Ryan Fetters
Peter Arkle Ryan Fetters

Ryan Fetters, Gensler

All the architects interviewed here made reference to Revit, Autodesk’s BIM software for Windows. According to Ryan Fetters, a designer based at Gensler’s global headquarters in San Francisco, Revit Architecture 2011 ($5,495 program; $2,745 upgrade) is an improvement over its past edition.

“I think they worked out some of the bugs from the last version,” he says. “It moves smoother now.” He notes the change from drop-down menus to a ribbon-style navigation layout, which frees up space for more windows of information. Because there are three different versions (Architecture, Structure, and M/E/P), Revit has become something close to an industry standard. “If you get a structural consultant or M/E/P consultant, they’re working in it now, so you really start to see how it all fits together,” Fetters says. “Before, you wouldn’t really, truly see it all together until construction. Now you can. You spend more time up front getting things ready to go, but it’s easier on the back end because it’s all theoretically kind of there.”

Still, Fetters approaches Revit with caution. “It’s easy to just rely on what the program’s telling you to do,” he says. “It’s like in elementary school, when you learn long division—the really hard way, to work it out yourself on a piece of paper—and then you learn the simple way, using a calculator. If you start in Revit, no one has taught you that division before the calculator.”

Erin Sterling Lewis
Peter Arkle Erin Sterling Lewis

Erin Sterling Lewis, In Situ Studio

For Raleigh, N.C., architect Erin Sterling Lewis, AIA, of In Situ Studio—who is a Mac user—having a more limited array of tools but more control makes PowerCADD 9.0 ($995 program; $199 upgrade) the right software choice. “PowerCADD is intuitive,” she says. Yet, as with most architects today, it’s just one component in an array of programming tools.

“All of our projects are very different from each other. We don’t have standard details for anything,” she explains. “There’s often different materials, different ways the window fits in the wall. It’s mostly two-dimensional. That’s kind of all we need.” She says that Revit, by comparison, automatically makes many of the collateral changes that one design tweak can prompt. Lewis likens PowerCADD to a stick-shift car versus a car with automatic transmission. “You really have to get your mind around how your building goes together,” she says. “With PowerCADD, you’re limited in what you can do. It comes from within you to discipline yourself and constantly be thinking about that third dimension.”

The architect is using the most recent PowerCADD version but has been working with the software for nine years. She appreciates that it doesn’t radically change. “Things get a little more sophisticated, but it’s not a huge learning curve as you go from version to version. It makes me feel like I’m respected, like I’m not being fooled. Otherwise it slows down your efficiency if you have to relearn everything.”

Charlie Williams
Peter Arkle Charlie Williams

Charlie Williams, LPA

Google SketchUp Pro is a go-to tool for design technologies manager Charlie Williams of the Irvine, Calif., firm LPA. Williams says that the new version, SketchUp Pro 8 ($495 program; $95 upgrade), features improvements in its integration with Google Maps. He says that a new layout mode makes it easier to use the application as a drafting and presentation tool because it integrates with rendering programs such as Podium.

"We can take SketchUp models and throw them into that [Podium] and get better renderings, because the look is pretty rudimentary when it comes out of the box. The challenge for us is … we’ve made this complex, accurate SketchUp model, but then it’s hard to translate that into our energy-analysis software."

Williams also uses a SketchUp competitor, Project Vasari. It’s part of the Autodesk Labs series, in which new software is introduced initially for free. "It doesn’t have all the nuanced geometry of SketchUp," he says. "The benefit would be the energy-analysis component. But it also acts as a kind of a simplified version of Revit." Even so, Williams says, "As much as Vasari wants to think they have a SketchUp killer, I don’t think they’re quite there yet."

Jeff Guggenheim
Peter Arkle Jeff Guggenheim

Jeff Guggenheim, Giulietti/Schouten Architects

Both Jeff Guggenheim, Assoc. AIA, of Giulietti/Schouten Architects and his wife, interior designer Jenny Guggenheim of Fig Studio, have become avid users of the Sketchbook Pro ($7.99) iPad application from Autodesk. “We’re still looking and seeing how far the design applications can go, but I think it’s the next generation of a napkin sketch,” the Portland, Ore., designer says. “I think it’s probably one of these first pieces of software really creating that bridge between paper and paperless, that more tactile dimension to digital. Especially for the younger generation of architects out there, this is going to be the next big thing.”

In the past, Guggenheim notes, the profession seemed to approach old-fashioned hand-drafting and -drawing versus computer-aided design as an either-or proposition. Now, one may enable the other. “You can start with sketching out your designs on the computer screen, and it gets pulled right into Revit as underlays,” Guggenheim explains. “It’s one more step between bridging that gap between hand-drawn and digital. Instead of using a mouse, you’re really getting into something that feels like pen and paper, but has all the digital benefits of being able to create layers or undo things.”