AECbytes Feature (August 4,, 2011)
A few weeks ago, I attended the Revit Technology Conference, known as RTC for short, in the Huntington Beach area of Los Angeles. This is a conference put together entirely by Revit users, which does make it unusual, as most conferences are typically organized by vendors (such as Autodesk University and Bentley's BE Together conference), or by professional organizations (such as the AIA National Convention and the AIA TAP conference). The RTC actually originated in Australia in 2005 where it started as an expanded Revit user group meeting held over a weekend. Since then, it has grown into a full-fledged conference that continues to be held annually in Australia. (A detailed report on the 2010 RTC event in Australia was published in AECbytes last year.) The 2011 RTC Australia conference was held in May in the Gold Coast and drew about 450 attendees.
The event in Los Angeles was the first time the RTC was being held in the US. It hopes to become an annual event that will be held in a different location of the US each year, so that more local professionals in those areas have the opportunity to attend and benefit from it. Also, as far as possible, a venue away from the downtown area will be selected, so that local professionals cannot keep returning to their offices to take care of work and can focus better on the conference. These plans were shared by RTC Chairman, Wesley Benn, in his opening address; he is an architect working in Sydney and was one of the key people who started the RTC in Australia seven years ago. He outlined the main objectives of the RTC as being knowledge transfer (with lots of experienced speakers), learning (with lots of tips and new ideas that attendees can take away), and opportunities for interaction and networking (among Revit users as well as AEC professionals in general).
For an event that was being held for the first time, the RTC 2011 event in Los Angeles was very successful, with about 300 attendees and a fairly large number of exhibitors. The main difference I found between the RTC and the other conferences I typically attend is that the atmosphere at RTC is much more casual, the setting is more relaxed, and the presentations are more user-centric with a lot of emphasis on learning and sharing. However, despite the fact that this is a conference ostensibly put together “by users, for users,” it does seem to be difficult to keep vendors out of it completely, as all conferences do rely on some kind of vendor sponsorship to make them affordable to attendees. Thus, Autodesk was a major sponsor of the RTC, and Autodesk CEO Carl Bass also gave the opening keynote address. There were several other sponsors who were either Autodesk resellers or vendors developing third party plug-ins for Revit and other Autodesk software. There were also about 17 exhibitors, showing various Revit-related tools and services.
In addition to the overview of the RTC provided above, this article describes in detail some of the key sessions that were presented and summarizes the other sessions that I was able to attend. An overview of the different technologies that were being exhibited at the RTC will be covered separately in a dedicated article later this month.
Carl Bass, President and CEO of Autodesk, gave the opening keynote address at the RTC, in which he expounded upon some of the key trends he had presented at Autodesk University last December. For example, he discussed how the price of computing is going down to almost 0, in contrast to the price of everything else that is going up, such as oil, gas, labor, industrial assets, and so on. Not only does computing get cheaper every year, it is also doubling in power every year. Our mobile devices are more powerful than the supercomputers of the past—we're essentially walking around with supercomputers in our pockets. This makes it possible to think of 'infinite computing," where users can have access to increasingly powerful computing resources through the cloud. Thus, as far as computing is concerned, we can now operate from the mentality of "abundance" as opposed to the earlier mentality of "scarcity."
The second key trend is hyper-connectivity, where people always have access to the Internet, through their computers as well as through their mobile devices. This has led Autodesk to pay more attention to applications for phones and tablets such as SketchBook Mobile, AutoCAD WS, and Buzzsaw Mobile. The response to AutoCAD WS has been particularly overwhelming—there were 650,000 downloads of the application once it was made available for the Android platform last month. More users are now expected to access AutoCAD through their mobile devices than through their computers. SketchBook Mobile has also been a very popular application for those who like to sketch and paint—apparently, the CEO of Nike uses it personally for sketching! Autodesk will soon also be releasing its Mudbox product for 3D sculpting for the iPad.
