The AEC industry is seeing an increasing trend towards dedicated software development by AEC firms themselves, a trend that was highlighted in recent AECbytes articles such as Technology - A Catalyst for Innovation, Sustainability and Design at Foster + Partners and AEC Technology Development at Bryden Wood. This article captures the technology development initiatives at Thornton Tomasetti, a leading structural engineering firm with a global footprint, including a staff of over 1,500, offices in various cities across the world, and projects in over 54 countries. Some of the firm’s key projects, on which many of the tools it develops have been used, are shown in Figure 1.
While software development is not, of course, the core business of AEC firms, this actually puts them at an advantage as they do not have to rely on selling software to sustain themselves — they do this by providing AEC services, which is their bread and butter. At the same time, with software technology becoming so integral to the design, construction, and operation of buildings and infrastructure, larger AEC firms can now afford to have dedicated software development departments similar to accounting, HR, IT, etc., with employees that are not tied to the “billable hours” of the specific projects that the firm is working on.
From the perspective of improving the state of the art of technology development in AEC, having AEC firms get into software development is a terrific boost. After all, they know better than anyone else what are the tools and capabilities that they need to improve what they are working on — the process as well as the product — and with a growing number of AEC professionals interested in serious coding, they can cultivate the necessary software expertise in-house. Of course, they are still relying on dedicated AEC software vendors to develop the larger commercial applications for common industry tasks such as BIM, analysis, coordination, scheduling, project management, visualization, documentation, and so on, but they are increasingly developing specialized custom tools themselves to augment their use of these applications.
Thornton Tomasetti was already one of the leading AEC firms known for its cutting use of technology (see Figure 2), and in 2011, it formed an Advanced Computational Modeling (ACM) Group to sharpen its technology focus and expertise. Its custom tool development work started informally at this stage, but it gained a lot of momentum when the ACM Group was rebranded and formalized into a distinct entity called CORE Studio in 2014.
CORE Studio now has a dedicated team of over 20 professionals. Most of these are engineers or architects who have self-learned programming, but there are also some who are Computer Science majors. As with most software development, CORE Studio is a global effort, with team members from the US, Canada, Sweden, and India. In addition to developing software, an important part of their work is to keep up with the latest advancements in computing such as AI (Artificial Intelligence), ML (Machine Learning), Data Science, etc., and for this, CORE Studio has a continuous learning initiative called CORE.EDU where each member is required to learn a new technology through online coursework.
With close to 10 years of software development so far, CORE Studio has created a large number of tools, and while many of these are in the domain of structural engineering — which is Thornton Tomasetti’s core expertise — some of them are for collaboration and data visualization and can be used by any discipline in AEC. While Thornton Tomasetti does not sell its tools commercially, some of the applications developed by CORE Studio such as Konstru (described in the next section) have been spun off into standalone firms. CORE Studio is also planning to co-develop software with AEC firms in the near future.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key applications developed by CORE Studio.
Konstru was developed to address the interoperability problem between BIM models and analysis tools, which is especially critical to the structural engineering domain given its extensive use of analysis for structural design. CORE Studio found that while the IFC file format was good for the interoperability of BIM elements, it did not always translate seamlessly with Revit —the main BIM application used by Thornton Tomasetti — or with specific analytical software, and it was therefore limited in its use. This is why they created Konstru, which has a general and extendable data schema for BIM, geometry, and analytical data that interoperates natively with multiple applications including Revit, Grasshopper, Tekla, RAM, SAP2000, ETABS, Excel and Dynamo (Figure 3). Thus, instead of requiring one-to-one integration between each individual set of applications, Konstru can be used as a central hub and its API-level integration with each application can be used to exchange and synchronize data between them without any loss of valuable information.
Konstru was created as a web-based application to which design and analysis models can be uploaded from individual applications through the use of plug-ins. You can filter the elements to be uploaded, so it is possible to only have a subset of the model in Konstru. While you can view and explore the model in the Konstru viewer (Figure 4), the real benefit comes from the ability to merge models, which integrates all their data as well as allows any discrepancies to be resolved (Figure 5). This is because unlike most collaboration platforms, you can also do some basic editing of the data in Konstru. The edited model can then be brought back into the original design or analysis application to continue working with.
