iPad Apps for AEC: Design and Visualization

I had intended to write an article on iPad apps available for the AEC industry as soon as there was sufficient momentum in the field and I had an iPad myself that I could use for testing these apps, so that I was not writing about them in the abstract. It was a coincidence that Steve Jobs passed away recently after years of ill-health. While his death was hardly unexpected, it is very sad, nevertheless, and the timing of this article can be considered as a tribute of sorts to the man who envisioned the comeback of the tablet computer and re-engineered it into a mass-market product. Let's hope that Apple products like the iPad turn out to be larger than a single person, even it was a genius like Steve Jobs, and we continue to be wowed by the company's products in the future.

My Personal Take On the iPad

I am not the kind of person easily enamored by gadgets, the kind who simply must have the latest technological device that is introduced, even by a company such as Apple. Prior to getting my iPad, I didn't even have an iPod or an iPhone, and I still don't. I didn't go out and buy an iPad the moment it was introduced; I waited till version 2 had been released earlier this year. I already own both a desktop and a laptop computer, so I was definitely not looking for yet another computer. I didn't see the iPad replacing my laptop when I traveled. My main reason for getting it was to actually stop the delivery of my daily paper newspaper and read the online version of it. That way, I wouldn't feel "obliged" to read the newspaper simply because it was there, but could only read as much or as little as my time permitted. And, of course, there was the “green” argument as well—I would be saving trees in the process! This reasoning made it easy to justify getting another gadget, even though it was not one that I badly needed and couldn't live without.

What I had not bargained for was falling in love with my iPad once it arrived and I started using it. Its interface is so slick and easy to use! I have even become used to its virtual keyboard and do a lot of my writing on it. It is quite a relief to be freed from my desk and be able to write anywhere. (A laptop is also supposed to be mobile, but it has stayed on my desk for the most part.) I also found that the iPad’s POP email capability (which, again, was a breeze to set up) allowed me to take it instead of my laptop when I travel, making it so much more convenient. Of course, it doesn't have PowerPoint or Dreamweaver, two applications that I use extensively, but often I can get by without them when I travel, and it's really nice to not have to lug my laptop with me every time I need to go out of town.

After the iPad was launched, several other similar devices have been introduced by other vendors, all using the Android operating system, in contrast to the iOS (which is what the iPad uses). While many of the apps discussed here have now been developed to work on Android tablets as well, this article is focused only on the iPad apps that are available for architects, engineers, and construction professionals in the building industry.

The iPad in AEC

I really did not plan on using my iPad professionally, but in the last few months, the number of AEC apps for the iPad has mushroomed to the point where I cannot ignore this platform anymore. Autodesk, not surprisingly, took an early lead in this field with its AutoCAD WS app that it launched last year, which can be used to view and navigate DWG files, add comments and markups to them using a basic annotation toolset, and even edit them if required (although editing is cumbersome on the iPad and is best done on a computer). This was in addition to its popular Sketchbook Mobile application that was released earlier and is used as a general drawing and painting tool by a wide range of people. Both of these apps were free, so they could be downloaded and tried readily by many iPad users. (Note that they are also available to iPhone and iPod Touch users, but we will focus on the iPad for this article.)

Subsequent to these, I started seeing more and more apps being developed for AEC professionals, both for design as well as for construction. Towards the beginning of this year, I heard from Architactile about its Inception app for early-stage project planning, which seemed to be the first iPad app specifically developed for architects that I was aware of. In the summer, Bentley showed me iPad apps for its Navigator and ProjectWise applications, and last month, Graphisoft released a very slick iPad app called BIMx for easy navigation of 3D building models. In the meantime, Autodesk had been busy working on a formal cloud strategy that it unveiled just earlier this month, in which iPad apps play a very important role. In addition to AutoCAD WS, these include apps for Autodesk Design Review, Buzzsaw Mobile, and BlueStreak. I was also made aware of the app, iVisit 3D, from Abvent Software, which develops the popular rendering application, Artlantis.

While many of these apps can also be used by construction professionals, there are several additional apps developed specifically for construction. Vendors such as Vela Systems—which develops field management software for construction—was one of the first to have an iPad app among its products. I also became aware of other apps for construction: Onsite:AEC, and BuildSite Mobile by BuildSite. Newforma has just announced its first app for punch lists. It seems as though the mobility factor makes tablets more critical in the construction phase of a project, allowing site professionals to view and mark up drawings, view models (3D markups are not yet supported), file issues, reports and photographs, if necessary, and generally keep in touch and get access to the most up-to-date project information.

