AIA 2015 Convention and Expo AECbytes Newsletter #75 (May 28, 2015)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the annual US AIA Convention and Expo that was held in Atlanta this year. I was attending this event in person after a gap of three years, and what struck me the most was the increasing “architecture-specific” nature of the technology products exhibited at the Expo. In the early days of BIM and IPD, the AIA showcased a lot more technology products that were applicable to the entire spectrum of building design, construction, and facilities management; but now, it seems like the distinction between the tools architects are likely to use versus the tools used by the other building professionals has become more marked, given that it was mostly the former that were showcased at this year’s AIA. While this makes sense to a certain extent—it is an architecture-specific conference after all—the contrast between the current genre of tools that were exhibited compared to the more expansive set of technologies that were showcased in the past seems to be going against the entire notion of integration that BIM and IPD are supposed to nurture. It is certainly quite a conundrum.

A big draw for attendees at this year’s AIA Convention was the opportunity to hear Bill Clinton, the former President of the US, in person, delivering the opening keynote. Despite the fact that he is not a practicing architect, he still had a lot to say, and given the eloquency he is so well-known for, he held the packed auditorium enthralled (Figure 1). Most of his talk, understandably, revolved around sustainability, which is a key political concern and doesn't require specialized architectural knowledge to discuss. Unlike architects who are almost entirely focused on design and materials when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from buildings and making them “greener,” Bill Clinton brought in a refreshingly different perspective to the issue. He emphasized the need to retrofit existing buildings to make them more energy-efficient, which would not only improve sustainability but also create more jobs, helping to improve the economy. He referred to this as “low-hanging fruit” that we can immediately avail of, in parallel with exploring solar energy, wind energy, and other long-term energy alternatives. Architects themselves are unlikely to think much about spurring job creation when it comes to enabling sustainable design, but this would be a top priority from a political standpoint, especially for someone in charge of running an entire country!

Figure 1. Former President Bill Clinton delivering the opening keynote at the AIA 2015 Convention to a packed auditorium. Even those (like myself) who came on time could get seats only in the back.

With regard to the technology products showcased in the Exhibit Hall, they may have been “architecture-specific,” but were replete with features and functionality, with many new releases of existing applications and some brand-new solutions as well. This article takes a closer look at the BIM applications, extensions, and conceptual design tools exhibited at the show. There were also several applications specifically for analysis and visualization, which will be described in the upcoming Q2 2015 issue of AECbytes magazine.

BIM Applications and Extensions

Nemetschek Vectorworks will soon be launching the 2016 version of its product family, and previewed some of its key new features at the AIA. These include Marionette, a graphical scripting tool that lets you sculpt and edit complex forms by capturing their underlying logic in diagrams comprising objects, parameters, relationships, and so on, which can be quickly created by dragging and dropping them from a scripting palette to the graphics window (Figure 2). Conceptually, it seems similar to Bentley’s GenerativeComponents and the more recent Dynamo from Autodesk, but it seems a lot slicker and easier to use—and right within the BIM environment of Vectorworks. Of course, it’s hard to judge how well it works and how easy it is to use until one has actually used it to create design variations and parametric forms from scripts, and I will be exploring it in more detail after the 2016 version of Vectorworks is released in the Fall. But from what I saw, Marionette seems fascinating, and I would have to rate it as the “coolest” feature I saw at this year’s AIA. Other new features in Vectorworks 2016 that were shown include a built-in energy analysis tool, the ability for multiple users to work concurrently on the same Vectorworks file, a mobile app for remote access, support for point clouds, and the capability for subdivision modeling to create smoother freeform objects.

Figure 2. The new Marionette graphical scripting capability in Vectorworks 2016. The top image shows the script that creates the complex parametric object shown in the lower image.

