Monday, September 29, 2014

TEN YEAR ITCH

I first arrived in Dubai at the end of February 2004, but for various reasons, my official start date at GAJ is in June, and I was in Chicago then.  Then other stuff intervened, but eventually my 10th anniversary got celebrated in the office about a month ago.  That's me on the big screen, and my boss Brian charming the audience with a tale or two as only he can.


As a follow up to that I was given a voucher to take a small group of BIM enthusiasts from the office out to lunch and we did that last weekend.  My apologies to those who did not get included in the event.  It doesn't mean you are less important or less valued in any way.  I tried to pick a mixed group to represent different roles and levels of experience.  It was all organised by the inimitable Rajani who can be seen here lighting candles.



So here we are, sitting in a famous Indian restaurant at the Dubai Convention Centre and eating ourselves silly.  Time flies so fast, and it will soon be 10 years since we first got our hands on Revit 7.0 and began our BIM journey.  I think only Kannan in this group was with us then, but Liza, Raina and Cirilo can also be classed as veterans.  Anshuman & Nandish represent the crop of young creative design architects who have started to buy into the BIM concept after some years of coaxing by myself.  Finally Daniel represents the experienced BIM guys that we have been able to hire more recently to take a little load off my shoulders.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

TO PUMP OR NOT ?

It's not an easy question.  Last year I went so far off into the left field that I think I almost gave Zack a hernia, or perhaps just a moral dilemma.  Anyway, I don't think I have either the time or the energy to hurtle even further off topic, which is probably just as well.



So IF I am going to make a pumpkin this year, I have to find a way of getting back to basics.  But at the same time it would be nice to keep the connections going, to maintain some of the themes that I have developed over the past 3 years: scalability, metamorphosis, visual illusion ,.. BIM as an art form?



So I need an artist.  I've done Archimboldo and I've done Escher.  They have beem my muses, providing inspiration and direction, something to refer back to when I lose my way, find myself going around in circles.  Perhaps it's time I chose an architect.  But who would that be ?  Has to be someone who deals in dreams and illusions.



I decided to go for the eighteenth century, French enlightenment, the grand schemes of Nicholas Ledoux and especially of Etienne Boullee.  The seminal image is his breathtaking project for a cenotaph to Isaac Newton, which he conjured up around 1785 just as the industrial revolution was taking off ... the beginnings of a transformation the scale of which even Boullee with his grandiose imagination could not possibly have foreseen at the time.



The connections to pumpkinland are obvious.  Huge spherical object.  Punctured by holes, eyes to the stars. The distorted sense of scale could almost be Escher.

So the challenge I am setting myself is to keep it simple.  Just design a building.  Try to work in the spirit of Boullee: something monumental.  Monumentality is after all one of architecture's enduring themes.  Also, I should be demonstrating the potential of BIM as a design tool. That has been a sub-text of my pumpkin work all along.  Why not bring it more into centre stage ?



I started by exploring the notions of scalability and scale.  Scalability has, of course been a major theme in all my pumpkin explorations.  If you are planning a gigantic architectural creation, you might want to start with a form that scales parametrically.  After all, it is difficult to be sure.   How big is big enough?

To begin to answer that question I thought it might be useful to model other examples of architectural giantism.  And so we have simplified, full-scale versions of the great pyramid, the Burj Khalifa, the Gherkin (not so huge, but I alread had it to hand)



And I made my "circle in a square" version of Boullee's big sphere.  I was thinking in terms of some collossal edutainment project in a desert setting, here in the UAE.  A "Tribute to the Fertile Crescent" the cradle of civilisation, where domesticated staple crops first emerged.  So this could be a place to celebrate the whole cornucopia of domesticated plants and animals, (continuing my previous themes)

I envisaged the square as a huge shading device as well as a deck on which pomegranite orchards and stands of emmer wheat could flourish.




So this is a little exercise in early design explorations.  Testing the scale of an abstracted form agains the human form, and against previous precedents.

