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Revit Will Make You a Better Architect

2011 - February


THE PROBLEM

The last place I worked at was at one time a thriving design / build firm. On a few occasions the brain trust from the Architecture department and the Construction department would gather their donuts and coffee and meet in the conference room to discuss the quality of our construction drawings and how to improve them.

Our drawings had the normal problems due to the usual pressures of a busy architectural work environment; missing information, conflicts, coordination issues, CAD anomalies, etc.

Remember the days when firms had drawing checkers? It seems that nobody checks drawings anymore; there is just no time in the schedule or budget. Now we call that process bidding. It sure makes the construction guys angry. We get sensitive about our design work, but they get sensitive when money is involved. Some people are just so materialistic.

As the CAD manager, I would sit and take notes in these meetings, while trying to balance a coffee, diet coke and two donuts in my lap. After about an hour and a half, everybody had their say. Although I had a ton of notes, they were just details pointing to the issue. The problem was surprisingly simple, the drawings were not coordinated.


ARCHITECTURAL DESKTOP

As the CAD manager, I was greatly grieved by this. We were using Architectural Desktop for all of our work. We were using it as a BIM tool, building a 3D model and extracting all the 2D drawings. Very cool but it was hard to do, required years of training on my part, years of setup and the breaking in and training of new people. Some of the new people were very resistant to working in 3D and with tools they were not familiar with. Some were actually subversive. I called these people flatlanders because they wanted to experience architecture in 2D. I suppose it was better than calling them what I really wanted to.

As difficult as it was, we were getting good results. We could create live renderings on the fly, we knew what the building was really going to look like and we knew where the design problems were developing. We even made money on our architectural fees occasionally. So how did this problem occur?

As the project got closer to finishing and the resolution of the detail became finer, Architectural Desktop became more difficult and finicky. When crunch time came, the subversive flatlanders would explode the project. Once exploded into lines, the less experienced would deconstruct the coordination in an effort to create the illusion that the project was actually finished. When the inevitable changes came along, the project CAD data degenerated even further.


REVIT ARCHITECTURE

Then along came Revit. This program fulfilled the promise of what Architectural Desktop was supposed to be. Don’t get me wrong, it was a big pain to implement but I knew that if I could make Architectural Desktop work for us, then I could implement Revit. To get Revit to where we were with Architectural Desktop, it probably took almost three years. Management was certainly not always supportive, providing no training and no setup time to make it work, but did provide doubt and criticism. At least they paid for the required hardware and software.

In Architectural Desktop you had to invent complex systems to manage a project. In Revit this was already taken care of. In Architectural Desktop you had to invent complex CAD standards and program them in to your system, and then train users and enforce the standards. With Revit, the standards out of the box worked for us. This was absolutely amazing. I can walk into any office with Revit on a computer and just start working. Imagine that? I can’t even begin to tell you how much CAD customization I have done in the last 20 years. I don’t do anything to Revit except to create families, (their term for parametric block styles) shared parameters and project templates.

Architectural desktop is rough, Revit is smooth. Architectural Desktop is fragile and breaks, Revit is strong and solid. Upgrading Architectural Desktop is a multi-week process involving breaking all the tons of current customization and rebuilding it after you purchase a few books, email some gurus, and find the hidden cache of secret inside information on what is really going on inside the stupid program. It takes not one but at least three programming languages to make this thing work right. Then of course you have to retrain the users.

Upgrading Revit can be done over lunch, with no training. I don’t even look at the readme file.


BUILDING INFORMATION MODELING (BIM)

BIM? I really didn’t like that acronym. I liked SBM (Single Building Model). It didn’t seem to suit Autodesk’s marketing plan though. Nobody asked me anyway. Actually I believe that the mounds of information in every magazine today and on every web site about BIM are mostly crap. All these experts who don’t use Revit are saying you can do this, that and the other thing. I don’t do any of those. I’m not even sure what they are. Perhaps we’ll see sometime in the future. Autodesk’s marketing machine sure has the whole world talking about BIM.

But here is where BIM and Revit Architecture rocks. You cannot explode the Revit model. This means that the geometry will always be coordinated. Ha, take that you flatlanders!

The reference tags and sheet numbers cannot be edited independently of the model. These tags are not fragile; they are rock solid, linked to the model and the schedules. I’m not sure that you can put a Revit project out of coordination even with great effort. So just like that, the majority of our drawing problems are gone. This is also proof of how intelligent software can make you a better architect. Yes I said it; Revit will make you a better architect.

