The annual AIA conference — the main event for architects in the US — was held in San Francisco last week and I was able to attend it in person after a gap of several years. This was a conference I used to typically attend every year before the pandemic, as it featured all the key AEC technology vendors and provided an excellent venue to quickly get up to speed on the state of the art of the industry. The previous AIA conference I was able to attend in person was in 2019 (see https://www.aecbytes.com/newsletter/2019/issue_98.html), and while the attendance at last week’s event was far below pre-pandemic levels, it was great to get a chance to see different products and meet their developers in person once again. Hopefully, events like this can soon return to full force and give people a chance to imbibe and be inspired by the collective energy and vitality of like-minded professionals.
Here is an overview of some of the technology products and feature enhancements I was able to see at the AIA 2023 conference.
Skema is a new tool for conceptual building planning and design that was launched at the AIA conference by a company called Blue Ocean Sustainability. While the focus of the company — as evident from its name — is on developing solutions that support sustainable designs, one of the founders of the company is Marty Rozmanith, who was a member of the Revit team prior to its acquisition by Autodesk. His expertise in BIM, as manifested in Revit, is reflected in Skema (Figure 1), which is an actual BIM-based conceptual design tool rather than a general-purpose conceptual modeling solution like SketchUp that is popular among architects. Thus, you are working with actual building elements such as buildings, levels, zones, and spaces in Skema and using its built-in automation and smarts to design a building quickly at the early stage of the process. You can then export the design to Revit to continue with the detailed design and documentation workflow.
This, in brief, is how it works. You start a project by specifying the address where it will be located, sketch the site boundary on the map that is pulled up, and select the extent of the site context that is required. It can then be seen in 3D in the Skema editor with the topography and outlines of the surrounding buildings coming from GIS data sources like Open Street Map. The topography can be further refined in Skema by adding setbacks, roads, etc. You then define the building masses, either by drawing them or using predefined topology blocks, edit them as required, specify the number of floors and floor heights for each block, and assign a category to a block based on use type. You can create different options for the design and see a detailed breakdown of the space usage for each option. The real power of Skema kicks in after this, where you can apply a “catalog” to the massing blocks and automatically convert them to individual spaces, as shown in Figure 2. This catalog is generated from a firm’s earlier designs — almost like a “pattern language” — and will therefore be different for every firm. Additional capabilities in Skema include the generation of an LOD350 model, Revit export, and sustainability analysis.
Another new tool that was being exhibited at the AIA Expo this year was Snaptrude (Figure 3). I had the opportunity to see an early avatar of this tool in November 2021, and I was impressed at how much it has evolved since then. It is now a full-fledged building design tool that is a cross between Revit and Sketchup, with the BIM capabilities of the former and the ease of use of the latter. As with many of the latest software applications, it is web-based and collaborative. You can import a 2D drawing or sketch and use it as the basis for creating a BIM model using Snaptrude’s set of building design tools or an automated feature that can create a building from a massing model. Alternately, you can import a Revit model, work on it collaboratively with the design team, and export it back to Revit without any data loss. Being a BIM application, Snaptrude can also provide accurate calculations of areas and quantities in the model.
While SketchUp is already a well-established design tool in the AEC industry — it was launched in 2001 —some new AI-powered capabilities have given it a fresh boost. You can now search for models in the 3D Warehouse — SketchUp’s extensive 3D model library that includes manufacturer-developed models as well as user-generated models — by dragging and dropping images. This new Image Search capability helps make the 3D Warehouse more accessible as many of the models that are being uploaded to it have different names in different languages. This feature is currently available for beta testing, and Figure 4 shows the results I got when I tried searching for a trellis type I was interested in finding a model of.
Another upcoming feature is Scan-to-Design, which will be available in the iPad version of SketchUp. It uses Apple’s new LiDAR scanner that is built into the 4th and 5th generation of the iPad Pro. With it, a designer using SketchUp can get a 3D as-built scan of an interior space right away and use it as a reference for designing, as shown in Figure 5. The feature makes use of AI to interpret the scan data and transform it into clean, organized geometry that is immediately usable in SketchUp. Additionally, there are multiple scanning options to choose from ranging from a photo-textured mesh to a parametric model, so you can select what is best for the project at hand.
