AECbytes Newsletter #64 (July 10, 2013)

Technology Product Highlights from AIA 2013 Expo

The AIA 2013 Convention and Expo was held in Denver a few weeks ago from June 20 to 22. While I was unfortunately not able to attend the Convention this year, it is always informative to learn about the technology products that were exhibited. The AIA Convention is the premier show for the architectural profession held annually in the US, and many of the leading AEC technology vendors typically time significant announcements and updates to coincide with the show. This year was no exception with some major developments from Autodesk, including enhancements to the conceptual design app, Formit, that was introduced at the last Autodesk University, and a new application for design scripting called Dynamo, Affinity 8 from Trelligence, form.Z 7.0 and bonzai3D 3.0 from AutoDesSys, the new IESVE for Architects from IES, the launch of Vectorworks Cloud Services, the new release of SketchUp from Trimble, and the upcoming TurboSite for Google Glass from IMSI/Design. Let’s take a closer look at these developments.

Autodesk FormIt and Dynamo

One of the most exciting product announcements that came out from Autodesk University 2012 held last December was the launch of Autodesk FormIt, a new tool for conceptual design for the iPad that can be used to create 3D massing models on the go, whenever inspiration strikes. It was the first design app that allowed tablets to be used to also create content and not just consume it. Also, unlike SketchUp, which is currently the leading tool for conceptual design and modeling, FormIt is building and site aware, which means that it can be used at the start of a BIM workflow and plugs right into it. The conceptual 3D models created with FormIt can be imported into Vasari for conceptual energy analysis, as well as Revit for schematic design and detailed development of the building project. Autodesk has just released an updated version of FormIt, version 4.0, which includes a number of enhancements including the ability to layer images such as a floor plan to provide a reference for modeling (as shown in Figure 1), create a custom material library, apply transparency to materials, capture and send screen shots of the model to the library and via email, and import and export SAT and OBJ files for transferring the model to another application or for 3D printing. A browser-based version of FormIt is now available, which means that it can run on a regular computer as well and not just an iPad. The browser-based version, however, does not support touch-based gestures, so even if you were using a touch-enabled computer with an OS like Windows 8, you would still have to use the mouse to work with FormIt on a Web browser. The app is currently in public beta and is still free.

Figure 1. The new version of the FormIt app enables additional layers to be added and used as a reference for modeling. (Courtesy: Autodesk).

Autodesk also showed its new Dynamo application, which is a design scripting application. For those who are familiar with Bentley’s GenerativeComponents application, and the move of its creator, Dr. Robert Aish, from Bentley to Autodesk in 2008, this development has been long-sought and was very welcome. In fact, in my article on Autodesk University 2012, I lamented the fact that Autodesk still didn’t have an application for generative building design in its portfolio and we had yet to see any application coming out of Aish’s move to Autodesk. Well, it is here at last! With Dynamo, you can write scripts, defining rules and relationships, to generate a form, which can be quickly modified simply by changing a rule or modifying a relationship (see Figure 2). Essentially, it is a programming tool for generating building forms, which can subsequently be imported into Vasari or Revit for further development through add-ins. While Dynamo is still in the starting phase, it is a very exciting development for Autodesk, and given Autodesk’s leading position in the AEC industry, it has the potential to enhance the overall state of the art of AEC technology. Even though, Bentley has had GenerativeComponents for many years, its use has been limited to a few, highly sophisticated AEC firms (as evidenced by the annual SmartGeometry conferences). Autodesk’s Dynamo may be able to break out of this mold and make design scripting much more commonplace in AEC.

Figure 2. Generating and manipulating a form through a design script in Dynamo. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Other Key Updates

AutoDesSys used the AIA Expo to demonstrate the newly updated form•Z 7.0 and bonzai3d 3.0, with an exhibit of full scale installations that were designed and prepared for fabrication in form•Z. Both applications are relatively intuitive to use yet powerful 3D design applications. bonzai3d, which was launched a few years ago, was built on the form•Z engine, but targeted towards the conceptual phase of building design. The updates in form•Z 7.0 include better sketching, sculpting, and NURBS modeling to make them superior to those offered by other popular programs. It is possible to create highly complex and organic forms with form•Z (see Figure 3), and through direct modeling rather than having to write special scripts, as with some other modeling applications. bonzai3d 3.0 is a major update and includes multiple enhancements with fourteen new tools that add functionality for fabrication, 3D printing, NURBS modeling, shape editing, texture mapping and component management. Both form•Z and bonzai3d support fabrication and produce solid robust models that can be sent to 3D printers without falling apart.

Figure 3. Modeling a complex form in form•Z that can be fabricated. (Courtesy: AutoDesSys)

Trelligence showed a new version of its space programming and planning application, Affinity 8, with updates such as an enhanced Report Editor usability for easier customization of Affinity reports, and graphics improvements in Affinity Design. (For a detailed description of Affinity, see the article, Trelligence Affinity: Extending BIM to Space Programming and Planning.) Affinity 8 also includes enhanced bi-directional integration with both Revit Architecture and AECOsim Building Designer, the leading BIM applications for architects. The integration features an embedded Affinity Program Panel that allows for direct placement of Affinity Program items into the Revit or AECOsim design view (see Figure 4). The Revit plug-in additionally has a new search/highlight feature, so you can select items in the Program Panel and see a visual highlight on the corresponding space in the Revit model. It also includes new Revit Room Data Sheets (RDS) that embed the Revit room layout into Affinity RDS reports. Trelligence also showed some of the new Affinity Cloud Bridge functionality, which provides project teams, clients, and other partners and collaborators with online access to the Affinity program data from any browser or device, allowing them to import/export data, run reports, use web forms to input project data in a structured format, and perform queries online.

