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AECbytes Product Review (April 30, 2008)

Revit Architecture 2009

Product Summary

Revit Architecture 2009 is the latest release of Autodesk’s BIM application for architectural design that integrates elements, views, and annotations into a single, coordinated building information model.

Pros: New mental ray rendering engine and extensive library of predefined materials allows high-quality renderings to be generated within Revit Architecture; additional rendering aids include photometric lights and expanded library of RPC content; new Swept Blend massing tool allows more complex forms to be modeled; macros capability gives users direct access to the Revit API for developing useful aids and shortcuts; new navigation tools make it easier to view the model from any desired angle; ability to apply color fills to sections; many other enhancements in modeling, interface, display, document creation, and interoperability; continues to remain very intuitive and easy to use.

Cons: Interface for conceptual modeling lacks the fluidity of other 3D modeling applications; complex building elements still relatively difficult to model; the potential for better inferencing and smarts to cut down on modeling steps remains largely unexploited.

Price: Suggested retail price for the standalone (non network) version is $5495.

This review of the new version of Revit Architecture, which Autodesk started shipping earlier this month, is the third in a series of product reviews of architectural design applications in AECbytes, which started earlier this month with Nemetchek’s Allplan BIM 2008 Architecture and was followed last week by a review of AutoCAD Architecture 2009. The latter, by the way, has sparked off a very interesting discussion on the AECbytes blog about what is a BIM application and what is not, and what is the nature of “true BIM,” if there is such a thing at all. It is a discussion very relevant also to Revit—being one of the leading BIM solutions available today—and we will come back to it later on in this review. Let us first explore the various avenues along which Revit Architecture has progressed in this 2009 release.

To compare notes with previous releases, see the reviews of Revit Architecture 2008, Revit Building 9, and Revit Building 8. Those studying the evolution of Revit can even go as far back as Revit 7 and Revit 6 from the days when Revit was still a single application rather than a platform of multi-disciplinary products.

Dramatic Improvements in Rendering and Visualization

Up until now, one of the main limitations of Revit from a design and visualization standpoint was that its built-in rendering capabilities were not on par with those of other, more established, 3D modeling and BIM applications. That limitation gets all but eroded in Revit Architecture 2009, which replaces the AccuRender engine that Revit has had so far with the more sophisticated mental ray rendering engine. This brings new capabilities to Revit such as physically accurate lighting, automatic daylighting, real sun and sky solutions, and an optimized render solution for architectural scenes, resulting in much higher-quality renderings than before, as shown in Figure 1. The Rendering dialog, now easily accessible from the View Control Bar, has been improved to make the basic options easier to understand and select for the casual user, while advanced users can access more detailed settings to fine-tune the rendered image. A new Region option allows only a portion of the scene to be rendered, which is useful for testing parts of the scene before investing the time to render it completely.


Figure 1. The new rendering capabilities in Revit Architecture 2009, powered by the mental ray rendering engine. (a) shows a shaded interior view of the model while (b) shows the Rendering dialog settings and the resultant rendering.

The new rendering capability has been nicely complemented by the enhancement of the predefined material library in Revit Architecture, which is now more extensive and better organized into material classes such as concrete, fabric, glass, metal, wood, etc. that can be easily browsed by thumbnails or searched by keywords. For each material, a new Render Appearance dialog provides options to further control its appearance and visual effects. This can be seen in Figure 2-a, which shows the Materials dialog for the floor finish of the floor object that appears in Figure 1. Clicking on the Replace button in this dialog allows you to select an alternate floor finish material for this object, and you can see from Figure 2-b what an extensive range of predefined options is available for hardwood floor materials alone. This is true of other material types as well, making it likely that Revit users will no longer need recourse to external texture libraries except perhaps for very specialized object types and materials.


Figure 2. The Materials dialog showing the new Render Appearance settings for the floor finish that was rendered in Figure 1, and the additional materials library that is available to select an alternate floor finish.

Other rendering enhancements in Revit Architecture 2009 include the ability of lighting fixtures to be photometric and have their light distribution settings defined by IES files. Many manufacturers provide IES files for their lighting fixtures, which can be download from their Web sites. If IES files are not used to describe the light source, real-world lighting variables can be specified based on manufacturer information. These improvements provide more accurate, realistic lighting in the rendered image. Additionally, lights can now be grouped, which makes them easier to work with. Another enhancement is the improved library of RPC (Rich Photorealistic Content) files from ArchVision, providing more entourage elements that can add life and realism to renderings.