At our firm, Revit ceased to be the office joke as our efficiency improved. When we had to hire someone for our architecture department, Revit experience was our top priority. It was starting to become a focus of our marketing at the time I left. The first thing that won people’s hearts about our Revit results was that we were solving design problems that we may not have seen in the past. Our solutions were valid right from the beginning. In a design / build office where construction guys are looking over your shoulder, this is critical.


RENDERING

Throughout the design process, you can place a camera and snap an almost perfect rendering. The rendering capabilities are amazing and also material and link compatible with 3DS Max if you choose to use it. The very simple Mental Ray rendering dialog box created amazing results fast with little effort. Any Revit user can now make excellent renderings with a few minutes of training. Not only could you have high quality renderings fast, but now you could also have lots of rendered images in a project to clearly articulate your design to your client. Revit will make you a better architect.

When I printed out the help system for Viz Render, the rendering tool in Architectural Desktop, it filled two volumes and was over a thousand pages, as well as taking a great amount of time to master.


DESIGN PARADIGM SHIFT

Between working in a smooth 3D interface and rendering stacks of views, architects now have a new first. They have the ability to easily see every exposed surface in a building design - walls, floors, ceilings and roofs - Inside and out. For the first time we can see everything before it’s built. Wow, can you see the implications?

There is now no excuse for bad design or design mistakes. Most people don’t know this but the majority of architects and designers really don’t know exactly what the built design will look like. Sure they have an idea and some are way better than others, but this is a fundamental problem especially where the design fees are low and everything is in black and white and 2D. Once while designing some ductwork, I created an MC Escher like sculpture. My boss was amused because he caught it, but that could have been a big problem.

Revit will make you a better architect simply because you are getting immediate feedback on your design. If you see the object as it will be, then you will correct and optimize it. It would be absurd not to. You won’t be able to sleep knowing that that flaw is in your design. I think what flatlanders like is they can look at their 2D black and white drawing and can think perfect and well done because it matches their imagination. 3D and color is simply just too much information.

Architectural drawing without 3D is like typing a letter on a computer without a monitor. You probably got most of it right. You are probably not going to be able change it. You may redo it a few times. Wouldn’t the feedback from a monitor be good?

I find it interesting how large contractors are among those leading the move to BIM because of collision detection tools and the money they save in preventing construction errors and identifying design errors. Some contractors are having their in-house Revit guys model the 2D construction documents the architects issue to catch their design errors. Follow the money.

Shouldn’t the architects be leading this? I want to believe that the architects not using Revit just don’t know better. They don’t know about its coordination features, rendering capabilities, and its detailing tools. They don’t know it can completely replace AutoCAD. They may think that drawing in 3D wastes time, rather than saves time. I didn’t know all this when I started with Revit and I had to figure it out on my own.

Architects keep hearing about how BIM is going to benefit everybody except them. They might not know it will benefit them also, and consider it a burden.

Unfortunately we all know architects that use AutoCAD 14 and will say “if it was good enough for Frank Lloyd Wright to use to design the pyramids, then it’s good enough for me.” These guys are usually really fast and do a very specific type of work. They are also very slowly losing market share, developing carpal tunnel syndrome and one day they will find society no longer has a need for their services. Seen any good ink on vellum hand drafting lately? How about press-on letters, pin registration mylar, leroy lettering sets, or ruling pens?

CAD really took off when Bob Villa showed an architect using a system on “This Old House”. The hardware was a Silicon Graphics workstation costing nearly $80,000 and was not a realistic option at the time, but it created a perception that resonated with the public. Not embracing CAD was the end of a lot of design firms.

Frank Lloyd Wright worked in 3D and in color.


SKETCHUP

Sketchup has become quite popular recently among architects. These architects are smart enough to know the value of color and 3D. It is their work flow that I don’t like. Most firms using Sketchup are also using AutoCAD. So essentially one group works on the design with Sketchup, another group works on the construction documents with AutoCAD. (More on AutoCAD later.) Very little on no data reuse between the two groups. It also seems like it would be very difficult to model the interior and exterior of a building in Sketchup. To get photo-realistic renderings in Sketchup, you need an add-on renderer. Still with Sketchup you are giving your clients drawings they can relate to, and that is an excellent step in the right direction. Can Sketchup do floor plans now?


REVIT WORKFLOW

In Revit you can start modeling with walls, doors and windows or you can use their awesome mass modeling tools, extract volume and area data, and then parametrically attach the walls, floors, roofs, etc. Everything Sketchup can do, Revit can do better.

