Saturday, August 31, 2019


Week one of my expedition to the UK. A family barbecue and the most nerve biting cricket match in history. Then up and about my travels on Monday morning.

I met up with Lee Saunders in Salisbury and had a great chat about anything and everything, but especially the “Heritage Business” and the danger that the people with the trade skills and experience to do the physical work and more importantly perhaps to pass that knowledge and wisdom on to coming generations… (long sentence) the danger that they get sidelined.

Walking through Salisbury Cathedral with a keener eye, now that I’ve studied a Gothic building with my BIM pencil. What is that Grey stone, used for free-standing colonettes? Admiring the carving of the crocket capitals. The lancet windows and less compact massing of Early English compared to Notre Dame. Salisbury Museum is a domestic building, dating back to medieval times with exhibits stretching back much further into deep history. 

Train to London. Wake up next morning and walk across to St George in the East. I did a BIM study of the 6 Hawksmoor London churches in 2014. 

First time inside St George. The insertion of a 60s concrete frame within a bombed-out baroque shell is more successful than you might expect. Just me standing below the tower in this pic. DLR to Greenwich. First time inside St Alfege also. Freehand plaster scrolls: to a common theme, but all different. The recessed East end seems a perfect solution next to a busy road, but was that a factor in 1720?  Wood carving by Grinling Gibbons? Didn’t photograph well in the dim light, so the Corinthian here is from Bloomsbury Different material but similar delicacy.

DLR to Bank, the updated displays in the museum were slightly disappointing but that’s a post on its own. Walk across to St Mary Woolnoth. Hadn’t planned to go in, but it was worth it. 

That distinctive wooden version of Corinthian I saw at St Alphege is here again, but still too dark to focus properly. The plaster rose is from Bloomsbury I think. He must have used a superb artisan for the fibrous plaster there. The wood carving on the pulpit does pick up nicely. What material is used for the keystone scrolls and the Corinthian capitals I wonder. Is it lime plaster? Doesn’t look like gypsum to me, but what do I know? 

Central line to Bloomsbury and I’m starting to realise that I can fit in all 6 churches today. Spiral handrail termination, and here’s that wooden Corinthian vase motif again. Finally a picture worth sharing. Both capital and shafts are highly original to my eye. Did Hawksmoor invent this, or was there another source? The plaster running ornament here takes me back to my Revit explorations earlier this year, before Notre Dame took over my life. Managed to get inside the back yard and take some shots from new angles.

Liverpool Street then walk to Christchurch Spitalfields. The last frame shows the Composite capitals of the interior. How many different takes on the Acanthus leaf did I see during this week? Define infinity. 

And finally on to my 6pm meeting at St Anne’s Limehouse. Rufus Frampton was the perfect host. His commitment to stabilising the condition of this neglected church is quite humbling. Another fantastic conversation as we climbed the spiral stair into the roof void, then beyond to watch the pendulum clock trigger the chimes for 7pm. Sadly I was too gobsmacked to record a video. Bonding of the quoins of the groin vaults in the crypt caught my eye. Some running ornament and the timber suports to the half-dome above the portico (lead-covered ). Rufus thinks this shows the marks of ships carpenters which sounds plausible for the location.

Next morning, walking out past old warehouses and through St Katherine’s Docks. A running garland carved into the curved stone corbel below an oriel window on the corner of Leman Street. The shard sprouting from the parapets of “the Tower”. And the copper spire of All Hallows, Tower Hill. Superb 

Gothic and classical intertwined. Wren’s mock-gothic spire survived the bombs, but the medieval church was gutted. The skeleton embraces a picturesque grotto /garden that would have delighted Soane. A quick peek inside the Pattern makers guild church, classical Wren box with a medieval style spire. Then on to the main event of the day. 