Given the number of apps that are now available, AECbytes will be looking at iPad apps in two separate articles, one focused on apps primarily intended for design and visualization, and the second focused on apps that can be used for project management and construction. The current article focuses on apps for design and visualization and includes an overview of Graphisoft's BIMx app for iPad, Autodesk’s new cloud strategy and the Autodesk Design Review app, the iVisit 3D app, and finally, the Inception app from Architactile, a new software developer. For all these apps, I actually downloaded them from the iTunes store and used them with sample files or models to see how they worked. Most of the screenshots provided are from the apps running on my iPad. An overview of each app is given below. The other apps mentioned earlier will be covered in a separate article next week.

Graphisoft's BIMx App for iPad

Graphisoft’s BIM Explorer (BIMx) is the new name for its Virtual Building Explorer application that it launched in 2009, providing an interactive environment with game-like navigation and allowing anyone to explore full BIM models without having a copy of the original software in which the model was created, i.e. ArchiCAD. BIMx works as a companion product to ArchiCAD, allowing ArchiCAD models to be exported into BIMx as well as saved as self-running executable files that can be shown to clients on a computer (the BIMx desktop application is part of the standard ArchiCAD 15 installation). Graphisoft has extended this capability into a BIMx iPad app that is integrated with a Facebook-enabled online BIMx community, where BIMx models can be posted for others to share. After downloading the free BIMx app from the iTunes bookstore, you can browse through this community site and download any model, which you can then open in the BIMx app for viewing and navigation (see Figure 1).

Of all the model-viewing apps that I tested, I was most impressed with the BIMx app. The controls to navigate the model were easy and intuitive to use. For example, a joystick that appeared in the viewing window (see Figure 2) allowed you to walk forward, backward, or turn in place. You could fly to any location in the model by tapping on it and then tapping on the icon that appears in that location. As with other iPad apps, pinching the fingers in and out zoomed the model in and out, while panning the model was done by swiping two fingers. Outside the building, a swipe of one finger allowed you to orbit around the model. All of these navigation techniques were captured clearly and concisely in a set of six slides that could be accessed by touching a Help icon at the top of the window. Other helpful icons included a “Fit in Window” capability and a Settings menu, where you could specify options such as whether you wanted a 2D navigation map to be displayed alongside the 3D model, the type of shading on the model, the navigation speed, and a few others. What I missed, however, was returning to a “Home” view as well the ability to save and open specific views. I did appreciate that the BIMx navigation preserves the verticality of the model, given that it is specific to buildings and is not a general purpose model viewer.

Autodesk Cloud and Design Review App

Earlier this month, Autodesk formally unveiled its cloud strategy after numerous references to the infinite computing power of the cloud at events such as Autodesk University and Revit Technology Conference. Essentially, what Autodesk now provides is free cloud storage for drawings, models, and other documents for its users, which can be used to access these files from any platform and which can also be used for sharing and collaboration. All users can have 1GB of cloud storage space, while Subscription customers receive 3GB of cloud storage per seat on Subscription. To access the Autodesk cloud, you simply need an Autodesk ID. Once you are logged in to your cloud storage space, you can upload files to it and share them with others. I uploaded some sample DWF files from my computer to it (see Figure 3), which I could then access with the Design Review app on my iPad.

When the Design Review app on the iPad is launched, you can open up a sample DWF document or recent documents that you may have accessed, both of which are stored locally so that they can be viewed even when the iPad is offline. There is also the option to sign into the Autodesk cloud, if the iPad is connected to the Internet, and access the documents that you have uploaded, as shown in Figure 4. Once you have selected a document to view, there is a simple set of controls that can be used to navigate the document. The arrows at the top, as shown in Figure 5, move through different sheets of the DWF file. Recall that these can be 3D models, 2D drawings, or any other document, such as an image, a Word document, an Excel file, and so on. The sample DWF file shown in Figure 5 has seven sheets, including the 3D model, a 3D sectional perspective, two floor plans, and three rendered views saved as image files. 3D models can be orbited to see them from different sides and zoomed to explore details or interiors. However, the orbiting does not maintain the verticality of the building since Design Review (and the DWF format) is not specific to building design but can also be used for MCAD models.

In general, I found the model navigation much better in Graphisoft’s BIMx app, which has a lot more navigation controls, the option to fly through a building, as well as preserve the verticality of the building. But what Design Review has that BIMx currently does not is a “Home” button that takes you back immediately to the starting view in case you get “lost” while navigating; the option to save multiple views for a model or 2D drawing in the DWF file, which are then available in the mobile version of Design Review and can be used for quick navigation; and the option to select an element and see its properties, as shown in Figure 6. This capability is going to be very critical for a BIM model, since it has so much information captured in it for every element, which can now be very easily accessed when required. Other capabilities of Design Review for 2D drawings and image files include the ability to add markups using a basic toolset, and the ability to access the different layers for a drawing, if this has been enabled in the DWF file.

