On a recent trip to the Bay Area (to review session proposals for the HEALTHCARE DESIGN.12 conference!), I was invited to spend an afternoon visiting two leading architectural firms, both of which do significant work in the healthcare arena—the San Francisco offices of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and SmithGroupJJR.

I hadn’t visited a firm in person for something like four or five years, and I was definitely struck by how much things have changed—as well as how much they stayed the same.

The SOM offices, for example, were chock full of 3-D models, covering practically every spare shelf, table, and workspace you turned to look at. The digital design revolution has definitely taken hold there, especially when compared to the last firms I visited a few years back, when BIM was considered to be bleeding-edge technology and plenty of work was still being done on paper. SOM even has a 3-D printer (please don’t ask me to explain it) that allows them to print these digital models out and create a tactile structure in three physical dimensions in a fraction of the time it used to take to build a model out of toothpicks (or balsa wood or what have you).

I suppose that in the back of my head, having been with HEALTHCARE DESIGN for the last decade, I knew about the whole BIM revolution, but seeing it executed in person really struck me—I felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe returning to civilization after long years on the island. The last firms I visited were still covered by giant rolls of paper and tons of cardboard tubes. Now, designers can work endless amounts of trial and error into all the space their portable hard drives will hold, and send it to colleagues in other offices—in other countries!—instantaneously.

I’m sure to those of you in the A/E community who have seen this transition happen from the front lines, this amounts to far more of a “Duh!” moment than the “Ah-ha!” moment that it was for me. Still, it’s slightly staggering to think how far the industry’s design techniques have come in such a relatively short amount of time.