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AECbytes Newsletter #34 (May 22, 2008)

Technology Product Highlights from AIA 2008 Convention

The AIA 2008 National Convention and Expo was held in Boston last week from May 15 to 17. This year, it was preceded by not one but two additional conferences relevant to AEC technology: the AIA TAP conference which was held as a preconvention workshop, and the DMVC (Design Modeling and Visualization Conference) by VisMasters, which featured a number of presentations on visualization as well as BIM. With so much of technology-related ground already covered in sessions in both these conferences, I focused my time at the AIA Convention this year exclusively to learning more about the technology updates and new solutions that were on display in the Exhibit Hall. The highlights of these are captured in this AECbytes newsletter, while a detailed overview of the TAP and DMVC conferences will be presented in the coming weeks.

BIM Applications

Autodesk used the AIA show to demonstrate the improvements in the newly released Revit Architecture 2009, which I have already described in detail in my recent review of the application. It also announced that the Revit seat count has crossed the 300,000 mark, representing a 200% increase in seats over the past two years. Other related technologies that were highlighted include building performance and sustainable analysis tools that Autodesk recently acquired, including Green Building Studio, a web-based building energy analysis service that enables architects and engineers to perform whole building energy analysis early in the design process, and Carmel Software, a HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) mechanical engineering software that enables engineers and architects to analyze their mechanical designs to check for the satisfaction of performance criteria. Autodesk also placed a lot of emphasis on publicizing its new Autodesk Seek product content search web service, which was briefly covered in my review of Revit Architecture 2009. The ability to be launched from Revit Architecture as well as AutoCAD Architecture allows Autodesk Seek to be used by designers working with these applications to search, select, and specify products more efficiently. Autodesk is collaborating with McGraw-Hill Construction to make all the product content in its Sweets Network available through Autodesk Seek, which is why the search tool was also being demonstrated at the McGraw-Hill booth at the AIA Expo.

Bentley chose to focus most of its efforts at the AIA show this year on promoting its GenerativeComponents (GC) application, a long-standing research initiative that uses parametric technology to assist in the creation of complex forms shapes. Objects are created in GC, not so much by modeling, but by defining an intricate set of relationships, which allows multiple design variations to be easily explored for a project simply by changing one of the controlling parameters. Complex forms can be defined through concisely expressed algorithms, and the resulting designs can be taken directly to MicroStation for detailed documentation and fabrication without information loss. GC has been used in several designs by some of the leading firms in the world (see Figure 1), and has also been incorporated into the curricula of universities such as Cornell, MIT, Bartlett School of Architecture in London, TU Delft in the Netherlands, and RMIT University in Australia. It was commercially released by Bentley in 2006, and a free trial download has been available since last year. In an effort to popularize the use of GC in the industry, Bentley has just announced a special new annual subscription program designed to make it easier for architects and engineers to try out the full power of the application. Priced at $250 for new users in the US, this includes a one-year subscription to GC, plus online learning and support resources. For existing Bentley users who are part of its SELECT subscription program, GC is available at no additional charge. I expect to see a lot more of GC as well get a preview of the next release of Bentley’s BIM solutions at its BE user conference next week.


Figure 1. The 3 million-square-foot Dostyk Towers by NBBJ and E/Ye Design has been completed using GC. The curvy geometry is based on a computer code that relates criteria such as view corridors and height. (Courtesy: Bentley)

Interesting, Dr. Robert Aish, who had spearheaded the GenerativeComponents research at Bentley has now joined Autodesk, where he will be leading the development of conceptual design solutions for creating and analyzing complex forms earlier in the design process. It should be interesting to see what comes out of this, given the potentially vast extent of resources Autodesk can place at his disposal. It also remains to be seen if his departure from Bentley has any adverse impacts on GC, or if the application has already evolved to the stage where his departure wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Graphisoft used the AIA show to preview some of the new features in the next release of ArchiCAD, version 12, which will be reviewed in AECbytes after its public announcement next month. Graphisoft also used the opportunity to promote its new offering, ArchiCAD START Edition, which is a trimmed down version of ArchiCAD with a feature set and price tailored to the needs of small architectural practices, home builders, and contractors. It costs $1,995, which is less than half the price of a regular BIM application, and Graphisoft hopes that it encourages more firms to be able to make the move to BIM. It includes all the design, documentation, and interoperability features of ArchiCAD; what it is missing are the group collaboration features that are mostly needed by larger firms. ArchiCAD START is certainly a good idea, and if the response to it from the industry is encouraging, it might prompt competing vendors such as Autodesk and Bentley to also think about offering less expensive versions of their products for smaller firms. Graphisoft was also giving away its free interactive BIM Experience Kit, which comes with a 30-day full version of ArchiCAD, and provides interactive learning on BIM using exercises based upon an actual project, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Massaro House. (For more details on the BIM Experience Kit, see this AECbytes Tips and Tricks article.)