The big AEC product news coming from Autodesk at this year’s AIA conference was the launch of Autodesk Forma, known earlier as SpaceMaker. This was the product from Norway that Autodesk had acquired and introduced at Autodesk University 2020 (see https://www.aecbytes.com/newsletter/2020/issue_107.html). At that time, SpaceMaker was a generative design tool for conceptual urban planning that could generate multiple options satisfying specified criteria, which would be further explored and refined to find a good solution. In its relaunched avatar as Autodesk Forma, the generative design capabilities of the application seemed to have been toned down or removed altogether. I found it very similar to Skema, minus the “catalog” feature that allowed Skema to take a massing model and convert to a fully detailed BIM model based on a firm’s signature designs.
That said, being an Autodesk product, Forma is very slick with a beautiful user interface and an extensive set of features for conceptual design (Figure 6) that would allow you to delay moving the design process to a heavy-duty BIM application like Revit for as long as possible. You can create a site model complete with the topology, surrounding buildings, roads, and other contextual data in minutes; use the built-in tools to quickly create different conceptual design options, each of which can have multiple buildings with different levels; assign different usage types to the different buildings and levels and keep track of their areas as you are designing, even sketching out individual floor plans if needed; and use cloud computing to analyze different environmental aspects of a design proposal including sunlight, daylight, wind, and microclimate.
Being an Autodesk product, Forma has, of course, the closest possible integration with Revit. A Revit add-in provides a file-less sync between the two applications, allowing users to detail their Forma data in Revit and bring it back to Forma for analysis.
The real-time rendering application, Enscape, that connects directly to Revit, Archicad, SketchUp, Rhino, and Vectorworks allowing designers to see the impact of design changes as they are designing (see https://www.aecbytes.com/review/2022/Enscape.html), showed its new “Enscape to V-Ray” bridge. V-Ray is a stand-alone photorealistic visualization solution developed by the Chaos group, which merged with Enscape last year. The bridge between the two applications allows the real-time rendering of a project done in Enscape to be transferred directly to creating a highly photorealistic visualization of the design in V-Ray (Figure 7). This includes the ability to bring in any materials, 3D assets, light sources, and environmental settings that were applied to the project in Enscape and which are now a part of the model. The new compatibility would allow the time that was invested in designing the project and refining it in real time in Enscape to be gainfully used in generating the final renders in V-Ray.
Another example of the Enscape to V-Ray bridge, this one from a SketchUp model, is shown in Figure 8.
I had a chance to check out Graphisoft’s new Archicad Collaborate offering which combines the use of its flagship BIM application, Archicad, with its cloud-based real-time project collaboration solution, BIMcloud, for the price of an Archicad subscription. By enabling Archicad users the ability to quickly and efficiently share access to projects in real-time with other team members (Figure 9), Graphisoft is making Archicad an even more compelling BIM option for AEC professionals to consider. In addition to Archicad Collaborate, I also got a sneak peak of the upcoming Archicad 27 release — more on this soon — as well as how partner applications like Bluebeam and Drofus, part of the Nemetschek portfolio, work with Archicad for collaborative design.
And finally, given my long-standing interest in automated code compliance (see Automated Code Compliance Updates, 2018: AECbytes Feature, which also includes links to my earlier articles on this topic), I was fascinated by CodeComply.AI, which uses AI to automatically check a building drawing for code-compliance. It works by using image detection, drawing layers, and OCR (optical character recognition) to automatically interpret a floor plan, in a standard drawing format such as DWG and PDF, and use that as the basis for checking the design against a list of code requirements, generating a list of non-compliant items. The code-checking “magic” comes from combining the expertise of a code consulting company, SLS Consulting, and the deep machine learning technology of Togal.AI, an AI application specific to the construction industry. The product is still very new, and the kinds of codes it checks for include occupant load, egress capacity, exit separation, travel distance, common path, and dead end. Additional compliance tests that are upcoming include construction type, accessibility reviews, and fire safety. ChatGPT integration is also being planned in CodeComply.AI to make it more intuitive and easier to use.
After three years of Zoom calls and online product briefings, it was great to be back on the show floor and see products in person once again and meet the people behind them. Also, given how rapidly AI is taking over the technology airwaves in society as a whole, it was hardly surprising to see it also emerging in AEC technology solutions. In fact, I found the excitement — and potential game-changing capability —of generative AI to be almost identical to how it was with BIM when it was first introduced over twenty years ago. Rather than the mostly incremental upgrades we have seen since then, we should start seeing radically new solutions and capabilities in AEC technology powered by AI.
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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