding how buildings work, why they were built that way, what meaning they can convey to us today. This is the approach we aim to pioneer, drawing on the knowledge and experience of people across the world with a diverse range of skills and interests.

Our team of enthusiasts is spread across 4 continents, connected by cloud technologies. We learn by doing, by debating, by studying history. Mostly we are BIM addicts, but why not expand the circle?

If you have a different perspective to offer please contact me here on my blog, or through LinkedIn. Maybe we can meet in the UK and talk about buildings. What could be better? 

Kudos to Paul, Alfredo, Daniel, Marcel, Francois, Russell, Eugene and everyone else who has contributed work, images, ideas that are reflected in this post.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


The triforium galleries on the chancel side (east of the crossing)  Circular windows above ogival recesses on the outside.  These were already in place along the sides (N&S) but not where the galleries turn the corner up against the transepts.  This reveals the need to omit the lower arches on the last flying buttresses, which lie in the plane of the outer wall.  Maybe a visibility switch would do the trick.

So while I’m here, might as well add the door that leads to a spiral stair (presumably)  And while I’m at it there are a couple of doors on the outside that connect via short balustraded galleries to the “bridge” that crosses the Rose Window.  This arrangement seems to be specific to the North transept.  The connections on the South side surely exist, but are not expressed on the outside of the building.  Why the difference?  Good question.

That spiral stair also connects to the roof over the Triforium Galleries.  Not stair object at present, just an open shaft.  The bridge across the rose has two levels, both accessed via short external balconies.  Piecing the story together bit by bit.  

Switching to the outside.  A while back I replaced the extrusion representing the Sacristy in the site context file and modelled a simplified version with actual walls and roofs in the main file, adjusting the windows etc where it connects to the cathedral.  I decided to do a similar job on the other building along the south side.  Was this a Bishop’s House?  I thought I read that somewhere.  The only reference I can see on the plans we have calls it a “Batiment du Personnel”  Also did a few small improvements to the Site Context file while I was at it. 

Then we got into a discussion on Slack about the trees (planting families)  I have been using a customized version of the standard RPC objects.  They render up nicely in Enscape, but if you want to do a shaded view from high level looking down on the building they look a bit naff.  

Realistic looks even worse from high up because they are just jpegs pasted on a vertical plane.  One answer is to use Enscape Assets.  These are Revit families and render nicely in Enscape.  In shaded views they have a low poly mesh.  Kind of a shapeless blob.  

A third option is to use a cad mesh tree with a finer level of detail, embedded in a Revit family in place of the Enscape geometry.  Two custom parameters refer Enscape to the appropriate Asset definition.  I have developed a system for embedding plan symbols that you can swap out and also scale relative to the height of the geometry so that it is roughly the same size in plan as the tree geometry itself.  So that’s what we are using at the moment.

Back to the triforium gallery, and looking at the curved portion around the apse, or ambulatory.  I’m not going to tackle the vaults.  (Alfredo territory) but I am going to have a look at the ribs that support the vaults and the way they site on clusters of columnettes that sit against the walls.  

If I can establish this relationship, at least in principle, it may help Alfredo when he gets a chance to take the “zig-zag” vaults to the next level of development.  The vaults he developed for the ground floor ambulatory are might impressive, but the way they connect to the arches and columns that support them is not yet fully resolved.  

Slack is an integral part of our workflow: constant chatter across the continents.  At first there were a couple of grumbles from those more familiar with WhatsApp.  I use WhatsApp all the time for friends and family, but for work groups collaborating on projects, Slack is a better tool.  Anyway, there was a call to change the Icon from the default “PN”  

I wanted to use Quasimodo, but Icons need to be bold and simple, so in the end I chose the West Rose.

Sunday, August 4, 2019


You can go on about data as much as you like, we are a visual and social species. We care what things look like and we like to look good for other people. Solving problems is never a purely rational exercise, so even though this is another “BIM geek” post about the nuts & bolts of Project Notre Dame, I’m starting with an image about creating sexy visuals by combining exported views in photoshop.

Pausing to create images with visual appeal is a regular part of my work process. Stand back and reflect, “turn the picture upside down”, think about the “why” questions. Ironically the tree is masking one of the most interesting “aha moments” arising from recent work. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have been taking Railing types created by Francois in the Mega Cloud and integrating them into the main model. More than 60 people have volunteered to contribute to Project Notre Dame, of these, about a third have accepted the invitation to the Mega Cloud that we are using to package up tasks and make reference material available. I have added a placeholder post the 3 Railing types Francois has created so far. Someone else can develop this further.

