AEC Technology Updates, Fall 2015 AECbytes Newsletter #76 (September 24, 2015)

This article captures the semi-annual update of the main developments from AEC technology vendors in the last six to seven months, following the two AEC Tech Updates articles that were published in the beginning of the year: one dedicated to building design and analysis applications, and the other dedicated to construction and facilities management applications. The updates covered in this article run across the spectrum of AEC applications and include the 2016 release of the Vectorworks product family that has just been released; a number of mid-year product releases from Autodesk and its new Stingray product for design visualization; several Revit plug-ins including those from Vabi Software, VisionRez, and the new FenestraPro Premium for energy analysis of façade design; additional analysis applications include Sefaira for energy and daylight and Oasys’ MassMotion Flow for pedestrian simulation; the interactive 3D presentation and visualization tool, CLEVER; and finally, a BIM plug-in for SketchUp—at last!

Vectorworks 2016

I had seen a preview of some of the upcoming features in Vectorworks 2016 at the AIA Convention earlier this year including the graphical sculpting capability called Marionette—which I rated it as the “coolest” feature I saw at this year’s AIA—along with a built-in energy analysis tool called Energos, the ability for multiple users to work concurrently on the same Vectorworks file, a mobile app for remote access, support for point clouds (Figure 1), and the capability for subdivision modeling to create smoother freeform objects. The final release, which was just launched by Vectorworks, Inc., formerly Nemetschek Vectorworks, Inc., last week, includes several additional updates and features—totaling over a 100—across the entire Vectorworks product family including Vectorworks Designer, Architect, Landmark, Spotlight, Fundamentals and Renderworks.

Figure 1. The new point cloud support in Vectorworks Architect 2016.

Some of the additional key features in Vectorworks Architect 2016 include the ability to export to 3D PDF, allowing users to share models with clients and collaborators using the common PDF standard; updated roof components and styles that interact correctly with wall components and generate more accurate documentation of sections and elevations; the ability to add or subtract volumes from slab objects; the ability to create horizontal sections from the clip cube and thus isolate horizontal segments of models to provide a better understanding of the design (Figure 2); and options to add greater BIM functionality to database worksheets, enriching the BIM content of a design.

Figure 2. Generating a horizontal section using the clip cube in Vectorworks Architect 2016.

Evaluating Vectorworks Architect as a BIM application in comparison to the other leading BIM applications in the industry—which would seem to be top-most question about it given that the AEC industry is unequivocally moving from CAD to BIM—the application continues to strengthen its value proposition as a cost-effective BIM application, with significant enhancements to its BIM capabilities in every release. (To see how the application has progressed, please refer to the dedicated product review of Vectorworks Architect 2011, followed by overviews of the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 releases in subsequent years.) Some of the main areas in which the application was trailing behind its competitors such as project sharing and point cloud support have been addressed in this release, although Vectorworks still has ways to go before it can catch up with the much more advanced capabilities for these tasks that some of its competitors offer. Also, Vectorworks is still purely an architectural BIM application in contrast to applications like Revit and Bentley which have evolved into platforms providing multi-disciplinary BIM capabilities. On the plus side, Vectorworks has powerful modeling and visualization capabilities, and it puts design unabashedly at the forefront, with its Parasolid modeling engine, CINEMA 4D rendering engine, and the new Marionette and subdivision modeling features, which allow sophisticated forms to be modeled and rendered to a high degree of photorealism.

Autodesk Product Updates and the New Stingray

Earlier this month, Autodesk unveiled some significant updates to its AEC applications. Adding to its extensive modeling and analysis capabilities for infrastructure design including roads, bridges, and drainage (described in the 2014 article, Extending BIM to Infrastructure), InfraWorks 360 now includes traffic simulation capabilities as well. Designers can select the roads in the design they would like to analyze, input traffic flow and mix, specify time of day (rush hour, mid-day, etc.), define turn lanes and set up signalized intersections (Figure 3). They can then run a simulation, getting a better idea of traffic patterns in their roadway designs, and iteratively optimize the designs to comply with the capacity requirements specified by traffic engineers. For Civil 3D, the key enhancement is improved interoperability with Bentley’s civil engineering solutions such as InRoads and GEOPAK. There are also some updates to Advance Steel including enhanced drawing styles for shop drawings, new BOM templates, connection libraries with AISC values, and IFC for Fabrication which should help the application better serve steel detailing and fabrication workflows.

Figure 3. The new traffic simulation capabilities in InfraWorks 360.