While the mental ray rendering engine is not a substitute for full-blown professional renderings and animations that can be created by exporting the model to a specialized rendering application such as 3ds Max, it certainly boosts the in-process visualization of capabilities of Revit, useful for design as well as for quickly and conveniently creating intermediate presentations to share with team members and clients. The creation of more advanced visualizations is also facilitated in Revit Architecture 2009 with the introduction of a new file format called FBX, which can capture geometry, lights, materials, settings, and perspectives and accurately transfer them to 3ds Max. In addition to offering advanced control over light settings as well as object and character animation that are the hallmark of the application, a new version of 3ds Max also includes daylight simulation and analysis tools for helping architects and designers find efficient daylighting solutions. Dubbed “3ds Max Design,” this is being introduced by Autodesk as an advanced visualization tool customized for AEC. A 30-day trial copy of the application was included with my Revit Architecture 2009 installation DVD.

Modeling and Interface Enhancements

The massing module of Revit, which has been untouched in the last few releases, is the focus of some improvements in Revit Architecture 2009. A new kind of solid modeling tool, called Swept Blend, is now available in addition to the Extrusion, Blend, Revolve, and Sweep tools that Revit has had so far. This tool allows you to create a blended form from two different profiles that are swept along a path. One example of the use of the Swept Blend tool to model a form similar to that of the famous Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri, is shown in Figure 3-a. Another example is shown in Figure 3-b. As you can see, the introduction of this tool expands the range of complex forms that Revit can create for conceptual design studies. You can go on to create mass floors from this form, which can then be analyzed and reported in a schedule—another new feature in Revit Architecture 2009—as shown in Figure 3-c, providing architects with the means to better determine how well the conceptual design would accommodate the programmatic requirements of the project. As before, you could, if required, convert these massing elements to building elements using the Building Maker functionality.


Figure 3. Two examples of forms created using the new Swept Blend massing tool. (c) shows the massing floors and massing floor schedule for the example shown in (b).

A new Mirror Project tool has been introduced in Revit Architecture 2009 which makes it easy to mirror a project to accommodate owner requests or repetitive designs without a lot of re-work. Additionally, there are several other minor modeling improvements such as automatic cleaning of the joins of concrete beams with other concrete beams, walls, or columns; the ability to modify slabs containing arc segments with the slab shape editing tools; using a slope arrow for building pads to add drainage; and others.

A major improvement to the interface comes from the addition of two new model navigation features—the ViewCube and SteeringWheels—that have been added not only to Revit but to all the Autodesk 3D design products to provide a uniform navigation experience. (They have also been added to AutoCAD Architecture, as described in last week’s review.) The ViewCube, shown in the top image of Figure 4, is a 3D navigation tool that indicates the current orientation of a model and lets you adjust the viewpoint, making it very easy to orient the model as required. It is displayed by default when you open a 3D view, but can be turned off if desired. SteeringWheels are tracking menus that allow you to access different 2D and 3D navigation tools from a single point. They are divided into different sections known as wedges, each of which represents a single navigation tool, as shown in the lower image of Figure 4. You can pan, zoom, or manipulate the current view of a model in different ways, as well as walk through the model.  SteeringWheels can be accessed from the toolbar, and there are different wheel options to choose from.


Figure 4. Using the ViewCube and SteeringWheels for easier navigation of the model.

Other interface improvements include a new opening screen that provides quick access to recent projects and families, as well as a Content Search bar that allows you to search for design files on the web using the new Autodesk Seek service, which is still in beta mode. Figure 5 shows the Seek interface that opens up when the keyword “windows” was entered into Revit’s Content Search bar. The Item list was narrowed down to Revit family files (RFA format), and you can further filter the results by using the options on the left. Any of these files can be downloaded for immediate use in Revit.


Figure 5. The Autodesk Seek service that opens up when you specify “windows” in the Content Search Bar in Revit.

Improvements in Display and Document Creation

The last release of Revit Architecture featured a number of enhancements related to color fills for rooms and areas, but these were still limited to plan views only. A significant display enhancement in Revit Architecture 2009 that users will greatly appreciate is the ability to apply color fills to section views as well, making it possible to make these views much more visually informative. Figure 6 shows the model that was used to demonstrate color fills in the review of Revit Architecture 2008, except that the same color scheme has now been applied to the section view as well.


Figure 6. Appling the same color scheme to a section view that had been applied earlier to the plan view of a model.

Another related improvement is the correct display and accurate volume calculation of rooms with a non-uniform height. This problem had existed since the room element was introduced in Revit Building 9, and it’s good to see that it has finally been resolved. Figure 7 shows a sample model created with non-uniform slabs. The section view has the rooms displayed, and by checking the correct option for Volume Computation and adjusting the vertical limits of the room using its grips, you can see that the non-uniform volume is correctly displayed. The volume calculation of the rooms is also accurate. 


Figure 7. Section views can now display non-uniform room volumes correctly.