In Revit, you have one database and all drawings and schedules come out of it. You do not have to draw an arbitrary line in the sand and say that is a design drawing and that is construction document. They both are one, progressing along together in perfect Zen. In reality, doesn’t the architect keep designing through the construction document phase? Most keep doing it into the construction phase. Revit makes it easy to do that. This is a huge opportunity for profit based on the efficiency of the Revit workflow vs the Sketchup / AutoCAD workflow.


FLEXIBILITY

One of the best features of Revit is not readily apparent. It is data flexibility. For example In AutoCAD someone will create a door schedule. Assuming he has an office standard, and some door knowledge, he blasts this out, done! That schedule has no connection to the project. Later if you erase a door from the plan, it is still in the schedule. It is also still on the wall elevation. With enough edits over time, the entire door schedule will have to be rechecked for coordination issues.

In Revit, the door object contains its data. If you erase a door, it comes off the schedule and the elevations, the sections, linked details, linked specifications, etc. All the data can be live. A change occurring in one place on the model is propagated automatically through-out the set of drawings. Not only do the drawings stay coordinated but this is a level of flexibility we have not had before.

Flexibility makes multiple changes not only possible, but easy and fast without breaking the model. Now when your client needs to reduce the budget significantly after the construction documents go out for bid, (common in Church work) you can accommodate them without throwing the project away and starting over. The drawings stay coordinated.


THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

In the typical modern Sunday school classroom, the expression WWJD (what would Jesus do?) is tossed around so that our kids have an excellent standard to base their actions on. (One of the consequences of this is that they have a standard to judge their parents behavior.)

So what would Jesus do? I don’t have a clue really, but as the creator of reality I believe that the God of the universe did not use 2D and black and white. I could speculate endlessly and create some bizarre heresy, but this much I do know. At the very least, reality has at least 3 physical dimensions, reality has movement (over time), reality has colors, and it has sound (perhaps even 5.1 Dolby surround sound?). The more accurately you represent the design to your client and yourself, the more truthful you are, and truth is a great standard to seek. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would also tell a compelling and profound story about the building or its users.

To represent architecture most accurately to your clients at this time in history would be to use a Revit model based 3DS Max animation with the V-Ray 2.0 plug-in for a photo-realistic high-definition Blu-Ray video with surround sound on a 55” Samsung LED TV with James Earl Jones narrating the story as written by Tom Clancy. A 12” 350 watt Klipsch powered subwoofer would also be useful.


CONSTRUCTION DOCUMENTS

The design of Churches moves quite slowly. It’s the fundraising between preliminary design and construction documents that can take years. Two and a half years after implementing Revit, we had our first set of construction documents completed.

I didn’t think that these drawings were all that special. We had a lot of non-Revit problems. There was some re-working and value engineering and the construction was too complicated. But in the end, the drawings were professional and adequate.

A few weeks went by and the Director of Construction told us that this was the best set of drawings he has worked from. I was quite surprised. The guys doing the Revit work were our best guys, but what I believe pleased the director about these drawings was they were perfectly coordinated. This is the contribution that Revit made to the project.

As the project went into construction, it all went very smoothly. The foundations were very complex so we added an isometric to the set with elevation tags and dimensions that took its data directly from the model. Only took a few hours. The concrete guy was blown away. The only problems on this project came from a couple of subs making errors unrelated to the drawings.


ARCHITECTURAL APPATHY

I just don’t understand why the whole world isn’t in eager anticipation of the next release of Revit and the schools aren’t jam packed with people trying to learn it. Revit books should be best sellers. This should be discussed on CNBC and even the nightly news. This is the most exciting thing to ever happen to the professional practice of architecture. And it’s really just the beginning of the BIM revolution.

According to an article in Professional Builder, Warren Buffet has invested heavily in BIM because he thinks there is inefficiency and waste in the American home building industry and there is money to be made using BIM to make it efficient.


OUTSOURCING

I really don’t understand the resistance on the part of American architects not to jump at the opportunity to excel at, master and lead in this new technology. The rest of the world is adopting Revit and they are using the current version. Maybe we think they use DOS on a 80386 CPU with 5 year old software?

Do some Google searches and you will see some incredible work being done in South America, China and India. Since Revit makes you a better architect, it won’t be long before America is outsourcing its architecture to foreign countries where not only do they do it significantly cheaper, but they also do it better.