Pitzhanger Manor, Soane’s Country House and Gardens. Recently reopened. yellow light from above reminds me of Dulwich. Triumphal arch themed façade seems to echo Lothbury Court, while the conservatory at the rear reminds me of the projecting porch of his townhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. On the corner of the parapet above, a leaf vase which reinterprets the motif in wood that I struggled to photograph the day before. 

Materials, coarse and fine. Physicality. Fired clay. A fragment of Roman pavement, tile hanging, Flemish Bond and yet another version of Soane’s simple brick soldiers that evoke the distilled essence of a doric freize. But the dominant materials on my mind are stone, wood and plaster.  The stone of the Banker Mason, providing the structural mass and the weathering surface that has stood for 300 years  The carved stone detail in all its variety, both gothic and classical, but so often inspired by foliage.  The carved delicacy of wood, its warmth and suitability for wall linings and doors.  And the wonderful adaptability of plasterwork, whether lime or gypsum based.  

These trades contributed so much to buildings over the centuries.  Not just labour, but also detail, practical know-how and artisitic invention. If the architect was a conductor, they were musicians of the old school who could improvise on a theme.  I fear we have lost most of that with our hundreds of sheets of contract drawings, the litigation and the "value engineering"

So many impressions, sometimes disjointed, sometimes intertwined. What a start to my journey..

Saturday, August 24, 2019


I am down to give a talk at a conference with the theme “Open BIM & industry 4.0 “  As usual I have my own take on these topics.

Let’s start with BIM. There is a sense in which this term repeats the same word three times. To model is to shape, to give form. To inform is to shape ideas, to build a picture in our minds. And building is also a process of forming. You could almost translate BIM as “Form Information Forming”

I first realised this while questioning the pedants who wanted to ban the term “BIM model” Language is supremely malleable. It is constantly “shape-shifting” even as we use it. It turns out that “BIM” is distilled from 3 words that probably originate in one of our earliest trades: pottery. The act of shaping clay with our bare hands became a rich source of metaphor.

A Potter takes a shapeless lump and transforms it into an object with beauty and purpose. The Hand-Eye-Brain feedback loop operating for thousands of hours during the career of a Potter gives rise to deep embodied learning : knowledge wisdom, competence. Drawing and painting tap into the same process. So does, sculpture, stone masonry, wood carving, carpentry.

You can use an abacus to manipulate numbers, giving shape to abstract concepts that underpin the very real world of trade and commerce. Today our financial models are digital, databases in the cloud, but still we use the same hand-eye-brain loop to interrogate them on our mobile devices.

We talk of Intelligent Models and Information Management. Those 3 letters from the alphabet can generate infinite shades of meaning. The world of BIM has absorbed a myriad of spin-off technologies. AR, VR, laser scanning, Drones, digital twins linked to real world sensors, online rendering, issue tracking, structural analysis, thermal modelling,

I regard BIM as shorthand for “Digital Tools and Processes related to Construction” Their purpose is to transform the “Way We Build.”  Ultimately BIM sets out to realise the long-standing dream of automating construction. Hence the infatuation with robotics and generative design in recent years. 250 years ago Richard Arkwright kick started a process that transformed age-old cottage industries into factories churning out textiles. Productivity gains were so huge that a chain reaction ensued. Steam Power, Railways, Steel, Machine Tools.

So let’s talk about Industry 4.0  Well maybe that’s another blog post. I take a longer view of history. I also take a broader view of Open BIM. What is the “Future of Work” for us, when robots and algorithms do to building what Richard Arkwright did to hand loom weavers? In the short term, lots of jobs for BIM nerds (factory hands) In the long term a fundamental shift in work-life patterns.

My work on Project Soane led me into a much deeper understanding of the Industrial Revolution period. The Bank of England certainly played a role. Paper money took over from coinage as the economy exploded. Soane employed half a dozen domestic servants to maintain his upper middle class lifestyle. He started work age 15. Child labour was commonplace.