While placing these parapet railings (stone balustrades really) around the North side of the chancel, I noticed some seemingly random changes in level (A & B) Oddly enough the sill levels of the windows also change, but at the next bay along. Difficult to discern reasons here but maybe something will eventually emerge to cast further light.

I notice these things because I’m constantly scanning through reference photos, and something else caught my eye. There are further clues to the access routes I speculated about some weeks ago.

There is a red door on this facade. I’m guessing that there used to be a cloister on this side. The street is called Rue de la Cloitre, so it’s not much of a guess. The monks must have slipped through this door to attend evensong.

I duplicated the window family to create a placeholder version of the red door which one of our volunteers can take further. Raise your metaphorical hands in the Excel file provided.

So now we come to the big “AHA!“ moment. Long ago I noticed that the Triforium galleries turned the corner where they meet the Transepts. A little later I noticed that the roof pops up to a higher level where this occurs on the south side. I speculated that this was an innovation introduced by Violet le Duc. Not so. It seems that the lower roof between the two higher ends is the “innovation” and it dates back to the 13th century.

This is described in a pamphlet written by le Duc to explain his restoration strategy. He even considered reverting to the original treatment with smaller windows and a band of plain wall internally. The end bay next to the Bell Towers reflects this original configuration.

Another pause to create an artist’s impression. The metal railings along the street surely belong to modern times, but they help to provide scale and contrast to the huge mass of stone that is Our Lady of Paris.

Another placeholder family, and another puzzle. Why was this extra weight needed on the side of one buttress? And why does it only occur on one side of the building?  I love these kinds of questions, and I love the process of gradually getting to know your way around a complex building with a deep history.  Soane’s Bank of England was complex in a different way from Notre Dame: a maze of passageways and rooms of different shapes and sizes.  On the face of it a cathedral is a single, contiguous space but the access system is fascinating, the stone vaults are more varied than I could have imagined, and … who knows what else?

I have placed a couple of Enscape3d executables in the Tasks folder to help our content creators see the bigger picture within which they are playing a vital role. They don’t include the updates to the site model that I made towards the end of the weekend but they will be updated on a regular basis.

If you have a VR headset, use this to view the model. It’s an awesome experience. Thanks to the guys from Iris VR for advice and assistance in this regard. See you all next time.

Sunday, July 28, 2019


We are going to shift focus from Medieval Europe to late 20th century Africa, from a tentative study of remote history to a more autobiographical mode.

This item appeared on the BBC news app a couple of days ago. I shared it with a friend back in Zimbabwe knowing they were experiencing this lamentable situation first hand. The elation of finally seeing the back of “Uncle Bob” has gradually given way to the realisation that not much has actually changed. A far cry from the situation 20 years ago when I was project architect for the refurbishment of the Victoria Falls Hotel.

In those days Vic Falls was a tourism Gold Mine, and my boss Mike Clinton well placed as the first choice architect for Zimbabwe Sun Hotels. The terrace front shown above had been horrendously modernised in 1950s style plate glass modern. We restored the verandah based on old photographs, extended the terrace and added side pavilions as suggested by the interior design consultant.

He also proposed a new thatched restaurant called Jungle Junction on virgin land at the back of the hotel with stunning views of the spray and the downstream gorges. My role in all this was detailed design and documentation using Autocad. Construction was compressed into a very tight window to minimise revenue loss, and we flew up weekly to resolve issues directly with the contractor. No contractual nonsense : discuss, agree, shake hands, move on. 

I didn’t know much about classical architecture in those days, but I managed to hack it by observing the existing building. Back in Harare, I designed a two storey office block attached to a themed shopping mall which followed a kind of Spanish colonial style. From memory I only had a couple of weeks to throw this together and I was just borrowing ideas from here and there, but somehow it came off fairly well. 

In retrospect this was my heyday as a design architect. It continued for another 4 ot 5 years before the economy of Zimbabwe imploded and I jumped ship to Dubai. Here my role gradually shifted to BIM specialist and production drawings. Concept design is handled by a different team.  There is a certain logic to this but I miss the simplicity of those African days when I could see a project from concept to completion almost single handed.

