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3 design technology trends that non-design tech geeks need to know about

If you couldn’t attend this year’s RTC-North America conference, here are a few major digital practice trends that stood out

By David Spehar and Robert Manna, Buildings Associate, Boston, MA

Since 2011, members of the AEC community—consultants, clients, vendors—have met up at RTC North America to share best practices, lessons learned, and futuristic thinking about building information modeling (BIM) and other design technologies. This year, over 600 people descended on Scottsdale, Arizona, from July 14 to 16. The biggest conference takeaway was that Scottsdale is HOT in July. Fortunately, there was plenty to keep us busy indoors. Having fully recovered from the conference, we wanted to share three major themes we think non-design technology geeks should be aware of. 

Virtual reality is not just for gamers anymore
The quantity and quality of wearable virtual reality (VR) hardware and rendering platforms is rapidly expanding, making the technology more accessible than ever before. This is creating immersive experiences for designers, owners, contractors, and end users. At the conference, I personally tested HP’s backpack computer prototype for a VR experience like no other. I flew over San Francisco, clicked on a city block then a condo on that block. I entered a rooftop unit and walked through its rooms and then to the pool deck. How real did it feel? I wasn’t able to go for a swim, but walking onto the pool deck made my brain stop and think, “Crap, I have my clothes on!”

Related Item: How virtual reality is changing the way we design

Headsets coupled with handset controls are opening up a whole new interactive experience. An interested buyer of a high-end residential condo unit will not only experience their entire living space before construction has finished, but will be able to evaluate options for furnishings and finishes. Or what about replacing schematic design drawings with a VR model containing not only the interactive virtual environment, but all data associated with the virtual objects? Standing in the middle of a healthcare patient room wondering what that high-tech gadget is? Just aim your virtual laser pointer at it, click, and learn everything you want to know. How soon will VR design become a reality? Sooner than you might think.

Dynamo and the continued rise of graphical programming
Dynamo has been one of the most popular topics at RTC (and Autodesk University) over the last few years, and this year was no exception. Design technology geeks know all about Dynamo, but if you’re not one, Dynamo is a graphics-based programming platform that works with Revit and other BIM design software. Instead of writing code, users can drag, drop, and connect “nodes” (think flow charts, only hyper-intelligent) to create a script. In the background, Dynamo generates the code that causes the software to do what the user wants. In geek-speak, this process is often referred to as graphical programming or scripting.

If you’ve never heard of Dynamo and you’re not a design technology geek and you don’t go to RTC, why should you care? Because Dynamo is a bridge to using more advanced technology to improve designs. For example, Autodesk demonstrated how to combine Dynamo with additional software to optimize an office layout or to generate thousands of iterations of a building form based on some simple inputs from the architect. Google and other technology companies are also actively exploring similar technologies and what they mean to the buildings industry.

But the most important reason non-tech geeks should care about graphical programming is the probable impact it will have on building design. Dynamo is opening the AEC world to more than just lines on paper or even complicated geometry models with lots of data (BIM). Graphical programming technology is a point of access to even more intelligent and complicated software and technology previously used only in top tier manufacturing (e.g. aerospace) or science (e.g. pharmaceuticals) to help solve complicated design challenges. Via Dynamo, these advanced technologies are quickly becoming accessible to an architect or engineer sitting at their desk. Dynamo and graphical programming is just the start of a potentially very interesting journey.

BIM to facilities management: Have we cracked the code?
Taking data-rich models used during design, using them during construction, and then handing them off as a virtual operation and maintenance (O&M) manual has been a goal since BIM hit the AEC industry. But it has been a real challenge to implement. 

Enter Mark McKinley. He’s the Facilities Engineering Manager for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Janelia Research Campus. Mark and his team have linked BIM to various asset and FM databases to create a technology ecosystem that orchestrates every aspect of facility management, from regularly scheduled maintenance to coordinating building systems during renovation work that impacts critical operations of a 24/7 facility. Mark’s “Systems-Oriented BIM” case study showed how HHMI is using technology to pinpoint and communicate how installing an emergency generator impacts all aspects of their operations.

Mark’s presentation was inspirational and proved to me that the technology to achieve the BIM to FM goal exists. To leverage this potential, we need to develop better partnerships between facility managers, end users, and design and construction teams from the onset of design.

Related Items
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How to have an engaging project using BIM and virtual reality

An associate with Stantec’s Buildings’ Digital Practice team, Robert Manna leads research and development efforts and helps design teams do their jobs better and gives them the tools to be more successful.

“I flew over San Francisco, clicked on a city block then a condo on that block. I entered a rooftop unit and walked through its rooms and then to the pool deck.”

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