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AECbytes Newsletter #57 (May 24, 2012)

Technology Product Highlights from AIA 2012 Expo: Part 1

Last week, I attended the AIA 2012 Convention and Expo that was held in Washington DC from May 17 to 19. The theme of the Convention this year was “Design Connects,” and while there were a lot of interesting keynote presentations and sessions, I did not find them very compelling from an AEC technology perspective or featuring a highly reputed personality like Tom Friedman, who was one of main keynote speakers at last year’s convention. As a result, I devoted all my time at the Convention to exploring the technology products on display at the Expo, which resulted in a more detailed understanding of new products and updates. Unlike earlier AIA articles which provided a brief overview of most of the products that were on display, this two-part series of articles on the AIA 2012 Convention provides more detailed descriptions of the products and services offered by the AEC technology vendors that I visited.

While exact attendance numbers are not yet available for this year’s Convention, a chat with the event’s organizers revealed that the number of attendees seemed to be a little more than last year. However, the total number of exhibitors had fallen slightly, despite the fact that the economy is starting to pick up again. A possible explanation for this seems to be that the exhibitor number always seems to lag slightly behind the economic numbers, so the improvements in the economy will take some time to catch up with the attendance decisions of vendors at events like the AIA. I personally found this year’s event a lot less hectic compared to previous years, with fewer exhibitors in the Software Pavilion and no evening events arranged by companies such as Autodesk, HP, and Adobe as in the past. Of course, Adobe has not exhibited at the AIA for some years now, and the Expo floor is a lot less crowded than it used to be. Thankfully, the shortfall in technology vendors seems to be made up by building product manufacturers who continue to exhibit cutting-edge products and materials, making the show still worthwhile for the average architect or other AEC professional to attend. And of course, Washington DC, with its many historic and government buildings, continues to remain an architect’s delight and is one of the top tourist destinations of the country.

In the current article, we will explore a new pedestrian simulation software integrated into Vectorworks that seemed to be nicely representative of using computational power for more advanced and intelligent tasks, the enhancements in Bluebeam’s new release, Revu 10, for PDF generation, review, and collaboration, and the many enhancements in ArchiCAD 16 that is being released by Graphisoft later this month. We will also look at the several new iPad apps that were on display this year, suggesting that this new medium is taking off in AEC. The second article on the AIA Convention that will be published next week will look at what was shown at the AIA 2012 Expo by established companies like Bentley, Autodesk, Trelligence, IES, Cadalog, and Axium; newcomers to the show such as Smart Technologies, SmartBIM, and Archability; and some additional highlights relevant to AEC technology.

SimTread: Simulating Pedestrian Behavior in Vectorworks

One of the key new products introduced at the AIA 2012 Convention was SimTread, an add-on to Vectorworks that can be used to simulate crowd movement and analyze pedestrian flow, allowing the designer of a complex space to better understand the flow of people in it and tailor the design response accordingly. This could be used in different ways—for example, to design an art museum to respond to the slow meandering of people through it; to design an auditorium so that all the occupants can exit most efficiently after a performance; to design a train station with the optimum number of exits to avoid bottlenecks when people are exiting from a train; and so on. The software can also be used to simulate evacuations on all types of buildings in case of an emergency. SimTread was developed by the Vectorworks distributor in Japan, A&A Co. Ltd., in partnership with the Waseda University and Takenaka Corporation, both of which are also from Japan.

While SimTread is an example of the advanced use of technology for analysis, surprisingly, it does not need a BIM model to run in—it is in 2D rather than in 3D and can therefore run on top of a 2D drawing created in Vectorworks. In fact, it can even be used with imported PDFs, image files, or DWGs within Vectorworks. It works by designating areas of the design as destination zones, which would typically be the exits; and barriers, which would be elements such as wall, columns, furniture, and so on that a pedestrian cannot go through. You can also identify slow zones, within which pedestrian speed is slower than normal. All of these are identified by polygons, and if the drawing is not vector-based, you can actually draw these zones on top of it. After the zones have been identified, pedestrians can be computationally generated and they will move from the point of origin towards a destination at a designated speed. The number of pedestrians generated at a time can be specified, along with the interval between subsequent generations. In the simulation images shown in Figure 1, the uncolored dots represent free-moving pedestrians, the blue dots represent those whose speed has been reduced, and the red dots represent the pedestrians who have been forced to stop altogether. More details of how SimTread works can be found in this paper on the Vectorworks website.


Figure 1. Examples of pedestrian simulation in different theater designs using SimTread. (Courtesy: Nemetschek Vectorworks)

While I was very impressed with the intelligent use of technology evident in SimTread—it obviously works based on encoded rules about pedestrian flow and behavior, similar to an expert system—and is headed in the right direction with more sophisticated use of computational technology, it does lead to some questions we need to ask ourselves professionally. Should architects have this knowledge anyway as part of their training and professional practice? After all, we do have standards and codes to guide us on pedestrian behavior and emergency evacuation when we design a space. While there is little doubt that seeing a simulation visually does add to our understanding and can encourage more efficient design, there is the legitimate concern that availability of tools such as SimTread can make architects more “dumb” and reliant on technology to design effectively, perhaps similar to how relying on a GPS device for navigation can make people stop looking at maps and know very little about where they are going.