There are other enhancements related to rooms.  When rooms in a view are not tagged, they can now all be tagged in one step, similar to door, window, and other tags. When a room is re-located, the tag can move with it. Individual tags can now be rotated for a better fit into a space, and if a view is rotated, all the tags can be re-oriented in one step to be aligned with the view. Room bounding elements in linked models are now recognized, which means that you can place a room between walls (or other elements) in the host project and walls in the linked model, which was not possible earlier.

Views have also been the focus of some improvements in Revit Architecture 2009. View Templates have been enhanced with a new dialog box for easier user interaction, and it now has an Include option that can be used to control which view properties should be applied from the view template. Also new is the ability to create custom view scales to assign to a view. Cut plans and sections at the view depth plane are now allowed.  There is a new view property called “depth clipping.”   If you have a sloped wall or curtain system, for instance, you can show the wall below the view depth plane or you can clip it out.

Improvements on the dimensioning front include the ability to create baseline and segmented dimensions. You can now dimension to intersections and arc centers, and apply common text effects such as bold, italics, and underline to dimension text. An important new feature is the ability to override dimensions with text, allowing users to add their own notes and instructions for specific dimensions in the model (see Figure 8). Revisions have also come in for some upgrades, with the ability to customize revision styles to better adapt to differing standards around the world. Revision tables can be built from the bottom up or top down and numbering sequences can include and be sorted by numbers or letters. A new field called “Issued By” has been introduced to help revision tracking. There is also more flexibility with the layout of revision tables on a sheet—they can be rotated as well as set to fixed or variable size.


Figure 8. The ability to over-ride a dimension with text.

The currency unit type, which was previously hard-coded and applied only to the built-in cost parameter, has now been exposed. User defined currency parameters can be created in all the usual places (Project Parameters, Family Types, Shared Parameters, etc.), and default formatting can be specified in the Project Units dialog that will apply to the built-in cost parameter, as well as in any user-defined currency parameters.

Collaboration, Interoperability, and Customization

Project teams that use worksharing to collaborate on the model can benefit greatly from the new Worksharing Monitor in Revit Architecture 2009, which provides useful real-time information to team members such as the current status of central files. They can monitor progress of editing requests and notifications and plan for the best time to save their workset to the central model. This enhancement, along with a batch printing automation capability, is available to subscription customers, English only.

On the interoperability front, the support for IFC export has been upgraded to version IFC 2x3. Also, there are now two options available for IFC export: the ability to export elements that are visible in the current view only; and the ability to divide multi-level walls and columns by level, if this is required by any downstream analysis tool that is going to work with the model. The DWF export option has been expanded to also include the DWFx format, which can be directly opened and viewed with the Microsoft  XPS Viewer built into Windows Vista, without the need for plug-ins or other downloads. For Windows XP, the XPS Viewer can be downloaded directly from Microsoft. It allows design data to be shared with those who do not have Autodesk Design Review installed for viewing DWF files.

Revit’s API (Application Programming Interface) continues to be expanded leading to increased third party development of supporting technologies for BIM. Many of the products that are compatible with the latest release of Revit Architecture are listed here. In addition, users can now use the API to define macros that can be saved with the application or project. This ability is provided by the Revit VSTA (Visual Studio Tools for Applications) plug-in, which can be installed along with the Revit application installation. Once installed, Revit VSTA provides a Macros option in the Tools menu to access the individual macros, a Macro Manager for running, editing, or debugging macros, and an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for building the macros. The Revit DVD also comes with a Software Development Kit (SDK) that contains useful resources for understanding the API and creating macros, including documentation and sample macros created by Autodesk for tasks such as changing the case of text, finding and replacing text, finding and replacing window types, etc. (see Figure 9). It will be interesting to see what kind of macros are developed by Revit users savvy with programming and whether this takes off to the extent that it did for AutoCAD.


Figure 9. Some of the macros that have been created in a sample Revit file that comes with its SDK.

Strengths and Limitations

The “killer feature” in Revit Architecture 2009 that makes it absolutely worth the upgrade is, without doubt, the mental ray rendering engine, which now puts Revit on par with all the other modeling and BIM applications that have had better rendering capabilities by virtue of being around longer and building them up over time. As shown in Figure 1, it took about 37 minutes to generate a high-quality screen-resolution rendering. While certainly not instantaneous, it is at least something that can be done by the user over the course of a lunch break or being out to a meeting. The extensive range of predefined materials is also an enormous boost for the application and puts the ability to generate classy renderings within the hands of the average Revit user instead of something that necessarily has to be handed over to a specialist. One more example of a high-quality rendered view generated from the same model as Figure 1 is shown in Figure 10.


Figure 10. A rendered image of another view of the model that was used in Figure 1.

