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AECbytes Product Review (November 19, 2009)

Bentley Architecture V8i

Product Summary

Bentley Architecture V8i is Bentley’s BIM application for architectural design that is part of a large integrated multi-disciplinary set of building solutions for design, analysis, and collaboration, built on the new MicroStation V8i platform.

Pros: Inherits all the power and comprehensiveness of MicroStation's CAD platform in solid and surface modeling, documentation, rendering, and animation; federated database approach lends itself much more easily and efficiently to distributed work processes and large projects; new release includes better conceptual design and new space planning capabilities; views are now dynamic, ensuring better drawing coordination; new display styles allow high-quality presentation graphics to be easily created; native support of Rhino and SketchUp files with live links adds to long list of supported formats; new Luxology rendering engine allows high-end renderings and animations to be created within the application.

Cons: Continues to remain a very complex application with a steep learning curve; quality of the documentation is poor, making it even more difficult to learn the application; new dynamic views adds an additional layer of complexity with more constructs to set up and work with; distributed file structure makes project organization more difficult to set up and manage.

Price: List price for Non-MicroStation users is $6,290 (includes MicroStation, passport for ProjectWise Navigator, Parametric Cell Studio, Space Planner and Bentley Architecture); MicroStation users can add Bentley Architecture for $1,495; new “Architect for Building Design Passport Subscription” is $2,295.

In November last year, I wrote about Bentley’s launch event unveiling its new V8i portfolio of products. We saw that the “i" in V8i stands for five key new capabilities and enhancements, according to Bentley: more intuitive conceptual modeling capabilities; interactive dynamic views; intrinsic geo-coordination capability; incredible project performance and speed; and finally, a high degree of interoperability. The actual V8i applications for all of Bentley’s different infrastructure design disciplines were released earlier this year, and this review explores the new V8i version of Bentley Architecture to determine to what extent these promising concepts have actually been translated into tangible improvements for existing users and potential new ones. Let’s also find out if the enhancements have succeeded in reducing the complexity of the application, which I highlighted as one of its most critical limitations in my last review of Bentley Architecture, which was of the V8 XM version in 2006.

Conceptual Design and Space Planning

By virtue of being built on top of the MicroStation platform, Bentley Architecture has inherited its full range of sophisticated solid and surface modeling tools that can be used to model any kind of regular or freeform shape. While this capability is very useful for creating complex forms that cannot be created with regular building object (BIM) tools, it is somewhat of an overkill for creating conceptual stage massing models, which is why most architects have continued to use a tool like SketchUp for this purpose. This is true for users of Bentley as well as other BIM applications, and has resulted in a disconnect between the conceptual design and detailed design processes.

To encourage its users to start the conceptual design process within Bentley Architecture itself, version V8i now incorporates a capability similar to SketchUp’s Push/Pull, making it easier and more intuitive for creating massing models. Figure 1 shows how forms can be quickly modified by drawing shapes on them and pushing or pulling them out. Unlike SketchUp, you still have to select a dedicated “Draw on Solid” tool to create a shape on the solid, as shown in Figures 1-a and 1-b. But subsequently, the modification process works as quickly as in SketchUp, with the “Modify Solid Entity” tool letting you quickly move faces (see Figure 1-c), edges (see Figure 1-d), and vertices to manipulate the form as required (see Figure 1-e, which also shows the Top and Front views). By default, this tool works with all entity types, but you can restrict it to modify only faces, edges, or vertices by selecting the corresponding option in the tool dialog. In addition, the use of Bentley’s excellent AccuDraw and snapping capabilities allows the modifications to be as precise and accurate as required. Overall, Bentley’s implementation of Push/Pull for faster conceptual modeling is certainly better than that of Revit Architecture, which also attempted to overhaul its conceptual design capabilities in the 2010 version (described in my recent review) but could not capture the fluidity and ease of use of a tool like SketchUp. Bentley Architecture V8i also includes many other tools for quick form manipulation such as deleting vertices, edges, and faces of solids, filleting and chamfering edges, and so on. 


