How Are Architects Using Digital Design Tools? (AEC in Focus Column)

31 May, 2007 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg

Architects discuss design software, including the boom in BIM.

With all the talk about the building information model, you'd think that everyone in the business of designing architecture is using BIM (building information modeling) software. Yet, according to the main BIM vendors, Autodesk and Bentley, there is still more growth to come in BIM. According to Autodesk's numbers, AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT—Autodesk's primarily 2D CAD programs—are their best sellers. Given that both AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT are also used in other professions, it's hard to get a grasp on the number of professionals designing architecture in 2D with AutoCAD Architecture or the new 3D BIM systems.

Bentley's annual report and presentation at its last annual conference indicate that although BIM is growing fast in the user base, much of the company's business still comes from CAD with MicroStation. Of course MicroStation also is used in other professions. So, like in the Autodesk numbers, it's hard to break out architects. One fact is firm—the major architectural firms are, or have been, switching to 3D BIM systems. Whether small or sole proprietor firms are switching, however, is another matter. Regardless, in my opinion, the implementation of BIM software eventually will become the standard, because it is more productive than CAD.

According to a survey of 3,000 architecture firms in the latest The Business of Architecture survey by the American Institute of Architects (in the AIA Architect newsletter), a little more than 16% of firms reported having acquired BIM software, and approximately 10% reported using it for billable work. Of the firms that have BIM software, most use it for design development (91%), schematic design (86%) and construction documentation (81%). Among those firms, nearly two-thirds use their BIM software for billable work, ranging from 60% among sole practitioners to 86% among firms with more than 100 employees. (This survey was conducted a year ago, so the figures may have changed a bit.)

In this month's "AEC in Focus" column I'll give an overview of what I think is happening in the AEC/FM industry. This column isn't a scientific study; it's the result of conversations with a random selection of firms and individuals who gave me a glimpse of their rationales for using a particular set of digital tools.

Beck, Powell & Parsons

Beck, Powell & Parsons is a 40-year-old, six-person firm located in Baltimore, Maryland, and was an early adopter of 2D AutoCAD. This firm is typical of the average architectural office; it works mostly on commercial projects in the $1–5 million range. According to David Budd, an architect with the firm, the architects use Architectural Desktop 2007 but don't implement many of its features. Budd, who has been with the firm for 12 years, said, "working on smaller projects, we just do not have the time to learn all the latest procedures and are satisfied with the present productivity." The firm doesn't use Architectural Desktop's Project Navigator because they found that, productivity wise, it does not have any advantage over the firm's standard project template drawing, which uses tabs for the various drawing sheets. "If we eventually get into constructing complete 3D models, then the Navigator may be more useful," Budd said. "If we were working on large multistory buildings, we would definitely be using it."

Eisenman Architects

Eisenman Architects is 22-year-old, award-winning architectural firm based in New York. It might be considered a boutique architectural firm because it is a small firm that takes on only high-quality projects. It's well known for the City of Culture of Galicia project in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (figure 1). Its 18 employees use a mix of AutoCAD and Robert McNeel and Associates' Rhinoceros. The firm has been using Rhino software since it became available approximately nine years ago. It moved to Rhino because it was looking for a more productive way to document complex designs and because the designers have found it to be the best software to model the complex forms that they often use. The firm's architects previously used form •Z but found that Rhino's NURBS created smoother forms. Rick Rosson, an architect with Eisenman, mentioned that Rhino integrates well with AutoCAD. "It is not uncommon for the designers to digitally slice a Rhino model and then complete the details in AutoCAD," he said. This firm is technologically advanced but is more interested in documenting its buildings than in using the building information model.

 Figure 1. Eisenman Architects used Rhino and AutoCAD to document its City of Culture of Galicia project in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Figure 1. Eisenman Architects used Rhino and AutoCAD to document its City of Culture of Galicia project in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Gehry Partners

I spoke with Dennis R. Shelden, Ph.D., chief technology officer of Gehry Technologies. According to Shelden, Gehry Partners, the architectural office of Frank Gehry, uses a variety of software (figure 2). The firm uses Rhino for its initial design studies, AutoCAD for most of its 2D drafting and Ecotect and Tekla Xsteel (among other programs) to provide steel, energy and structural infinite model analysis. Because Gehry Partners is interested in a federation approach in its use of software, it uses Digital Project, which is Gehry Technologies' specialized adaptation of CATIA for master information integration to tie everything together.

Figure 2. Gehry Partners uses Rhino for initial design studies, AutoCAD for 2D drafting and Digital Project to tie everything together.
Figure 2. Gehry Partners uses Rhino for initial design studies, AutoCAD for 2D drafting and Digital Project to tie everything together.

Gehry Partners has increasingly been introducing parametric modeling earlier in the design process and is using Digital Project to develop parametric modeling to automate systematic design strategies. The architects generate 2D drawings from the master project model and add information to these drawings using AutoCAD DWG 2D. Shelden stated that the 2D drawings increasingly are seen as record documentation of design decisions, but these design decisions occur purely in 3D. Gehry Partners prefers to use the 3D digital model format because it's the true basis of the building information model, and it can be used throughout the entire building process (including automated manufacturing and operations management).

