Archetris Schema: Early-stage Programming and Space PlanningAECbytes Review (February 25, 2016)

In the AEC industry, the initial phase of developing the scope and requirements of the project, programming, and space planning has, so far, been relatively underserved by technology. We have had one dedicated application for this until now—Trelligence Affinity, which was launched in 2006 and which has been incrementally adding features since. (See the archived article “Trelligence Affinity: Extending BIM to Space Programming and Planning” which described Affinity in detail, and last year’s “AEC Technology Updates: Design and Analysis Applications” which described the updates in the recently released version 9.0 of the application.) Apart from Affinity, the only other AEC application that had some early-stage project planning capabilities was DProfiler from Beck Technology (reviewed in AECbytes in 2008), but the primary focus of this tool was cost estimating—getting an accurate cost estimate of a proposed design from an early stage design model—so it only included those planning capabilities that were needed to create a model.

Given the lack of dedicated solutions for this early pre-design phase—which seems to be a consequence of all the technology focus being on the design and construction phases of a building—I was intrigued when I heard of a new solution, Schema from Archetris, for space programming and planning. It seemed to me quite gutsy—not to mention risky—to spend time and effort developing a technology solution for a market that is not really clamoring for one. Let’s explore the solution to find out whether it makes a compelling enough use case for the preliminary phase of a design project to give it a shot at being successful in an industry that does not always welcome technology with open arms.

Overview

Archetris was founded by an architect-entrepreneur who worked for over 15 years as the head of technology at one of the world’s largest interior architecture firms, which gave him first-hand experience of the lack of technological support for early design decisions in the AEC industry. The most common practice was—and still is—to hand-draw or use a patchwork of office productivity applications, graphic design software, and CAD/BIM software to support the programming, stacking, blocking and preliminary space planning tasks. Hand-drawing can be useful for simpler planning tasks as shown in Figure 1, but not for larger projects, for which computational tools are a must. Those listed above, however, have many disadvantages when used for preliminary design: they do not meet the project teams’ needs without customization; they make for a segmented workflow with no integration between early stage and later stage design; CAD/BIM tools are complex and take time to learn and use; also, they are most suited to design physical structures and do not represent organizational structures well.

Figure 1. A hand-drawn architectural programming matrix. (Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/350366045984204435/

The lack of purpose-built software for preliminary design tasks, along with the growing realization that early-stage design decisions have the greatest downstream impacts on the project, was the impetus behind the development of Archetris Schema as a set of purpose-built and uncomplicated tools for the programming and preliminary phase of building design. In keeping with the increasing trend of being cloud-based (see the AECbytes reviews of recent AEC solutions such as Aconex, Skysite, and EADOC, as well as Autodesk’s entire BIM 360 strategy), Schema is also a cloud-based solution that is accessed though the web, known more technically as SaaS (Software as a Service). There are many advantages to being a cloud-based versus a desktop solution—the software is typically lighter, nimbler, more streamlined, less cluttered, easier to learn and use, and always stays up-to-date—and with the increasing availability and reliability of Internet access, it a definitely a delivery medium whose time has come. Archetris Schema was already developed to be as simple to use as possible, and this is reinforced by the ability to access it easily, using just a browser without the need for any plug-ins or client installations.  

The solution itself comes in six distinct yet integrated modules: resources, programming, stacking, blocking, planning, and reporting. Each module supports a specific task and provides the appropriate tools for that stage of the preliminary design. Collectively, they chart a traditional linear workflow for the user, developing, iterating, and refining a design from the most spatially abstract to the most spatially defined solution. The design data in each module is carried forward into the next, which helps to ensure accuracy and reduce the time and effort that would otherwise be spent in re-entering project data. Schema also integrates with Revit for easily transitioning the data and conceptual designs from the preliminary design stage to the detailed design development in a BIM environment.

How It Works

As intended by the developers, the Archetris Schema interface is very easy to navigate and use. You would start off by defining one or more clients, which are broader categories under which projects can be created and managed. This is done in the starting window, shown in Figure 2, where you can also provide high-level information about a project such as its type and description as well as the design team responsible for it. You can also specify whether the project uses Imperial or Metric units and if the design criteria are based on Area or Headcount.  There is an option to import project data that has been created in Excel; however, this has to be formatted in a very specific way for it to work.

Figure 2. The starting screen of Archetris Schema, which allows you to define multiple projects under different client categories.

Once you have selected a project to open, you are taken to the first module, Resources, a dedicated area where you can define the program hierarchy of the project starting with the high-level organizations, the different spaces as well as components, and finally, the basic physical configuration of the project such as the number of floors in one or more buildings, which again, can be located in one or more separate sites. For each organization, space, and component defined in the Resources module, you can further specify details such as the net to gross percentage, the area, the number of people to be accommodated, and any additional notes that are relevant (Figure 3). For each space, you can specify not just its spatial properties as shown in Figure 3, but also, if required, the components it needs to accommodate. Given that you can define a program comprising multiple buildings across a number of sites, it shows that Schema could technically be used to plan large facilities across multiple sites, if required.

