AECbytes Newsletter #52
(May 26, 2011)
Technology Product Highlights from AIA 2011 Expo
In last week’s AECbytes newsletter on the AIA 2011 convention, I captured the key points of the keynote address by Thomas Friedman, celebrated New York Times syndicated columnist and author, who had many insightful thoughts on sustainability to offer to the professional crowd of architects that attended the event. We also looked at the sustainability-related technological developments that emerged from the show, including two new tools from Bentley on energy simulation and LEEDS submission, the integration between the space programming and planning capabilities of Trelligence’s Affinity with the energy analysis capabilities of IES’ VE-Gaia, and a new SaaS solution called GreenWizard that allows architects and builders to select and specify greener products in their design projects.
This follow-up article captures other technology updates and highlights from the AIA 2011 Expo, including a closer look at AutoCAD 2012, other updates from Bentley including a revamped BIM offering, the newly released ArchiCAD 15 from Graphisoft, the openBIM initiative from Vectorworks, the entry of Dassault Systemes in the AEC industry, various third-party BIM add-ons, updates in Axium's Ajera solution for project management and accounting as well as in the AIA Contract Documents software, the launch of HP's web-connected large-format printers for design professionals, SketchUp 8 from Google and the growing number of SketchUp third-party rendering plug-ins, and various other new technology solutions.
CAD and BIM Applications
As always, the three leading AEC technology vendors, Autodesk, Bentley, and Graphisoft, were prominent exhibitors at the AIA show, showcasing the latest releases of their applications for architecture and building design. In the case of Autodesk, the focus was on the 2012 product release, which has already been covered in depth in the recent articles, Autodesk’s 2012 Product Portfolio Launch, and Autodesk AEC Technology Day 2011. I did, however, get a chance to take a closer look at some of the new features in Autodesk 2012, including model documentation and dynamic arrays. Model documentation refers to the ability to automatically generate intelligent drawing views of the model, which can be created natively in AutoCAD or imported from a variety of modeling applications including Pro/Engineer, CATIA, Solidworks, and Rhino. When a change is made to the model, the corresponding drawing views created using model documentation in the layout windows are instantly updated. Of course, this is a standard feature in BIM applications, but hasn’t been available in AutoCAD until now. I was also impressed by the new dynamic array capability of AutoCAD 2012, which allows objects such as windows in a building, seats in an auditorium, or trusses on a roof to be easily and quickly replicated along any specified path and in 3D, rather than just along linear or circular paths and in 2D. You can now interactively establish and maintain the relationships between the copied objects; for example, the 3D seating design shown in Figure 1 was created by creating a dynamic array of seats and dragging them until the desired configuration had been achieved. Other key highlights of AutoCAD 2012 are multifunctional grips that allow you to simply hover over a grip to see the relevant commands and options, providing greater control and efficiency, and an auto-complete feature for commands and variables that increases speed and reduces the need to memorize all of AutoCAD’s commands and variables.
Figure 1. Using the new dynamic array capability in AutoCAD 12 to quickly create the desired seating configuration in an auditorium. (Courtesy: Autodesk)
In addition to the new AECOsim Energy Simulator and AECOsim Compliance Manager products that were described in last week’s article, Bentley had several other new product updates and developments to share. It has added more tools to its free iWare Apps site, launched in March, which is focused entirely on interoperability. Now, in addition to i-model plug-ins for Revit (for more information on i-models, please refer to AECbytes Newsletter #41 on Bentley’s 2009 Be Inspired event), the iWare Apps site includes additional i-model drivers for applications such as Microsoft Excel and Access, allowing richer project information to be brought into the project. A new Bentley DGN Reader for Windows 7 application is also available, which allows DGN models and i-models to be viewed and navigated directly within Windows Explorer and Microsoft Outlook without the need to open them in an application. New functionality in ProjectWise, Bentley’s platform for project management and collaboration, allows better management of Revit models that are saved in the i-model format using a plug-in. Both ProjectWise and Bentley Navigator, used for navigating, viewing, and marking up models, are now supported on mobile devices such as the iPad. Bentley Navigator is a competitor to Autodesk’s Navisworks, and being built on top of MicroStation provides Navigator with many unique capabilities that give it an edge: it comes integrated with the Luxology rendering engine and can therefore produce photorealistic-quality visualizations; it includes the “dynamic views” capability that was introduced in the V8i release of Bentley’s product family (described in the review of Bentley Architecture V8i); and it has very high fidelity that allows for precise measurements as well as accurate quantity takeoffs. While Bentley didn’t talk much about its BIM applications at the AIA Convention, more details are emerging from its Be Together user conference that was held in Philadelphia this week about a new integrated multi-disciplinary BIM application called AECOsim Building Designer (see Figure 2). We will review this in more detail once it is released.