Nemetschek North America (NNA) demonstrated the latest release of VectorWorks Architect, version 2008, which it positions as an affordable BIM application in which 2D drawings, 3D drawings, and project data are linked into a simple yet flexible design environment. It allows architects to work in 2D using their existing CAD standards, design in 3D with free-form surface and solids modeling tools, or merge 2D and 3D in a hybrid design environment. NNA heavily emphasizes the IFC capability of VectorWorks Architect, which allows a BIM model created in the application to be used for downstream processes by other members of the building team. NNA also highlighted how VectorWorks could support sustainable design, in particular, by demonstrating a plug-in application called ThermoRender that was developed by one of its distributors in Japan in response to the need to consider the thermal environment when developing urban areas and the measures for mitigating heat-island effect and global warming. ThermoRender works with the building model created in VectorWorks Architect and has tools for visualizing surface temperatures, and calculating Heat Island Potential, Mean Radiant Temperature, energy consumption, and CO2 emission (see Figure 2). The application is still available only in Japanese, so I found the demonstration a little hard to follow. But it looks promising, and hopefully, it can be reproduced in English for the benefit of VectorWorks Architect users around the world.


Figure 2. The simulation result of an urban block modeled in VectorWorks produced using ThermoRender. (Courtesy: NNA)

Rounding the line-up of BIM applications at the show was DProfiler by Beck Construction, which was being exhibited at the AIA for the first time. DProfiler is what Beck Construction labels as a "macro model" BIM solution that can be used at the planning and conceptual design phase to get an accurate cost estimate of a proposed design. It does this by integrating RS Means within the application, with over 20,000 assembly cost databases that are pulled immediately to provide an interactive cost estimate on the fly as you are modeling the design. The application is designed to be simple and easy-to-use, since it is targeted towards the conceptual design stage, and it also comes with an integrated energy analysis capability. I had provided a brief overview of DProfiler in my article on the AIA TAP 2006 conference, where a session on this application was presented. At that time, DProfiler was not yet commercially available, and the Beck Group was looking for the best way to market it. It has now been commercially released and has been used on over 150 building projects, with an impressive list of customers that includes SOM, Mortenson, RTKL, Perkins+Will, TWC Construction, Clark Construction Company, and others. It is also, of course, being used in-house by Beck Construction. We will take a more detailed look at DProfiler in an upcoming product review.

Supporting Technologies for BIM

Last year, I devoted a separate article to discussing some of the supporting technologies for BIM that were showcased at the AIA Expo, which extend the core modeling and representation capabilities of BIM solutions to cover many different aspects of building planning, design, and construction. Most of those solutions were back in the Exhibit Hall this year, showing the enhancements that have been made. Trelligence showed me version 5.5 of its space programming and schematic design application, Affinity, which includes support for Revit Architecture 2009, the ability to experiment with multiple design scenarios, faster space layout with snapping and alignment indicators, user-definable program views, additional synchronization options for optimizing the bi-directional integration with Revit, and other interface and performance enhancements. Trelligence is also working on enhancements to its bubble diagramming capability, which will allow the programmer or architect to visually manipulate and present the relationships between program entities. This is shown in Figure 3 below, where the thickness of the arrows indicates relative priority of adjacency or relationship requirements between the entities in the program, and arrows in red indicate relationship requirements that are not yet met by that arrangement.


