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This past summer I had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time talking to Graphisoft North America's Vice President and General Manager, Don Henrich II, at the company's Boston-area headquarters. The company, as you may know, is famously based out of Hungary, a country known for its mathematicians, the Rubik's Cube, and of course -- at least in the CAD world -- for ArchiCAD.

What was of particular interest to me in talking to Mr. Henrich, was the discussion of how the company views "building information modeling" (BIM) as opposed to CAD (computer-aided design or drafting), since nearly twenty years ago the first versions of ArchiCAD, as crude as they now seem, were elegantly correct in estimating that the ultimate purpose of computers in architecture would be to facilitate the creation of "virtual buildings". Building Information Modeling, as it is called, is actually a somewhat radical departure from the norms of draftsmanship in architecture and engineering, in that instead of drawing 2D representations of the building as a whole, the building is actually constructed in 3D ("modeled") and then "viewed" in order to produce 2D drawings.

This more scientific way of thinking about built information assumes that what a computer ought to do is to essentially take special x-rays of the "virtual building" in 3D computer space. These x-rays are then passed off and noted and ultimately form the basis for conventional drawings. Yet, what makes this system fundamentally more scientific is that the virtual building, like the human body in an x-ray, is freighted with useful data. The ArchiCAD program is able to both load and extract that useful data, and thus manage it in a multitude of ways useful to the AEC professional.

We start off this interview by talking about ArchiCAD 9 and what makes it the preferred BIM software application in the market.


[AF-R] Don, if you don't mind I'd like to start off by asking you to talk about the latest version of ArchiCAD and how this company views that product as the preferred BIM product in the market?

[Don R. Henrich II] Version 9 has been a very successful release for the company, and there are probably two factors relating to that. One factor is that version 8 was not so successful, so people were waiting with sort of baited breath for version 9. And I think we did a really high quality job with ArchiCAD 9 and delivered it on schedule.

It has also been a monetary success for us, as a larger legacy group of customers have adopted it quickly. And that has become a customer service success for us as well because it is easier for us to serve them well.

[AF-R] And the second factor?

[Don] The second thing is that there have always been these very large companies with a toe-in-the-water [of BIM] and now they are trying to put a foot in the water -- this is in respect to what you want to talk about with BIM -- and we are considered one of maybe two or three products that you must review if you are seriously interested in BIM.

So it's been a very successful release in terms of new customer adoption, especially firms in the 5-20 man range. Those are very successful for two reasons, one is that the decision making process is very straight forward. When a shop like that wants to change they can literally do it within a couple of weeks -- they can commit, get the training and literally move forward on the change-over on the next project.

[AFR] Is that because the projects are generally smaller and handled by a couple of people on the project?

[Don] No, that could be part of it...no, in fact, we have a firm that is about 33 people and they do giant projects and they were quick to change. It's not necessarily about size but about who is in the firm and if there are generational issues at play.

[AFR] Are you speaking about the older generation who had to adopt CAD mid-career in practice?

[Don] Yes. We look at the educational market, and we think that that is where part of the problem is, because literally some of the older professors probably started on ink on mylar, then struggled with 2D CAD and now literally don't want to embrace 3D CAD. I am sure that some of them do, but as a large body there is resistance too, so what they do often is, they say: "hey, you are here to do architecture, we'll teach you architecture, and we'll let you use whatever computer software products you want to use".

Architecture schools tell you they can teach you architecture, teach you drafting standards, teach you Autocad, but rarely do they do in-class architectural software programs.

[AFR] So the educational sector is clearly a place where this company can develop a strategy going forward to both "educate" the profession as well as gain more users essentially?

[Don] Yes, the educational market is really important to us. And it's a struggle that it is that important because there is very little money there. So when you look at applying finite reasons it's really hard. So we are looking right now to improve our existing educational sales strategy.

We have good ideas and I'd be happy to share those with you when they are a bit more refined.