Like it or not, outsourcing is here. How are American Architects going to respond?


INVESTMENT

It takes ten years to become a real architect. To be able to design and then describe a building in detail drawings that are buildable using common construction that meets building codes and zoning ordinances and to do it efficiently enough to earn a living. This is quite an investment.

So explain to me why you don’t want to take a four day class to get going and a three day advanced class to begin to master a tool that will change your life, protect your career and make you a better architect, and bring you joy? Why can’t you lose some initial productivity as you transition to Revit when the productivity gains you will make will by the end of the first year, more than make up for all your hardware, software and training investment and give you a 25% productivity gain?

The people who are resisting BIM today and clinging to CAD are the exact same people who resisted CAD and clung to the pencil. When CAD took hold, it radically changed the architectural business world. Many of the old firms went out of business and new ones popped up to take advantage of the opportunity. Do you see the opportunity?

Did you know they teach Revit in most High Schools?


EXCUSES

I imagine there are two really great excuses for the resistance. The first one is “The economy is busted. I can’t afford to invest in anything. I don’t know if it will ever come back. Every building society needs has been built. I will wait until the economy gets better.” The second excuse will be “I have too much work I must get done. I don’t have time to learn this now. Maybe when I’m not so busy?” Both of these excuses work together perfectly so it will never happen. Consider the down time you have because of the economy to be a gift so you can train for the day when you will be busy.

In the meantime, the architects with a sense of vision and perspective realize that when the economy picks up, it will be too late. The clients are going to demand BIM and if you can’t provide it, you won’t get the job. Currently almost all government projects require BIM. The biggest architectural firms such as HOK and SOM are leaders in Revit. The construction world is demanding it because of the construction cost savings (often greater than the architect’s fee) and if the architects won’t implement it, they will.


AUTOCAD

I think I could write a book on why AutoCAD is just awful for architecture. But I’m trying to keep this positive and helpful.

So today I’m looking for work and I’m reading the few ads out there for architectural work and I see over and over “must know AutoCAD”. Why? Is anybody out there really drawing floor plans using lines to represent a wall? Blocks for doors? Really? I’m sorry but that is just ludicrous. I could never work there because I would not be able to stop calling people stupid. I would probably not get past the first phone interview. I’d demand to know why. A chisel and a stone tablet are almost as efficient.

I left AutoCAD in 2001 after using AutoCAD 14 to try and do BIM. It took a while. I kept repeating the line from the money pit “Two more weeks” and 16 weeks later I had a nice 3D BIM project. My boss was not amused.

In 2001 Architectural Desktop won my heart and not for a second did I regret leaving AutoCAD. Drawing buildings with lines is just stupid. I’m sorry but it is, and if you are doing it, somebody needed to tell you.

I have not drawn an elevation in over 10 years. I’m not sure I would even know how. Why would you want to do that? Let the computer do it for you. It’s like using a spreadsheet for accounting but doing the calculations on a calculator and entering the data into the cells. Yes, it’s that stupid. Stop it!

The engineers say AutoCAD is not for engineering, it’s for architecture. The architects say AutoCAD is not for architecture, it’s for engineering. It’s for neither, it was written by computer guys who didn’t understand either of our professions.

Sketchup only serves to enable architectural AutoCAD users.


AUTOCAD CULTURE

So AutoCAD comes out of the box with 500 or so variables set to the worst possible choice. (Or at least it did, I haven’t seen it in 10 years). Setting those variables is a month’s worth of work. In AutoCAD there are 15 different ways to do something. With great effort, you can find the best way and it will only be mediocre. Then you learn 3 programming languages (or more) and you can customize it to do that one thing well. If you are a geek, you can become a guru. Then you don’t have to draw anymore, you just run around pulling other people out of the mire.

I think I have 50 AutoCAD Books. They were really expensive. I learned AutoLisp. I have 4 books on it. I saw Lynn Allen give her famous AutoLisp in 45 minutes speech live. As a geek, I found it strangely erotic. I trained people in AutoCAD while working for an Autodesk reseller. I like it better than plastic lead on mylar with an electric eraser. But come on, it’s the new millennium, snap out of it.

In the AutoCAD world, gurus make good money, have control and job security, write books and don’t share their knowledge so quickly. My favorite is the undocumented commands, real geek stuff.

AutoCAD is really a misnomer as there is nothing automatic about AutoCAD. All this just to draw lines? I don’t think so.