But what would the sphere itself be?  It has to be an auditorium, I guess.  A place where magnificent spectacles take place.  And talking of grand spectacles, perhaps I should test the scale against the Zeppelin field outside Nuremberg where events took place that shook our faith in civilisation.



And while I am making abstractions of event spaces on a grand scale, how about the millennium dome.  Then again if we are dealing with grandiose landscape statements there is always Angkor Wat, and of course Versailles.


After a while, I thought it best to mass up the Empire State Building, just to keep my American friends happy.  And then from my detour into ancient Rome early this year I was able to toss the Collosseum, Circus Maximus and Piazza of St Peter's into the ring.  They are all dwarfed by the bold scale & simplicity of Angkor Wat, product of a civilization that barely gets a mention in most western history books.

But is it a fair comparison ?  Should we rather be thinking in terms of the King George Docks to the East of London ?  Or even the Suez Canal ?




It's interesting to see these huge engineering/industrial creations at the same scale as the pyramids & Burj Khalifa, but Angkor is particularly interesting for my purposes.  It bears comparison with Boullee's grand conceptions: breathtakingly simple and largely symbolic in purpose.  From a birdseye perspective Angkor has a dominating presence.

But if we view our collection in Elevation, the impression is entirely different, a reminder of the importance of viewing your design in different ways (one of BIM's strengths of course, the ability to maintain multiple viewpoints as the project develops)


So reviewing the elevation: Burj Khalifa is certainly the tallest, but there is something about the simplicity of the great pyramid that puts it "out there" in a class of its own.  As for my collections of "square ringed saturn" objects.  The scale of the largest certainly makes an impression when viewed in elevation. But the form is not yet doing anything special for me.

It's a start though, and I will attempt to build on this idea of a parametric scalable family that represents a monumental building in the spirit of Boullee.




Not much of a design at this point however.  Need to do better there.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

QUARTER PAST EIGHT

A half finished (half-baked?) post has been sitting here since early May.  Those were the days of dejection, when hardcore Reviteers were giving up on "the Factory".  Since then, Autodesk has reached out to RTC; Anthony Hauck has initiated a new "age of open-ness" and now ... 2015 R2 ... a special subscriptions only upgrade.

Feature no 1.  Additional editing capabilities in camera views.  You can move, align & pin objects after selection.  Subtle but nice.  I have immediately found use for this while working this weekend on my secret pumpkin project.  Select an entourage or planting object and use the nudge keys to adjust your composition.  This used to be a painful exercise, involving jumping back and forth between plan and perspective views and trying to judge the likely effects.  Nudging directly in the view is much more intuitive and efficient.



Feature no 2. Reset target button for perspective views where the camera is pointing way over to one side.  I already beat myself into the habit of always typing in width and height, never stretching the crop region of a camera view.  But for those who haven't kicked the habit or when you are cleaning up after someone who can't keep their mice off the shape handles, this is a splendid addition.



But let's get back to my proto-post from 4 months ago.  Here it is ...

I pride myself on my cryptic titles.  It's funny the way our brains work.  We seem to be constantly making connections in the background, mostly below the conscious level.  Raw material which we categorise and interpret extremely rapidly when we interact with our environment.  From time to time a lightbulb pops up: "wow" or "something odd here".  It's like an evolution thing: non-random selection of random associations.



Artists use this all the time.  Free associate then sift through the results looking for a fertile starting point.  Humour is also heavily reliant on associations that creep up on you in a surprising way.  Hence the pun.  There is a reason that newspaper headlines and advertising copy makes such liberal use of puns.  They tap into a fundamental feature of our brains that we use to sift out items for conscious attention from the morass of random associations that bombard us every waking moment.



Quarter past eight is a hinge point in the evening.  The day is behind us, younger kids have gone to bed, sit back with a glass of brandy and an after eight mint.  Not my life style, but you get the idea.  In today's mechanistic digital world that moment is also called 20.15  The associations are subtly different.  Time to board your plane, set the alarm clock, unload the washing machine, make a phone call to a distant time zone.