Revu 10 from Bluebeam

The last version of Revu was released about a year ago, and AECbytes published a comparative review of Bluebeam PDF Revu 9 and Acrobat Acrobat X Pro at that time. Since then, Adobe has all but given up on the AEC market, while Bluebeam has strengthened its Revu product to make its PDF publishing and collaboration capability even more compelling for AEC users. Revu 10 continues to build up on the 3D PDF viewing capability that had been introduced in Revu 9. It now includes the ability to create 3D markups and 3D markup views, making it easier to communicate instructions about complex design changes (see Figure 2). It also includes plug-ins for Revit and Navisworks that enable model data from these applications to be extracted as 3D PDFs, allowing them to be shared across the entire project team, even those who don’t have access to 3D applications. It should be noted that these plug-ins are only available in the CAD and eXtreme versions of the application, whereas the ability to mark up 3D PDF files is available to all Revu users. (Revu continues to come in three versions: Standard, CAD and eXtreme.)


Figure 2. The ability to add markups to 3D views in Revu 10. (Courtesy: Bluebeam)

One of the shortcomings of Revu prior to this version, which I pointed out in my last review, was that it lacked a free version for viewing, and relied instead on Adobe Reader for this capability. This is no longer an issue as Bluebeam has launched a free PDF viewer called Bluebeam Vu, allowing AEC professionals to create as well as share project PDF files on the same platform. Recall that Bluebeam includes a Studio service, which enables digital collaboration on PDF drawings and documents in real-time. Bluebeam Studio now provides up to 5GB of free storage, and allows invited users to check out documents, edit and apply markups, and check documents back in. Multiple team members can simultaneously review documents during Studio sessions, and even non-Revu users—including Owners, consultants, engineers, GCs and subs—can view files stored in projects or join real-time collaboration sessions with the new Bluebeam Vu.

Other key new features in Revu 10 are Links and Spaces. The Links feature is essentially a hyperlink manager, which manages all the hyperlinks provided to pertinent information, including RFIs, material specs, and other details. Users can view and edit all document hyperlinks in the Places section of the Links tab, and any time a hyperlink is changed, Revu can update all instances throughout the document automatically, saving time and reducing errors. The new Spaces feature enables teams to redline PDFs and automatically assign markups to specified areas or rooms (see Figure 3). When a markup is placed in a defined Space, the location is tracked in the Markups list, which can be sorted, filtered and summarized to CSV, XML or PDF, very useful for punchlists, bids and other workflows in which it is important to know the exact location of an issue or material.


Figure 3. The Spaces feature in Revu 10 which allows users to define areas or rooms on PDFs for automatic markup tracking. (Courtesy: Bluebeam)

ArchiCAD 16 from Graphisoft

Graphisoft has just released the next version of its popular BIM application, ArchiCAD. While a detailed review of ArchiCAD 16 will be published next month, a brief overview of some of its main features that were highlighted at the AIA 2012 Expo will be given here. ArchiCAD continues to build upon the theme of “design freedom” which was the focus of the last release, ArchiCAD 15, and improved ArchiCAD’s ability to model freeform buildings while still retaining the BIM nature of the model. ArchiCAD 15 did this with a new Shell tool, an expanded Roof tool, and the ability to create and edit a model in 3D perspective views. ArchiCAD 16 adds a new Morph tool to this repertoire, which is even more sophisticated, versatile, and easier to use compared to the Shell tool. With the Morph tool, any geometry can be created in an intuitive, graphical way, with techniques such as Push/Pull, free movement of any edge, point and surface to dramatically reshape an object, and easy fine-tuning of textures on any surface (see Figure 4). It was hard to tell the difference between 3D modeling using the Morph tool in ArchiCAD versus the same capability in SketchUp! Needless to say, this is a terrific shot in the arm for ArchiCAD, giving it capabilities for conceptual 3D modeling that are difficult to find in most BIM applications.


Figure 4. Modeling an object more intuitively with the new Morph tool in ArchiCAD 16. (Courtesy: Graphisoft)

The elements created with the Morph tool are full-fledged ArchiCAD components that appear in all ArchiCAD views and lists and can be classified for structural or MEP export, enabling it to be used for creating custom shapes of any type. Also, any existing object can be transformed into a full-fledged Morph element, with freely editable faces, edges, points, and listable parameters.