Figure 1. Drawing a face on a solid and using the Modify Solid Entity tool to push it up, and subsequently also move an edge, to sculpt the solid as required.

Prior to version V8i, Bentley Architecture had some rudimentary space planning capabilities, as described in my review of the V8 XM edition. This has been significantly expanded in Bentley Architecture V8i with the integration of the Bentley SpacePlanner application. This is actually a separate application targeted towards AEC design professionals and facility managers involved with the initial layout and design of buildings and spaces. It can be installed both as a stand-alone application as well as integrated with Bentley Architecture, to which it adds a dedicated “Spaces” menu and other functionality to the application. With these tools, you can import a list of space requirements contained in a spreadsheet and use the associated area information to automatically create spaces of the correct size that can then be arranged to explore different spatial layout options. Figure 2 shows an example of a spatial layout created by importing the space program contained in the accompanying spreadsheet. The spaces can be resized, if required, and color-coded based on specified criteria.


Figure 2. The new space planning capabilities of Bentley Architecture allows a space program (top image) to be imported and used for quickly creating a color-coded spatial layout (lower image).

While in the current version of Bentley Architecture, there is no way to automatically convert this spatial layout to a building model, this capability will be available in an updated release scheduled for the end of this month. It will allow walls to be created from spaces, avoiding overlaps, and will maintain the relationship between them so that if a wall is moved, the space and its area will adjust automatically. A current minor limitation is that the spaces that are automatically created by importing areas are limited to being rectangular-shaped, so more complex plans cannot be explored. However, using the regular space creating tools, other shapes for spaces can be created. The application keeps track of the actual areas versus the program areas, so that design development can be tracked against the program requirements. While the space planning capabilities are still not as comprehensive as those of a dedicated space programming and schematic design application like Trelligence Affinity, (described in the article, Supporting Technologies for BIM Exhibited at AIA 2007), they are a useful addition to the already large repertoire of tasks that Bentley Architecture handles. Also, competing BIM applications such as Revit Architecture and ArchiCAD do not provide any kind of space planning capabilities whatsoever, so Bentley Architecture certainly has the edge in this respect.

Dynamic Views

In the previous version of the Bentley BIM applications, drawings were section cuts that had to be extracted from the model using a Drawing Extraction Manager utility, with different “drawing definitions” specified for different types of drawings such as floor plans, sections, etc., to determine how they would be displayed. The extracted drawing maintained a link to the model, but was not live—therefore, if the model was changed, the drawing wasn’t updated automatically, but it would be recognized as being out-of-date when opened, giving the user the choice of updating it.

In the V8i version, the process of creating drawings from the model has been significantly overhauled with a technology labeled “dynamic views” with which drawings are now live views of the model that are automatically updated when the model is changed. This is a significant step in bringing Bentley Architecture up to speed with its main competitors: in Revit Architecture, drawings have always been live views of the model and synchronized with it, while in ArchiCAD, drawings can be set to update either automatically or manually. Bentley Architecture allows drawing views to be generated not only from the model but also from other drawing views, which is convenient. Figure 3 shows a section view being created from a plan view which is subsequently placed on the same sheet by dragging it from the Project Explorer where it is automatically listed after being created.


Figure 3. Creating a section from a plan view and placing it on the same sheet. The intermediate dialogs are also shown.

While the “live” aspect of Bentley’s new dynamic views can’t really be seen as cutting-edge, another aspect of the technology that is quite remarkable is the ability to position planes in different angles to explore sectional views and apply a wide variety of display styles to the forward, cut, and back portions of the sectioned model. This provides the ability to creating extremely rich visuals of plans, sections, elevations, and 3D sections. A few examples are shown in Figure 4. Each dynamic view can be stored with its own drawing rules, which will determine not only the overall display styles but also the display of individual elements such as walls, columns, spaces, stairs, etc.


Figure 4. Choosing from the wide range of different display styles to create visually arresting presentation graphics of designs.