Autodesk also recently launched a new visualization tool called Stingray based on its acquisition of the Bitsquid real-time gaming engine last summer. While Stingray can continue to be used to create high quality 3D games, it has also been developed to enable architects and designers to generate fully interactive “on-the-fly” 3D visualizations of their BIM models real-time in 3ds Max, with which it has a live link (Figure 4). It literally means going anywhere in the model and seeing everything as you would in the physical world. Of course, for this to work well, the model needs to be accurately created with the appropriate materials applied to all the surfaces—similar to keeping all the spaces in your house presentable if you are expecting guests who have free rein and can go anywhere they please! Unlike a animation which has a planned sequence and only shows what you decide to show, with an interactive walk-through, users are free to navigate to any part of the model, and you have to take this into account before letting “guests” loose on your model.

Figure 4. Autodesk’s new Stingray real-time visualization application has a live link with 3ds Max, which in turn can import BIM models from Revit.

Revit Plug-Ins

While Autodesk has some updates to Revit as well which will be announced soon, it was interesting to learn about some new and updated third-party Revit plug-ins. The first of these comes from Vabi Software, a company that has been operating in the Dutch market for over 40 years and is now expanding internationally. It has developed a suite of four apps that plug into Revit at the early design stage to enable building performance analysis, better decision making, monitoring of design iterations, and supervising goal achievement of the architect’s or engineer’s BIM model. These plug-in apps include: Financial Simulator, for performing financial analysis of the proposed design; Spatial Requirements Assistant, for optimizing building spaces by automatically monitoring all functional requirements; Thermal Comfort Optimizer, for setting optimal indoor temperatures to increase occupant satisfaction and minimize energy use; and Daylight Ratio Evaluator, for achieving optimal lighting comfort and productivity by automatically monitoring the building’s daylight area ratio within Revit (Figure 5). More of these plug-in apps are being developed by Vabi Software, including a new line of tools specifically for architects, and should be available by the end of the year.

Figure 5. Vabi Software’s Daylight Ratio Evaluator plug-in to Revit.

Another new Revit add-in is FenestraPro Premium, developed by an Irish company and made available in the US exclusively by initial.aec, an Autodesk reseller in the Rocky Mountain region of the US. It is an energy analysis tool that that allows designers to understand a proposed building’s energy performance, based on the façade’s design in the earliest stages of design. Using a conceptual mass model within Revit, designers can open the add-in to verify location information extracted from Revit, functional building use, desired percentage of glazing and review of material performance values. Having this information helps designers to make more informed decisions about the selections of materials that will directly affect the future energy consumption of the design. 

Figure 6. In FenestraPro Premium, an overall “maximum glazing allowed” percentage is calculated based on the performance of the building elements and façade elements and distributed equally on all facades.

A Revit plug-in that was recently updated is VisionREZ, which customizes Revit for residential design. Now in its third major release, VisionREZ 2016 for Revit comprises three modules: the Architecture module, which gives design professionals the ability to create and edit residential roof planes with automated fascia, frieze, and soffit trim; the Structure module, which automates the creation of detailed light frame wood framing for walls, floors, roofs, and ceilings, with support for solid sawn joists, EWP and floor trusses; and the Options Management module, which gives production home professionals support for creating master plansets and lot specific plans, all within the same Revit workspace. VisionREZ was acquired by Alpine, a leading provider of building component software, metal connector products and equipment to component manufacturers, some years ago, and it now integrates with other Alpine applications such as its IntelliVIEW truss design suite. VisionREZ was earlier available as a plug-in for AutoCAD Architecture (see its reviews under AECbytes Archived Reviews), and—in what can only be seen as a testament to the growing use of Revit and diminishing use of AutoCAD Architecture—it has been developed to work with the full-fledged BIM capabilities of Revit as well.

Figure 7. A residential building model developed with the VisionREZ plug-in to Revit.

Analysis and Simulation Tools

At the AIA Convention earlier this summer, Sefaira, which has rapidly established itself as a leading solution provider for early stage performance analysis, released new daylighting capabilities in its software that allowed real-time daylighting analysis and visualization directly within SketchUp and Revit Architecture—the two design applications it currently integrates with. Last week, Sefaira expanded this capability to include direct sunlight analysis, which allows building designers to understand where and for how many hours a space receives direct sunlight. This analysis is required for code compliance in different parts of the world, including Australia’s SEPP 65 requirement, the UK’s BRE Site Layout Planning for Daylight and Sunlight, and the B3 code in Minnesota in the US. Apart from code compliance, direct sunlight analysis is used by many building designers for passive solar and shading device design. This feature nicely complements Sefaira’s existing daylighting and real-time energy analysis capabilities (Figure 8), helping designers to better understand the implications of their decisions on a building’s performance. 

Figure 8. The new Direct Sunlight Analysis feature in Sefaira (lower image) adds to the daylighting analysis and visualization capabilities it introduced earlier this summer (top image).