Along with ArchiCAD 16, Graphisoft is also introducing a BIM Components library, similar to the 3D Warehouse for SketchUp, which allows users to upload, share, or download components that they can use immediately in their own models instead of taking the time and effort to re-create them. Graphisoft’s BIM Components library would include ArchiCAD models only, and would be BIM-ready, which means that they would have the necessary BIM information associated with them (or the individual sub-components making up the model). ArchiCAD users could freely contribute and use content, and building product manufacturers could also add models of their products to this library so they could be more easily accessible to ArchiCAD users. Unlike SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse, all the models in the ArchiCAD BIM Components library would be vetted by Graphisoft to ensure that they are properly created and carry the necessary BIM content. With this library, Graphisoft is essentially creating a more formal community of ArchiCAD users, who can share models and find custom components for their BIM projects much more easily than in the past.

Other highlights of ArchiCAD 16 include a greater nod to the call for sustainability by integrating the earlier EcoDesigner plug-in with the application (see the earlier review of EcoDesigner in AECbytes). It also includes new capabilities that allow architects to perform a dynamic energy evaluation of their BIM model within ArchiCAD, relying on BIM geometry analysis and accurate hour-by-hour online weather data of the building’s location (see Figure 5). The ability to add IFC properties to an element, as well as Omniclass and Masterclass definitions, has been expanded and improved, reinforcing Graphisoft’s commitment to interoperability and its push for OpenBIM (see the recent article, Around the World with BIM, for more on OpenBIM) to exchange data seamlessly between AEC professionals using different BIM applications when they need to collaborate. ArchiCAD 16 also features integration with popular e-SPECS application for automating the derivation of specifications from the model. The integration is similar to how it works for Revit, and is a healthy sign that the ArchiCAD universe of third-party plug-ins seems to be growing.


Figure 5. Visualizing the energy model of a building in ArchiCAD 16. (Courtesy: Graphisoft)

More iPad Apps and Cloud-BasedServices

I saw a dramatic increase in the number of tablets and apps at this year’s AIA show, making it difficult to believe that there were only a handful just six months ago, when I wrote my series of two articles on apps: iPad Apps for AEC: Design and Visualization and iPad Apps for AEC: Project Management and Construction. Apps now seem to be ubiquitous and it seems that every vendor has one. Most of these are still iPad apps, and most of the tablets I saw on display were iPads, indicating that this is still very much an Apple world. All the three vendors discussed in this article so far had their own iPad apps: Vectorworks has introduced a Vectorworks Nomad app to share and access Vectorworks files while on the go; Bluebeam’s new free PDF viewer, Vu, is available as an iPad app as well; and Graphisoft’s BIMx app, which I wrote about in the Design and Visualization article mentioned above, now has a stereoscopic display, allowing you to see the model in 3D if you are wearing 3D glasses. In addition, I saw a number of new apps demonstrated by Microdesk, an Autodesk reseller, who is also marketing these apps to its customers. These apps include Clickar, which takes a 2D image printed on a paper and syncs it with a model that has previously been uploaded to the service, showing a 3D model of the view when seen through an iPad (see Figure 6). Another app called Kaust provides a similar service except that the 2D image can be associated with several 3D models, one of which can be selected though the iPad for 3D viewing. In Kaust, you can also highlight or click on an object for more information on it. All these seem to be new and interesting ways in which architects can present and review design concepts with their clients.



Figure 6. Seeing a 3D model superimposed on a 2D printed image using the Clickar iPad app. (Courtesy: Clickar)

What was also big was the “cloud.” Autodesk had already launched its own cloud last October, with 1 GB of storage space for all users and 3 GB for its Subscription customers. Graphisoft’s new BIM Components library is cloud-based, and so is the BIMx community on Facebook that is the central hub for posting and sharing BIMx models for use in the BIMx iPad app. Vectorworks launched its own cloud services last month, allowing its users to access and share files and make design decisions from any location; any changes made to the files are automatically synchronized to their private cloud storage. Bluebeam does not have a separate cloud offering apart from its Studio service for real-time collaboration on PDF drawings and documents, which provides up to 5GB of free storage. For users not on Studio, PDF files can still be pulled from DropBox or linked from iTunes to use with the Bluebeam Vu app on the iPad.

In addition, an interesting new cloud-based product I became aware of CadFaster|Collaborate and its integration with Vectorworks. This is a third-party plug-in that works as a cloud-based collaboration tool, allowing users to distribute CAD and BIM models for immediate review. It also works as an easy-to-use, high-performance visualization tool, and comes, of course, as an iPad app as well, allowing members of the project team to view and mark up a user’s Vectorworks models remotely and in real-time, whether from a computer or an iPad (see Figure 7). The models are compressed when they are uploaded for sharing, and the application works even in low-bandwidth environments, making it easily accessible to a large number of people. I was impressed with the interface of CadFaster|Collaborate which was intuitive and visually pleasing, making it easy to navigate the model, take measurements off it, and add mark-ups. 


Figure 7. Using CadFaster|Collaborate to view and markup an uploaded Vectorworks model remotely. (Courtesy: CadFaster)

That’s it for this article. Stay tuned for more AEC technology updates from the AIA 2012 Expo, along with my overall impressions, in the second article that will be published next week.

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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