Building information modeling, or BIM, is a fairly mature process for designing and building today. Unlike a few years ago, one does not need to be convinced of the efficacy of the process. The conversation has transitioned from the ideological and philosophical realm to critical reflections on the technical implementation of the process. While the available technical software solutions are dominated by the software giants of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry, I was surprised to find a flourishing community of users in a niche market with no-nonsense, purpose-built tools that seem to get the job done.
This review is a gist of my first impressions of the Envisioneer Building Essentials* application by Cadsoft Corporation. I should note at this point that Envisioneer Building Essentials is just one product in a suite of products catering to homeowners, designers, builders and material suppliers in the residential and light commercial market. Since all the products of the suite are part of the continuum of the design-build process, I would be remiss if I didn’t present my thoughts on Envisioneer Building Essentials in relation to the other products.
Figure 1: A rendering sample from Cadsoft gallery. Careful control of lighting and out-of-the-box elements allow for quick and realistic visualizations, even by non-professionals.
The success of any BIM application within the AEC industry is measured by its ability to work with a plethora of applications and file formats. The developer’s response to this unspoken challenge is just as vital for the success of the application’s adoption as is its technical prowess. For an application belonging to the Envisioneer suite of products there is one more challenge: catering to homeowners, designers, contractors and vendors — people with varying levels of technical skill. The application needs to be pliable enough to accept inputs from all team members, while maintaining the continuity of information flow in what is still a very traditional industry.
Figure 2: A simplified depiction of the Envisioneer Building Essentials workflow.
Consequently, Envisioneer Building Essentials is a study in compromises — most of them successful. Envisioneer Building Essentials would mostly fall into the category of a BIM authoring tool. The application is built on the premise that one already has a set of building parts (elements). The out-of-the-box application does contain an exhaustive catalog along with links to manufacturers for manufacturer-specific elements. In order to assemble an element, one simply has to select the appropriate tool. The user can choose from a menu of relevant elements, neatly organized into categories. From here, it is a matter of placing the element using drafting aids such as Ortho and Snap in a manner similar to the technique used in most CAD programs. The ease with which the model is assembled is only a little more complicated than a first-person video game such as Minecraft.i
Elements within Envisioneer Building Essentials' buildings encapsulate geometric parameters, configuration details, rendering attributes, costs, vendor specifications and quantity attributes. The element property even has the ability to store multiple hyperlinks and attach sound clips. The act of consolidating all of this information in the form of a building model allows the user to retrieve not only shopping lists for various building materials by material categories or other abstract parameters, but also use the attached geometry for visual, structural and energy simulation.ii
Similar to most desktop applications, the user interface of Envisioneer Building Essentials is a multiple document interface using form-based dialog boxes.iii This simply means that all views, such as plans, elevations, sections, schedules and printable sheets containing these views, are all contained within one single building file, and the user simply opens the view that he or she needs to work on at any given time. The upside of this method of working is that there is practically no file management required on the part of the user while the downside is that only one user can work on the project file at any given time. Considering that the software is currently geared toward residences and light-commercial project types, this is not much of a limitation, according to a Cadsoft representative. I would agree with this for the vast majority of residences in our communities.iv
Figure 3: The project interface with labeled parts (from the user guide).v
One very interesting feature among the drawing aids is the Collision. When enabled, the Collision feature prevents the user from placing elements in places where they do not physically fit. Consequently, all elements tend to align with walls and other larger elements very easily when placed. A useful side effect of this tool is that one does not have to waste time using standard drafting techniques of drawing construction lines to precisely position elements in a building, as is often the case with a regular CAD program.
Coming from an architectural background, I do find the interface a bit too colorful and lacking in visual cohesiveness (and I readily admit here that I am no arbiter of taste). However, I also find the interface for Envisioneer Building Essentials refreshing when compared to the mostly monochromatic interfaces of the other BIM/CAD/3D modeling applications.
The Learning Curve
Anyone transitioning from the CAD-based drawing workflow to the information-based BIM workflow can expect challenges. Envisioneer Building Essentials as an authoring tool has its roots and controls firmly planted in the familiar CAD-based workflow while incorporating the seemingly naive simplicity and ease-of-use of Cadsoft’s third-party branded homeowner product, HGTV Ultimate Home Design.vi The stated objective of the application is to provide continuity of information flow between the homeowner, designer, builder and material supplier. Therefore, it makes sense to have products that gradually add construction-related features as one progresses up the suite of products starting from Envisioneer Personal Architect all the way to Envisioneer Construction Suite. Envisioneer Building Essentials is geared toward the design-build professional working on residential and light commercial projects. The application varies from its top-end sibling in that it lacks tools for panelization and quoting — tools that are geared toward full-fledged builders and contractors. The file format and the elements are freely portable between the different products, thereby making information continuity possible.