Looking back, I am amazed by the opportunities I have had in life. When I arrived in Zimbabwe I never imagined that I would return to architecture. In the 1980s I was fully ensconced in the dream of a socialist Zimbabwe, working in Education and interacting with rural communities. The next picture shows me replacing the roof on my mother-in-law's bedroom. Leaky thatch giving way to a corrugated iron. Hot but less prone to rodents. As a bedroom it would cool fairly rapidly after sunset in any case.

A couple of years later I partnered with my brother in law to build a five room house, to plans I drew by hand and included in one of the textbooks I was writing in my role within the CDU. This shot is taken from the Blair toilet I built with my own hands, looking back at the main house constructed by a local builder. I took on the hanging of the doors and glazing of the windows based on observation that these trades were often poorly understood by rural builders. 

There's a little story behind this picture.  The teenage lads that were supposed to be labouring for me sloped off and got drunk.  After a while my father-in-law came up quietly and started supplying bricks and mortar from time to time.  He wasn't young and we shared perhaps a dozen words of common language, but there was a connection between us, and we got the job done.

It was a beautiful setting but quite remote in those days.  About an hour's walk in the evening to the "bottle store".  No electricity at all.  Parafin fridges and beer by candlelight.  The music must have run on a battery.  Radio, I guess ... gaps in memory but I'm sure there was music.

I’m forever grateful that I experienced these simple practicalities of building work while I was young and fit. I keep mentioning embodied learning in these posts because it seems to me a crucial concept. Spending several years working with your hands is bound to affect the way you think. I suspect it hindered my ability to be a fully committed “Design Architect” but it helps me in my current role. I can “think like a builder” as I model with my BIM pencil. 

But all through my years as a builder and educator I maintained my enthusiasm for a real pencil. Here is a sketch of the interior of that rural house, or perhaps an imaginary similar one, with a brick-built wood stove in the corner. I did build something similar. It was inspired by Intermediate Technology literature of the time. It was hopelessly inefficient in practice, but an interesting learning experience.

I think it’s worth sharing this hand-drawn construction detail which is really a work-in-progress design sketch. Maybe this has some relevance to the Gothic builders we have been thinking about of late. I made this sketch as a bricklayer trying to figure out how to tackle the job. There is no drawing of what I actually built. Just a trial run on paper that reveals some of the difficulties, then straight into building it and thinking on the fly.

These images are from a folder on my hard drive called "Life's Work". Rummaging through I came across an old CV, possibly prepared for my move to Dubai. Here is a portion including Vic Falls Hotel and three commercial office projects. The last of these, in Blantyre, was done using a combination of Autocad and Sketchup. This was long before Google bought Sketchup, and probably before Autodesk acquired Revit. It was a transitional stage for me. I had dabbled with Archicad but at that stage elevations and sections were not live views. 

Back to that Rural Homestead. Having realised that clever new inventions often look better in books than in real life, we reverted to the traditional solution of a round thatched kitchen. Clearly this plays a cultural role as well as having practical advantages. Thatch works for a kitchen. It let’s smoke out and the smoke discourages vermin. Square rooms with modern roofing materials work for bedrooms and formal sitting rooms with armchairs. 

If you observe the compromises between modern and traditional that prevail in a given setting, that’s probably going to be better than some cleverly designed solution by an external expert. Of course those experiments are worth trying and from time to time something will catch on and be incorporated into current wisdom. I guess it’s loosely analogous to natural selection. Usually superior to intelligent design. 

Three generations of African women. My daughter with her grandma and her aunt, meeting for the first time in many years. This was shortly before my move to Dubai: a road trip I managed to fit in before it was too late. That 5-room house forms a backdrop.  I did make a Revit model of the house a few years later as part of a talk I gave to industry professionals when BIM was still a relatively new concept in Dubai. 

Next is another page from that CV. The one and only Tower Block I designed in Africa. And bottom right, a couple of images exported from Archicad. That was probably version 4 point something. I got as far as 6.5, all Pirate copies I’m afraid. 

I did a few developments in this kind of colonial cottage style. Architectural purists will wince perhaps but people enjoy it recognisable mode. It’s fine for one building in a hundred to be a ground breaking original but parts of Dubai attest to the futility of a whole neighbourhood of originals. 

To conclude, a tree, an anthill and a toilet. (ventilated pit latrine) This may be my purest architectural composition.  It matters little.  I make no claims to be a great designer.  I just rejoice in the variety of experiences I have stumbled into over the past 50 years since I left home. Half of these were spent in Africa and I had a blast. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019


 Usually I compose a blog post here, then echo it to LinkedIn.  Just for a change I’m taking a short LinkedIn snip and expanding it into blog post.  Here goes

“Sometimes I think with my BIM pencil, and sometimes I let my old-school pencil lead the way. Some of our volunteers are having difficulty modelling without a set of dimensioned drawings to lead the way.

