AECOsim is borne out of a long line of development over the years.  Intergraph had Master Architect and Project Architect, Bentley produced Triforma and Bentley Architecture (BA).  These were enhanced with other discipline specific products for Structural and Mechanical Engineers.  Their common drawback was that they encouraged a particular approach to design and the production of documents which may or may not have suited their users’ work flows and preferences.  Frustration at this drawback resulted in users falling back on good old Microstation (upon which all of the above were built) to allow their preferences to be satisfied.  Result?  Disaster!  Once you messed with the complex elements in any of these applications you were one step away from scuppering the whole purpose of their being.  The consequence was that in the end there was a retreat to ‘good old Microstation’ which was hard to break and reduced the frustration quotient.

In recent times things have improved.  Bentley Architecture (BA) in particular has allowed a much more tolerant mixing of the platform technology with the specific application.  The inclusion of Microstation tools inside the likes of Bentley Architecture, which were subtly tweaked to prevent the destruction of the underlying data, was a good step forward.  The ability to promote Microstation elements to become BA components was a neat way to avoid problems.  And lastly the ability to design buildings that were not proscriptively rectilinear was a relief to those who felt constrained.

The interesting thing in this development has been the influence of the size of the dataset.  For structural engineers it might have been less than 10 items.  For the HVAC community less than 20.  This meant that for them the benefit of ‘added value’ data capture was obvious and straightforward.  For the Architecture products the dataset could run into 1000’s of components and the path through effective data management was exponentially more complicated.  So complicated that the spin-offs of simulation and parametric design had to be hived off into separate and unlinked products like STAAD and Generative Components.

Despite these problems, one great advantage has prevailed.  That is the steady reliance on the platform of Microstation.  From an established user’s point of view the existence and persistence of well-known tools has been a cushion that has avoided the need for regular total re-training.  Having watched the development of a number of increasingly sophisticated software products purporting to do more and more, the feature that distinguishes them is the total redesign of the user interface demanding not only the acquisition of expensive updates but also the need for wholesale re-training of users.  Bentleys have always demonstrated the elegance of using the very best of past technologies in their latest offerings and the relief at avoiding re-training for new adopters is palpable.

A curious but obvious thing has happened through this development process.  It became very clear that ‘added value’ data was becoming increasingly easy to record and use.  This technological ability has led to a rapid growth in the desire to change the nature of infrastructure and construction projects.  Firstly, non-graphical data could be extracted and scheduled but more importantly 3-D model information could be used to apply the important third dimension multiplier to gain volumetric information.  Add to this the ability to capture 2-D drawing information and exquisite rendering and imaging and you are only heartbeat away from the defining initiative of Building Information Modelling (BIM).

Although the technical capability to get hold of all this information has matured and is available to all, there is a problem of biblical proportions surrounding the practical nature of how to get a BIM model to work for all the interested parties in any sensible way.  We start with how the network is supposed to connect all these people so they are alert to the consequences of other disciplines’ actions.  Not solved.  Then we have the issue of ownership of the BIM model.  Not solved.  Lastly we have the matter of formats.  Whose BIM model technology are we to use?  Not solved.

Bentley have always striven to support open access to data and this accounts for why all Bentley platform products read and write (not import and export) DWG and DXF as well as its own DGN formats.  One easy inclusion that allows at last two CAD systems to coexist in a BIM environment.  This immediately means that no one CAD system and its associated investment needs to be discarded in favour of another.  The constraints of BIM ownership and networking are the subject a rather more subtle solution.  Bentley have accepted that those hanging on to the network via a gigabit fibre optic connection are unlikely to hang around for those on ADSL.  Sadly it is a fact of life that this will continue to be the case around the world for some time to come and therefore a different way of managing and distributing the model has to be found.  Many in the embryonic world of BIM believe that this all powerful model will exist in the Cloud somewhere where all users can gain immediate read and write access to it.  Nice ambition – but unreachable for most!  Bentley’s approach is to adopt the concept of the federated model.  The example of federal government is the clue to this.  Individual states have a copy of the model for which they are responsible and from time to time upload their revisions to the federal capital which is ultimately responsible for the coordination of the model.  For individual states read professional consultancies and for federal capital read BIM coordinator or better still project owner.

Enter AECOsim Building Designer!  ABD wraps up in one package the solution to many of these difficulties.  Architecture, engineering (structural, mechanical, HVAC, plumbing) all live in the same product and can be used by any one or all of these disciplines.  The federated model can be published in packaged i-Models and broadcast to all.  The whole thing is built off the tried and tested V8i platform technologies so well known to Bentley users over the years.  The adoption and training to migrate from vanilla Microstation to ABD represents a relatively low hurdle and certainly not exposure to a totally new product.  There are already some analysis facilities in the structural segment and it can surely not be long before we see a fully 3-D version of Energy simulator incorporated.

ABD has bundled together the best of breed from the past and now avoids the need to pre-load prerequisites or platform products.  It is all in the one box.  For those who from time to time want vanilla Microstation, it is still there in full.  For those who do not want to clutter their life with other disciplines they can just switch them off.  This is a big step forward for Bentley and there is an increasing constituency of users who, at last, can see how this type of integrated, mature technology will see them into a seamless adoption of BIM.

David Warr B Arch RIBA

Bentley UK Academic Consultant – June 2012