iVisit 3D from Abvent

iVisit 3D is more of a design visualization tool than a 3D model navigation app. It is developed by Abvent, editor and publisher of the popular rendering application, Artlantis. Targeted especially for architects and designers, iVisit 3D allows them to present panoramas of their projects online using an iPad. The actual creation of the panoramic views is done using Artlantis Studio 4; thus, iVisit3D is more of a companion app to Artlantis. The iVisit 3D App is available in two versions, Lite and Pro.  The Lite version is free, but is limited to the selection of one panoramic view per day. For those who just want to explore the app without having created models in Artlantis to pull into iVisit 3D, the app lets you download sample models and see how they work. One of these is shown in Figure 7. As you can see, the quality of the rendering is very good, and because it is a panorama, you can rotate the view in order to see it from all sides. You can also click on arrowed markers in the 3D views to jump to a different view, if required, or access the markers by opening a floor plan view. A nice feature in iVisit 3D is the additional option to rotate though the panorama by physically moving the iPad around.

Inception from Architactile

The Inception app from Architactile is very different from the other apps I have looked at so far. To start with, it is not developed by any brand-name vendor in the AEC field, who is developing it as a companion app for its main desktop applications, and can therefore offer it for free to boost the sales of its existing applications. Also, it is not an app for any kind of “post-design” work such as visualization, viewing models and drawings, project management, or field work for construction, as most apps for AEC tend to be—with the premise that the building design has been done using a traditional application on a regular computer. In contrast, Inception is an app that is custom-built for the iPad and is available only on the iPad. Designed specifically for architects, it addresses the pre-design phase, allowing them to capture all the requirements of the project in the course of early project meetings with their clients, which can then be captured in a PDF document and sent to the client for review. Thus, it is intended to be a serious business tool, and is therefore not free like the other apps. Let’s take a look at what it does before getting into how it is priced.

Unlike the desktop application, Trelligence Affinity, that includes capabilities for space planning, programming, and schematic design, and bi-directionally links with BIM applications like Revit Architecture and ArchiCAD, Inception is designed to be even more early-stage, preferably used during the earliest meetings the architect has with the client, where he or she can pull out their iPad and use it to capture the core program requirements of the project. It lets you specify where the project is located, thereby impacting its cost; define the different spaces or use groups in the project, and their individual occupancy, density, quality (cost/sq.ft.), and unassigned area to calculate their gross area and total cost; create a bubble diagram and adjacency matrix of the spaces or use groups; do a cost estimate analysis of the entire project; and create an early-stage Gantt chart showing a tentative project schedule. Several of these capabilities for a sample project are captured in the following screenshots.

As mentioned earlier, Inception also includes the capability to capture all of this data and calculations into a single PDF document that can then be sent to the client for review. An architect might develop such a document after the first or second meeting with a client, assuming that a basic program has been established. It takes about an hour to develop this document in Inception. One of the benefits of taking a document like this to the client very early in the process is that it helps the client (and the architect) to stay focused on space and budget.  By helping the client to understand the direct relationship between space and budget, the client becomes an active participant in the effort to maintain a feasible scope. The result can be a shorter time between first contact and a signed design contract, a better defined scope for the project architect, and much more realistic client expectations. In cases where the project simply isn't feasible, the use of Inception helps to minimize wasted time.

Not surprisingly, then, Inception is not a free app, but costs $499.00, making it one of the most expensive apps in the iTunes store. When compared with the price of regular desktop applications, this seems very reasonable, given its business proposition. The question is whether architects are using the iPad as a serious business tool to justify purchasing a relatively high-priced app in an iPad universe where most apps are free. Also, Inception currently does have one major limitation, which is that it is not possible to export a project that others can then import on their iPads. It can export CSV files capturing project data that can be read by an application like Affinity for more detailed programming and space planning on the project, but it would be good to also have the option of sharing project data with others having the Inception app on their iPads. Perhaps, Apple’s recently announced iCloud initiative will enable Architactile to build this feature into Inception more easily.


When my iPad was delivered, the FedEx employee delivering it commented, as he was handing the package to me, “Here’s your new toy.” (Apparently, he could look at the address it had been sent from and figure out that it was an iPad.) I didn’t think much of this comment at first, but seeing the app from Inception that is priced like any other desktop computer application makes me wonder when the iPad will go beyond being seen as a “toy” and as a serious business tool by AEC professionals. There is so much development happening in this field that it is only a matter of time before the iPad is considered as an equally important alternative to the traditional computer to get design and construction work done.

Please stay tuned for the follow-up article on iPad apps for project management and construction. I should also add that the apps mentioned in this article are by no means the only iPad apps available for building design and visualization. There might be more that I am not aware of. In fact, I do hope that there are many more apps being developed for the AEC industry, since the iPad is such a fun alternative to getting work 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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