Utilizing BIM for Sustainable Architecture

An analysis and continuation of my graduate thesis at the University of Texas at Austin.

Available BIM Technologies for Architectural Design

There are many BIM design software platforms currently available for AEC professionals, but there isn’t necessarily a “one-size-fits-all” platform that works for all projects or all design team participants.  The purchase of a BIM platform should not be based merely on the tool’s current capabilities and initial seat cost(s), rather it should be viewed as an investment that will involve future evolutions, new content and file type generation, and continuous user training.  While there are possibly dozens of software tools deemed BIM-capable for various stakeholders in the building industry, it seems appropriate to focus on the BIM tools currently being used by the architects since they have the largest impact on building design and information workflows.  The following BIM authoring tools are by no means exhaustive, but do represent the majority of current adoption by the architecture profession in the U.S.  Each tool is described in terms of its current release, operating platform, user interface, product family, file organization, interoperability, extent of parametric component library, and scalability.

Autodesk’s Revit Architecture is one of the most widely used BIM tools for architectural design.[36] The current version release is 2011 and is only available for Windows operating systems.  The program is relatively easy to learn with tools that are accessible and intuitive to use for project workflows.  Significant improvements have been made to free-form modeling and conceptual design environments.  In addition to 2D drawing and 3D modeling views, the software features a high-quality rendering engine within the program.  The software can be costly, with per seat licenses of $5,495 for an annual subscription and with currently no upgrade pricing options.[37] Autodesk’s BIM suite includes Revit Architecture, Revit MEP, and Revit Structure, which cater to major AEC building industries.  Autodesk offers a web-based BIM environmental analysis tool, called Green Building Studio.  It has also recently acquired Ecotect (now Ecotect Analysis) as its comprehensive energy modeling tool.  Revit uses a central library database structure for storing and linking information.  It supports importing/exporting various files types including CAD, DXF, DWF, DGN, STL, SAT, SKP, BMP, JPG, JPEG, PNG, and TIF.  It also supports model analysis exporting to gbXML, ADSK, FBX, ODBC, and IFC.  Revit has an extensive object library, referred to as “families,” which are predominantly developed by third-party vendors.  Information is bi-directionally supported between the information database and model views.  Revit uses an ‘in-memory’ system (information must be loaded into the project file to be used in the model), which can make project files very large and performance can suffer as a result – especially when dealing with server-based collaboration.

Nemetschek North America’s Vectorworks has a small, but growing, market share in the U.S. building industry and is primarily used by small-scale AEC firms.  Vectorworks has various industry-specific versions including Architect (AEC BIM authoring tool), Landmark (landscape and site design), Spotlight (theatrical and exhibit design), Machine Design, Fundamentals (non-industry specific version), and Designer (has all industry tools, commands, and objects).  All can be used with or without Renderworks, which is a presentation-rendering tool.  The current release of Vectorworks is 2010 (version 15), which is available for Windows and Macintosh operating systems.  Vectorworks Architect costs $1,995 for each seat license and $400 for an upgrade license (Windows and Macintosh).[38] The user interface offers very flexible 2D/3D hybrid environment, which is beneficial for design purposes, but it does not enforce a strict BIM workflow, which can be problematic for consultant collaboration.  It supports exporting to various file types including DXF, DWG, EPix/Piranesi, EPSF, JPG, JPEG, PNG, BMP, TIF PDF, Windows Metafile, QuickTime VR Object and VR Panorama, VectorScript, comma- and tab-delimited worksheets, DIF, SYLK, Parasolid X_T, IGES, SAT, Strata, STL, KML, SKP, DOE-2 and, IFC.[39] Vectorworks has extensive data-rich object libraries and allows for a wide variety of user-created content through its VectorScript programming language.   It does lack, however, certain building industry specific BIM software for MEP and structure.  Worksharing solutions are file-based as opposed to server-based, which is adequate for small firms, but has limitations on scalability and real-time collaboration among multiple users.

Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD (also owned by Nemetschek) is the oldest BIM design tools still available on the market to date.[40] The current release is version 13 and is available for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.  The software can be purchased at $4,250 per seat license, upgraded for $895, or rented on a monthly basis.[41] The user interface is relatively simple to use and has an intuitive workflow.  Graphisoft offers various extensions for ArchiCAD including MEP Modeler, Virtual Building Explorer (for interactive 3D presentation), EcoDesigner (for energy analysis), and Artlantis (for high-quality rendering).  Graphisoft has also developed a more economical and lightweight BIM software called ArchiCAD STAR(T) Edition (about $2,000 per seat license[42]), which is specifically designed for small architecture firms with limited features for modeling, visualization, collaboration, performance, and project organization.  Graphisoft lacks a dedicated structural BIM application, but has created interfaces to work with a variety of other proprietary structural tools, including Revit Structure, Tekla Structures, and Scia Engineer.  ArchiCAD supports various ‘add-ons’ developed by third-part vendors to extend the functionality of the core BIM tool capabilities.  ArchiCAD’s model information is managed by a centralized database, similar to Revit.  It supports importing/exporting file formats including DWG, DXF, DGN, DWF, and PDF.  It also supports model data exporting to gbXML, DOE-2, RIUSKA, ARCHiPHISIK, OBDC, and IFC.  The tool also supports direct links with SketchUp (3D modeler), Google Earth (virtual world visualization), and Cinema 4D (3D animation).  ArchiCAD uses an ‘in-memory’ system, which presents scalability issues for large projects, but models can be partitioned into smaller modules to make them manageable.  In addition, Graphisoft has developed the first BIM Server application, specifically intended to make large project collaboration easier and faster.[43] ArchiCAD does have certain parametric modeling limitations in terms of automatic updating between objects.[44] It also lacks modeling constraints and does not support association between modeling elements, which can be problematic for other analysis tools.[45]

