Daylight visualization map for building model
Courtesy Sefaira Daylight visualization map for building model

Better, faster, cheaper. Architecture firms are continually seeking to design better-performing buildings while improving their own workplace efficiency. One approach is hosted solutions, or applications that use the cloud. Unlike traditional desktop applications, hosted solutions are rapidly deployable and require little or no additional IT infrastructure.

As program features once locked in the silos of desktop applications become more adjacent and accessible on the cloud, opportunities to create mashups and increase the speed of memory-intense activities, such as rendering and performance analysis, emerge as clear advantages of investing in hosted solutions. Here are three emerging solutions and the capabilities they offer architects.

Sefaira
Developer: Sefaira; Platform: Windows (SketchUp and Revit) and Mac (SketchUp only); Cost: Varies based on number of users and features. sefaira.com

Performance analyses usually don’t happen early or often enough in the design process to have maximum impact on a project. To counter this, Sefaira created an eponymous suite of tools architects can use to estimate a preliminary building concept’s energy consumption and projected carbon emissions, water usage, daylight access, thermal comfort, and cost.

Sefaira Concept, the developer’s cloud-based project analysis application, offers a user-friendly interface to the U.S. Department of Energy’s EnergyPlus engine as well as proprietary rapid-analysis tools. The drag-and-drop interactivity makes the web tool less intimidating than other analysis tools.

Sefaira can analyze the anticipated energy peformance of a building in real time.
Courtesy Sefaira Sefaira can analyze the anticipated energy peformance of a building in real time.

Sefaira also has Autodesk Revit and Trimble SketchUp plugins with which users can upload simple models representing a building’s skin, floors, and roof to Concept. Given the project site and building type, Concept then generates a baseline model on which users can build one or more strategies, or “bundles”of choices, related to envelope, systems, loads, shading, and other factors.

Meanwhile, Sefaira’s Real Time Analysis (RTA) tool in the SketchUp plugin is notable over competitor tools. As users manipulate the SketchUp model, RTA sends those changes to the Sefaira cloud service, which updates the building performance graphs almost instantly, providing direct visual feedback. Tips such as when the building is receiving too much solar heat or not enough daylight are a helpful touch.

Courtesy Sefaira

The sustainability leadership team at my firm, NBBJ, has been working to validate Sefaira’s projected results by using Concept to check the projected energy usage intensity (EUI) of projects. The study is still in progress, but the general feedback has been positive to date.

Sefaira recently announced a daylight visualization plugin for Revit. Later this year, they plan to release an RTA plugin for Revit.

Unifi
Software developer: Inview Labs; Platform: Windows; Cost: $12 per month. discoverunifi.com

Finding BIM objects for use in Revit can be daunting even with the most organized library. Ensuring consistency and quality in the objects and object classification is also tough. For an elegant but robust search engine, users can check out Unifi by Las Vegas–based developer Inview Labs.

Unifi's content management system for BIM objects can help organize even the most unorganized library.
Courtesy Unifi Unifi's content management system for BIM objects can help organize even the most unorganized library.

With the speed and drag-and-drop integration of a thin client, or compact application install, this cloud-based BIM content management system dynamically tailors search results so that frequently used and highly rated results move to the top. The algorithm examines all available object data and not just file names. Because Unifi processes uploaded files in its cloud database, searching for and refining results are fast. Administrators can also create smart folders and preset search criteria in a single click. Users can also tag and retrieve favorite objects.

Users can tag favorite search results for easy retrieval.
Courtesy Unifi Users can tag favorite search results for easy retrieval.
Users can complete a content request form to notify firm personnel of BIM object needs.
Courtesy Unifi Users can complete a content request form to notify firm personnel of BIM object needs.

Items can be uploaded from within Revit or by a quick drag and drop. The software can convert system families, such as wall types, in the cloud-based library. These items can then be inserted and placed in other Revit models, a feature currently unique to Unifi.

And BIM managers will really like this: A content request form, filled out by team members, allows just-in-time content creation of objects by someone of your firm’s designation. This along with user-contributed content provide a crowd-sourced approach to building a library, while also putting managers in control of standards and quality.

Three major updates to Unifi are forthcoming: SketchUp integration; the ability to include externally curated libraries, Autodesk Seek and SketchUp 3D Warehouse, in search results; and the automatic conversion of Revit files to any later program version.

Project Skyscraper
Software developer: Autodesk; Operating system: Windows; Cost: Not available. autodesk.com

Sharing models in BIM is a huge challenge, particularly now that many teams are scattered around the globe. Preparing and distributing files via FTP or a project portal can be time-consuming, as many designers can attest.

A cloud-based Revit Server announced by Autodesk in June under the codename “Project Skyscraper” does more than one might expect. Autodesk gave me a closer look at the service, which a handful of AEC firms are currently testing. Disclosure: As an active tester in various Autodesk beta programs, I can only reveal certain publicly available details.

Project Skyscraper enables project teams to share Revit models easily.
Courtesy Autodesk Project Skyscraper enables project teams to share Revit models easily.

The service joins dozens of existing Autodesk technologies built on the Autodesk 360 (A360) platform. Its standout feature is enabling live Revit collaboration between multiple firms and locations, and connecting the project team to a single, central repository. With one click, Revit users can share a project and place the Revit file in the A360 project cloud.

Collaboration occurs within the A360 website from a project dashboard. When users open a project model for the first time, its contents and relevant Revit model links are copied locally, which initially can take several minutes. From then on, additional changes are transmitted in small packets, as Revit synchronizing works today. As a result, the entire model is never again transmitted during sync, enabling users to work remotely, even on public Wi-Fi, without losing their minds. Autodesk senior product manager Kyle Bernhardt says that minimal Internet speed and bandwidth are required during normal use.

The cloud-based service also enables real-time collaboration in Revit.
Courtesy Autodesk The cloud-based service also enables real-time collaboration in Revit.

Project Skyscraper also adds an instant messenger-style palette in Revit that, similar to the A360 web dashboard, indicates the model status, showing when someone is synchronizing with the central model. Users can then coordinate sync times during deadline crunches, as well as chat and share screen captures, all from within Revit.

Courtesy Autodesk

Sean David Burke is the digital practice–BIM leader for NBBJ as well as a futurist and tiny house enthusiast. Based in Seattle, Burke also blogs about BIM and sustainable design tools on ParadigmShift. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.