It is worth noting that the wealth of information available on Cadsoft’s website and associated YouTube account is comprehensive enough to get a good sense of what the whole process of building a project using Envisioneer would look like. Additionally, the company provides online and live training sessions on all segments of the workflow for those who prefer a more structured approach to learning new applications.
Figure 4: Users who have used CAD should already be familiar with Envisioneer Building Essentials' layer-based system of graphical representation. One advantage of Envisioneer Building Essentials over CAD is that the application automatically manages the layer system by assigning every element to an appropriate layer based on its type.
My favorite aspect of the application is the dimensioning toolset. Dimensions can be automatically generated for both exterior and interior walls. This tool gives the user the ability to dimension all the walls in the entire plan with practically a button-click or by dragging the tool across all the walls that need to be dimensioned. Related to this toolset is a technique of positioning elements using dynamic dimensions, which seem to offer a method far superior to positioning objects precisely compared to snaps in conjunction with construction lines. Dynamic dimensions appear when objects are selected. These dimensions typically measure from the cardinal faces of the selected element to the nearest prominent wall or similar element. This behavior of dynamic dimensions is more or less the standard among BIM authoring tools, notably Autodesk Revit and a host of modeling applications centered on engineering and fabrication.
Content — or the collection of parts needed to build a project — can often determine the success of a BIM project. Designers usually have tight schedules, and building 3D elements is usually a time-consuming task. This exercise becomes especially futile if one is building a generic manufactured element that others have already built. Envisioneer Building Essentials comes with a well-stocked library of elements suited to the building types it targets, namely residential and light commercial construction. Parametric variations of existing elements are easily achieved using the Properties dialog attached to each element. Manufacturers have an incentive to build and provide elements to users because of the exposure they receive. Envisioneer Building Essentials connects manufacturers and their clients by providing links to download content from these manufacturers through the Green 3D Home portal.vii
Figure 5: The Properties palette of a door element. Note the various geometrical configurations and metadata contained within the element, including the ability to attach media files (on the bottom left corner of the dialog box).
If, for any reason, the desired element geometry is not available within the existing element catalogs or manufacturer-provided catalogs, one can import native CAD geometry using the *.dwg, *.dxf, *.skp and the *.3ds file formats. This is possible via the Object Import Wizard. I was given access to Envisioneer Building Essentials v11 beta (anticipated to ship mid-July), which includes a new function wherein one can specify the cut plane (Slice) for the plan representation of the element is available within the Object Import Wizard.
Figure 6: The new Slice plane feature of the Object Import Wizard (right) is used to specify the plan representation of geometry originally created using Google SketchUp v8. The green lines in the plan preview on the top right corner of the Envisioneer Building Essentials dialog box represent the cut plane. The black lines are lines I drew on the ground plane in a different layer.
This particular feature opens the whole realm of community-built models of commonly-used elements such as those found in the 3D Warehouse (formerly the Google Warehouse) for use within projects with the opportunity to embed material definitions, estimates, scheduling and pricing.viii I wasn’t particularly successful in translating 2D lines in separate layers to represent overhead conditions. However, I did notice features that allow one to map imported layers to Envisioneer Building Essentials layers and therefore control line weights and line styles within elements, should one need to do so. I suspect that these features would work better with the *.dwg and *.dxf imports rather than the *.skp import I attempted.
Figure 7: Imported object layers can be mapped to Envisioneer Building Essentials' native layers for each element. By default, the Object Import Wizard requires the user to specify the element category the import will belong to and hence the layer of the imported object is assigned automatically. The properties palette (shown in this figure) then allows the user to specify the Envisioneer Building Essentials layer for each of the imported layers as required.
Once imported, except for the parametric dimensional variations, all other aspects of the element can be controlled from within the properties palette.ix
Figure 8: A screen grab of the Plant Encyclopedia available within Envisioneer Building Essentials. This fascinating tool has a wealth of information a designer needs to choose plants based on location and design constraints.
I was fascinated by the Plant Encyclopedia within Envisioneer Building Essentials. Although not visually cohesive with the rest of the interface, I was thoroughly impressed by the presence of this amusing tool and the wealth of information embedded in it. In retrospect, I realize that this is what BIM is all about — integration of information — regardless of the nature of the presentation and sometimes lack of curation. So what if the interface isn’t visually homogenous?x As long as the information in available within a database (which is really what a building project is), the database can be queried and manipulated for various purposes either by humans or machines.
