Innovation & Design

Tools of the Imagination


Building information modeling software from Autodesk and Gehry Technologies is gaining traction with architects and their collaborators

"Architecture is a strange animal. It's equal parts art, science, and business," says Susan Piedmont-Palladino, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and editor of the forthcoming book Tools of the Imagination: Drawing Tools and Technologies from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Princeton Architectural Press). "I was interested in the many stories of invention, how architects are creative tinkerers who borrow tools from other fields—say, astronomy or land surveying in the past to computer programs used to design cars."

The book weaves a narrative of architects' adventures in adopting new tools and techniques, from the folding compass used by Jefferson to Frank Gehry's use of CATIA software, used previously in the automotive industry—and beyond.

The historical time line of this elegant, petite volume, published as a post-exhibition catalog for a show of the same name at the National Building Museum, ends with a look at the relatively new software known as building information modeling, or BIM. This software allows architects and their collaborators (engineers, contractors, fabricators, even building owners) to share and update a single 3D digital model of a building in progress, streamlining the documentation process and, at least in theory, eliminating needless duplication of status reports and time spent discussing them.

Master Builder on Board

Although the story of BIM is just starting to unfold, evidence is mounting that the tool is being adopted by the architectural community. Last year, Autodesk (ADSK), a maker of 3D modeling software, saw a 94% increase in purchases of "seats," or the number individual licenses bought by architectural firms, of its BIM software, called Revit.

The company has sold a total of 140,000 licenses since 2002. And just last week, Gehry Technologies, a three-year-old venture started by "starchitect" Frank Gehry, announced that Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the firm behind such landmark buildings as Chicago's Sears Tower (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/8/06, "Seven Decades of Skycrapers") purchased 100 seats of Gehry Technologies' BIM tool, Digital Project, which was first released in 2004. The same firm recently used Revit as the primary tool for designing the high-profile Freedom Tower at New York City's Ground Zero.

But just how much money can be saved by BIM products such as these? Revit, which was developed by a startup of the same name and acquired by Autodesk in 2002, is a potentially expensive investment and can be difficult to learn. Piedmont-Palladino, who teaches architecture at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, says that the "learning curve is much steeper than other [CAD, or computer-aided design] programs." But she adds that "in the end, it is much more productive."

It's the ROI, Stupid

In a white paper posted on Autodesk.com featuring data gathered in 2003 from a survey of firms using the tool, Revit's average return on investment is reported to be 61% in the first year a firm implements the most basic version of the tool ($6,000), and an astounding 116% if architects invest in a more expensive version (for $10,000) because training is thrown in, saving time and money. The stats, based on the number of hours saved in drafting, documenting, and updating projects, have remained consistent through 2006, according to Phillip Bernstein, vice-president of building industry strategy and relations at Autodesk.

And while such granular statistics aren't yet available for Gehry Technologies' Digital Project, the company's chief technology officer, Dennis Shelden, says that the tool—which runs $1,500 to $15,000, depending on level of customization and support—can save "about 10% of the cost of a building's construction." Digital Project is Gehry Technologies' adaptation of CATIA, which Dassault Systemes developed for the automotive and aerospace industries. Frank Gehry has been using CATIA for 15 or so years to design his unusually shaped buildings, and Digital Project is essentially the CATIA engine with an updated interface and other features for architects. In short, Gehry Technologies, a startup with star power, poses a serious challenge to Autodesk as it tries to establish Revit as the industry standard.

BIM Marketing Tools

Which brings us back to Tools of the Imagination, a book that Autodesk largely funded. It's nothing new for companies to sponsor museum exhibitions and their catalogs as a marketing move. And it was a smart tactic for Autodesk, which is in the midst of a turning point in its business strategy. Chief Executive Carl Bass, who is approaching his first year at the company's helm, has stated that the firm is in remaking itself as "Autodesk 3.0" by focusing on software tools that go beyond modeling to facilitate every aspect of a design process, including management. According to Bernstein, the division of Autodesk that oversees Revit has seen "the largest growth of any division" within the company in the last year, which saw a 23.5% overall sales gain, to $1.5 billion, in the fiscal year that ended in January, 2006.

Whether Revit will continue to drive growth at Autodesk, a company that bounced back after seeing sales plummet 13% in 2001-2002 (during the post–September 11 economic downturn), depends on whether it becomes the leading BIM tool. Tools of the Imagination is a clever marketing strategy. But it's too early to know whether Autodesk will succeed in designing its own future.

Jana is a writer with BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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