That's fine, but we are just exploring. We learn by our mistakes. I'm not embarrassed by the fact that this drawing is a bit messy. I was letting my subconscious mind run ahead of itself, searching for a level of abstraction and simplification, intuitively.

We don't think with our brains. We think by letting our bodies interact with the world. Our brains just encode that experience into memories that influence future adventures.

Project Notre Dame is an adventure. If you let it take you on a journey, perhaps you will find places inside yourself that you didn't know about.”

Clearly there are some interesting places inside him, and children are not afraid to strike out into the unknown, take a risk, make bold guesses, leaps of imagination.  You may object that Project Notre Dame is trying to “capture reality”, so what role is there for imagination?  My grandson was trying to capture the idea of a lion, explore what it means to him.  Project Notre Dame is a voyage of discovery for me.  What do cathedrals mean to me, what do they have to say about our history? How did Gothic Architecture image from the dark ages and dissolve into the Renaissance? Why did it resurface during the industrial revolution to be championed by the likes of Viollet Leduc?

My LinkedIn network has been exploding since I started posting about PND. Recently I stumbled across the son of two old friends.  I last visited them 8 years ago, the same year that I first entered the Parametric Pumpkin competition.  I had my 60th birthday in Cape Town with my three children, a city we had visited some 20 years earlier when we still lived in Zimbabwe.    I played the first of several annual gigs in England with friends I knew at school, so many decades ago.  And I attempted a Revit model of another, very different Notre Dame: the chapel in Ronchamp by LeCorbusier.

I was in the grip of unhealthy eating habits, horrendously overweight, and my mum was slipping away in a nursing home in Birmingham.  The trip to Scotland to see Adam’s mum & dad was a last minute addition to my itinerary, a fascinating glimpse into a different world.  Simon gave me a tour of current projects, zero-carbon modern architecture set in stunning open landscapes: a far cry from the desert resorts & hotels of my day job.

I’m not sure why I decided to process two of the images from that visit.  Even less sure of how I chose the combination of effects. I guess the exterior shot emphasises the starkness, the muted colours of a misty landscape. But that’s a post-rationalisation.  I was letting my instincts take the lead.  What is the balance between reason and emotions?  How do we weave them together to create meaning in our lives?  Why am I obsessed by buildings?  Is it because they mark the break with our hunter-gatherer origins?  

That house in its bleak open setting epitomises that break in many ways. Such a perfectly ordered and controlled environment sitting in a wild and natural setting. 

More image processing to create an image for BiLT NA in Seattle.  Strange to send our model out there on its own, with none of the core team attending.  Such is the network effect of digital media, creating connections in real time across the continents, allowing one idea to spark another and disparate groups to play their part in bringing VR experiences to conference attendees at ridiculously short notice.

Here’s a shot from the Revizto version.  Their trademark 2D view superimposed on a 3D section.  In a way this is like a filter, overlaying pencil textures on an image to enhance the experience.  So many ways to create an image, but all of them involve looking, and looking again, and again.  Seeing something you hadn't noticed before.  Embodied cognition.  Learning by doing.  Actively manipulating images is a compulsion for me, constantly shaping the world anew.

And let’s finish with an Enscape image, raw, no effects.  Is this “more real” than the hand-drawn sketch I started with … more honest?  Or do we see less, precisely because it looks so real?  Why do diagrams and infographics seem to be telling us so much more than the raw data from which they are distilled?  

The collage from 2011 is distilled slice of my past.  It is possible because of the digital revolution that has dominated the second half of that lifetime.  I was probably on my second or third digital camera by then, smart-phone images still a rarity.  Visual thinking has always played a prominent role in my attempts to make sense of the world.  In my twenties and thirties I carried a pocket notebook and pencil around, scribbling ideas and images that seemed important to me in the moment.  Today a Samsung Note 8 plays a similar role, but it also gives me constant access to all those notebooks via digital copies in cloud storage.  Much of my image processing and compilation is done on my phone these days.  

Extended cognition is a daily reality, but let’s not forget the core from which it extends.  We need to keep in touch with the old school pencil, the simple and direct learning processes that link us back to our childhood years.