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Survival of the Fittest

TEXT Gabriel Fain
PHOTOS Autodesk

Autodesk continued to aggressively promote its new software platforms at the Autodesk University (AU) 2009 Conference held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. Although much of the relentless rhetoric of embracing new computational technology is already a decade old, it seems so much more relevant and urgent today than at any other time. We are currently witnessing the role of the architect being compromised within the building process as emerging specialist and consultant groups have increasingly begun to take up leadership roles. This is due in part to a widespread refusal to accept computational innovations and new design methodologies which could potentially help architects deal with the complexities of the current economic and environmental crisis. Autodesk is therefore pushing for the use of parametric design systems, scripting techniques, simulation tools, digital prototyping and 3D building information modelling (BIM) as a way of (re)tooling the design disciplines.

Technological Continuum

The AU Conference opened with a keynote presentation by the CEO of Autodesk Carl Bass. With thousands of industry professionals present, he broadly outlined the company’s future goals and technological trajectory. Bass began his talk by describing technology as a continuum that spans five phases: Impossible, Impractical, Possible, Expected, and Required. For architects, in particular, the timing for adopting new 3D software platforms such as Revit and Ecotect is important because competitive advantages can only be gained in the Possible phase of the continuum. Bass reiterated the old story that companies who began to implement 2D CAD in the mid-1980s achieved significant marketplace success over companies that were still doing hand-drafting. Now CAD is expected as an integral part of almost every design firm. Although technologies such as BIM and Rapid Prototyping are not entirely expected, Autodesk is suggesting that it will be critical–even as a matter of survival–for designers to use these advanced technologies as standard practice in both the design and construction process.

This message was reinforced through the examples of several companies in various design industries who are using advanced computational tools developed by Autodesk to achieve competitive advantages and to support better decision-making processes. Some of the examples were not necessarily directly linked to the architectural profession, illustrating that other industries have often taken bigger steps to improve their design methodologies to achieve greater profits.

An example directly related to the building industry, however, is the MEP (Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing) engineering firm Glumac, who specialize in sustainable design projects. The company is now adopting BIM in Revit MEP in conjunction with early energy-analysis software such as Ecotect and Web-based services such as Green Building Design Studio, to improve energy efficiency in its projects and to enable clients to achieve the much coveted LEED certification. Ecotect, for example, gave the company critical insight and early feedback on how much energy and money their clients would save over the life of the building depending on certain configurations of windows, lights, HVAC and photovoltaic cells. Perhaps the most famous of their projects is the Wayne L. Morse US Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, designed in collaboration with LA-based Morphosis Architects, which is the first federal courthouse to receive LEED Gold certification.

Another interesting example is the mega-company Intel, which is currently investing an astounding $7 billion to refurbish 15 of their fabrication plants around the world. Although Bass was very short on specifics, the company was able to manage the complex scheduling and the execution of the project in addition to creating precise planning layouts and equipment installation through digital prototyping and 3D BIM models. In fact, Intel expects that 3D digital models will soon be the standard method for collaboration between both equipment suppliers and construction contractors.

To further elaborate on these examples, Bass went on to describe how Design Exploration, Analysis, Storytelling, Access, and Collaboration are currently five capabilities made possible through its applications which allow designers to operate within the Possible phase–also referred to as the sweet spot of the technological continuum.

Design Exploration

The iconic Centre Pompidou-Metz in France designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban in collaboration with the parametric wizards at Zurich-based firm designtoproduction was the first example used to explain the concept of Design Exploration. Through parametric 3D modelling available in AutoCAD 2010, the designers were able to embed information about the transport, assembly, structure, manufacturability and constructability of each of the prefabricated laminated wood beams into the generation of the geometry. The designers would bypass the tedious and impractical trial-and-error design process since the software only explored and provided feedback on the most efficient forms that could be built using CNC fabrication tools.


Autodesk is also suggesting that there needs to be an urgent push for the incorporation of Analysis as an integral component to the design process–especially in the early phases. Green Ocean Energy Ltd, for example, is a Scottish-based renewable energy company that is currently developing very large devices for harnessing energy from the ocean. The so-called Ocean Treader could only be designed with software such as Autodesk Inventor–a program which enables designers to perform complex hydrodynamic and structural analysis on digitals models which can then be physically modelled with rapid prototyping tools. With these applications, designers can get real-time feedback about cost, manufacturability and environmental information related to their design. The program is also able to inform the designer when a modification is made that violates the initial design parameters. Advanced analysis can be achieved through simulating the entire manufacturing process of a product to uncover errors that would occur during fabrication. Even more impressive is the potential ability to use Web-based computing to run optimization algorithms to generate and analyze hundreds of possible design options which can then be explored and further developed by the designer. Architects have much to learn from these types of companies as they transform design from a static and linear process to a dynamic and elliptical one characterized by multiple feedback loops.