Graphisoft also showcased its upcoming annual release, ArchiCAD 19, at the AIA show. The most significant enhancement in the new release is speed, with the addition of background processing to the multi-processing and 64 bit support that ArchiCAD had already introduced for faster performance in earlier releases. From a software development standpoint, this requires large chunks of the software to be rewritten to take advantage of all the cores of a computer’s processor, which is something Graphisoft has actually done with ArchiCAD. In the new release, the retooling of ArchiCAD to take advantage of background processing has resulted in greatly increasing the overall responsiveness of the application, so it feels more agile with projects of any type or size. A new tab bar for multiple viewpoints allows speedier switching among floor plans, sections, elevations, and 3D windows, which are already pre-generated and ready for viewing thanks to background processing (Figure 3). Other key enhancements include smoother and faster 3D navigation with OpenGL enabled by using a fully-optimized OpenGL engine; a new Surface Painter tool that allows users to quickly apply different materials to model surfaces; support for point clouds (at last!), allowing 3D laser scanned data of as-built conditions to be imported into the model for reference; and improved IFC-based collaboration and collision detection.     

Figure 3. The new tabbed view interface of ArchiCAD 19, allowing users to quickly switch between model views, which are already pre-generated thanks to its new background processing capability.

While Autodesk had a new release of Revit to demonstrate, it chose to focus on its conceptual design tools, FormIt and Dynamo, at the AIA show, which will be discussed in the following section. With regard to Revit 2016, Autodesk showed some its main enhancements at an AEC Media Summit event it held in Boston last week, which will be covered in a separate article soon. (The new rendering capabilities in Revit 2016 were described in an AECbytes Tips and Tricks article published last month.) For the AIA, the main Revit-related announcement that Autodesk made was the introduction of a new Revit Collaboration Suite, a pared-down and less-expensive version of its Building Design Suite that includes only AutoCAD, the three disciplinary versions of Revit, and the A360 Team cloud collaboration software. This makes sense for AEC firms and users that are primarily interested in using Revit, providing them with a lower cost entry point to BIM workflows and/or transition from CAD to BIM.

An interesting new BIM extension that was exhibited at this year’s AIA was actually demonstrated at the SketchUp booth, reinforcing SketchUp’s increasing position as an “honorary” BIM application, even though it is not one (yet). While the developments in SketchUp itself will be described in more detail in the section on conceptual design tools, the new extension that was being exhibited was the ability to import intelligent BIM objects into SketchUp. More specifically, these objects are those that are specified in the government-defined Space and Equipment Planning System (SEPS) healthcare database, the use of which is mandated in VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals in the US. Traditionally, the requirements of different VA hospital rooms, including the healthcare equipment they need to have, are published as PDF files that serve as templates or guides for the architects designing these facilities. Now, instead of the manual process of designing the rooms according to the published specifications, designers can import these spaces in BIM format into SketchUp and all the specified medical equipment these spaces need to have is downloaded from the 3D Warehouse and automatically placed in the correct position in the room. This “SEPS to BIM” capability, as it is called, is enabled through a new plug-in developed by Onuma Systems. The same feature is also available for other BIM application like ArchiCAD and Revit (Figure 4). After the space has been placed and the equipment models downloaded, architects can make any desired modifications to these objects.

Figure 4. The SEPS to BIM plug-in allows VA hospital room requirements to be exported to SketchUp or a BIM application (top image) and subsequently imported as intelligent BIM objects (lower image).

While having this semi-automated capability to place hospital rooms with the required equipment in the design of a healthcare facility is an important step forward for BIM-based design, I was a little disappointed that the reverse had not yet been attempted, where the design models are checked back for the satisfaction of the VA requirements using BIM. After all, simply the ability to import the requirements is no guarantee that the final design will continue to meet the specifications, given that the imported objects can be modified as well as deleted. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of the larger problem in the AEC industry, where designs are still being checked for approval manually using 2D drawings, without taking advantage of the intelligence in BIM models that AEC firms are putting in the effort to create. BIM will have truly “arrived” in the AEC industry only when it starts being adopted for code-checking and issuing approvals and permits. A technological overhaul of this process is long over-due.

