Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Evolution of Computer-Aided Design

originally published in Award Magazine

In a building market that’s booming with no end in sight, where projects get more complex and industry professionals get by on ever-slimmer margins, architects and builders adapt by moving to automation.

That’s how Paul Forman, Vice President, Sales and Marketing and co-founder of software reseller Solid Caddgroup Inc., explains greater adoption of information technology in the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry.

“As projects get more complex and the consumer wants projects done faster, you must be able to deliver,” said Forman, “since your competitors likely can.”

The design of the Erickson, a 17-story Vancouver building that twists as it rises, offered plenty of complexity. It includes sloping columns, a vast curtain wall and a challenging glazing system.

Fortunately, recent tools, such as Autodesk’s family of products, require less customization than their predecessors to handle projects like this.

On the Erickson, both architects and engineers used Autodesk Revit solutions, including Revit Architecture and Revit Structure, to help both firms know what the other was up to. This was possible mainly because the platform is designed for collaboration.

“You can plug an architectural design into an engineering drawing,” said Marc Curtis, Geospatial Business Manager for Global CADD Systems, “then plug both into construction drawings.”

Today’s key trend in AEC software involves adding intelligence to the tools. Popular packages recognize things like HVAC systems and the effects of any changes that design team members make to their creations. “”It’s a ripple effect,” Forman said. “ If I change the location of a door in one room, it should change in the adjacent room as well.” This intelligence includes the ability to spot errors at the design stage, when they cost far less to fix, as well as collaboration.

AutoCAD Architecture 2008 continues this trend with, among other things, the welcome automation of spaces. Users can now generate spaces automatically from objects and linework. Also, users can associate spaces to the objects which surround them, so nobody needs to update space objects when boundaries change.

The effects of features like these go beyond productivity gains. Architecture firms often face the ongoing challenge of retaining top talent, and Dave Stevens predicts that such software features will help firms keep their best people happy. Stevens claimed to hear architects say: “We did not get into architecture to do drafting. We got into architecture to produce the best possible architecture we can.”

“By providing top-notch tools to their staff, firms can attract and keep talent,” said the AEC national sales manager for Autodesk Canada.

Legislative changes may also push designers and builders towards automation of document creation. Starting in 2009, the Public Sector Accounting Board (PSAB) of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA) will demand that municipalities report their tangible capital assets on their financial statements. Architects and builders who can help municipal clients meet the requirements of PSAB 3150 may have an edge in competitions to create and renew public infrastructure. “Cities must know all about their resources,” said Curtis. “Location, description, replacement value – municipalities will need help to digitally map what they have.”

Municipal departments will, as a result, need to break up silos and collaborate more closely than ever before. On new projects, collaboration between members of extended design teams also reaps rewards for teams that must produce faster and, thus, work more closely than ever before.

Again, Autodesk rose to the challenge with AutoCAD Architecture 2008. It supports MEP work, allowing for openings to the surfaces of both extruded 3D spaces and 3D freeform spaces. The Drawing Compare feature lets users compare versions of drawings both visually and by object properties. And to create highly photo-realistic renderings, the Mental Ray rendering engine provides a single in-process rendering environment.

Curtis recalls a summertime demand from a municipal project leader for 3D illustrations of a building with snow around it. The software enabled Curtis’s client to meet this demand. “Now you can’t charge for such specialties,” said Curtis. “It’s all part of the cost of doing business.”

The Revit platform helps users follow what Autodesk calls a Building Information Modeling (BIM) approach to projects. “Users create a digital model of a building that is coordinated, accurate and computable,” said Stevens. “It can be analyzed so that a designer can understand the ramifications of any design change that occurs. There’s a high degree of collaboration and coordination.”

“The software should make you more productive and reduce errors and omissions,” said Curtis. “Our clients can get work done faster, so they can do more work.”

They also find novel uses for the software. One Edmonton-based Autodesk client created a building information model that included the effects of wind. Since the proposed entrance would suffer excessive amounts of turbulence, the architect moved the entrance and made other changes to the building’s design, all during the design stage.

CAD and other productivity software haven’t yet permeated the entire AEC market. That is changing, according to Steve Sulpher, Vice President, Business Development for hosted AEC solution provider Infinite Source Systems Corp.

Around 2000, Infinite Source would receive 100 per cent of its clients’ information on paper. Today, 60 per cent of client documents arrive in digital format, and Sulpher expects that number to rise to 90 per cent in the next two years.

The venerable facsimile still plays a part when a project starts, Sulpher admits, so Infinite Source built quick fax broadcast capabilities into its system. Still, once customers realize that hosted applications let them reduce printing and courier costs, they take hosted collaboration solutions more seriously.

Construction associations are also customers of Infinite Source. They post specifications for projects that contractors can search for components that they can bid on.

Documentation creation during a project results in the need for document storage afterwards. “We have received a number of requests to digitize contracts and related documents,” Sulpher said, “so that they’re easier to find and take up less space. The problem with doing that is cost, so there’s some reluctance to creating historical archives.”

“But clients are creating digital archives going forward.”