[AFR] Sure.

[Don] One of the challenges we face is how to enlist universities in teaching Building Information Modeling (BIM) What should we do and how do we influence the educators?

[AFR] How do you convince both educators and practicing professionals of the value in BIM over 2D CAD drafting?

[Don] We have a methodology called "benchmarking" -- it's kind of common practice in other industries.

[AFR] Are you talking about electronic benchmarking, like in performance benchmarking?

[Don] No. What we are doing is this. We are saying to practices that do all 2D CAD today is: mark the line where you begin to compete for business to the point at which you turn over complete CDs (construction documents). So here is your practice today.

Now, there are firms that spend tons of money on things like rendering studios, model makers -- and here are all the things they do in their process and how long it takes and how much it cost. Now ArchiCAD can do it in this much time. (Don, holding hands in closer)

We have customers tell us they have tripled their revenue over the last five years, but they haven't hired any new staff. So that says they are getting more and more productive...or they are not sleeping.

[AFR] Well sure, it does, it says they are being more productive.

[Don] So, we know there are those data points out there. But on a case by case basis, I think we can really do a service to the architectural community by doing benchmarking.

If you are really careful about the things you measure, then you can get better at them. Then you can build process.

[AFR] You are speaking, of course, about being less subjective about how we think about CAD from a business decision perspective.

[Don] Yes. I often find at most of the trade shows and a lot of the online forums people are saying, "this is better than that".
But they are being completely subjective.

[AFR] But subjectivity is natural to this kind of thing. It's like the age-old debate between Mac versus Windows. Rarely do people look at both sides objectively or comprehensively.

[Don] Sure. And it's okay to be subjective. There is some amount of subjectivity in every decision, but let's get some objectivity in it as well. Why is that so hard?

When you have a model maker, making you little models, that adds a week to every story board that you want to make, and the model maker is a full-time employee with benefits, and you don't consider that a cost when you are looking at technology?

[AFR] Sure it's a cost. Every part of the process pipeline is a cost. And it's clearly a savings if those little models are replaced in the process with some digital equivalent.

[Don] That's right. So there are things like that you can [business] model and have a lot of fun with and we'll learn tons about how AEC businesses work and where BIM can really be applied to great results and in some places where experienced architects have to stay.

[AFR] You are talking about business process re-engineering. And in the architecture profession people generally aren't that business savvy. They just aren't.

So re-engineering their work flows, benchmarking, this is all new information for a lot of them, but I think it's good that you are talking about that as a BIM provider.

[Don] Yeah, and the people that we have spoken to at practices in general have been very receptive. Some of the receptive folks are CAD managers and some are principals.

[AFR] In terms of benchmarking, do you see Graphisoft building a tool or kit that will allow firms to benchmark themselves for their own internal auditing?

[Don] Yes. We are working on documentation -- I call it the "process and the players." So you look at early concept design, what tools do people use today? And it's everything from hand sketches, free-form modeling, et cetera. So you break up the architectural process into its three main phases where you can describe all the deliverables and the tools that associate with them to support the project.

Once you do that, let's benchmark, let's do it with a building we have already designed.

We will look and see that it takes 30 people to support a big project. And you can measure that. So I think the benchmarking will help us to determine also which firms to push, because if a firm says to us, "I don't want to measure ourselves, I don't want to know this stuff", then that firm probably isn't a good prospect for advanced technology.

[AFR] They are most likely part of the 'laggards' group, they adopted technology last the previous time, and they will adopt BIM last this time around as well.

[Don] Yes, and apparently being very successful at doing it. Yeah, I think you are right.

[AFR] Let's talk about Revit for a moment. When people go shopping for a BIM and want to transition from 2D Autocad to 3D BIM, do they automatically go to Revit as their first choice, despite the fact that you guys have been doing BIM for essentially two decades now?

Continued >

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[Edited: 4 Oct 2005, elimination of content.]



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