The flip side to Bentley’s new dynamic views capabilities is that it adds an additional layer of complexity to Bentley’s already very complex interface. The drawings, which would typically be created from a master 3D design model referencing a number of individual 3D design models (refer to the review of Bentley Building V8 XM for an overview of Bentley’s federated approach to BIM) have to be stored in a separate 2D “container” called the “drawing model.” From here, they can be dragged and dropped into “sheet models” which are designed to hold the individual pages of the document set for the project. I found it quite confusing to figure out and navigate through all these various constructs. While the Project Explorer that was introduced in the V8 XM version does make it easier to manage all the different models, drawings, views, and sheets, as shown in Figure 3, I still found the process of creating views, drawings, and sheets more complex in Bentley Architecture compared to other BIM applications. 

Interoperability Improvements

If there is one area in which Bentley undeniably shines, it is interoperability, with its support for a large variety of file formats and ability to directly read competing file formats such as DWG. In the V8i platform, this is further enhanced by the ability to directly open SketchUp and Rhino files in Bentley Architecture. Not only are these file formats natively supported, it is also possible to use them as “live” references, so that any changes made to those files using their native applications are automatically visible within the project in Bentley Architecture in which they are referenced. The expanded interoperability capability, along with its distributed approach to BIM, allows Bentley Architecture to bring together an even wider array of models from varied sources together in a project, enabling them to be as rich and detailed as desired (see Figure 5).


Figure 5. Rhino and SketchUp files directly referenced in a Bentley model. A close-up view of the Rhino model is shown, along with a rendered image of the entire project.

While the ability to directly import a Revit file is not (yet) there, a free plug-in for Revit is available to create i-models, which can then be imported or referenced into Bentley Architecture. The i-model retains all the information about the objects and their properties that were there in the original Revit file. Refer to the recent AECbytes Newsletter #41 for more details about the new “i-model” concept introduced by Bentley at its recent “Be Inspired” event.

Other Enhancements

A useful interface enhancement in the Bentley V8i platform is heads-up display, which displays linear and angular dimensional information for many elements, and allows the dimensions to be numerically edited to facilitate more precise modeling, as shown in Figure 6.  While it is certainly a helpful feature for Bentley users, its implementation is much more limited compared to an application like Revit, which has had heads-up dimension display from the beginning and where it works for all kinds of modeling elements and tasks. In contrast in Bentley Architecture, the heads-up display is not available when creating elements; it activates only when you select an element that has already been created, as in the example shown in Figure 6. For accurate modeling, you still have to rely on Bentley’s longstanding AccuDraw feature, which also works very well, but is not as graphically intuitive as Revit’s heads-up dimension display. Also, Bentley’s heads-up display works only with some elements such as walls, columns, beams, and so on. You cannot, for instance, use it to reposition a door or a window on a wall more accurately, as it doesn’t work for these elements.


Figure 6. The heads-up display available for editing when an element such as a wall is selected.

Modeling enhancements in Bentley Architecture V8i include a new Stair tool that makes it very easy to design stairs parametrically in a wide variety of configurations and styles and with the use of heads-up display for easy modification (see Figure 7); the ability to work with individual compound wall layers when using the Wall tool; and the ability to use tools such as Copy, Move, Rotate, Mirror, and Array Element on building features such as openings without affecting the parent element containing the feature. On the rendering front, the integration of the Luxology rendering engine allows stunning photorealistic images as well as animations to be created right within the application, without the need to export to dedicated visualization software. Some examples were shown in my article on the V8i launch event; other examples are shown in Figure 8.


Figure 7. Using the new Stair tool to quickly design a staircase.