Figure 3.The upcoming bubble diagramming capability in Trelligence Affinity, which also visually captures relationship requirements. (Courtesy: Trelligence)

The area of BIM content and content management is witnessing quite a surge in activity. It started off with a few solutions on display last year, and the ones I wrote about included ADSearch from Architectural Data Systems (ADS), the Tectonic BIM Library Manager, BIMworld, and Form Fonts. Tectonic Partners has since then been acquired by Reed Construction Data, developer of the RSMeans cost database and related products. They have rebranded the Tectonic products as SmartBIM and used the AIA show to announce the launch of the product line-up. All these products work exclusively with Revit and are aimed to provide its users with high-quality, parametric BIM content called SmartBIM Objects, an object management solution called the SmartBIM Library, and the ability to quickly calculate the estimated value of a project specific to its location using the RSMeans Quick Cost Estimator.

In addition to collaborating with Autodesk on its new Autodesk Seek service, as mentioned earlier, McGraw-Hill was also using the AIA show to launch a new web-based service called Architect’s Design Studio, which it has developed in collaboration with a software engineering firm. It is designed to guide architects with product selection using built-in rules for finding products that match the design requirements. It has full access to the Sweets catalog and provides detailed product information including performance data. It is also designed to be a configurator, allowing architects to put together custom product assembles such as walls, floors, ceilings, doors, windows, and so on, with the ability to specify sizes, options, finishes, and so on for the individual components. The service is integrated with Revit, allowing a set of objects to be exported from Revit to the configurator, and once the assembly has been further developed, it can exported back to Revit where it will replace the generic objects that were initially selected. Additional features include the ability to do take-off and produce detailed estimates of the assembly as well as create its specifications.

Another solution in the area of BIM objects and specifications is eSPECS, and its developer, Interspec, used the AIA Expo to highlight the many enhancements in the new release of the application, version 4.0. eSPECS is designed to automate the preparation of project specifications from all the three Revit BIM applications as well as AutoCAD and AutoCAD Architecture. The new version features improved Revit integration with automated project keynote generation and multiple model support; new checklist filtering functionality; finer publishing control with single-click Save, Publish, Export and Upload; and a simplified installation and licensing process. The eSPECS Editor has also been greatly enhanced with features such as style-based specifications editing and management, track changes for BIM/checklist automation and user edits (see Figure 4), additional view options, final draft view with Autoformat editing and saving, new table editing functionality, and hyperlink support.


Figure 4. Selecting an object in Revit and using eSPECS to make a modification to its specification section. (Courtesy: InterSpec)

Turning from the arena of BIM objects to energy analysis, in addition to the BIM vendors highlighting their individual sustainable design initiatives such as Green Building Studio and ThermoRender, there was also IES (Integrated Environmental Solutions Ltd.), which I last wrote about in my article on the Exhibit Hall highlights from Autodesk University 2006. Since then, IES has worked on integrating its sophisticated building performance software suite <VE> (short for Virtual Environment) with Revit Architecture in addition to its Revit MEP integration. At the AIA show, IES went further and announced the launch of VE-Ware, a free building energy and carbon assessment tool that also helps to assess building performance against the Architecture 2030 Challenge. While it is certainly not a substitute for the detailed energy analysis that can be conducted with the full-blown <VE> product suite, VE-Ware can be used at the early design stages for comparing different design, layout and system options to find the most energy efficient solution. It works with the building geometry as input and uses international data on climatic conditions and the typical characteristics of different building, room and system types to provide feedback on the building’s energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. It currently works only with models exported from Revit, but IES plans to expand it to work with other BIM applications so that it is globally available to anyone who wishes to use it, regardless of vendor or system. VE-Ware is expected to be released next month.  

I also came across a suite of products for site design and civil engineering from Transoft Solutions, and what intrigued me in particular was that they were being exhibited at a show primarily geared towards architects. It is certainly a tangible sign of the multi-disciplinary collaboration and integration that we are hearing so much about these days. The Transoft suite includes AutoTURN, which can be used to assess vehicle maneuvers for roadway design and site development projects (see Figure 5); ParkCAD, which allows parking lots to be designed, tested, and edited with parking and accessibility standards or user defined guidelines, enabling multiple scenarios to be quickly evaluated to maximize parking yield; and AeroTURN Pro, an airport gate design and aircraft simulation software that simplifies the process for designing airside facilities, aircraft stands, and passenger boarding bridge layouts at gates. All these products work within AutoCAD, Autodesk Civil 3D, as well as Bentley’s MicroStation platform. Transoft Solutions has been developing and marketing these solutions to the government and engineering sector for 17 years, and has now identified the architectural market as the next industry which might benefit from using their solutions. It has already met with success in leading firms such as Gensler, HOK, Perkins + Wills, Callison, and Perkins Eastman Architects.


