AEC

A Walk in Graphisoft Park

12 Dec, 2007 By: Jerry Laiserin

BIM developer's progress echoes much of the commercial and historical change that surrounds it.


Several weeks ago, as noted in my Cadalyst article Drinking in All That Nemetschek as to Offer, I visited Munich, Germany, as that company's guest. I also took a quick side trip -- a one-hour flight -- to Budapest, Hungary, headquarters of Graphisoft, makers of ArchiCAD software. ArchiCAD has been around as a design authoring tool as long as AutoCAD -- 25 years. However, ArchiCAD supported the process and methodology we now call building information modeling (BIM) many years before Autodesk acquired Revit or developed Autodesk Architecture (formerly known as Architectural Desktop or ADT) and indeed before most other vendors developed competing tools for BIM automation.

Part of Nemetschek Group since it was acquired late last year, Graphisoft and its headquarters were familiar territory. I attended the September 1998 official opening of the headquarters building and surrounding Graphisoft Park (offices, research facilities, and real estate development). Even though I had been back to Budapest in the intervening years, most notably as a juror for the Graphisoft Prize, the current pace of development in Graphisoft Park came as welcome surprise.

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The surroundings of Graphisoft headquarters in Budapest include other high-tech offices (background) and echoes (left) of the site's smokestack industry heritage as the municipal gasworks. (Photo copyright Jerry Laiserin)

Surrounding the former municipal gasworks in a brick-walled estate bordering a tributary of the Danube, Graphisoft Park has filled nearly all the developable area that dwarfed the first two bold but lonely buildings of nine years ago. Graphisoft's own building is now seemingly double or triple its original size, while the adjacent building that was originally rented to Microsoft now houses other tech tenants. Microsoft is about to complete an enormous building just opposite these first two, and the other buildable space already is crammed with office blocks for the gamut of international high-tech companies.

The globalization parallels run deeper. Graphisoft is in what I call an "Edge City" location, a phenomenon first identified by journalist Joel Garreau in his 1991 book of the same name. In Graphisoft's case, the information age setting has supplanted an icon of the industrial age (the gasworks, which still casts an exotic eastern European spell with its crenellated bastions and pepper pot towers). In the case of the parent company's headquarters, Nemetschek Haus, an extensive new neighborhood of computing and communications businesses has sprouted on the former site of Munich's municipal airport -- from transportation hub to communications hub, albeit still brooded over by the old airport control tower.

Similar transformations can be observed in the New Hampshire exurbs north of Boston, where the entire former textile-mill town of Manchester has been converted into a high-tech hive, which houses -- among many other businesses -- much of the operations of Autodesk's AEC division. Ditto for Bentley Systems' corporate digs on former farmland in the Philadelphia exurb of Exton. Toss in Gehry Technologies' industrial park setting in Playa Del Rey, California, and Nemetschek North America's location in the planned Edge City of Columbia, Maryland, and it's safe to say that all the significant BIM model-authoring tool developer/vendors have chosen comparable Edge City locations.

Whether near Budapest or Boston, the sort of built environment these product development teams see out their windows may tell us something about the kind of software they develop. Certainly they see a world in which digital technologies and the accompanying interplay between virtual and physical worlds has superseded the former milieu of agricultural, industrial, and transportation technologies. It is a world grounded in the Enlightenment ideals of progress and infinite perfectibility.

Little wonder, then, that Graphisoft has long operated under the banner of "virtual building" -- nomenclature to which it has intermittently asserted trademark rights for some two decades, but which existed in the academic research literature prior to Graphisoft's claim. As Edge Cities are to imperial cities such as Budapest, or as high-tech parks are to industrial era gasworks, so too are virtual buildings to real ones. Virtual buildings are perfectible in ways that real buildings --often crafted from archaic stick and mud technologies -- are not. If the process of constructing real buildings (which instantiate virtual buildings) is too messy, that can and should be rectified with virtual construction (another term whose appearance in the literature predates Graphisoft's use thereof). Indeed, Graphisoft launched a virtual construction product line in 2004, since spun off to an independent company known as Vico Software (as in VIrtual COnstruction).

None of this is intended as a criticism of Graphisoft or any other BIM software vendor. Much of the building design and construction world looks and acts in ways more akin to the preindustrial system of guilds than the postindustrial system of digits. The folks at Graphisoft always have been leaders in the campaign to modernize and improve building processes through software, especially interoperable software. As exemplified by the current ArchiCAD 11, Graphisoft's insights into process improvement include: the adaptability of the ArchiCAD interface; the superiority of WorkGroups as a model-sharing methodology; the slickness of Virtual Trace as a 2D-3D workflow transition approach; and, of course, the user-friendliness of binary Mac/Windows PC compatibility. The list goes on from there -- more innovation than can be covered in this commentary.

With Graphisoft, unlike the case with many competitors, an analyst like me can be assured that everyone with a recent ArchiCAD license is creating models that are fully BIM-capable and IFC-compliant. With some other products, especially those licensed by subscription on top of or in tandem with a pre-BIM CAD tool, the number of seats pushed into the market tells me nothing about actual product use in BIM-worthy mode. In that light, Graphisoft's leadership position extends far beyond its self-labeled niche of Virtual Building.


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