Thornton Tomasetti is an extensive user of Rhino and Grasshopper for computational modeling and parametric design (as shown earlier in the project example in Figure 2), and it has developed a large number of Grasshopper scripts over the years for different projects. Many scripts, once written, can be used repeatedly, not just within the firm but also by other AEC firms and designers who are doing parametric modeling and writing their own scripts. CORE Studio created Swarm as an online marketplace where designers and users can buy and sell parametric solutions that suit their specific needs. The idea is similar to say, SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse, except that instead of 3D objects, there are apps and scripts (Figure 6). It allows experts who are developing Rhino and Grasshopper workflows access to a global market of design professionals, and it allows users who need custom parametric solutions to buy them off the shelf without having to learn computer programming.
In addition to plug-ins and scripts that can be downloaded to work with Rhino, Revit, Illustrator, and other applications, Swarm also includes a web client for some apps written in Grasshopper that run on the cloud, as shown in Figure 7.
Swarm was recently acquired by ShapeDiver, an online marketplace for Grasshopper scripts across all the industries in which Grasshopper is used rather than just AEC. The two platforms will soon be integrated into a combined marketplace for parametric design solutions.
If there is one aspect of AEC technology development in which AEC firms would seem to have the upper hand compared to software firms, it is automated design, since that is powered by established design rules that AEC firms use everyday in their work. We saw several examples of automated design in the article on Bryden Wood’s technology development, and in the case of Thornton Tomasetti, its 70+ years of structural engineering expertise have been used to develop a tool called Asterisk, which can design a building in under one minute, using rules as well as newer Machine Learning technologies. You simply select a massing model in Rhino, which is then imported to the Asterisk app (Figure 8), where you can generate many conceptual design options for the structure based on specific parameters. Multiple options can be explored by adjusting the parameters, and there is an interface to compare them side by side. Referred to as “structural optioneering,” designers can iterate and explore options that would likely take months using conventional methods.
Trace is a relatively new application developed by CORE Studio, and it is to do with drawings rather than models. This might seem regressive, but it is actually not, because Trace is a data-rich drawing viewer in which each element carries the property information that was assigned to it in the BIM model. This means that a Trace drawing can be viewed in many different ways, with color-coding by property, turning the display of layers on or off, filtering by discipline, and so on (Figure 9). As long as the AEC industry continues to use drawings, we can at least make them more interactive and information-rich than the traditional black-and-white dumbed-down document set. That is the rationale behind Trace — creating a bridge to digitized data delivery.
CORE Studio develops a whose host of other applications for different aspects of design and analysis. Tools in the structural engineering domain include Spotlight, a material takeoff and data-visualization tool for tracking structural quantities; Framing Repair, which corrects common connectivity errors in BIM models so that they can be input accurately to analysis tools; and Skipper, a tool for automatic structural-bay design (Figure 10).
On the visualization front, a web application called Thread offers a wide array of interactive charting, data visualization, and control widgets for viewing and analyzing complex project data (Figure 11), while another web application called Mirar enables designers and engineers to create lightweight interactive 3D visualizations of BIM and analysis models and securely share them with clients and collaborators (Figure 12).
Additionally, CORE Studio develops a large number of custom plug-ins and add-ins for the main BIM and analysis applications used at Thornton Tomasetti including Revit, Tekla, Grasshopper, SAP2000, and eTabs; specialized applications including a digital wind tunnel and an embodied carbon measurement tool; and lots of custom software for specific clients and projects. More recently, CORE Studio has launched an AI initiative to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies with a focus on AEC applications, and it should be coming out with specific tools on this front soon.
Software development is not entirely new to AEC firms. There was the legendary AES design software developed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in the 1980s, which was, by all accounts, much more advanced than the commercial software available to architects and engineers at that time. Sadly, SOM was forced to abandon it and move to AutoCAD. Hopefully, those days are over, as the software developed by AEC firms is not just something that is useful to them individually but also vital to improving the technology state of the art of the industry as a whole.
I would like to thank Robert Otani, who is the Chief Technology Officer of Thornton Tomasetti and who established and oversees CORE Studio, for taking the time to talk with me and providing me with the resources for researching this article.
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 email@example.com.
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