Figure 2. The ability to view a model in multiple display modes in Bentley’s new AECOsim Building Designer. (Courtesy: Bentley)
Graphisoft focused on demonstrating the features in the new version of ArchiCAD that it just released. While a detailed review of ArchiCAD 15 will be published next month, here are some of the highlights of the new release. It expands the capabilities of its BIM tools to support the creation of richer and more complex forms, such as those found in classical architecture—in fact, a large part of Graphisoft’s demonstrations at the AIA focused on showing classical buildings and how they could be modeled in ArchiCAD. In addition to enhancing the capabilities of its existing tools, it also has a new Shell tool for modeling a broad spectrum of forms (see Figure 3). These shell forms can subsequently be classified as walls, roofs, etc., if required, to be considered as BIM objects and maintain their BIM nature. The interface for 3D modeling has also been improved by introducing 3D guidelines and editing planes. Other key enhancements in ArchiCAD 15 include support for renovation and refurbishment projects with a new Renovation palette providing relevant functionality, improvements to its IFC interface and open collaboration workflow with engineers, full 64-bit support for the Mac OS, and improvements to its parametric object libraries.
Figure 3. The new Shell tool in ArchiCAD 15 makes it easier to create more complex forms. (Courtesy: Graphisoft)
Nemetschek Vectorworks showed Vectorworks 2011, which was reviewed in AECbytes a couple of months ago. In addition to showing key features of the application, especially the enhanced BIM capabilities, the company focused on demonstrating its openBIM initiative, which it refers to as the use of open, international, non-proprietary standards such as IFC and PDF to exchange BIM data between building design participants in their applications. This was demonstrated by showing how IFC files created in different applications could be imported into Vectorworks Architect and used as the basis for collaboration. For example, Figure 4 shows a detailed structural model imported into Vectorworks Architect using the IFC format; it was created in Scia Engineer, a leading 3D structural design and analysis tool. The same model opened in Solibri Model Checker, a popular model-checking application that works with IFC files, is also shown.
Figure 4. A structural model imported in IFC format to Vectorworks Architect. The same IFC file opened in Solibri Model Checker is also shown. (Courtesy: Nemetschek Vectorworks)
A new exhibitor at the show this year was Dassault Systemes, best known until now for its CATIA application which is a leader in the MCAD space, especially in the automobile and aircraft industries. In addition to CATIA, the company also has other products including SolidWorks, SIMULIA, DELMIA, ENOVIA and 3DVIA, all of which are better known in MCAD rather than AEC. However, Dassault Systemes has just launched a new 2D CAD application called DraftSight, which it is hoping will appeal to AEC professionals as well. I saw a demo of it at the AIA and it looks very similar to AutoCAD, or at least the drawing part of it. The best part of DraftSight is that it is free, which is, of course, hard to beat. It remains to be seen if DraftSight succeeds in making any significant dent into the use of AutoCAD in the AEC industry. It is somewhat ironical that DraftSight is being introduced at a time when 3D and BIM are becoming more prevalent in the AEC industry—even Autodesk is literally giving AutoCAD away for free in its new product suites for different industries. While a new 2D application, especially one that simply replicates how an existing application works, does not really help to advance the technological state of the art in the AEC industry, what makes Dassault Systemes a more formidable player in the AEC space is that it is taking over the sales and distribution of Digital Project, the CATIA-based BIM application, from Gehry Technologies. It also points to the possibility that Dassault Systemes may develop a simpler BIM application that has the sophistication of Digital Project but not the complexity. As I pointed out in my BIM Evaluation Study Report, Digital Project is the only BIM application that allows a fully parametric building model to be created; unfortunately, it is too expensive and complex for everyday use as the main BIM application of a firm.
Third-Party BIM Add-ons
In addition to the integration with Trelligence Affinity described in last week’s article, IES, developer of a range of energy analysis and performance simulation applications, focused on showing more options for architects to perform early stage energy analysis on their designs. One of the key products IES has developed for this purpose is VE-Ware, a free whole-building annual energy and carbon usage tool which can be accessed through plug-ins for SketchUp and Revit. In short, it allows the building model to be created in either of these two applications and imported into VE-Ware, where a detailed thermal simulation of the building can be performed after specifying its location and basic parameters such as building type, construction materials, heating and cooling systems, and room types. You can analyze the results, modify the design, and run the simulation again, iterating until the desired energy consumption and carbon performance has been achieved. More detailed analysis on further developed models can be performed by moving to IES’ progressively more sophisticated VE-Toolkits, VE-Gaia, and VE-Pro applications, which were described in the article, Sustainable Design Tools Exhibited at AIA 2009.