Figure 3. The Resources module, where you can specify all the organizations, spaces, and components in a project as well as its basic physical configuration such floors, buildings, and if necessary, sites.

After defining the resources, you would move to the next module, Programming, where you can develop the building program in detail using a combination of the organizational and physical elements you had defined. These appear on the right side of the window, and you can simply drag and drop them to build the program, starting with the organizational elements and subsequently the physical elements they need to have. As shown in Figure 4, nested functional hierarchies of the organization elements can be created; for example, the Sales department has two sub-departments, Private Offices and Open Work, each of which are populated by the physical elements, the actual spaces. Also, a single space type, for example, 6x8 Cubicle, can be used multiple times under different organizational elements. Thus, it is possible to develop a hierarchical program of any complexity. If a space has been defined to contain components, these also appear in the program. At any time, you can go back to the Resources module and define additional organizational and physical spaces—these will immediately appear in the Programming module, ready for placement in the developing program. For each space, you can specify the count, and based on the area and headcount that was defined for it in the Resources module, as well as the components it contains, the total area and headcount for that space and its parent organizational elements is automatically calculated.

Figure 4. Developing the program of the project in the Programming module, using the resources defined in Figure 3.

Next in the workflow comes the Stacking module, which allows the designer to distribute the top-level organizational elements across the different levels specified for the project, set adjacencies, and develop rough fit plans interactively. When you first access the Stacking module, the site, building, and floor structure that was defined in the Resources module is shown on the left. You can modify this structure in the Stacking module, adding or deleting floors, buildings, etc.—needless to say, any changes that you make here are reflected in the Resources module and vice versa. You can specify the total area of each floor in the stacking diagram, after which you can drag and drop the top-level organizational elements defined in the program onto each floor to populate them, resizing them as required. The running tab on the right lets you see how much of the area for that department (as calculated in the Programming module) has been placed and how much remains to be placed (Figure 5). Essentially, the Stacking module is the next step towards converting the abstract program into a more concrete building.

Figure 5. The Stacking module of Schema allows the top-level organizational elements of the program to be stacked in the different levels defined for the project

In the next two modules, Blocking and Planning, you can concretize the project further by planning out each of the floors individually, first with the top-level organizational elements assigned in Stacking and then with the individual space elements they are comprised of, as defined in the Programming module, as well as the components defined in the Resources module. At the end of the process, you can come up with a pretty well-defined plan of each individual floor, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Developing the individual plan of a floor in more detail in the Planning module.

The final module, Reporting, provides a number of analysis options for the project such as a comparison of the design to the program requirements, as shown in Figure 7. These reports can be exported in different formats such as Word, PDF or JPEG to share with clients and other stakeholders.

Figure 7. Generating a report comparing the program to the design in the Reporting module.

The final aspect of the program is the Revit plug-in, which lets designers move Blocking and Planning information from Archetris Schema to Revit and update the Revit model as the Schema design evolves (Figure 8). Blocking is brought into Revit as 3D conceptual mass elements, stacked so that the program hierarchy can be visualized, while spaces are brought in as rooms. Thus, the work that has been spent on developing the program and preliminary design of the project is not wasted and can be used to jumpstart the design process in BIM,

Figure 8. Bring the preliminary design created in Schema into Revit using a, Archetris plug-in.

Analysis and Conclusions

The rationale for a tool like Archetris Schema is unquestionably valid—the most crucial decisions impacting the cost and quality of the project are made at the earliest design phase, and it is therefore important to plan it out properly before designing it. Any kind of technology that can help at this stage should be deployed. A tool like Schema, especially its Programming module, can help in defining the building program more rigorously and allows planners to not only think of the physical resources their buildings need to have but also of the higher-level organizational entities that the physical elements need to come together to serve. The emphasis in architecture can return back to being more about “function” than “form” instead of the other way around. The ability to define the program criteria ahead of time and check a potential design against it can ensure that the final design will meet the client requirements as captured in the program.

Thus, a tool like Archetris Schema has, as they say, “its heart in the right place.” However, it still has some ways to go in terms of usability and sophistication. While the basic workflow is easy to grasp, many of the nuances of the application—such as the ability to create design alternatives for comparison, how to use the projections capability, how to format a program in Excel so that it can be imported, and so on— were not intuitive and required quite a bit of digging into the documentation. Some other aspects I struggled with were using the Blocking and Planning modules as they were intended to be used—it involved setting up the display options for these modules in a specific way, otherwise both of them showed the same information, which really should not have been the case.

Some other aspects of the programming and space planning phase that would be useful to have in Archetris Schema include the ability to specify space adjacencies and connectivities in a bubble diagram (a “bubble diagramming” feature was recently added but it only works at the moment as visual representation of the program); a better 3D interface to visualize the space plan; and integration with BIM applications other than Revit.

Overall, Archetris Schema is a great start at developing an easy-to-use solution for the programming and planning work that needs to be done at the preliminary design phase, and it seems headed in the right direction. However, it still needs some work to make it ready for mass adoption on the kind of complex, thorny building projects that are prevalent in the real world.

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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