Known primarily in the building industry as the developer behind AutoCAD and Revit, Autodesk appears to be doubling down on its vision for a building industry that combines and enables digital and physical making for architects, researchers, and other construction professionals. On May 3 and 4, the San Rafael, Calif.–headquartered company hosted a media summit that provided a behind-the-scenes look at its new BUILD Space and previewed technologies in development for the building community.
Short for Building, Innovation, Learning, and Design, the BUILD Space is a 30,000-square-foot facility located in South Boston’s Seaport Innovation District. It houses an impressive array of industrial robots, wood shops, metal shops, and large-format CNC machines. In the opening discussion for the summit, Nicolas Mangon, Autodesk’s vice president for AEC industry strategy and marketing, proclaimed, “We have been known as a design company, but we are transforming into a design-and-build company.”
A series of presentations from other Autodesk employees as well as outside design practitioners highlighted advancements in the company’s new products and workflows. While Autodesk was clearly curating the event around its portfolio, a powerful theme emerged: Architects and building industry professionals must be engaged in research focused on data-driven design and construction.
In recent years, Autodesk has emphasized the need to bridge the digital and physical worlds repeatedly, and architects and engineers are starting to see the impact of this strategy in the company’s CAD and BIM tools. For example, some of the more substantial new features in the recently released Revit 2018 focus on enhanced workflows for structural steel detailing and the ability to create fabrication-ready M/E/P elements.
However, the BUILD Space signals a far more ambitious challenge for the world of architecture. The current “low margin, high risk” climate in the building industry can often deter experimentation and research. This is especially true when it comes to the use of costly fabrication tools. “We want to de-risk research for building professionals,” said Rick Rundell, a senior director and technology and innovation strategist at Autodesk. “Our BUILD Space gives our customers access to a facility that lets them experiment without the overhead of purchasing expensive equipment.”
The projects presented by BUILD Space teams were easily some of the most inspiring content discussed during the summit. Autodesk invites outside researchers, startups, and professionals to use this facility, provided that the ideas are focused on having an impact on buildings. MetaComb, a startup focused on sustainable building materials, is taking advantage of the facility to help it scale up its research and creation of products that use recycled cardboard. Elkus Manfredi Architects is leveraging the BUILD Space to prototype digital fabrication workflows that use laser scanning and 3D printing. The local firm’s efforts are in support of the restoration of the ornamental Little Building at Emerson College, in Boston. One interesting twist here is that modern technology is helping to restore building elements that were originally a product of handcraftsmanship—skills that are now largely lost.
Of course, the new BUILD Space is just one facility in one city, so it can hardly be claimed that the approach delivers a digital–physical concept at an industry scale. It is as much laboratory for a handful of ambitious innovators as it is a showroom for Autodesk’s current direction for its product line.
But through its new product launches, Autodesk does offer a clue to how it intends to scale its vision. Project Quantum is a forthcoming platform that the company intends for users to integrate data across building design, construction, and operations using cloud services that provide data-management capabilities across its products. Citing the need for “connected BIM” among fragmented AEC teams, Autodesk vice president Jim Lynch projected that Project Quantum, which debuted during last year’s Autodesk University (AU) conference product innovation keynote, will position Autodesk as “brokers of building data throughout the building life cycle.”
Through a series of preliminary video captures and interface mock-ups, Lynch demonstrated how the cloud-hosted Project Quantum could coordinate building façade data among design, engineering, and fabrication software. The tool organizes the building-model data as a series of “workspaces” that display the information relevant to different disciplines in unique views. Data from several desktop tools, including Revit, could be linked in the cloud and shared among project participants during design development. The presentation suggested that parametric manipulation to 3D models, interactive data visualizations, and visual scripting would also be available in Project Quantum’s cloud-hosted workspaces.
However, the demo was still closer to a prototype; Autodesk has yet to publish an official product website for users to assess its potential more fully, as well as a pricing model. It was also difficult to gauge how much further the product has advanced since its AU2016 debut although Lynch indicated that some customer trials would be highlighted at this year’s AU in the fall. Furthermore, Autodesk’s approach to integrating building data on a proprietary platform begs some important questions about its position on data interoperability in the industry.
As a follow-up to Lynch’s presentation, I inquired if Project Quantum represented a move by Autodesk to monetize data compatibility among its tools, including fabrication workflows. After all, are Autodesk customers not already expecting connected BIM from their products out-of-the-box? “Perhaps,” Lynch replied, “but it also important to note that Project Quantum represents a change in how data will be shared. We’re talking about something very different than the type of data compatibility already available through file formats like IFC [Industry Foundation Classes].”
Based on what I saw and heard from other industry presentations, perhaps a more provocative question might be this: Are building professionals already fulfilling the data integration vision proposed by tools like Project Quantum? Is Autodesk, in fact, trying to catch up to its more innovative customers?
The answers to these questions came in the form of several presentations by industry professionals at the summit. WeWork head of construction Tim Dumatrait and senior reality-capture specialist Thad Wester discussed the continuous improvement of their co-working product—a data infrastructure that enables design, construction, and operations with workflows for BIM, reality capture, and user-feedback collection—that resulted from WeWork’s own significant investments.
John Haymaker, AIA, Perkins+Will’s director of research, based in San Francisco, further punctuated the power of investing in research to accelerate innovation with data. Through strategic partnerships with institutions that include Georgia Tech University and, yes, Autodesk, Haymaker provided examples of novel data-driven workflows that “maximize stakeholder value through clearly defined objectives and iteration.” One such example came in the form of a customized space plan generator for hospital facilities that combines insights from experienced healthcare planners with automated computational models that factor in data such as building program requirements and environmental analysis.
Autodesk’s evolving approach to data and the physical world is undoubtedly important and relevant to building professionals. But for now, the data-driven integrations and feedback loops that are driving better buildings appear to be coming from architects and builders that are investing in their own flavor of research and innovation.May 15, 2017 update: Autodesk has provided presentation content from its summit to highlight how WeWork and Perkins+Will are using its products in support of their research and development efforts.Editor's note: This article has been updated to note that John Haymaker is currently based in Perkins+Will's San Francisco office.