Mind & Matter


Sketching the Future: Part 1

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All the talk about Building Information Modeling (BIM) these days suggests that the age of “simple CAD” is over. The notion that architects manipulate primitive, unadorned shapes like virtual putty in 3D space seems outdated when compared with new methods involving intelligent wall assemblies that “know” their own material make-up and that can be used to generate a construction bill-of-goods. At first glance, it would seem that the trend towards increasing complexity is inevitable, and that future intern architects will need PhDs in BIM methodology in order to contribute meaningfully to architectural practice.

However, I would argue that complexity is not a linear function, but rather cyclical in nature. Also, it is important to recognize that there is more than one flavor of BIM, and leading CAD software companies will do well to take note.

I remember, for example, my first summer internship in an architecture office. We used mainframe terminals with large screens and desk-sized tablets (I know, I’m showing my age here). The tablets displayed all of the possible functions one could choose from, and looked like heavily encoded hieroglyphic panels. Over in one corner was a recent anomaly: a small personal computer with a demonstration copy of AutoCAD installed on it. The architects in the office used to joke about this basic little program, predicting that it would never succeed in the marketplace because no one would move from a paradigm of complexity to one of simplicity. Gosh, were they wrong.

Less than two decades later, AutoCAD and other similar PC-based programs have come to define the norm for computer-aided design in architecture. Even as early as ten years ago, the question every architect would ask a prospective intern was, “Do you know AutoCAD?” However, today’s CAD software has come a long way, adding layers of functionality and complexity—often on top of original lines of code—in order to keep pace with demands that CAD be a richer, deeper repository of information. The result? You guessed it—this model has become today’s Goliath, and there is a new David in the corner to challenge the paradigm of complexity with that of simplicity.

My prediction for the sleeper hit here is Google SketchUp. Although this program is arguably the easiest CAD-based software to learn, most architects wouldn’t even consider it as a replacement to the Goliath programs (insert smug laughter here). Moreover, CAD is only getting more complex with BIM—not simpler, right? Think again. Although what we might consider to be true “BIM functionality” is not yet present in SketchUp, I believe the future is inevitable. SketchUp’s relatively short learning curve, competitive price (free vs. thousands of dollars for an individual Goliath license), 3D-based focus (a prerequisite for BIM programs), and instantly gratifying visualization capabilities make SketchUp a strong contender to begin with. Now add the fact that it is part of the “Google Empire,” directly connected to Google Earth and its repository of 3D buildings, terrain, and street views—as well as the 3D Warehouse, supplied with an accelerating quantity of free models from a variety of sources including the McGraw-Hill Sweets catalog—and you have a contender with enviable if not inevitable odds for success. Of course, SketchUp does not currently possess all of the functionality of the Goliath programs—far from it. However, it has already become a far more sophisticated program than version 1.0, and will continue to advance. (Still not convinced? Try comparing today’s Goliath CAD software to Google search engine competitors like Yahoo back in 2000.)




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.