Trelligence too had more to share in addition to its IES VE-Gaia integration. While it was still demonstrating version 6 of Affinity at the AIA Convention (on which my detailed article on Affinity published last summer was based), it is working on version 6.2 of the application, which will extend its space planning and programming capabilities even further in its bi-directional integration with Google SketchUp, enabling more granular room-level 3D manipulation in addition to the envelope-level manipulation currently possible. Trelligence has also strengthened its integration with Revit Architecture, allowing Revit families to be mapped and quickly loaded into Affinity. As shown in Figure 5, the graphics from the mapped Revit families are all visible now in Affinity. In addition, there are new tools that improve the generation of room boundary lines and provide additional control over room synchronization—spaces can be synchronized as rooms with walls and/or room separation lines in floor plans, with the additional option of synchronizing departments as areas in area plans.
Figure 5. The enhanced integration with Revit Architecture allows Revit families to be mapped more quickly and accurately in Trelligence Affinity. (Courtesy: Trelligence)
I came across a highly sophisticated rendering solution called Maxwell Render, which has been around for 5 years but was being exhibited at the AIA show for the first time. It uses a rendering engine based on the mathematical equations governing light, which means that all rendering elements are derived from physically accurate models. No tricks or guesswork is used to calculate the lighting, so the result will always be a correct solution, as it would be in the real world, in every pixel of a scene. This makes it possible to create accurate and extremely realistic images with Maxwell Render—the images I saw looked more like photographs than renderings (see Figure 6). In addition to architectural visualization, the product leads in several other fields including product design, jewelry, film production, scientific research, and other high-end rendering markets. It integrates with several popular CAD and BIM applications through plug-ins, including Autodesk VIZ, 3ds Max, ArchiCAD, SketchUp, form.Z, bonzai3D, Rhino, and others. Needless to say, the high quality of the rendering makes it a very resource- and time-intensive process, which is why Next Limit, the company behind the application, has authorized some commercial renderfarms to provide on-demand and/or contract services to Maxwell Render clients.
Figure 6. Examples of interior and exterior architectural visualizations created with Maxwell Render. (Courtesy: Next Limit)
Another new exhibitor at the AIA this year was Limitless Computing, which provides cloud computing rendering services for the AEC industry. Originally offering private clouds hosted in its data center, Limitless Computing launched a cloud rendering service for Revit Architecture in 2009, which provides fast turnaround on Revit renderings without tying up the internal computing resources of a firm. The quality of the rendering is exactly the same as it would be within Revit, as the service uses the same rendering engine. A sample rendering is shown in Figure 7.The company charges per rendered image, with the price ranging from as low as $5 all the way up to $1200, which was for a model with 3 million polygons, 250 lights, and a final rendering of 8x10 inches at 300 dpi. Limitless Computing also showed a new CloudRender add-in for Revit Architecture that renders scenes faster on the cloud directly from Revit, enabling simultaneous modeling without tying up local computing resources. Another interesting technology it has developed is an iPad 2 app that overlays SketchUp files onto the iPad camera view in real-time. As the iPad moves, the view changes to display the SketchUp model superimposed over the landscape. This technology can potentially enable models to be viewed in the real world, prior to construction—provided, of course, they are in SketchUp.
Figure 7. A sample rendering created with Limitless Computing’s cloud rendering service for Revit. This project is by Hilliard Architects of San Francisco. It has 856,641 polygons, 17 lights, and took 3 hours and 55 minutes to render. (Courtesy: Limitless Computing)
Other AEC Solutions
Following the AIA 2009 National Convention, I wrote a dedicated article on the financial and business management applications that were exhibited at that show. While several of these exhibitors did not attend the AIA 2011 convention—Deltek, in particular, was a notable absence—I had the opportunity to get an update on Axium’s Ajera solution for integrated, real-time accounting and project management tasks built specifically for the architecture and engineering industry. There are now two versions of the software available: ajeraCore and ajeraComplete. ajeraCore is the entry-level accounting application that allows you to review expenses, track resources or see a snapshot of a project in real time. ajeraComplete offers all of the features of ajeraCore plus project management and planning tools, forecasting for business development and customized reports. Figure 8 shows a high-level product comparison of the two versions. Both applications include a Project Command Center which allows projects to be set up one time and in one place and holds all the project-related data for easy maintenance, access, and retrieval; a Snapshot Dashboard which provides each user, based on security level, with a real-time view of the firm’s financials and staff utilization; and full financial management, including time and expense entry, payroll, accounts receivable/payable, and banking. Ajera was specifically designed to be easy to use, with the ability for remote access so that it is available from anywhere at any time, and eliminating the need to enter the same data in multiple places. It is used by firms ranging all the way from 1 person to 200-300 employees—the only aspect that prevents it from being implemented in much larger firms is that it does not offer any customization services for some specialized functionality a large client might need. New releases to the software are released monthly with major updates about twice a year; these require just a single update on the server for them to be available to all employees. The data in Ajera can be exported to SQL, an open database, and can also be sent to Newforma, if required.