Another dramatic improvement that this release will be noted for is the introduction of macros that now puts the power of the Revit API in the hands of the user instead of confining it only to those third-party developers who are part of the Autodesk Developer Network. Of course, it is still too early to judge whether this move will eventually prove to be as successful in adding to Revit’s capabilities as it did for AutoCAD over the course of its long history. But even if not many of Revit’s users actually take to programming and start writing their own macros, it is likely that many small entrepreneurial ventures will emerge to take advantage of this capability and create useful macros that they can then market to the growing Revit community.

All of the other improvements spread out over different aspects of the application can be characterized as incremental upgrades and many of these were developed directly in response to customer requests, according to Autodesk. The new navigation tools take some time to get used to, but they are a great improvement over Revit’s earlier Orbit tool, which was somewhat clumsy to use. The ability to have color-filled sections that can share the same color scheme as the plan views is going to make for much more lucid, lively, and colorful drawings, and it’s good to see the problem with non-uniform volume display in sections corrected in this release.

While the new Swept Blend tool does expand Revit’s freeform mass modeling capability and allow it to model more complex forms, it still lacks much of the fluency of tools such as SketchUp and form.Z, and I don’t see it replacing their use. Even the Building Maker functionality of Revit that can be used to convert massing elements into building elements is not fool-proof—for example, I encountered an error when trying to convert the surfaces created with the Swept Blend tool in Figure 3 into walls, and it was hard to decipher what exactly the problem was. In comparing its freeform modeling capabilities with those of other BIM applications, Revit Architecture still lacks the ease with which complex walls, beams, and columns can be created in ArchiCAD and windows can be aligned with slanted wall surfaces (see my review of ArchiCAD 10, in which this capability was first introduced). In Revit, you can place windows on slanted walls, but they will continue to stay vertical until you rotate them to be aligned with the wall. 

A minor quibble in the new rendering dialog when using the Region option is that the rendering region cannot be indicated interactively like a zoom window; instead, a default region is created which you then have to adjust, and more often than not, this requires you to zoom out and then make the adjustment. Also, after all these years, you still cannot use the Rectangle option of the Wall tool in Revit to quickly create a series of rooms and have the application automatically take care of the wall overlaps (as you can, for example, in Allplan, another BIM application I recently reviewed)—you are forced to use the Polyline option to avoid the error messages related to the wall overlaps. Going forward, it would be nice to see Revit develop more inferencing capabilities and more smarts. A simple example of this would be the automatic creation of the floor slab on a level, based on the wall configuration—most of the time, the floor slab just follows from the walls, and it is quite tedious to have to model it separately. 

I found that the documentation—which I have repeatedly criticized in the past for having an overabundance of text and being insufficiently illustrated—has been improved in this release with better organization of the content, and more images to illustrate the concepts. There’s still no sign, however, of any video tutorials accompanying the application, which would be very useful to new users.

Conclusions

Getting back to the discussion of what is a BIM application and what is not that was started on the AECbytes blog in response to the recent review of AutoCAD Architecture—which, by the way, is not being positioned as a BIM application by Autodesk—I would have to say that the term BIM has become something of a misnomer, being used to describe all kinds of processes as well as products and everything in between! Given that the term is not trademarked as such, no one can really dictate how it should be used, so if a vendor chooses to uses the term BIM for their product, that is entirely their prerogative. There was some discussion about “true BIM” as opposed to just BIM, and some questioned if there was any such thing at all. While there is no easy answer to such a multi-layered question, I do think that BIM is more about a process than a product. This means that it is possible to do BIM without using a “BIM solution” (for example, take Neil Katz’s work with AutoCAD at SOM which he described in his Viewpoint article last year), just as it is possible to use a BIM solution but still not do a very good job of creating a BIM model.

Since Revit was developed from the ground up with the BIM concept, it has a definite edge in facilitating the process of BIM over most of its competitors which were developed much earlier on. This does not imply in any way that firms using other BIM applications are at a disadvantage and need to switch—they may have mastered the use of their application and could be doing BIM that is comparable, even superior, to that being done by firms using Revit. But the fluidity and ease of use that Revit brings to the BIM process makes it a very attractive proposition for firms who are looking to transition from 2D CAD to BIM. Even after so many years of reviewing Revit, I still marvel at its ease of use, and it’s hard not to consider its usability as a benchmark for evaluating other BIM applications and finding them lacking in this aspect.

That said, BIM is still very much a work in progress. While other BIM applications can certainly do a lot to improve upon their intuitiveness and ease of use, Revit too can look for ways to address the file size challenges that come with its centralized model structure and find ways to improve collaboration among team members. All the BIM applications could do with better conceptual design capabilities, more integrated space planning tools, and more inferencing capabilities and smarts that minimize the amount of modeling users actually need to do. Given the vast realm of potential improvements and possibilities still ahead, I think that no BIM application, even Revit, is anywhere close to being done.

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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