Other Autodesk applications that are taking advantage of both the infinite computing and hyper-connectivity trends include Photofly, which can create a 3D model from a set of digital photographs of an object or a building; Project Vasari, which applies the principles of CFD technology (that was originally developed for movies) for energy, thermal, and airflow analysis; and Project Neon, an online renderer for which a Revit plug-in was recently released on Autodesk Labs. All these applications are web-based, allowing them to harness the "infinite" computing resources in the cloud, thereby bringing much greater processing power to the task at hand. They might not provide answers or solutions that are 100% accurate, but they can provide the solutions so quickly that even a 95% accuracy level is more than acceptable to users
Bass also talked about Revit specifically, given that this was a conference focused on Revit. It has been nine years since Autodesk bought Revit, and one of the main reasons behind the acquisition was that it recognized that Revit was one of the ways that would allow the AEC industry to "radically change the way we build." Users were excited by the possibility of what it could do. Revit has come a long way since then, but it can still go much further. After all, we have barely scratched the surface of building simulation and overall building lifecycle management that BIM can enable us to achieve.
One of the RTC sessions provided a fascinating opportunity to get an inside perspective of Revit including how it started, its early years, and how it is continuing to be developed by Autodesk. This was presented by David Conant, who was one of the earliest employees of Revit’s original company, Revit Technology Corporation, having joined it when it was actually started. Conant has a very interesting background—in the early 1990's, he was pursuing graduate studies at MIT under Bill Mitchell, who is regarded as the father of architectural CAD with his seminal book, Computer Aided Architectural Design. For a graduate student with this background, the lure of joining a company that was planning to develop a completely new, intelligent, and disruptive technology for architectural design that would become the foundation of a new way of building and working was, of course, irresistible. Conant showed an early photo of the Revit team in the summer of 1999—of the 12 to 13 people in it at that time, about half of them are still around at Autodesk, working on Revit. Conant himself has stayed and is, in fact, known as the "mad scientist" of Revit—he is the one who came up with the term "family" to represent library objects in Revit. Coincidentally, he also attended the first RTC event in Australia in 2005 and has been associated with the RTC since then. This explains why he was presenting at the inaugural RTC US event, even though he doesn't normally present at AEC technology events such as AIA TAP or even Autodesk University. In fact, I was seeing him for the first time, despite the many years I've been around in the industry and the numerous events I have attended.
It was interesting to learn more about the early days of Revit, especially a "behind the scenes" look that we don't otherwise get a chance to hear about. I recall the public launch of Revit in the summer of 2000, when it was a very brash, in-your-face upstart that was seriously challenging far more established players like Autodesk, Bentley, and Graphisoft. In particular, it showed up at trade shows such as the AIA National Convention with a booth larger than Autodesk! What we didn't know at that time was that it actually had only 12 paying customers then and spent a sizable portion ($20,000) of its early revenue for a professionally produced video. Luckily for the start-up, Autodesk recognized its potential and acquired it in 2002. The rest, as they say, is history! An interesting fact to note is that most of those first paying customers are using still Revit.
The Revit team at Autodesk today continues to be guided by some key principles as they develop the application further. Maintaining an intuitive user interface is extremely important, with a constant attempt to simplify it and minimize the number of icons you can see at any point. While the interface change to the ribbon in Revit 2010 was greatly criticized by users, Conant believes that it is better for the application in the long run, as it can follow users' typical workflow and only show those tools and options that are relevant at any point, eliminating the "noise" of the other tools that are not needed for the task at hand. The other key principle is to be domain-specific and use industry terminology that is familiar to users. And finally, the third key principle is greatly enhanced productivity, which is achieved by maintaining design intelligence and coordination at all times. Admittedly, not all of these principles are always executed perfectly in Revit all of the time, but the attempt is made to maintain them as much as possible. Another key driving factor behind the development of Revit is user feedback gathered by watching users as they work with it as well as through interviews with users and company executives, surveys, web groups, forums, blogs, and consulting with outside experts.