I get to use BDS premium.  That's what GAJ has signed up for, and thus about 5 weeks ago I installed the trial version of the new release: 2015.  Random associations, knee-jerk reactions, emotional responses.  There was a lot of that in the first few days.  I guess there is a spectrum, from measured disappointment to apoplexy. You can put me in the first category.




Sketchy lines took me by surprise.  I had given up on that one.  It's good news for those of us who are trying to push for more use of BIM in the early stages of design.  How about the sarcastic comments that Revit finally introduces something that other programs have had for years?  Well it depends what type of programme you are talking about.  It doesn't surprise me that the factory has held this back until the average processing power out there is up to the challenge.  There is a lot of number crunching to do in a BIM application and we can sure that some users will have a dozen windows open, all with sketchy line mode enabled, and still expect a snappy response when they modify a family with 200 instances.



But let's not duck the main issue.  We used to get much more.  Perhaps we have been spoilt, but it's hard not to feel cheated.  Some will jump straight for the conspiracy theory.  Large corporations are alien monsters determined to enslave us.  You can tell from my tone that I take a different view.  Past experience tells me that the parent company has a strategy and a long term vision.  I am unlikely to agree with them on every issue, but it often turns out that they had spotted something that I had missed.



So what do I think the strategy is ?  I suspect that the medium to long term success of the global BIM project is paramount in their thinking.  Majority market share of a failed project is not worth a great deal.  If I was in their position, I would be feeling that architects & engineers are doing pretty well at the moment.  They are ahead of the curve and they have the bit between their teeth.  Keep them engaged, but focus more of your attention on the other nine tenths of the industry.

We feel slighted.  We feel that we are "THE end users" who feed in all the money.  But actually, if I stand back an reflect, it might be a good idea to use the revenue from Revit licences to kick start other aspects of the BIM project.  After all we got all those wonderful features in earlier releases from the proceeds of 2D CAD.  That was quite widely accepted as a fact five or six years ago, and I for one thought that it was an excellent piece of strategy.  Revit pioneers got their software almost for free, (on the back of Autocad licences) for several years.


So we pay subscriptions, and this gives the holding company a predictable revenue stream that they can use to plan 5 to 10 years ahead.  That will never convince the rabid dogs out there, but it's an intriguing possibility.  Can we participate ?  Can those of us who are ahead of the curve imagine what it would be like to have the stragglers catching up.  If we were rowing a Roman war galley across the channel to invade Britain, we would be well advised to work as a team, to row at a pace that everyone can maintain, even that scabby slave from north africa on oar number 97.

Putting aside the far-fetched metaphors for a moment, we have BIM 360.  Clearly this initiative is being prioritised and clearly it aims to bring contractors and project managers into the BIM fold (field & glue).  Who else needs a leg up?  Cost consultants perhaps.  Our local BIM users group had an interesting presentation recently from a company called Causeway.  They have been selling software to Quantity Surveyors for more than 20 years and have an impressive user base, mostly in countries that do things the "British way"  What struck me afterwards was that the "Bean Counters" have been doing BIM for many years now, but where we have always been focused on Geometry, they have always been focused on Cost.  For architects and engineers, BIM means geometric models, based on a central database, fully integrated, with crosslinked data.  Fine.  For a QS, BIM means financial models, based on a central database, integrated and cross-linked.  To a large extent they can do all that with Excel, but they have come up with dedicated software packages to do the job even better.



So maybe they aren't behind the curve.  Maybe they are just on a different curve.  Our task then is to start linking these curves together, and that is what Causeway (and others) are trying to do.  They may seem to be taking baby steps at first, but what steps are we taking ?  When I meet people from the construction industry, it isn't long before I'm asking them what BIM means to them.  Quite often you will get a blank stare, but then they hear the word "Revit" and suddenly, "oh yes I've heard of that."  Should I be thrilled ?  My favourite software is better known than BIM.  Trouble is that if you are a supplier, or a cost-consultant, Revit is a product that other people use.  I want them to know about BIM, a process that they can embrace and help to shape.


