When software giant Autodesk snapped up ambitious minnow Revit in 2002, there was speculation about what exactly it would do with it. An ambitious approach to three-dimensional working, Revit suffered from the seemingly insuperable problem that it looked as if it could be very good one day. That day would only come after several further releases of the software, and those could only be funded by selling plenty of licences in the early, far-fromperfect versions. Autodesk's takeover was aimed at resolving this catch-22, since it had the resources to pump in investment without requiring immediate returns.
For a long time everything went quiet. There were bland assurances that development was taking place and the odd smallish practice was wheeled out to show that it was using the system.
But the overall impression was that this was a system that might work quite well on work that wasn't too complicated. So what a coup that it is being used on one of the most high-profile and controversial projects - New York's Freedom Tower.
Phil Bernstein, vice-president of the building services division of Autodesk, sees Revit as one of the tools in moving construction forward to the next phase. His ideas are not new - that computerisation has so far not resulted in any fundamental changes in the way we work but simply in the way that we produce drawings. He argues, as many have done before, that fundamental change will not come until we start working in a different way - from the model and not the drawing. Nor is it surprising that he argues that Autodesk has the tools to facilitate the change - Revit and document-management system Buzzsaw.
What is impressive is that this approach is being put to work on such a complex project. Paul Seletsky, who rejoices in the title of digital design director of SOM New York, says that the practice has been trying to move forward ideas of digital design for years - including developing its own software in the days before much was available commercially. 'As architects we try to convey our ideas about a building - but the process is still fairly archaic. It is like a book with endless footnotes. Our approach is: 'You've read the book, now see the movie.' We are trying to change the way that information is conveyed.' The practice started using Revit on some of its smaller projects and, pleased with the results, decided to take the plunge and employ it on the Freedom Tower. Initially it was only used for the extremely complex below-ground section of the design.
Enthusiasm among the staff was such, says Seletsky, that 'one guy in the office wanted a Revit tattoo on his arm but his wife wouldn't let him'. In slightly calmer mood, Seletsky says: 'We were so excited by what we had, we went to Autodesk. They said they would support us with what was still a relatively new product.' When the drastic changes were made to the design, SOM was confident enough to adopt it for the entire building.
The benefits of the system, says Charles Guerrero, vice-president of WSP Cantor Seinuk, structural engineer on the project, include:
? the ability to quickly address issues not readily apparent with a traditional 2D approach;
? improved coordination within SOM; and - the ability to coordinate and monitor changes and resolve any issues with the client very quickly.
Seletsky believes that Revit can be used for more than simply modelling. He believes that in the future it can also be used for the design of individual components, and for checking compliance to codes at a much earlier stage. He says: 'We can now give our clients more designs in less time and correct any oversight. For the future, it allows us to show our clients the evolution of our design.' So Revit has gone from being applied to very small projects to this enormously complex one. Does this mean it is now ready for adoption by all and sundry? That is harder to tell. Firstly, because of the high profile of and high investment in the Freedom Tower, Autodesk gave SOM an enormous amount of support, which may not be equally forthcoming on a smaller project.
And SOM has its own enormous resources. There are few practices that would have somebody as senior as Seletsky, so immersed in the digital process that they do not know the simplest facts about the project on which it is used. Nor can he answer the question: 'Does it result in better architecture?' Even with the Freedom Tower complete, that is too much of a 'what if' question. But SOM is certainly trailblazing. If others possess the courage and the resources to follow them, eventually we may be able to assess the results.