What now?

30 Sep, 2002 By: Michael Dakan

Over the past few months, several people have asked me to recommenda CAD program that handles architectural work all the way from schematicdesign through construction documents. They inevitably qualify theirquestion with some combination of the words:

  • easy to learn
  • easy to use
  • 3D
  • good for construction documents

When asked to prioritize their desires, they express interest in3D, but place ease of learning and use and capabilities for producingconstruction documents as the top priorities.

As a consultant, I've heard this kind of question for years, andthere's never been an obvious one-size-fits-all answer. Today, areasonably helpful reply is especially difficult to come up with.The people asking the question cover the gamut from small-firm owners/principalswho have been only peripherally involved with CAD in their firmsto established CAD users and managers looking for alternatives totheir current CAD programs, which they have come to view as deficientin one area or another.

In the past, my response to these queries was pretty enthusiasticsupport for architectural-specific CAD, especially when the personasking the question used an unenhanced, bare CAD program as an electronicpencil. But I've never been able to point to an architectural CADproduct with reasonably complete functionality that is really easyto learn and use. They all require a significant amount of timeand commitment for users to become proficient with them.

Now, most people asking the question have some experience witha recent generation of architectural CAD, but they still find suchprograms difficult to learn and limited in how much architecturaldesign and drafting can be easily automated.

Especially given today's difficult economic climate, I respondto requests for recommendations more cautiously and conservativelythan ever, because the panacea that everyone is looking for is notavailable just yet. I believe that the CAD industry is in a somewhatawkward transitional phase with a lot of unfinished partial solutions,but not many mature products that can do the complete job, beginningto end. And the phrase "easy to learn and use" as applied to full-featuredarchitectural CAD software remains pretty much the sole provinceof marketing and advertising folks.

What Are CAD Developers Doing?

For the past few years, most CAD companies have concentrated developmentactivities on the major effort needed to modernize their softwareand bring it into the promising realm of object-oriented CAD. Todo this, they took several steps backward in many areas in orderto start over with a fresh approach. In many cases, the new approachhasn't yet returned to the functionality level of the old software.Much more development is needed to complete the transition to object-orientedCAD and to provide a higher level of functionality and ease of use.

In the AutoCAD world, Autodesk for years enjoyed a healthy andthriving third-party developer corps that created a number of verygood architectural add-ons for AutoCAD. Several of those productswere developed over a number of years, and the result was a lineupof competitive, mature applications that were very stable and functionalfor automating the drafting of architectural elements from nativeCAD primitives. The results were not true objects with the kindof "intelligence" that we see in Architectural Desktop, but theybehaved somewhat like objects and sped the creation of architecturaldrawings significantly.

Architectural Desktop has evolved into a very useful product inits third release, but I don't think anyone would argue that itis a finished, complete tool in its current state. It still needsdevelopment of architectural functionality and refinements of suchthings as the user interface and interoperability with other programs.Autodesk has further muddied the future development and upgradepicture with its recent acquisition of the Revit software and theattendant questions about how that fits into its plans. The companyhas also expended effort on another brand-new architectural product,Architectural Studio, which is at the beginning of its developmentcycles toward a useful, functional tool (see review, p. 44).

Other Development Activity

At the same time, other welcome initiatives show some promise forthe future, such as improved file transfer and interactivity inthe form of the IAI IFC (International Alliance for Interoperability'sIndustry Foundation Classes) implementation in software. This promisesto allow much smoother, perhaps even transparent, interaction amongvarious architectural software applicati

The move toward the adoption of a NCS (National CAD Standard) inthe United States is a potentially important development that couldease a lot of problems for CAD managers and users. But widespreadadoption follows a typical chicken-and-egg scenario. Users and managersare slow to express enthusiasm, knowing a lot of work is requiredto integrate the national standard into their current CAD programsand work processes. When the standard is fully integrated with CADprograms as an out-of-the-box option, it should gain wider acceptancemuch faster.

But developers are hampered by the slow development of the finalversion of the NCS and the absence of licensing agreements fromNIBS (The National Institute of Building Sciences). They also don'thave much incentive to invest effort into integrating it into theirsoftware if their users are not clamoring for it.

All this need for additional CAD development occurs in the contextof a CAD industry that is not in good financial shape because ofslowing new seat sales and upgrade purchases. This is perhaps thebiggest problem we all face in seeking improvements in our CAD applications:users are reluctant to spend money on upgrades or new products untilthey can see significant advancements, and vendors can't affordto spend a lot on development when sales are slow. Combined withthe general economic downturn that is causing financial hardshipin most business markets, the situation is not likely turn aroundvery quickly.

The Answer?

More often than not, I suggest that those seeking new CAD systemswait a while to see what develops. In the meantime, you should tryto maximize the productivity you get out of your current CAD programwith additional training. There's a lot of important developmentactivity in the pipeline, but it is slow to yield the kind of resultswe're looking for, and current signs indicate that the pace of progressis not likely to quicken soon.

For CAD managers whose software budgets are diminished or frozenbecause of financial constraints, this discussion is moot. In thissituation, you can't realistically plan for the next upgrade untilthe general economy improves. You might just as well put your energyinto getting the most out of what you already have. A break fromthe upgrade treadmill allows time for advanced training insteadof just new feature training, and in fact such training is probablymore productive in the short term than another marginally beneficialupgrade. Still, we all want to see that easy-to-learn and -use,do-it-all CAD program of the future soon.