by Francesca Lofiego, Digital Construction Manager, ISG | Regional Lead, London, Women in BIM

Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Elham Delzendeh, an Associate Professor in Built Environment at Birmingham City University

Originally from Iran, Elham studied Architectural Engineering in her home country before moving to the UK. Her career journey is a testament to her dedication to advancing architectural technology and digital design. In addition to her academic role, Elham is the owner of the YouTube channel “BuiltEvolve,” where she shares insights on BIM and the digital built environment. Her work has significantly contributed to expanding the reach of digital design education, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Today, we’ll delve into her experiences, her views on digital tools in architecture, and her efforts to make the industry more inclusive and innovative.

In your experience, do you encounter colleagues who believe that technology cannot foster creativity? How do you integrate digital tools with creativity in your teaching? Is it possible to replace traditional pen and paper with digital tools entirely?

In architecture and design education, there has always been opposing views about the impact of digital technologies on creativity. A widespread belief is that using software applications at the early design stages reduces the quality of the design proposal and is not considered best practice. However, in the Engineering side of the built environment, the use of digital tools and technologies is always more welcomed. 

In my view, to be a creative designer, you need to have various tools in your toolbox (some call them skills). Digital tools expand your capabilities and to use them creatively, you need a lot of practice. In teaching, we believe in introducing digital tools and technologies early on to allow our students to practice extensively before they graduate. 

To answer your question, there is no fundamental difference between using a pen and paper and a digital pen to sketch your ideas. However, what you can achieve with digital tools and how quickly you can transform initial ideas into actual buildings is both fascinating and essential. 

You’ve created the YouTube channel “BuiltEvolve” to share insights on BIM. What inspired you to start this channel, and how has it evolved since its inception? Who is your primary audience, and what kind of feedback have you received?

During the COVID pandemic, I was teaching a new module focused on BIM. I realised that the theoretical content on YouTube related to the digital built environment was very limited. So, I decided to start the BuiltEvolve YouTube channelfocusing on BIM and advanced digital technologies in the built environment. 

Every hour of every day, someone is watching one of my videos. It is very rewarding to know that my work positively contributes to enhancing the digital built environment worldwide. 

The primary audience of the BuiltEvolve channel consists of professionals in the built environment industry and students interested in upskilling themselves, increasing their subject knowledge and seeking career progression. Approximately 60% of the viewers are in the 25-34 age range, and only 20% are female. 

I receive very positive feedback and kind words about the channel, as well as questions about dissertation projects, BIM software applications and career pathways.

What is the current academic perspective on BIM? Are discussions around digital twins and AI becoming more prevalent in your field? It seems there is a lot of buzz about digital twins without a solid understanding of BIM. What are your thoughts on this?

Academia has two top objectives: teaching and research. In teaching, more educational institutions are incorporating both theoretical and practical BIM into their curricula. However, in research, BIM is often seen as outdated and no longer cutting-edge. Consequently, most researchers have shifted their research to digital twins, IoT sensors, AI, and other advanced technologies.  Despite the shift, the reality of the built environment job market is that BIM is evolving, expanding and gaining more significance. There is a need for more studies on the application of BIM in various projects from different perspectives.

As the Academic Lead for Employability, you’ve noticed a significant gap in digital built environment applicants for industry and academic roles. Why do you think there is such a disparity in applications when searching for digital architecture versus traditional architectural lecturers?

As the Academic Lead for Employability at the College of Built Environment, Birmingham City University, I work closely with industry professionals. Successful job applications require traditional skills, soft skills, and advanced digital skills. Recently, we held a Built Environment Industry Networking Event and gathered valuable insights from industry professionals about future trends and the skills needed. Participants emphasized that digitalization and big data will become key aspects of the construction industry in the future. The change should originate from academia; we need more academics with digital skills who are confident and competent to make significant changes and future-proof built environment programs.

It has been noted that female students are less interested in digital subjects, and your YouTube audience is predominantly male. Do you believe that societal values influence this trend? 

Like all STEM subjects and professions, the built environment industry is male-dominant. However, it is worth noting that the built environment higher education is generally more diverse than the industry. Over the years, I have realised that most students interested in digital built environment share one common characteristic: they are all “ambitious”. Female students show less interest in digital subjects, such as digital built environment, for various reasons, including societal values, bias and discrimination, stereotypes, confidence gap, and most importantly, a lack of female role models. 

What changes are needed to encourage more female students to engage with digital aspects of built environment? How is academia evolving to incorporate more digital aspects and attract more women to digital fields? What initiatives or changes do you think are essential to bridge the gender gap in digital built environment?

I believe the change must begin by breaking stereotypes within families and schools. Also, academia plays a critical role in boosting the confidence of female students and providing them with role models. There are several initiatives that can make a significant impact, such as implementing female mentorship programs, creating networking opportunities tailored for female students, prioritising inclusive curriculum design for digital built environment, and engaging female professionals as guest lecturers and industry collaborators in teaching sessions. 

We need to remember that closing the gender gap goes beyond achieving equality, it also involves employing the unique perspectives, skills and qualities that female professionals bring to the digital built environment industry. As academics, we need to highlight those skills and qualities our female students bring and empower them. 

Nicole De Cicco
Nicole De Cicco

I am the Global Administrator for Women in BIM. I support all of our global communications including managing events, as well as supporting & promoting our Regional Leads.