My sons were still attending university at the age of 25. The knowledge industry has become a major employer in its own right. People earn a living in entertainment, sport, tourism. Art galleries and Museums have mushroomed incredibly in my lifetime. Activities that were considered hobbies 50 years ago can be lucrative careers. You can be a YouTuber, a public intellectual, an online trainer, a bitcoin trader. Now kinds of income generation have begun to emerge via apps like Uber, Air BnB, kickstarter,  Patreon etc. Why do we assume that construction projects will continue to be the primary employer of BIM specialists? If we truly believe in disruption, and in the automation of our industry, surely we can imagine a world where education and collaborative research become the dominant activities.

I started with a few comments about language as metaphor. Here are a couple of mine. The BIM pencil promotes the idea that BIM tools and processes continue a long tradition of visual thinking and learning by doing. We are tapping into that hand-eye-brain feedback loop that has served our species so well for millennia. Why can’t BIM be intuitive and fluid? Why can’t it be as versatile as pencil and paper?

The Business Blinkers metaphor refers to a refusal to see this broader perspective, an insistence on framing BIM within the building industry as it is today. But this restriction did not apply to hand drawing. Why would we see digital tools as more limiting than manual processes? Some examples.

Vitruvius wrote one of the first known text books for architects and builders. Where is the BIM edition of Vitruvius. McKay is another classic example. Technical drawings that condense the knowledge of traditional building methods and Transmit them to future generations.  Bannister Fletcher still stands alone as a visual encyclopedia of our built heritage.  The analogy with BIM is inavoidable: plans, sections, elevations and perspective views, densely intertwined with dimensions and annotations.  These are not “just” drawings, they are packed with information and insight.

Another genre is the polemic.  The Townscape series by Gordon Cullen, applying the techniques of the design team to broader issues of concern about how we are shaping our cities.  Standing back and reviewing the direction our society is taking, using the tools of a design architect to tell a story.  Why can’t we do that with BIM?  If it’s such a significant leap forward in the way we think about buildings, why are we limiting it to the narrow confines of our day jobs?  What about the grand visions of Le Corbusier.  You may feel that he was misguided (or not) but he could certainly frame an argument by juxtaposing language and images (geometry and data)  In the past I have attempted a BIM version of his “Four Points” translating his 2d sketch into a Revit model.  OK so this is “borderline BIM” but don’t just dismiss it.  Take that idea further into the realm of “full on BIM”  Why not?

And what about Nolli’s map of Rome, Piranesi’s marvellous architectural fantasies, Camillo Sitte’s incisive analyses of how civic spaces function in the grand old cities of Europe.  Is this kind of work too insightful and imaginative to fall within the purview of BIM. Why?  Surely it was underpinned by the cutting edge technology of its day.  Etchings brought superpowers to the architects of that era, just as BIM is doing for us today.

It’s not that we don’t have equivalents to McKay or Vitruvius that use Digital tools and media. There are YouTube channels and blogs. Authors that leverage 3d software. But, crucially, this is not seen as part of the BIM endeavour. We teach about BIM, but we don’t use BIM to teach about building or design or history.

BIM is not a thing. It’s a process, an attitude, a method. BIM is the digital enhancement of the Hand-Eye-Brain feedback loop.  We should be applying the “BIM pencil” to a much broader range of activities.  It seems to me that the “Business Blinkers” are constraining our vision to the narrow confines of conventional building contracts, and thereby creating an artificial wall between the world of BIM and the world of everyday life.

One last example.  There have been many “Design Manuals” that have guided and informed the work of architects and builders over the centuries, from Serlio to Neufert, the AJ Metric Handbook the inspirational drawings of Francis Ching.  Surely this is an obvious genre where BIM could make a dramatic contribution.  I have made one or two sallies along these lines in this blog.  My study of Sliding Sash Windows for example, a technology that fascinated me as a young builder in the 1970s.  The field is wide open, in my view, and it can only be a matter of time before the “Knowledge Economy” transforms the way we organise and share this kind of information and distilled collective experience.

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.