Roll Up The Bim To Win

Writing about architecture and computers is not a lucrative profession, nor is it filled with the perks of more glamorous forms of journalism. In the more than 20 years that I have written for Canadian Architect, the free lunches have been few and far between–which at least keeps me honest. Last spring, however, I was invited on what can only be described as a “junket” to attend Autodesk’s World Press Days in San Francisco. What I saw and heard surprised, delighted, amused and occasionally disturbed me.

The nature of the event is worth noting since the junket itself revealed a great deal about the future of architecture. Over 100 journalists– including myself–from all over the world were flown to San Francisco where we were wined, dined and entertained at the luxurious Mark Hopkins Hotel. There is little doubt that the event was superbly organized. Theatrical lighting accented well-prepared speeches and announcements that rolled off teleprompters with clockwork precision. The PowerPoint presentations were carefully designed with a high degree of professionalism and sophistication, and each was informative and to the point. A promotional animation about Santiago Calatrava’s Spire in Chicago was created by a rising Hollywood director using various Autodesk packages, and its screening was worthy of consideration by the Academy. Key Autodesk personnel made themselves readily available for carefully scheduled one-on-one interviews. There was even a bag of swag that included a free graphics card.

There was also much to admire in Autodesk’s commitment to the critical issues of design. They are proactive in promoting and facilitating sustainable design; they are committed to Building Information Modelling or BIM; and they have funded a research chair in design education and innovation at the National Institute of Design in India.

It was so impressive that it made me long for the days when dorks and weirdos would congregate in poorly organized panels to rant about the future of CAD in forums such as the now-defunct A/E/C Systems, to demonstrate software that rarely worked (but which they had made themselves), and to show off awkward graphics in garish colours that had taken days to render. These were the days when Autodesk’s only real product was AutoCAD and, as I often reminded readers, it wasn’t very good. Nonetheless, by bringing CAD to the personal computer in 1982 at a price of around $1,000 US, there is little doubt that Autodesk revolutionized the world of CAD and architecture.

Autodesk’s current position was by no means guaranteed in those days. Its early attempts to diversify with products such as Xanadu for hypertext and Cyberspace for virtual reality were failures and its rat line for reporting illegal copies of AutoCAD was an unfortunate exercise in public relations. Quietly (but aggressively), however, AutoDesk came to dominate the world of visualization through a series of strategic acquisitions. In 1998 they purchased Montreal-based Discreet Logic, known for its digital special-effects software, for $520 million US in stock. In 2002 they acquired Revit for $133 million US in cash. In 2005 they purchased Toronto-based Alias for $182 million US in cash, which gave them packages such as Maya (for animation) and Studio (for automotive and industrial design). And in 2007, they bought construction-management software maker NavisWorks for $25 million US in cash. During World Press Days, they announced that they would acquire both Green Building Studio and Carmel Software for undisclosed amounts to strengthen their offerings in the area of sustainable design. Combined with their own offerings and packages, this means that Autodesk dominates or has major products in every area of visualization from GIS to character animation. As former CEO Carol Bartz is reported to have said, “Look around you: if God didn’t create it, AutoCAD did.”

The only challenge to Autodesk in the foreseeable future may come from open-source or free products such as Google SketchUp. The latest version of AutoCAD retails for $3,995 US so while SketchUp doesn’t have anywhere near the capabilities of Revit or AutoCAD, it does have a distinct price advantage and is popular with students.

Today, however, according to company president and CEO Carl Bass, the installed base of Autodesk products is 9 million worldwide with 750,000 new users being added each year. In a very real sense, the future of computer-aided design is the future of Autodesk. Such market dominance is always worrisome but in this case it is also confusing. AutoCAD and Revit, for example, would seem to be competing products but Autodesk continues to develop both products and has just released AutoCAD 2009. The same is true of products such as Maya and 3ds Max.

Nonetheless, it is clear that they now have sufficient resources and market share to drive the acceptance of BIM or any other approach they choose. BIM could be the most important development in CAD (and architecture) of this decade because it could transform our approach to design and documentation. Theoretically, BIM would allow architects to develop a data-driven model that would not only form the source of all representations of a building but would also be shared across all phases and disciplines involved in the design, construction and operation of a building. In effect, the model would be the contract and its documentation. Such a model would include not only the geometries of building components but also information such as their cost, performance specifications and even their carbon footprint. A complete model developed using BIM would provide architects and engineers with unprecedented opportunities for analyzing the behaviour of a building before it was built. The problem is that a complete model may be an unattainable goal.

Given that one piece of inaccurate data can undermine the integrity of the model, who should enter, verify and maintain that data? The architect? The engineer? The manufacturer? Or a company such as Autodesk? Given the dominance of Autodesk, will BIM become a proprietary standard or an open-source format? What about transferring data between models? Given the vast array of Autodesk packages, it was not surprising to find that files and data could not be easily transferred between its own products, but BIM demands that data be easily and accurately transferred between multiple packages by multiple vendors. The profession needs to think very carefully about BIM and its implementation.

BIM could add a whole new layer of functionality to CAD, but it will probably mean more work (and perhaps liability) for architects and designers as they try to maintain an accurate model throughout the life cycle of a building. Unfortunately, if past history is any indication, the profession probably won’t be able to profit from this development although Autodesk probably will. Architects gave away the store when they began providing their AutoCAD files to clients at no extra cost so it’s hard to imagine that they won’t do the same with BIM. Unlike AutoDesk, architects have a poor track record in understanding the business of building.

Douglas MacLeod is the Executive Director of the Okanagan Science and Technology Council and the former Executive Director of the Canadian Design Research Network. He invites you to participate in his latest research project, the Architecture of Cyberspace, by visiting the following URL and filling out the online survey: http://websurvey. 13230518. For more information, please contact Doug at dmacleod@