Figure 8. The quality of renderings created using the integrated Luxology rendering engine. (Courtesy: Bentley)

Strengths and Limitations

The main strength of Bentley Architecture is that it is part of a large and comprehensive array of solutions that Bentley provides for building design, analysis, and construction, as shown in Figure 9. Bentley’s growing reach and success in other infrastructure design disciplines, as highlighted in the recent “Be Inspired” event, has enabled it to continue expanding its Building solutions set by acquisitions, which in the last few years have included structural analysis tools such as RAM and STAAD, energy analysis tools such as Hevacomp and TAS (described in the article, Sustainable Design Tools Exhibited at AIA 2009), and the construction simulation tool, ConstructSIM. At the same time, Bentley has also continued to extend the capabilities of its solutions through in-house development, such as the ProjectWise Navigator application that provides an alternative to NavisWorks for design coordination, review, and collaboration. Another significant benefit to Bentley users is the availability of the ProjectWise platform for project and file management, particularly for large distributed project teams. Bentley’s federated approach to BIM, where the project data is distributed across multiple files rather than contained in one file, and its constantly improving capability to work with multiple file formats, allows it to be applied to large building projects just as readily as to small ones.


Figure 9. The extensive product map of Bentley’s Building solutions. (Courtesy: Bentley)

Other key strengths include the closer integration of GenerativeComponents with the Bentley BIM applications, helping to make its parametric design capabilities more accessible to Bentley users. We saw several examples of the sophisticated use of GenerativeComponents at the SmartGeometry Conference earlier this year. Also, in the projects that were the finalists in the “Innovation in Generative Design” category at the recently announced BE Awards, we saw generative design being used to create forms based on function in more routine projects rather than in just the “signature architecture” that we typically associate with the use of GenerativeComponents. As shown in Figure 10, GenerativeComponents provides new ways to efficiently explore alternative building forms without manually building the detailed design model for each scenario, and it can be used effectively on overall building forms as well as smaller details.


Figure 10. A fully parametric BIM object derived using GenerativeComponents. (Courtesy: Bentley)

The enhancements in the V8i edition, while not as extensive as one might expect from a release that is coming over two years after the previous one, will certainly help Bentley users accomplish more with their application. The conceptual design capabilities, greatly improved rendering, and the interoperability enhancements are especially noteworthy. The introduction of space planning capabilities is also a good first step, although they need to be expanded to make them more usable. The same can be said of the heads-up display. The dynamic views capability helps to bring Bentley BIM applications on part with the other leading BIM applications in ensuring that the drawings always stay coordinated with the model. The accompanying improvements in display styles, however, are truly outstanding and can be used to create beautiful-looking presentation drawings with very little effort.

On the flip side, I found that the improvements in the V8i version have done little to reduce the complexity of the application, and it still remains as daunting as ever to learn and use. In fact, the addition of new tools and features continues to simply add to the complexity, to the vast number of dialogs, options, and settings that must be understood before any real progress can be made with the application. What makes the learning process even more difficult is the poor quality of the documentation. A QuickStart Guide is available, but it covers only very basic aspects of the program. It does not provide guidance on how to set up and structure a project across multiple files, how to create multiple levels, and so on. It is also difficult get a good understanding of the new features in Bentley Architecture V8i without delving deep into the documentation of MicroStation V8i.

Conclusions

For those who are already using Bentley Architecture and have mastered its steep learning curve, the improvements in the V8i version continue to add to its power and sophistication, and will be extremely helpful. For new users, especially those who are already familiar with competing BIM applications such as Revit Architecture and ArchiCAD, Bentley Architecture can be completely bewildering. If Bentley wants to attract new users to its BIM solutions instead of merely keeping their existing users satisfied, I think they need to make a concerted attempt to re-tool their applications to reduce their complexity, which could even mean “cleaning up”—removing features, options, and settings that are not critical. This is a challenge every software vendor faces—how to improve an application without making it more complex—and it’s even more critical for large and inherently complicated application areas such as BIM. Simply adding more and more functionality without removing out-dated or defunct tools is eventually going to make an application untenable and too much for the average person to comprehend. Bentley applications have so many terrific capabilities—for modeling, generative design, rendering, analysis, presentation drawings, construction documents, design coordination, collaboration, etc.—and they are so powerful and comprehensive, that it’s a pity they score so low on the usability factor. I hope Bentley will focus on this issue as the main one going forward and also take care to supplement their applications with better documentation, which is badly needed.

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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