In my article on Autodesk University 2012, I had written about the MassMotion tool for pedestrian simulation and crowd analysis that was exhibited by Oasys, a technology spinoff from Arup. The company recently came out with a variant of MassMotion called MassMotion Flow, targeted towards the wider design industry at a lower price point. MassMotion itself has an updated user interface and new analysis tools since I last saw it in 2012, providing it with more powerful yet user-friendly capabilities for simulating crowd movement and analyzing pedestrian flow (Figure 9). These include the use of a high-performance database to store and retrieve simulation results; a variety of built-in graphing, mapping and filtering tools allowing users to analyze designs more easily; simulation scenarios that cover multiple days and have large crowds; and the ability to develop custom analysis based on spatial, temporal, operational, and personal characteristics of people and their environment. It is even possible to run and view an analysis on multiple result sets at the same time. The building models on which the pedestrian simulation will be run can be imported into both MassMotion and Flow from BIM applications through the IFC format. With the lower price point of MassMotion Flow and the ease with which BIM models can be imported for pedestrian analysis, it will incentivize more building designers to better understand pedestrian interaction and behavior for the spaces they envision and tailor their designs accordingly.

Figure 9. Pedestrian simulation and analysis for a proposed building design in MassMotion.

Design Visualization … and a BIM Plug-in for SketchUp!

Autodesk’s Stingray, described earlier, may be the newest kid on the block, but it is not altogether unique. Another interactive presentation and visualization tool that I recently had the opportunity to see is CL3VER, a cloud based platform that can be used by AEC professionals to create and distribute interactive 3D presentations from their designs. The platform supports leading modeling applications such as Autodesk 3ds Max, Revit, SketchUp and Rhino with dedicated one-click plugins, which means that models created in these applications can be exported into the CL3VER editor with a single click. In addition to the geometry, the plug-ins also export hierarchy, textures and materials from the original 3D model. In addition to these modeling applications, models in other 3D formats such as FBX, DAE, 3DS, OBJ, STL, and KMZ can be dragged and dropped into the CL3VER platform. Once the model is brought into CL3VER, you can set additional visualization aspects such as materials, textures, environment, lights and cameras; add animation and interactivity; create effects such as cross sections; and apply an automatic lightmap system to a scene. Once the presentation is finished, it can be privately shared via email or published on the web; it can also be downloaded for offline viewing on any device.

Figure 10. The interface of the interactive presentation and visualization tool, CL3VER, which allows a guided presentation of a design.

The main difference between CL3VER and an application like Stingray—where the navigation is completely unconstrained and you can go where you please—is that there is some navigational guidance in CL3VER which has been created by the presenter using simple UI elements like buttons, tooltips, etc. Within this “guided tour,” the user can navigate freely and explore the project. Thus, CL3VER avoids the rigidity of a fixed animation sequence, while at the same time allowing the architect to choreograph the message that he/she wants to communicate to the audience, allowing them to focus on and explore only the important part/views/elements of a project.

And finally, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is actually a BIM-like plug-in for SketchUp, after lamenting in my AIA 2015 article in May that we still did not have a more general BIM extension for SketchUp—when referring to the extension to SketchUp for MEP design that Trimble had recently released. I was alerted to PlusSpec for SketchUp not only by its developer but also by some readers from Australia where the company is based. What PlusSpec essentially lets you do is create a building model in SketchUp by using tools specifically for creating walls, roofs, slabs, columns, windows, doors, and so on rather than generic 3D objects. These objects can be parametrically edited, retaining their building properties. Essentially, you are creating a SketchUp model with building elements rather than generic 3D elements, while, at the same time, drawing on SketchUp’s ease of use for conceptual design and modeling. The building models created with the PlusSpec plug-in can be populated with building component models from actual product manufacturers by dragging and dropping them from an online store called RubySketch. PlusSpec also provides the ability to generate material take-offs and estimates from the building model.

Figure 11. The PlusSpec plug-in can be used to create BIM models within the SketchUp environment.

Conclusion

This concludes the Fall 2015 update for AEC technology applications. In addition to new product releases and updates from established vendors such as Autodesk and Vectorworks, it was also heartening to see many developments from smaller vendors, showing that innovation can flourish irrespective of the company size. It was also interesting to see a large number of these innovations happening outside the US, with Vabi Software from the Netherlands, FenestraPro from Ireland, Oasys MassMotion from the UK, CL3VER from Spain, and PlusSpec from Australia. This seems to be a growing trend, one that I also pointed out in my Tech Updates article at the beginning of the year. The technological challenges that are facing the AEC industry are still so large and so global that we could certainly do with more ideas, more developments, and more perspectives from different parts of the world.

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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