Bentely’s MicroStation focuses on a wide range of solutions for AEC industries, including bridges, buildings, government, campuses, communications, utilities, factories, mining and metals, process manufacturing, power generation, rail and transit, roads, and water and wastewater.  The buildings category includes a family of products including, Architecture, GenerativeComponents, Structural Modeler, Building Mechanical Systems, Building Electrical Systems, Facilities, and ProjectWise Navigator (for mulit-project and multi-user collaboration).  The current release of Bentley Architecture is V8i and is only available on Windows operating systems.  The software can be expensive with single seat licenses priced at $6,290 (includes MicroStation, passport for ProjectWise Navigator, Parametric Cell Studio, Space Planner, and Bentley Architecture).  Existing MicroStation users can add Bentley Architecture for $1,495.[46] The user interface is large and non-integrated, which makes it difficult to navigate and learn.  Bently Architecture features relatively fast conceptual design modeling and space planning capabilities.  The software also features a powerful rendering engine for the production of high-quality images and animations within the application.  Bentley Architecture supports importing/exporting formats including DGN, DWG, DXF, PDF, STEP, IGES, STL, and IFC.[47] It also supports native Rhino and SketchUp modeling formats.[48] The software has a relatively small parametric object library, which may be due to inconsistent object behaviors.  Bentley Architecture features a distributed file structure to help manage large projects, but this type of file organization can be difficult to set up and manage.

In summary, the above BIM tools each have various advantages and disadvantages – especially in terms of cost, learning curve, capacity, and interoperability.  With the increasing rate of BIM adoption among AEC industries and continuous version updates (occurring virtually each year), it is quite probable that market shares and software features will change.  It is highly unlikely that a single proprietary BIM developer will take over the entire AEC market, but rather there will probably be an increasing diversification of BIM tools for specific project types and industry groups, just as with CAD tools.  AEC groups and project stakeholders will need to determine which tool or software suite is appropriate for their project type(s) and collaboration needs.


[36] Eastman, Charles M., et al. Bim Handbook : A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers, and Contractors. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2008. 57.

[37] Autodesk Store. “Autodesk Revit Architecture 2011.” Autodesk, Inc. 2 May 2010.  <http://store.autodesk.com/DRHM/servlet/ControllerServlet?Action=DisplayProductDetailsPage&SiteID=adsk&Locale=en_US&ThemeID=1293100&Env=BASE&productID=188048300&gt; (2 May 2010).

[38] Nemetschek North America. “Online Store: Vectorworks Architect.” Nemetschek North America, Inc. 2 May 2010. <https://secure.nemetschek.net/estore/architect.php&gt; (2 May 2010).

[39]Lévy, François. Lecturer, UT School of Architecture. “revised Vectorworks profile.”  E-mail to the author. 26 April 2010.

[40] Eastman, Charles M., et al. Bim Handbook : A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers, and Contractors. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2008. 59.

[41] Khemlani, Lachmi. “ArchiCAD 13: AECbytes Product Review.”  AECbytes. 2 May 2010. <http://www.aecbytes.com/review/2009/ArchiCAD13.html&gt; (30 September 2009).

[42] Graphisoft North America. “Promotions for North America Based Customers.” Graphisoft R&D Software Development Rt.. 2 May 2010. <http://www.graphisoftus.com/products_promos.php&gt; (2 May 2010).

[43]Khemlani, Lachmi. “ArchiCAD 13: AECbytes Product Review.”  AECbytes. 2 May 2010. <http://www.aecbytes.com/review/2009/ArchiCAD13.html&gt; (30 September 2009).

[44] Eastman, Charles M., et al. Bim Handbook : A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers, and Contractors. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2008. 59.

[45] Khemlani, Lachmi. “ArchiCAD 13: AECbytes Product Review.”  AECbytes. 2 May 2010. <http://www.aecbytes.com/review/2009/ArchiCAD13.html&gt; (30 September 2009).

[46] Khemlani, Lachmi. “Bentley Architecture V8i: AECbytes Product Review.”  AECbytes. 2 May 2010. <http://aecbytes.com/review/2009/BentleyArchV8i.html&gt; (19 November 2009).

[47] Eastman, Charles M., et al. Bim Handbook : A Guide to Building Information Modeling for Owners, Managers, Designers, Engineers, and Contractors. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2008. 58.

[48] Khemlani, Lachmi. “Bentley Architecture V8i: AECbytes Product Review.”  AECbytes. 2 May 2010. <http://aecbytes.com/review/2009/BentleyArchV8i.html&gt; (19 November 2009).

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