Figure 8. A high-level product comparison of ajeraCore and ajeraComplete. (Courtesy: Axium)
I also came across a service called FileGenius for AEC customers looking for a simple and cost-effective solution for transferring files if they are not using all the features of other costlier and high-end project management and collaboration solutions such as Buzzsaw, Prolog, and Newforma. FileGenius is an easy-to-use, web-based file transfer and exchange portal to which users can send files from their desktops, making them available to anyone with web or email access (see Figure 9). There is no limit to the number of users; the pricing is based only on how much storage is needed. For example, the monthly subscription for 20 GB of storage is $159, going up to $399 for 100 GB of storage. The application includes many additional features such as batch upload and download; the ability to create unlimited private workspaces for any project, department, or group of users; 256-bit AES SSL encryption of all transactions, and other security features; virus protection and easy-to-understand error alerts; and unlimited phone and email support without additional fees.
Figure 9. An illustration showing how FileGenius works. (Courtesy: Applied Answers)
We had the AIA provide demonstrations of the next version of its Contract Documents software, which will be available on a brand new web-based platform scheduled to go live later in the year. The software essentially provides contract documents for the design and construction industry that are easy to access and use while promoting collaboration and offering time-saving functionality and compatibility. The next generation of the software provides improvements in accessibility, security, flexibility, affordability, and ease of use. Users will have access to the AIA Contract Document library as well as all drafts and final documents, from anywhere at any time with just an Internet connection. Users can work online or download a draft to a computer and continuing working offline, if required. Documents can be shared and edited online among multiple parties from multiple locations, enabling collaboration without having to email documents back and forth. Security has been enhanced by multiple layers of protection including enhanced log-in security, encrypted upload and download of information, and storage of documents with strong backup systems in place. The software will also be more affordable by including new purchase options that allow users to only pay for what they need, instead of purchasing an annual subscription. Ease of use has been enhanced with full text search, a Help Me Choose tool to find the right document, side by side document comparison, an online editor that includes the ability to review and track changes, and the ability to save and print PDF finals of all documents from the online system as well as provide digital signatures for quick sign-off.
Other technology highlights at the AIA 2011 convention included the launch of a new generation of web-connected large-format printers for design professionals by HP; a demonstration of Bluebeam PDF Revu 9.2 showcasing not only the 3D PDF navigation, visual search, and other capabilities described in my recent review of Revu 9, but additional features introduced at the show such as PDF/A compatibility and new localized versions in Swedish, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Spanish; and improvements in the latest version of SketchUp Pro, version 8, and its LayOut module for 2D documentation and presentation. I was especially impressed with the demonstration of how to use Google’s Street View photos to refine the texture of the models created with Building Maker. This feature is especially helpful for adding more detail to site context models created using Google Earth, as Street View photos are typically at a higher resolution, providing buildings with more realism than aerial imagery. This is a good example of how the acquisition of SketchUp by Google is enhancing its capabilities, complementing it with features that were not part of the core SketchUp application.
It was also interesting to see a growing number of rendering solutions specifically for SketchUp exhibited at the AIA, a testament to the growing popularity and use of the application among architects. There was SU Podium, one of the earliest SketchUp plug-ins for creating photorealistic renderings, as well as a relatively new solution called Shaderlight. Both work inside of SketchUp, and while both produced good quality renderings, the impression I got was that SU Podium was more advanced with greater options for materials and lights and incorporating high quality raytracing and global illumination technologies. A few examples of renderings of SketchUp models created using SU Podium are shown in Figure 10.
Figure 10. Examples of renderings created from SketchUp models with the SU Podium plug-in. (Courtesy: Cadalog Inc.; top image is by Mark de Vattimo; lower image is by Mitch Foster).
As I mentioned towards the end of last week’s article on the AIA 2011 convention, it was good to be able to attend the show this year, after being unable to attend the one last year in Miami. Despite the somewhat diminished crowds and reduced number of technology exhibitors, it was very much a vibrant event—almost as if those who attended more than made up for those who didn’t with their enthusiasm and spirit. Also, the show floor seemed as vast as ever, with exhibitors of different building products stepping in to fill the space left by the reduction in technology vendors. I would also commend the AIA for “thinking outside the box” and inviting speakers like Thomas Friedman for the general session keynotes—it was interesting and refreshing to get a perspective on architecture, urban design, and sustainability that was much broader than the narrow and focused one that we typically get at these professional events.
The AIA 2012 convention is scheduled to be held in Washington DC from May 17 to 19, 2012. I definitely hope to be there to check out the progress the AEC technology industry makes by the next year.
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 email@example.com.
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