Solids from software

Technology is helping architects realise and market their designs. James Boley investigates what options are available in the Middle East.

AutoCAD in action.
AutoCAD in action.

Technology is helping architects realise and market their designs. James Boley investigates what options are available in the Middle East.

CAD software is now as much a part of the architect's toolkit as a pencil, paper and a powerful imagination. It's essential for putting together technical drawings and helping architects create new icons and buildings.

However, new technology is starting to change the way GCC-based designers can use CAD to realise their visions.

First used in the 1960s, initially CAD usage was limited to large corporations that could afford the computer mainframes required to run such comparatively demanding software.

Dropping prices of technology meant that by the end of the 1980s, CAD software could run on standard home computer systems, resulting in widespread adoption of CAD.

Industry standards

CAD software can be used for a variety of purposes, and the industry standard still remains AutoCAD, originally released in 1982 by Autodesk. "You cannot find a single architecture practice that does not use AutoCAD," says Tharakesh Ananthakrishnan, technical manager of Autodesk distributor Omnix.

AutoCAD's ubiquity means that any CAD program that wishes to survive on the market must open the DWG file format. Several clone programs that mimic the functionality of AutoCAD are now available, and tend to undercut the higher price point of an AutoCAD license.

"For many companies, 15,000Dhs (US $4000) for an AutoCAD license is a lot of money," says Per Gogstad, professional services director of BricsCAD distributor Tecnoserve.

Therefore, alternatives can be desirable. Programs such as BricsCAD are so close to AutoCAD in terms of functionality that CAD operators trained in one can easily use the other.

AutoCAD clones can prove attractive for smaller firms, but AutoCAD distributors understandably warn that similar software doesn't always include the same features, slowing down the design process.

Serious problems also exist in terms of piracy. In 2005, Autodesk estimated that over 80% of copies of AutoCAD were illegal copies. Pirate copies destroy the incentive to opt for cheaper alternatives and also threaten quality of design.

It causes serious damage to the design because the client doesn't get the support," says Ananthakrishnan.

A new dimension

AutoCAD has retained its market dominance for many years, but new ways of virtually designing buildings have been creeping onto the market for some time, and are now beginning to gain common currency in the GCC.

While two-dimensional (2D) drafting software remains the industry standard in the GCC today, a shift is occurring to 3D building information modelling (BIM). BIM packages essentially create an entire building within the computer, a system which allows for a more effective design. ArchiCAD has offered BIM for almost 25 years.

Mohanned Al Tabbal, explains the advantages of BIM over 2D drafting. "You're working on both 2D and 3D environments, with data connecting to the elements of the projects.

You can cut the walls and have sections. At the same time, you can get data like schedules, quantities, everything automatically from the database."

BIM systems make use of 'intelligent objects'. Instead of using lines to represent walls, windows and doors, BIM software can identify these elements within a building design and include their properties, such as materials used or cost.

Schedules and quantity can be automatically updated dynamically at any stage in the project. "Your major concern will be the design itself, while the documentation and collaboration is done automatically," says Al Tabbal.

ArchiCAD developer Graphisoft claims to be the first to develop BIM software, but competitors are catching up fast as demand for such software starts to grow around the world.

Autodesk's Revit offers a similar package, which has been available in the UAE for two years but has been on the global market for much longer.

Convincing the market

Uptake in the region has not necessarily been comparable to the rest of the world. Using BIM differs significantly from using 2D CAD software, and the pace of development in the GCC means companies are finding it hard to create time for their staff to learn new packages.

"Everyone has more than enough to do and they've no time to sit down and learn something new," says Gogstad.

ArchiCAD's solution to the problem is to effectively bypass the current generation of architects and focus on the future. The company provides students with free copies of ArchiCAD, meaning a whole generation of future architects will be schooled in BIM in the future.

The tactic also neatly reduces the effect of piracy on sales. "The major market for piracy was always the students," says Al Tabbal.

AutoCAD's approach to the problem of convincing people to move to BIM is informed by its experience of getting people to use CAD in the first place. "In 1982, the industry was facing difficulty convincing people to switch from drafting boards to computers," says Ananthakrishnan.

As a result, Autodesk offers both Revit, as a full BIM solution and AutoCAD Architect, which is a specialised version of the 2D drafting package and therefore easy to use by those already familiar with AutoCAD.

AutoCAD Architect makes use of intelligent objects in a similar way to the standard AutoCAD. Experts suggest that eventually the market will learn to adapt.

Another way that BIM may increase in popularity is its ability to evaluate a building in terms of sustainability. "You're designing in a 3D environment, so all the data you need to evaluate your building in terms of sustainability is there," says Al Tabbal.

He points out that BIM can be used in conjunction with environmental analysis software to judge a project's sustainability at any stage of development. "Even at the early stages you can start designing and thinking of all the LEED requirements, which are a nightmare for architects these days.

Photoreal Presentation

The use of 3D modelling packages can also be particularly crucial for presenting designs to clients. "A lot of building owners and developers here, you actually have to show something very realistic before they can understand it," says Phillip Tytler, director of architectural visualisations firm Vivid.

"You have to have something photo-real before they approve it because they could turn down a very good idea just because it's not presented well," he adds.

Tytler claims that most drafting software is not capable of creating photorealistic designs, and as a result architects need to use additional software or outsource in order to create presentation materials.

If you look at newspapers or magazines, the quantity of computer generated graphics has increased 300-400% in the last five years," he says.

Using 3D presentation models offers significant advantages over traditional sketches or actual models in much the same way the BIM offers advantages over 2D drafting.

"You can change these things very easily in a 3D model. If you just use elevations or hand drawn sketches, it's very time consuming to redo them," says Tytler. He estimates that as a result, 80% of major architectural firms now have dedicated 3D CAD modelling staff.

As many of these firms open offices in the GCC region to take advantage of the building boom, it seems likely that they will bring with them the culture of working in 3D.

With so many options now available on the market to increase productivity, the advantages of new CAD software are becoming clearer.

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