Figure 4. The Affinity plug-in to Bentley’s AECOsim Building Designer allows access to the Affinity program data in the BIM application. (Courtesy: Trelligence)

IES, the leading vendor in the performance analysis field, used the AIA 2013 show to launch a new Architectural package, IESVE for Architects. It is an attempt to address some of the issues and barriers that makes architects still hesitant to incorporate performance analysis in their design processes, despite the increasing awareness of the importance of sustainability and green design among the profession and society as a whole. IESVE for Architects is specifically intended to make it easier for architects to adopt building performance into day-to-day practice, and start thinking about it in the early design phase when they are exploring different building forms (see Figure 5). The analysis capabilities of the new application include climate consideration, daylight impact and strategies, solar intensity, and LEED credit potential. It also comes with a new training program developed specifically for architects. Being better informed on performance from the start of the design process allows architects to retain control over their design and not sacrifice aesthetics for performance, but work on both of them together.

Figure 5. The new energy evaluation application, IESVE for Architects. (Courtesy: IES)

In addition to demonstrating its current release, Vectorworks 2013 (an overview of which was provided in the AEC Technology Updates article published last fall), Nemetschek Vectorworks provided an overview of its new cloud service offering. It works in a similar fashion to other cloud services, allowing Vectorworks files to be stored in a private cloud and easily shared with other project team members. It includes three main components: the Vectorworks Cloud Services Desktop App, which allows users to create and maintain their cloud library from any desktop computer and is responsible for automatically synchronizing changes between the local Vectorworks files and those in the cloud storage; the Vectorworks Cloud Services Web Portal, which allows users to access the cloud library from any web-enabled device and view the Vectorworks files, any markups that have been created, and share files with clients or collaborators; and finally, the Vectorworks Nomad Mobile Application, which allows users to access their Vectorworks Cloud Services library from a mobile device, and view, measure, annotate, print, and share files (see Figure 6). In addition to making it easier to access and share files, the Vectorworks Cloud Services include other benefits such as providing a reliable backup system that allows users to store and revert to previous versions of their projects; simplifying file migration, symbol handling, and other manual administrative work; and handling processes like batch printing, rendering, etc., so that the desktop and design time is freed up for creative work. It includes an online CAD viewer and supports an offline mode, so that files can be accessed even if no Internet connection is available. The service is part of Vectorworks’ customer subscription program so it is available to members without any additional cost.

Figure 6. Viewing a Vectorworks model using the Vectorworks Nomad app on the iPad. (Courtesy: Nemetschek Vectorworks)

Additional Highlights

AIA attendees also had a chance to see the new version of SketchUp from Trimble Navigation, which acquired SketchUp from Google last year. SketchUp is still the most popular 3D modeling program, and comes in two versions: a free version now called SketchUp Make targeted at hobbyists and members of the fast-growing maker community, and a paid—but inexpensive—version called SketchUp Pro for design professionals. SketchUp Pro 2013 was launched at the AIA 2013 show and features several improvements to its LayOut and 2D documentation capabilities. It also marks the debut of Extension Warehouse, a one-stop shop of add-on tools built by developers using SketchUp’s open application programming interface, making it easier for users to search, find and install SketchUp extensions for specific tasks (see Figure 7). There are, however, no new modeling capabilities as such. With the acquisition of SketchUp, Trimble adds to its growing portfolio of AEC technology products it has acquired over the last few years, including Tekla and Vico. Currently, these are all disparate applications serving different needs and target markets; it should be interesting to see if Trimble has a broader strategy in mind and will attempt to integrate them at some point.

Figure 7. The new SketchUp Extension Warehouse. (Courtesy: Trimble Navigation)

Additional highlights of the AIA Expo this year include the announcement from IMSI/Design that its TurboSite mobile app will be available for the new Google Glass device when it will become available later this year. TurboSite is an AEC job site app that works on an iPad and enables site engineers to take notes, annotations, pictures, and videos and group them as a single point in a floor plan, which is automatically synchronized with its CAD drawing and includes geo-location. It makes documenting walk-throughs and creating punch lists much faster and less tedious. With Google Glass, which is a wearable computer with an optical, head-mounted display, site engineers don’t even need to carry around an iPad. They can simply wear the smart device glasses running TurboSite, and will see the building plans directly in front of them. GPS will track their movement through a drawing. The built-in eye glass camera will let them take pictures and record video and TurboSite will automatically insert these into a markup layer at the exact location. When the field report is finished, it can be automatically printed for distribution or instantly sent electronically to the design and construction team. TurboSite is the first AEC app we know of that is being developed for Google Glass. It should be interesting to see whether this new device takes off in the AEC industry.

Other vendors who exhibited at the AIA show include Keymark, which showed its new BuildEdge PLAN 2.0 for Sketchup, which can be used to create a building model instead of just geometry; Bluebeam, which showed the latest version of its PDF-based Revu application for digital project management and collaboration in AEC; Graphisoft, which showed the recently released ArchiCAD 17, that was just reviewed in AECbytes, as well as the new BIMobject app, which integrates with ArchiCAD and provides users access to a large repository of BIM objects online; and Bentley, which showed its AECOsim suite of building applications, its increasing portfolio of mobile AEC apps, and the new digital rights management of its ProjectWise application, which is by far the leading collaboration and project management solution used in the AEC industry. (See the recent AECbytes survey results on a comparison of Bentley ProjectWise and Autodesk Vault Collaboration AEC.)

That’s it as far as coverage of the AIA 2013 Expo. The AIA 2014 Convention is scheduled to be held next year from June 26 to 28 in Chicago. We can anticipate many more technology developments in AEC by then.



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


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