But perhaps I should be asking them about the software processes that they are using and imagine ways in which we can link our digital worlds together.  Because, let's face it, every branch of our industry has developed digital tools.  Many of them have web-based interfaces that aim to engage architects and engineers interactively.  You can create your own little work space and visualise their building products in a rich 3d environment.  There are hot-links to datasheets and model specifications.  What gives us the arrogance to claim that they are way behind us on the gartner hype curve ?



So how would I use "our subscription money" to facilitate the "global BIM project".  Let's give an example, I'll call it "Project Pandora"  In my imagination, Autodesk signs an agreement with a manufacturer's association, lets say the Alumium Manufacturers of Planet Earth (AMPE)  These guys make windows.  The deal is to develop software tools together: an integrated, web-based collaboration system that will ultimately connect together all those bits and pieces from Revit models sitting on the architect's servers, to QS estimating packages, to contractors' procurement and project management tools, to the window manufacturers' manufacturing & sales management systems (PLM).

Imagine a web portal.  It belongs to AMPE and you can use it to make generic window families.  You set up a project page and make some windows via a nifty, user-friendly interface.  You can view your work in a variety of ways, you can download the families, but more importantly you can maintain a link to your Revit model.  Push a button to synchronise.  The window types will update in your model and the quantities etc will update on the web portal.

Further down the line, you can set up a link to a particular manufacturer, give them controlled access to information on your project page, and invite them to make product recommendations and give specialist advice.  If you prefer you can work with 3 proprietary systems in parallel and compare their systems and their cost estimates.  This is not meant to replace direct contact with technical reps.  It's complementary.  It helps to grease the wheels, inform the conversation, blahdy blah.

At the other end, the manufacturers have all their PLM systems and design software, let's say Inventor.  This would all hook up to the various project pages to which they have been given links.  Over time they would be able to estimate how many of these potential jobs will come their way.  They system would generate all kinds of graphs and pie charts to help management to plan ahead.  The design software would be ready to generate shop drawings in a matter of hours rather than days, and it would also be primed to communicate with the production line and configure the manufacturing process.

For me it would be great.  Project architects could make the window families for themselves with zero knowledge of Revit. (not that I want them to have zero knowledge of Revit, but expecting them all to be fluent Family Editor experts is not very realistic either) It would be much easier to get specialist advice and feedback.  As well as helping to create window families, manufacturers could provide links to more detailed representations from their design software.  I could access this with ease, directly from a window type on my project page.  Just click the button and see what the friction hinges and catches look like, drag down a section cut and see how the profiles fit together.  And of course it would spit out detail items and illustrate typical sill & jamb conditions for different wall types.

I'm suggesting that this is done via AMPE because I want it to be inclusive.  A new startup company can get basic access to the system as part of their subscription to the global association and there would be established protocols to follow when they were ready to customise there own portal and create functional links to their internal software systems (stock control, invoicing, CAD/CAM, R&D, whatever)  As market leaders, Autodesk could take the initiative, but later on you would want other players to join in so that designers would choose a file format at some stage in the process.  It might be that an architect tells the portal when they first sign up that they always want Revit content, so that choice would be made under global settings.  Or it could be that you want to choose different formats for different projects.

Moving on to tender stage and post-contract, the bidding documents would include links to a special version of the project page.  The contractors estimating department can hook this up to their own software systems, talk to manufacturers, who would already be linked in, negotiate their own preferential terms, and populate their bid with a few clicks of the mouse.  Firming up orders would then be a formality, even if the design has changed.  Everyone would just have to refresh their links, review the implications and press "go.

