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architech - In the first of an occasional series, Joe Croser provides advice on a reader's IT dilemma

I recently received an email from a reader, on behalf of a small firm of architects in Wales, that was looking for some advice. I took some time to review the email and, after a quick chat on the phone to learn more about the practice's requirements, I sat down to respond. Then it occurred to me what a great opportunity the original email and subsequent reply presented to the AJ - an opportunity to start an 'Agony Uncle' section for Architech! So here it is...

Joe replies: I should probably start by pointing out that you are a 'typical practice' and your experiences/needs/hopes reinforce this. The reason I make this point is to reassure rather than belittle you, as many readers think that the practices that we feature regularly are the norm, as opposed to the exception.

It is difficult for me to comment on TrueCAD as I have no first-hand experience of using, or even reviewing, it although my father (a now-retired structural engineer) used it in practice and heralded its ability - though as a Yorkshire man I guess it was the price that appealed to him the most!

I have, however, reviewed TurboCAD and I think that the professional version is a remarkable tool for the money. It offers an array of tools and impressive functionality, including competent DWG translation. However, when you start to focus on DWG interoperability, AutoCAD is the industry standard. With recent developments and new features and functions making it easier to use, AutoCAD is more deserving today of its position in the market than it was some years ago.

As you are already using AutoCAD to good effect within your practice, the natural path for your migration is surely Architectural Desktop (ADT).

A much improved product, ADT has some very impressive new features which make Revit look like it has a mountain to climb to compete, even though the reseller channel is, as you say, 'pushing Revit'.

3D parametric modelling The 'single model' approach could prove to be the future for developments in building design, but experience suggests to me that its successful and widespread adoption is still many years away. Why is this?

Well, technology will always be playing catch-up but the biggest barrier to widespread adoption comes from the people required to drive it. Too many people who buy software invest in the applications and the hardware required to run them without investing in their own user-abilities.

Thankfully you and your colleagues have already identified the value of training. Your desire to train yourself and your staff is to be commended and should help you along the road to successful 3D adoption.

With the kind of work your practice undertakes you are probably well suited to something like Revit or ADT, since it does not initially sound as if you will be creating any spline-curve surfaces, which many parametric modelling tools simply cannot create. However, the real benefit of such systems comes from repetition of components and design details.

While I am not sure if your projects reflect this approach from a buildingsystems perspective, I am sure that there are many details and generic components that you could collate into a very useful library so that your endeavours pay off over time.

Be organised In my experience, the single largest gain to be had from computerising your processes is through true data sharing with your fellow consultants in an organised and coordinated way.

If your consultants are not working in a compatible environment, you may end up duplicating their information and risking dis-coordination through re-entry errors. However, in your case this seems to be less important as the type of information you are producing is likely to be largely, if not wholly, generated by yourselves as opposed to referencing other consultants' data.

What about smarter 2D?

While both ADT and Revit boast strong DWG compatibility, there remains a 2D versus 3D discord.

Keeping in mind your reaction to the £4,000 price tag associated with Revit, one tool you may wish to consider has been created by an Australian company that works miracles with LT, turning it into an ADT-like tool for a fraction of the cost. This would enable you to invest less in software, and to continue to invest the majority of your expenditure in your own skills while improving your versatility. The website for this company is www. drcauto. com.

As for other 3D options? well there is ArchiCAD. This is a competent tool with a friendly and intuitive interface but its price matches Revit and ADT, and you will be faced with learning a whole new application.

Next is MicroStation TriForma. It is more expensive than ADT or Revit, arguably more flexible than Revit but probably less 'finished'. Finally there is Germany's favourite, Allplan by Nemetschek. This is a well developed product but it does not have a big presence in the UK, and support may therefore be an issue for you.

Make a decision As you can tell, there is not a simple answer. Personally I would steer away from 3D and get 2D right first but, following my discussions with you on the phone, I can see that you will be able to gain real benefits in two key areas by moving to a 3D parametric paradigm:

l during the initial design phase you will be able to explore more options in a shorter space of time; and l making amendments to a drawing set is a piece of cake when a change to the model automatically updates all plans, sections and elevations.

Furthermore, you should be able to have more meaningful discussions with your clients, as their ability to read 3D images (as opposed to most laypeople's inability to read 2D drawings) will empower them to engage fully in the design-development process.

You may even be able to charge them more in the process, while completing the project with fewer resources! But beware - many people think that 3D will solve problems (probably because resellers call the tools 'solutions'), whereas in truth the extra dimension can lead to added complication.

Get a discount All technology vendors should offer a 'trial' version of software for your review but if they are worth their salt they will want you to invest in training so that your evaluation is both fair and productive. Ask them to knock the cost of training off your purchase price, should you proceed from evaluating the software to implementing it across your practice. Furthermore, as Autodesk is clearly pushing Revit, you should be seeking massive discounts from the company - it does not yet have a large customer base and is in need of good reference sites. If you have warmed to Revit and you wish to purchase a number of copies, try suggesting to Autodesk that it offers you a large discount in exchange for your time and your transitional experiences for use as a case study. Indeed, Architech would be interested in following up your experiences, or those of any other practices considering or currently going through a similar transition.

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