AUTODESK

Autodesk gets part of the blame for this because they are competing against themselves with at least four different products for architecture; AutoCAD, AutoCAD LT, Architectural Desktop, and Revit. That’s confusing. In the past, they have sent a lot of mixed messages. Which one is best for what I do? Which one is cheapest? Which one will help me meet women and drive a new sports car? And I didn’t even mention consulting engineers and the competing products they use.

One thing Autodesk has done right is to try to ever so subtly steer architects to Revit. At first this angered me as I was dedicated to Architectural Desktop. There are few things in life as frustrating as changing CAD systems. When Frank Heitzman established a BIM program at Triton College and Paul Aubin wrote a book on Revit, it was time for me to have a good look. At the first class Frank said Revit was a video game for architects. At the end of my first class I had drawn a sheet with plans, elevations, sections and a rendering of a small house. I was sold.

Autodesk has said that their future is with Revit. Every year they come out with a new version. It always has some awesome new features. It is the most exciting day of the year for me. The moment I can get my hands on it, I upgrade. I also like the subscription system, it works well for Revit. There is no reason not to stay on it and ride the sweet wave of new technology.


REVIT CULTURE

Oh my, what a world of difference. It is ready to use right out of the box. Autodesk has created many tutorials and white papers. The internet is full of blogs and web sites to share families. The subscription site lets you see many of the past classes at Autodesk University. YouTube has hundreds of video tutorials. The whole world is posting their work and it’s magnificent.

In Revit, if it takes you more than 15 minutes to do a task the first time, you are using the wrong approach. Figure out the correct vocabulary word and Google it. The solution will be there.

In Revit you don’t model every single nut and bolt, there is a balance to the 3D/2D that you will learn as you see what others are doing.

My response to those who have told me “3D was a waste of time” and my other favorite “They will work it out in the field” I say this “If it is too hard to model in 3D in Revit, then it is too hard to build. Your fake 2D drawing is a lie and a disservice to your client.”

In my 21 years of drawing on the computer, I have struggled to come up with the correct approach to creating architecture digitally. I think Revit is it. It is also just the beginning of a rapid change to having the computer do more of the work. Vertical applications just make sense.


SIMULATION

Although photo-realistic rendering is awesome, the next level is simulation. If your interior rendering looks bad, you can adjust the rendering lighting in an artistic way to make it beautiful. If you are using Revit’s photometric lights and you rendering looks bad, don’t fix the rendering, fix the lighting design and be glad you caught it before they built it.

On one of our projects the interior designer gave me her material and color pallet. I went to the material suppliers web site and download the exact color samples and materials and re-rendered the interior rooms. The client and the interior designer saw the rooms exactly like they were going to be.

On another project, I used the landscape drawing as a background to put 3D plants in the model for the rendering. Instead of tossing random plants in a rendering in an artistic way, it was a simulation. If the design doesn’t look good, the solution is to fix the design not the artistic depiction.

The number of things that can be simulated is huge. Sun and shadow studies, lighting, energy usage, collision detection, optimum building rotation, all sorts of LEED stuff, construction logistics and staging. Use your imagination.


CONCLUSION

There is a lot of information on the benefits of BIM for the rest of the AEC industry, I am just addressing architects that are making design and construction drawings. Non-architects think that we have been using software like this all along. They have no idea that we fill out door schedules by hand and use lines for walls. You became an architect to design buildings and solve problems, not be a typist or laboriously sling lines as fast as you can in pointless repetition.

My favorite part of being an architectural designer is seeing my designs get built. This actually happens so rarely and can take years. Working in Revit, I get that satisfaction on a daily basis. Imagine the joy that would bring to your life. (If I can only find some work)

If you are an architect and you need to design buildings and make architectural drawings, you need to know that with proper training and experience, Revit is the best way to accomplish this. The drawing quality is superior, the renderings are amazing, the coordination is rock solid, it is so efficient, that in one year you will be 25% faster and have paid for the learning curve, the software and the hardware. You will have better, faster and cheaper, and you will be a better architect.

Revit is a complete system. It is the only tool you need to create renderings, design drawings and construction documents. There are a few other BIM tools that are similar to Revit and are quite good, but from what I have seen Revit is superior, has a bigger market share, is the most compatible and has the greatest number of partners. These other tools would include Chief Architect, Vectorworks, and ArchiCAD.

Architects, this is our moment in history, Let us seize it.

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Mark Palacios,
Feb 24, 2011, 4:07 AM
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