Project Pandora might take 2 or 3 years to set up, followed by another 2 or 3 years of live testing.  But once you have a success story for aluminium windows,  others can follow: ironmongery, sanitary ware, kitchen units, acoustic partitions ... I don't know how it would all pan out.  How do generic materials like concrete masonry units or floor screeds fit into this picture.  Obviously the family creation element is missing, but designers still need to interact with suppliers, and contractors would still benefit from a digitally linked system.  As the information ripples through your network, your own internal systems can predict effects on cash flow, labour movements, storage, crane hire.

This is just a daydream.  It's my idea for a software/process initiative that could have a much deeper impact than a better text editor for Revit.  Given the choice, I would rather have Autodesk do Project Pandora than restrict theselves to new features for Revit.  Of course I would like a better text editor, navigating freely in perspective view, railings that rock.  I want everything and I want it tomorrow (by quarter past eight) but I also know that the BIM project has a long way to go.  Bringing designers, contractors and manufacturers onto the same page surely has to be one of our top priorities.

In the absence of Project Pandora, I am faced with making stuff in Family Editor.  Actually it's lots of fun, depending on what else you have to get finished by quarter past eight.  The ability to re-order parameters and add tool tips is going to make a big difference to the useability of my families in the office environment.  That's a big plus, and one of the reasons I will consider rolling out 2015.  (in fact we are rolling it out right now, around 5 months after it was released and just in time for the R2 goodies.)



IFC linking will be great, once we start receiving stuff in IFC format.  Hasn't happened yet.  I can see images in schedules being really useful for our Interior Designers ... if only they could make the transition to using Revit.  There are times when they just do product selection and we do all the documentation, so that could work.  I heard someone complaining that images are "not the BIM way" but I think that misses the point.  When you are specifying a particular type of chair or washbasin, the family is likely to be a lighweight placeholder object that looks OK in plan & elevation.   For the ID cut sheets you need a photographic image supplied by the manufacturer.  That's what the clients expect.  So for my money, images in schedules is a great new feature.



That was the end of the original draft post.

Since I wrote this, Anthony's presentations at RTC confirmed that I was partially correct.  Yes, Autodesk believe that BIM authoring is in fairly good shape and that their highest priority is to bring other parts of the BIM process up to speed: i.e. downstream uses for the models that come out of the BIM authoring process. (it would have been so much easier to say "BIM models")  I think they are spot on.  We have to be more inclusive, stop showing off about how progressive we "BIM geeks" are and open up to the rest of the construction industry.

Last week I found myself doing some IFC linking.  I received a precast model exported from Tekla. Revit 2015 did a pretty good job of converting this into a Revit link with most objects in sensible categories that respond to filters and custom over-rides.  I was able to do a pretty good job of setting up coordination views and marking up plans and sections with comments on discrepancies between their model and ours, all nicely colour coded.

Returning to 2015 R2, their are lots of other goodies.  Dynamo is built into this install/upgrade package.  I have failed to find the time to become dynamo literate, (the 3rd image in this post was produced more than a year ago. That's the last time I had a serious sit down with Dynamo) but it's clear that the community is growing, and the potential is immense.  Kudos to Zach, Matt & the entire team.



Another add-in which is harder to discover is Site Designer (you have to to to the Xchange apps store).  This is the Eagle Point tool, bought out by Autodesk and offered to us subscription guys for free.  Thankyou.  I shall give this a proper trial run later, but finally we can make roads & footpaths (sidewalks to you)



There's lots more of course.  Project Solon to help you customise your energy analysis reports, significant performance gains, multiple wall-join edits, type selector search, several subtle tweaks like naming of duplicated views, double-click deactivate, multiple trim with crossing box, more consistent tag leaders.

Hidden away in Family Editor is a new button that allows you go "load into project and close"  How many times have I ended up with half a dozen or more families open because I forgot to go back and close them after doing a little tweak ?  And absolutely priceless when the need arises, R2 brings us a "Reveal Hidden Elements" mode to find those deleted constraints, and locked alignments that some overenthusiastic modeller has sprayed all over the project.