A new exhibitor in what can be categorized as the “Extensions” category at this year’s AIA was AGACAD, which develops a set of add-on tools for Revit called T4R (Tools 4 Revit) as well as a collection of BIM Solutions that are integrated with Revit. The company has actually been in operation since 1991 and has users in nearly 130 countries worldwide. It is headquartered in Lithuania and has resellers in several countries around the world, but not yet in the US—the AIA was probably its first foray in the US market. The T4R set of tools are essentially productivity add-ons for Revit users developed to accelerate tasks such as creating legends, dimensioning (Figure 5), importing Excel data into Revit, creating and managing sheets, searching and sorting Revit family files, joining walls, creating floor panels, auto-coping beams and trusses, managing rooms and spaces, and so on. The BIM Solutions collection, on the other hand, is more expansive and includes extensions for prefabricated design, timber and metal-construction design, sustainable design, MEP engineering and BIM data management.

Figure 5. Using the Quick Dimensions T4R add-on from AGACAD to automatically add a dimension chain to selected elements in one step.

Conceptual Design Tools

As mentioned earlier, Autodesk chose to focus its AIA announcements to its conceptual building design portfolio, comprising FormIt and Dynamo. Recall that FormIt is the free conceptual design tool for iPad and Android tablets that was first introduced at Autodesk University 2012, and which, to date, remains the only mobile app that actually lets you create models on a tablet device and not just view models as most design and visualization apps in AEC do. FormIt was extended last year (see AECbytes Newsletter #69) to run on a web browser in addition to a tablet, and at this year’s AIA, Autodesk announced a new paid version of the application called FormIt 360 Pro which includes solar analysis (Figure 6) and model collaboration capabilities that are not available in the free version of FormIt. (The 360 moniker is now being applied by Autodesk to all its cloud-based products to distinguish them from its traditional desktop applications, so the free version of FormIt has also been renamed as FormIt 360.) With regard to the design scripting tool, Dynamo, it is now available as a standalone application called Dynamo Studio instead of only being available as a plug-in to Revit as it was previously. This untethering of the application from Revit will allow it to be more widely used to explore design ideas using visual logic captured as scripts.

Figure 6. Solar analysis capability in the new FormIt 360 Pro app.

On the conceptual design front, SketchUp still remains the tool of choice for many architects, even though it creates generic 3D models rather than building-specific models. However, since being acquired by Trimble three years ago and joining its growing portfolio of AEC solutions, it is slowly but surely expanding its footprint in AEC. Earlier this year, Trimble released an extension to SketchUp for MEP design (described in AECbytes Newsletter #74, and by the way, why isn’t there a more general BIM extension for SketchUp yet?); and just a few weeks ago, Trimble demonstrated how it was working with the new Microsoft HoloLens Technology to apply it to the AEC industry using SketchUp (see the article, Augmented Reality in AEC). At the AIA show, Trimble showed an updated version of the SketchUp Mobile Viewer app for viewing SketchUp models on mobile devices. Earlier, this app could only work on tablets, but it is now available for smartphones as well, both iOS and Android. Additionally, it includes support for 13 languages; the ability to open models stored in Dropbox, Trimble Connect, or attached to emails; better integration with the 3D Warehouse, allowing users to view, browse, sort and filter search results for both models and collections; and improved viewing and navigation capabilities including support for styles, the ability to create orthographic views, and the ability to control the field of view in perspective mode (Figure 7).

Figure 7. New features in the SketchUp Mobile Viewer, including integration with the 3D Warehouse, Dropbox, and Trimble Connect (top image), support for viewing the model in different styles (middle image), and the ability to change the field of view for perspective views (lower image).

An additional SketchUp development that was highlighted at the AIA is support for 3D printing for the SketchUp model repository in the 3D Warehouse. Through a partnership with Materialise, these models now have a new Printables feature, allowing them to be downloaded in a 3D print-ready format, if required.

Conclusion

While the description of architecture-specific technologies at this year’s AIA conference will conclude with the overview of analysis, visualization, and additional tools in the upcoming Q2 2015 issue of AECbytes magazine, an additional interesting observation about the event as a whole—apart from being more architecture-specific on the technology front—was the fact there were a relatively large number of solutions developed by vendors outside the US. These included Oasys from the UK, Cl3ver from Spain, Kubicity from France, and AGACAD from Lithuania. Thus, compared to the past, there is now much more global development of AEC technology, which can help to bring in some fresh perspectives to the field. It widens the arena for innovative thinking and solutions such as the “smarter BIM tool for building design” I put out a call for last month, and which I’m still hoping to see sometime soon!

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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