Highly profitable films such as Avatar are now pushing the boundaries of what advanced animation software can achieve. Autodesk is promoting the idea that the Storytelling tools once only available to Hollywood artists can now become a standard part of the way architects and engineers communicate their design intents. Through the use of highly realistic simulation tools in Autodesk Maya, for example, the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff successfully visualized their controversial proposal for the reconstruction of Doyle Drive running through San Francisco’s historic Presidio district. The simulation was shown to city officials and residents in an effort to demonstrate that the new design would improve traffic flow while still preserving the original character of the area. Here, advanced imagery was used as a didactic tool for explanation rather than simply operating as a descriptive tool.


The idea
of Access also seems to be at the forefront in the arena of research and development at Autodesk. Given the popularity of the iPhone, it would be impossible for designers not to consider the potential implication of its use in the design process. Sketchbook Mobile, for example, is a new application which could revolutionize the way contractors communicate with other members of the design team. By taking a photograph on site, the contractor can make markups directly on the image and send it via e-mail to the architect to be coordinated with an existing digital construction model. In addition, the capacity to be flexible in diverse working conditions is being explored in a project developed by Autodesk Labs called Project Twitch. This application can give designers access to data through Web-based computing. It allows users to run software remotely on powerful external servers without having to download them onto a desktop.


There is no doubt that social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are transforming the way information is shared. These technologies are increasingly giving users the ability to be selectively aware of other people’s activities. Architects are all too familiar with the process of sending multiple files with version numbers and highlighted changes to contractors and engineers. But Web-based networking combined with software such as Revit will enable markups and edits that are shared by all members of the design team in real time. In this scenario, as changes are made on a digital model, the system is able to detect any clashes that may occur in the shared model. The challenge here is how to manage complexity given the fact that building projects often involve the coordination of multiple experts working in different locations, companies and software platforms.

Finally, Autodesk is promoting a more holistic design approach through the combination of multiple programs. An example of how they see this working is if a manufacturer publishes a lighting fixture design onto Autodesk Seek–an online source for product specifications and design files–where it can be subsequently downloaded by designers into Revit, CAD, 3D Max and even Google SketchUp. Alternatively, it can be used by consumers to assist in visualizing their interior designs using Web-based programs such as Project Showroom. The combination of these tools and the ease with which they can be accessed and exchanged over different applications will have a dramatic impact on the design process.

Although much of the conference consisted of little more than college-level software seminars, there was a general feeling that a paradigm shift was emerging–one that could replace the existing model of most digital design processes. It’s perhaps worth noting that Autodesk has an extensive research group based in Toronto dedicated to understanding and developing new design tools and methodologies. One of their most interesting projects currently being conducted in collaboration with the CIMS Lab at Carleton University and FARO Technologies is the Digital 210 King project. The research group is developing a digital model of their own offices–originally designed by KPMB Architects–using BIM and laser scanners. The objective of the project, according to Ramtin Attar of Autodesk Research, is to test and validate environmental simulation technology with the potential of understanding energy performance and power usage. The intention is to think of sustainability not as an abstract discourse, but rather as a concept that can be tested and proven through quantifiable codes and practices. This research may have far-reaching consequences on the way architects approach the urgent problem of retrofitting old and inefficient buildings in urban areas.

The examples of designers using advanced software to gain competitive advantages and marketplace success discussed at the AU Conference illustrates that much of the problem today may not entirely be due to the refusal to accept new computational tools. It has been proven that many design firms are now successfully implementing Revit and BIM from conception to construction. It could be argued, however, that the problem is due to a general lack of rigour on the part of architects to use these tools in more opportunistic ways in order to reclaim their position as leaders in the building design process. As other industries are adapting and streamlining their design and manufacturing processes to new market and client demands, architects are still caught up in the age-old search for more complex geometries and patterns. The time for formal games is certainly over. For architects, it’s simply a matter of survival. CA

Gabriel Fain is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at the University of Toronto and has worked for several architecture and urban design firms in Toronto.