Since learning and sharing were one of the key themes of the RTC, it was hardly surprising that most of the sessions and workshops were focused on discussing different aspects of Revit in detail, including all of its three disciplinary applications as well as other applications that work with it. These were mostly presented by professionals from AEC firms who had developed expertise in Revit. For example, there was a session exclusively focused on the massing tools in Revit by Kelly Cone of the Beck Group, who showed how the Revit massing editor was used extensively for a complex 700,000+ sq.ft. project in S. Korea and was the only way to embed parametric relationships at the project level into the freeform skin model—which included a complex curtain wall system and vertical fins, comprising close to 170,000 elements. The massing tools were used all the way from the earliest design stages; the parametric relationships built into the massing model were what drove the final building model. In fact, 400 iterations of the mass were done all the way up to the design documents stage; it was even used to update the building's skin less than three weeks from issuing 100% DD documents. Tying the building geometry to the mass was the only way to ensure that a lot of customization work done on the project was not lost and could automatically adjust to any changes to the design, which were made easily by changing one or more of the parameters driving the mass form.
Other sessions focused on Revit included a detailed look at how to coordinate effectively with Revit models using applications such as Navisworks Manage and Solibri Model Checker, presented by Amy Patel of HOK; insights into the use of Revit Structure by Thomas Weir of Thornton Tomasetti, a leading structural engineering firm well known for its use of BIM; and the different ways for a distributed team to collaborate on a Revit project, presented by Chris Price of Cadway Projects. Brian Andresen of WLC Architects shared tips and tricks on how to more effectively implement Revit as a BIM Manager, including how to continuously train the workforce on new functionality and how to make the annual software updates more manageable. He placed a lot of emphasis on documenting all steps and action items, even to the extent of creating in-house software manuals that allowed training material to be customized for the firm rather than just relying on the product documentation supplied by the vendor. Nicholas Kramer of HMC Architects led a panel discussion of BIM managers from different disciplinary firms, each describing the positive impact that BIM was having on their firm in various aspects such as staffing, getting new business and becoming more competitive, improved coordination and design delivery, and increasing profits.
There were also several sessions on BIM implementation in general. For example, we learnt about how lean processes in the manufacturing world can be translated in the AEC industry through BIM from David Haynes, a registered architect and LEED professional who currently works at Ideate Inc., providing consulting on business process analysis and change management solutions. Jim Balding, well known as a Revit expert, provided a comprehensive checklist for successful BIM implementation that includes 7 factors of planning Revit implementation, 6 phases of a Revit user, 5 emergent categories of BIM evolution, and 4 key factors of success—an approach highly reminiscent of the much-acclaimed book, The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. The key, according to him, is to always start on any kind of BIM implementation with the end in mind. We had a session on how best to use social media tools in AEC by Christopher Parsons of Knowledge Architecture, which brought up the interesting question of information overload—with the proliferation of so many blogs, wikis, and other online resources, at what point is the information simply going to get too much to handle? The answer seems to be that we, as human beings, will have to learn to adapt to this onslaught of information, and filter out only what we need and want to learn about. And finally, there were two interesting panel discussions I was able to attend: one was led by Melanie Tristram and explored how HR practices in firms have been impacted by BIM; the second was led by Marc Goldman and explored how BIM was helping different disciplinary firms to better leverage collaboration and work together in new and highly productive ways.
I found the inaugural RTC event in the US very interesting and informative to attend. It gave me the chance to reconnect with many familiar faces as well as meet a whole new set of people who typically do not attend vendor-hosted conferences or more general industry events. While many of the sessions and workshops delved deep into Revit and were more useful to serious users of the application, there were also plenty of broader BIM-related rather than Revit-specific sessions for those who were not day-to-day Revit users. I found it especially refreshing to talk to users and get some uncensored input, such as some critical feedback on Ecotect, which apparently does not provide accurate analysis, and is also one of those Autodesk acquisitions that now seems to be languishing without any effort to make improvements to it. The sustainability expert that provided this feedback found IES products, in contrast, very accurate. Another example was a question posted to one of the presenters in a Revit-focused session asking what they do when the firms they collaborate with do not use Revit, in response to which came the candid response, “We cry a lot.” In my experience, it is difficult to get this kind of unvarnished truth at the more conventional industry events.
Stay tuned for more information on the products and services that were exhibited at the RTC 2011 US event coming up later this month.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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