Application Ecosystem and Democratic BIM
BIM is almost synonymous with integration. Hence no BIM authoring tool can stand on its own. An authoring tool needs to be capable of some level of simulation and connect to other tools that are capable of the same for true integration between the real and the virtual world.
Figure 9: Although not immediately apparent, drawing walls, floors and roof simultaneously generates the associated framing system that is specified within the element’s properties. Seeing or quantifying the underlying structure is only a matter of toggling the appropriate view control or estimating tool.
The immediacy with which the framing model is available as soon as walls, floors, and roof are drawn, along with data connections to estimation tools by actual material suppliers such as Weyerhaeuser, MiTek and Simpson Strong-Tie, puts this application in a unique position within a large industry.xi Estimation is available in both the lower priced Building Essentials and Construction Suite, though exports to Weyerhauser, MiTek, Simpson, Boise and CSD are only available in Construction Suite. Envisioneer Building Essentials has the ability to import kitchens designed using the popular 2020 Design planning and visualization platform.xii In many ways, this level of integration contributes to what one may call the democratization of BIM, wherein even the non-technical team members contribute to the project in an effective manner simply due to the integration of various software applications. Exports to the gbXML formats allow even non-technical users to run a rudimentary whole building energy analysis on homes with the DOE 2.2 Building Energy Use and Cost Analysis Tool. The current release uses Autodesk’s Green Building Studio cloud-based energy simulation platform, but v11 will use the more popular REScheck.xiii This particular integration brings tools that have previously been in the exclusive purview of experts to non-technical designers and homeowners alike.
Envisioneer Building Essentials has all the right ingredients for a successful BIM authoring application. A contributing factor to the potential success of this recipe can be attributed to the developer’s focus on a niche market (which is by no means small) within the AEC industry.xiv The Envisioneer suite of products gives everyone from the prospective homeowner to the lumberyard supervisor a common platform to aggregate information in a mutually-accessible manner and reap the true advantages of BIM and computing. It is rare in a fragmented industry for one application platform to be able to connect all stakeholders in one way or another.xv At this point, the application appears to be fairly mature in terms of its use for production. The software release cycle is yearly, and the most recent version will soon be v11.
While I heap praise on the application’s merits, I am fully aware that it is not possible to satisfy everyone all the time. This application is attempting to do precisely that. From past experience, I know that only when one takes a project in all of its complexity, from conception to completion, would one understand the true strengths and weaknesses of a BIM application. It also remains to be seen if this particular recipe for integration would scale to other market segments within the AEC industry.
* Envisioneer Building Essentials is the new name for Envisioneer Professional.
i See: https://minecraft.net/.
ii Structural analysis is possible by connecting to tools supplied by major manufacturers such as Weyerhaeuser, iLevel, Javelin, MiTek, SAPPHIRE Structure integration module and the like. This feature is enabled in the Envisioneer Construction Suite. See Cadsoft’s comparison chart for details.
iii See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_document_interface#Application_examples.
iv I don’t have an authoritative source for the number, but this article in Residential Architect, a journal of the American Institute of Architects, seems to confirm a wild guess: http://www.residentialarchitect.com/practice/firm-profiles/the-98-percent-solution_o.
v From the Envisioneer User Guide by Cadsoft.
vi See: http://www.homedesignsoftware.tv/ppc/products/HGTV-Ultimate-Home-Design-with-Landscaping-and-Decks-3/.
vii See: http://www.green3dhome.com//BIMCatalogs.aspx.
viii See: https://3dwarehouse.sketchup.com/?redirect=1.
ix The properties palette does allow for uniform and non-uniform scaling of the imported element.
x I am not trying to downplay the importance of good user interface design here, but rather rhetorically focus on the goals of BIM.
xi The size of the U.S. residential construction industry averages around 4-5 percent of the U.S. GDP, according to a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center published in September 2012, View Source, pg8.
xii See: http://www.2020spaces.com/2020products/2020idealspaces/.
xiii See: http://doe2.com/DOE2/index.html and View Source.
xiv The size of the U.S. residential construction industry averages around 4-5 percent of the U.S. GDP, according to a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center published in September 2012, View Source, pg8.
xv Fragmented in terms of the tools that are in use by the industry.
Full disclosure: Cadsoft is owned by a major investor in ENGINEERING.com. They have provided no influence or input to this article other than a verification of the technical facts. All opinions, viewpoints and beliefs are the author's.