Figure 5. Evaluating a site plan for vehicle access using AutoTURN. (Courtesy: Transoft Solutions)

General Design and Visualization Solutions

It has been several years since a new design tool made its debut at the AIA Expo, which made the news about BonZai 3D all the more exciting. This is a new 3D modeling tool by AutoDesSys, developers of form•Z. While it does have a similar look and feel to form•Z, BonZai is designed to be quicker, easier, and simpler to use, while at the same time, being geometrically robust as well. This is where BonZai is intended to deliver what SketchUp cannot: support for the conceptual stage of design but with the production of accurate and robust models that can be used for construction drawings as well as smoothly rendered, animated, and fabricated (i.e., printed in 3D). BonZai does borrow a few features from SketchUp, most notably, its legendary “push/pull” concept, which greatly speeds up the sculpting and editing of forms. It also supports SketchUp’s file format, allowing models from the Google 3D Warehouse to be dragged and dropped into the application. While it comes with a content library of trees, furniture, and entourage elements, it seems to be still missing door and window components that are critical to speed up the process of architectural modeling, which has been one of the critical limitations of form•Z as well (see my review of form•Z 6.0, published in Nov 2006). Even then, the introduction of BonZai is certainly a promising development and expands the range of 3D conceptual design applications that are available to architects, which has, until now, been dominated by SketchUp. There was a lot of interest in the preview of BonZai being demonstrated at the AIA Expo, and we will take a detailed look at it once it is released later on in the summer.

As for Google SketchUp, it continued to draw a steady crowd at the show, where it was being demonstrated along with related products and services such as Google Earth and the 3D Warehouse. It has been over a year now since version 6 of SketchUp was released, but there’s no sign yet of the next release, or any indication of whether it is even coming this year. Perhaps, SketchUp’s upcoming 3D Base Camp event in June will provide some insight on what’s in store for the application in the months to come. It will certainly be interesting to see if the SketchUp team feels any competitive pressure from the upcoming BonZai application, and if so, what they plan to do about it.

Not content with offering only BIM solutions for building design, Autodesk is attempting to also pitch some of its other products such as Maya and Inventor for conceptual design. Maya is a 3D modeling, animation and visual effects solution that is popular in the media and entertainment field, while Inventor is a parametric design tool that has traditionally been targeted towards the manufacturing industry. At the AIA show, Autodesk was demonstrating how Maya could be used to create and manipulate complex organic shapes, and how Inventor could enable the use of rule-based parametric modeling for exploring, iterating, and rationalizing conceptual designs. Autodesk also showed its new 3ds Max Design software, which is an AEC-focused 3D visualization solution based on its popular 3ds Max technology. 3ds Max Design also comes with an Exposure daylight simulation and analysis system, which can assist architects in evaluating light intensity against indoor environmental lighting quality requirements, such as those specified in LEED.

Adobe was a notable absence at the AIA show this year, so while we weren’t able to see the developments in Photoshop and Illustrator, architects continued to be treated to the amazing illustration capabilities of Piranesi. This is an image-editing application specifically designed for architectural sketch rendering that understands depth and perspective. It allows you to take a plain, computer-generated 3D scene or 2D drawing and transform it into an artistic-looking rendering very quickly, once you have mastered the use of the application (see Figure 6). For more details on how Piranesi works, see my review of version 4 of the application. While the current version 5 is the same that was demonstrated at the AIA show last year, the application continues to be a draw by virtue of the beautiful renderings that can be created with it. The next version of Piranesi is expected to be released later this year.


Figure 6. Two different illustration styles applied to the same scene in Piranesi. (Courtesy: Informatix)

Printing, Publishing, Collaboration, and Other Solutions

On the 3D printing front, Z Corporation had some exciting news for Revit users at the AIA show, where it demonstrated the new STL Exporter for the Revit platform. Developed in collaboration with Autodesk, this new software utility generates a high quality STL file from models created in Revit Architecture 2009, Revit Structure 2009 and Revit MEP 2009 software, allowing architects, engineers and designers to use the easy and relatively affordable 3D printing technology develop by Z Corporation to create physical models of their Revit projects. The STL Exporter can be downloaded from the Autodesk Labs website. Z Corp’s 3D printers are the fastest commercially available 3D printers—five to 10 times faster than other technologies—and the only ones to print in multiple colors (see Figure 7). I saw some examples of its textured printed models that had been exported from Revit, and was amazed by their realism and level of detail. The printing utility also comes with an option to slice up the model, which means that you can create separate models of all the floors that stack up accurately, allowing both the interior and exterior of the design to be better visualized.