Incidentally, Gehry Technologies, the technology arm of Gehry Partners, has been providing Digital Project to an increasing number of high-end design, engineering and construction firms engaged in large-scale or complex geometric projects. Gehry Technologies also trains firms to use this product and will, on request, participate in project and production engagements with these clients.

HNTB Architecture

HNTB Architecture's 200 professionals provide comprehensive buildings services to clients nationwide in the aviation, education, federal government, civic and private sectors. Signature projects include the Denver Broncos' Invesco Field at Mile High, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Terminal D and the San Diego Convention Center expansion. Currently, the company is designing a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers and serving as master architect for the $737 million Las Vegas Convention Center enhancement program. According to Patrick Davis, national CAD and BIM manager and Cadalyst contributing editor, HNTB Architecture is moving toward making the Revit platform its primary design tool (figure 3) while still supporting teams of Bentley platform users. This set-up builds upon the firm's existing expertise in multiplatform environments.

Figure 3. A rendering of a Navy hangar that HNTB Architects, in conjunction with design-builder M.A. Mortenson, designed with Revit.
Figure 3. A rendering of a Navy hangar that HNTB Architects, in conjunction with design-builder M.A. Mortenson, designed with Revit.

Because of HNTB's portfolio in architecture and engineering services, its software tools are varied. Using Auto-desk's Revit family of products and those on the Bentley/TriForma side, HNTB can deliver projects in any way that a situation or client may demand. Architectural Desktop is being used in its offices, and Davis noted that HNTB doesn't discourage the use of other software if a particular office has someone with skills in that software. In fact, the practice has used 3ds Max, form •Z, Maya, Rhino, SketchUp and VRay, among other tools. Because of HNTB's national presence, it's common for offices in different cities to work together. Davis mentioned that when this occurs, the firm makes agreements to use common software.


The third-largest architectural firm in the United States, BE Award of Excellence winner NBBJ has been using Bentley products for 10 years and has announced that it expects to produce 75% of its projects in BIM. NBBJ is well known for its design of healthcare and sporting venues and both institutional and commercial projects. The firm highlighted the benefits of BIM in recent award-winning designs such as the Moscow Medical Center in suburban Krylatsky Hills. Critical to its success was Bentley's BIM technology, which the firm used to design the hospital and document its design. "Visualizing something two years before it's built helps with decision making and enables us to explicitly communicate with our clients," said NBBJ's Drew Burgess. Another recent BIM benefit was shown in the Providence Park Hospital in Novi, Michigan, for which NBBJ needed to explore many what-if scenarios for the building façade while using BIM reports to ensure they complied with requirements for window openings and natural light.

NBBJ uses Bentley's MicroStation V8, MicroStation TriForma, Bentley Architecture and Generative Components and coordinates engineering work with cooperating consultants using Bentley Structural and other discipline-specific programs (figure 4).

Figure 4. An NBBJ design prepared using Bentley's MicroStation V8, MicroStation TriForma, Bentley Architecture and Generative Components.
Figure 4. An NBBJ design prepared using Bentley's MicroStation V8, MicroStation TriForma, Bentley Architecture and Generative Components.


RTKL is a 60-year-old, 1000-employee award-winning firm with seven offices in the United States, two offices in Europe and three offices in Asia. Among its projects is the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. This firm, along with SOM, was one of the first companies to use CAD in the early 1980s. It started with Intergraph, moved to MicroStation and is now completing its transition to Autodesk's Revit platform for BIM. According to principal Bill Huston, "although many of RTKL's projects are now being done in Revit, RTKL plans, subject to client demand, to be doing all its projects in Revit by the end of the year."

Because RTKL is a full-service architectural firm with engineering capability, it also is beginning to implement Revit Structure and Revit MEP. RTKL also uses Google SketchUp, 3ds Max and Photoshop. An interesting side note mentioned by Huston was the fact that, although it might prepare a project in Revit, some clients want AutoCAD DWG files. However, if these clients make major changes to the exported AutoCAD files, it's often easier for RTKL to revert to working in AutoCAD than to redo the building in Revit. In my opinion, this situation will change as clients become more comfortable with BIM software.

Sacco + McKinney Architects

Sacco + McKinney Architects in Latham, New York, specializes in facilities for higher education and uses Nemetschek North America's VectorWorks software. During the past two years, the firm has planned, designed and supervised the construction of more than $50 million in campus facilities. James McKinney AIA, NCARB, is the firm's president. McKinney said he likes VectorWorks because it does everything the firm needs in one package—from documentation to 3D visualization. The firm originally used MiniCAD, the predecessor to VectorWorks, and never felt the need to change. VectorWorks' low price was an added plus.

As an analyst, I tend to give the impression that everyone in the industry knows about all the productivity enhancements in the new programs. However, the truth is that many conservative offices just aren't aware of or don't care about them. That may change, however, as it becomes more and more evident that technologies such as BIM enhance cost-savings and productivity initiatives. Only time will tell.

H. Edward Goldberg, AIA, NCARB, is a practicing licensed architect and AEC industry analyst. Ed's full-length book, Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2007: A Comprehensive Tutorial (Prentice Hall, is now available. His new Revit Building tutorial book will be available in fall 2007. Visit for more information or e-mail