Architects warming up to 3-D CAD

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am

For decades, automation in the architecture industry had been limited to the two-dimensional renderings and blueprints most people are accustomed to.
In recent years, three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD), also known as building information modeling (BIM), has been reducing human error in design and construction and making architectural firms more cost-effective and efficient.
According to Jim Bedrick, director of systems integration for Webcore Builders, San Mateo, Calif., and vice chair of technology and architectural practices for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 3-D CAD allows a designer to do more than just draft a design.
"CAD was no more than an electronic pencil where it was representing things with lines. Three-dimensional CAD represents objects that can simulate the actual behavior of the building," Bedrick said. "We have the ability to extract information from the model, including the quantity take-off for estimating, lighting and thermal analysis and coordinate the building systems, for example, making sure there is enough room for ducting and major piping needed in between the major structural elements."
Bedrick said the idea of 3-D CAD has been around since the 1980s, but has not yet become an industry standard for several reasons. The software had to wait until computers caught up with the technology, and firms are hesitant to invest the time and money in process changes.
"The industry has not been waiting for 3-D CAD because the industry is fairly conservative, and new ideas take while to catch on," Bedrick said. "Every project we do represents a huge piece of our process, and most companies cannot experiment on a project and have it fail."
Ken Sanders, a managing principal of design and delivery for Gensler, an architectural firm in San Francisco, wrote an article about building information modeling for Architectural Record magazine in September.
Sanders said Gensler has used 3-D CAD for more than a year but had been testing the software and waiting for the tools to mature.
"The tools involved are not sufficiently advanced where they can support all the documentation for a firm," Sanders said. "But in terms of coordinating plans, sections and elevations, the tools assist with coordination and reduce the risk of errors."
According to the AIA Web site,, building information modeling allows a design firm to have a faster, higher-quality design process, where tasks that can be tedious, like drafting and view coordination, are automated and design changes are automatically modified.
"In one case where the client and the firm gain value from 3-D CAD is tenant improvement service for the large real estate owner," Sanders said. "The old approach is for the architects to draw up two-dimensional plans, print them out, send them to the contractor, and the contractor takes a couple weeks to price the design. Two weeks is a long time – plenty of time for a potential tenant to find another option. Today, we can build the 3-D object model and generate pricing instantly, which compresses the turnaround time and increases the likelihood of closing deals with tenants."
Bedrick said the main advantage of the 3-D CAD is that when a wall is placed on a design, the program considers it as if it is an actual wall with volume and square feet in accordance with the original dimensions of the object. With the dimensions already known, all the firm has to do is put the numbers in the cost database to calculate an estimate for the project.
"It normally takes a couple of weeks on a major project to do quantity take-offs, which is measuring walls, counting and manually measuring off of a 2-D drawing," Bedrick said. "Computers measure and count a lot better than humans do and don’t get bored while doing it."
According to Sanders, the technology is not ready for widespread usage and is most helpful for complex and multi-tenant projects.
"We use the software on one end of the spectrum for retail rollouts and tenant improvement projects where there are many similar copies of prototype design. In these cases, the technology helps with customized mass production," Sanders said. "On the other end of the spectrum are large scale complex projects where we want the model in 3-D because of its complexity, geometry, or systems within it."
Local firms such as Eppstein Uhen Architects and Renner Architects LLC, both of Milwaukee, have implemented 3-D CAD and are benefiting from the advanced program.
Eppstein Uhen implemented the program in 2000 and has been incrementally enhancing the technology ever since, according to Bret Tushaus, the head of information technology for Eppstein.
"It is a pretty involved process for a firm of our size to implement," Tushaus said. "There are a lot of challenges, but we are seeing the benefits. The most significant benefit is the coordinated drawings, which means less changes down the road and less error."
Rich Tennessen, the vice president of operations for Eppstein, said the firm transformed a conference room into a 3-D CAD training room to better serve its clients.
"We are committed to giving people the best tools that we can to provide value and benefit for the client," Tennessen said. "It is expensive, but we are all winning because our drawings are better. We see the industry ultimately heading in the direction of 3-D CAD, and we want to be the early adopters."
As the technology evolves, drawings in the future would become "smart documents."
Peter Renner of Renner Architects LLC, Milwaukee, said the firm has been using 3-D CAD for six years and that the industry is finally recognizing how important the technology is.
"Three-dimensional CAD will revolutionize the building delivery methods worldwide," Renner said. "Three-dimensional CAD allows designers and their clients a chance to see what they are going to build, eliminating a lot of errors and bad judgments. Three-dimensional CAD gives architects and builders the ability to fabricate the parts and simply assemble them on the site, enhancing quality and lowering costs."
Architectural firms that have had bad experiences with 3-D CAD likely were too ambitious with the software in the beginning and were disappointed and frustrated when it was not implemented smoothly, according to Sanders.
"Similar to the transition with from paper base to the digital tool of two-dimensional CAD, an investment in software and computers is required for the transition to 3-D CAD," Sanders said. "Especially in training. There is a large upfront investment involved and one of the virtues of a larger firm is being able to make more strategic investments. What is missing today compared to 15 years ago is that the client drove the adoption of CAD in the industry. Today, that demand is emerging more slowly."
October 29, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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