Figure 7. An example of a textured 3D model printed with ZCorp’s 3D printer. (Courtesy: ZCorporation)

I also had the opportunity to check out the new version of Bluebeam PDF Revu that was released after I saw the product at the Technology for Construction show in January (see AECbytes Newsletter #33). This is a sophisticated PDF editor with an intuitive and visually pleasing interface that allows AEC professionals to create, view, markup, and edit PDF files to streamline their electronic workflows. The new version features several enhancements including the ability to secure documents with digital signatures, batch comparison of PDF files against an original document, the ability to attach multiple files of any type to the PDF as attachments so that they stay as part of one document, automatic file recovery, advanced keyword search across multiple documents, improvements to bookmarks and thumbnails, easier modification of markups, and faster performance. It also includes a new Autopan capability that automatically pans when the mouse reaches the edge of the screen, a WebTab that provides full access to the web directly within Revu, new measurement tools for improved electronic takeoff, and new functionality for Tablet PCs including pressure sensitivity technology that determines the thickness of ink marks based on the pressure applied to the screen.

Another product I saw recently that I had the chance to follow up on again is Capturx from Adapx. I first saw it in December at Autodesk University 2007 (see AECbytes Newsletter #32). It is a digital pen and paper software that allows markups created by hand on paper to be captured electronically so that they can fit into the new digital workflows in AEC firms. The version of Capturx being demonstrated at the AIA show was for Autodesk Design Review, which allows it to integrate with AutoCAD, Revit, and other Autodesk products through the DWF format. The technology works by enabling DWF files to be printed on normal paper with a watermark that makes it digital. The software also comes with a printing component that makes normal paper digitally enabled, and works with most printers and all paper sizes. The final component of the solution is a field-ready digital pen that writes with regular ink and records and saves data. While several solutions providing onscreen electronic markup capabilities are available and becoming more commonplace, Capturx is a good alternative for those who still prefer to do markups by hand or are out in the field where using a laptop or Tablet PC may not be convenient.

And finally, I had the opportunity to check out a brand new product called Attolist, a web-based contract administration (CA) software that is designed for architects to collaborate online with engineers, contractors, and owners. It can track all the various documents involved in the CA process including submittals, submittal schedules, RFIs, Sheet-Specification Index, CCDs, ASIs, PRs, Change Orders and Addenda. All the information is stored in a central database and accessible through a project website. I found the interface of Attolist clean and easy to navigate (see Figure 8), and the pricing seemed very affordable with different options ranging from a monthly fixed fee for a single project to an annual billing for unlimited use. Attolist positions its web-based solution as a much better alternative to sending information back and forth by emails, which can be inconsistent, difficult to trace, and prone to filing errors. It is also planning to expand the functionality of its product to include project management in addition to contract administration. 


Figure 8. A screenshot of Attolist’s submittals dashboard, showing an overview of open submittals and the overall submittals statistics. (Courtesy: Attolist)

Conclusions

It was good to see the expanded range of technology product offerings at the AIA Expo this year, bearing testament to the growing importance of technology solutions for architects and the AEC industry as a whole. In addition to the solutions highlighted in this article, there were several additional products and services that I did not get a chance to check out, including business, accounting, and project management applications, as well as outsourcing service providers. There was certainly a lot of activity on the BIM content front with leading vendors such as Autodesk, McGraw-Hill Construction, and Reed Construction Data now entering the fray, and it should be interesting to see how all their respective solutions play out. I also hope to see much more development and activity on the analysis and simulation front in the coming years, both in-house by the BIM vendors as well as by third party developers such as IES. The form•Z-based BonZai should be a nice addition to the set of tools available for conceptual design, and I am also looking forward to seeing what Autodesk comes up with, now that it has GC’s Dr. Robert Aish on its team. All in all, these are eventful times for the AEC technology industry, and it only promises to get more exciting and fun in the years to come.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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