Commentary/Reviews – Revit 2018 Review

Hello again readers,
It is time for my annual review of the Revit software, the most commonly used BIM software by architecture students and professionals. The 2018 version was released on April 14 of this month and it contains a lot of minor fixes. They moved the print button to the quick launch ribbon, so you don’t have to go through the Revit R pull-down anymore to print something. The Revit R pull-down has also undergone a transformation. The big R has been reduced to screen minimization/maximization and closing the app now and does nothing else with its core functionality moved to a new file tab in the UI. (see below) My question is why keep the R at all?

The New File Tab

Another cosmetic change is the addition of stretchable dialogs for sheet names. In prior versions you had to go through some gymnastics to see the entire name of the sheet if it possessed a long title. Below is a photo of the new stretchable dialog box.

Variable Size Dialog Box

The Revit app also added more robust support for reference planes within families. In prior versions, you could always align a family off of the centerline reference plane within the family (useful for aligning or measuring from the centerpoint to the centerpoint of multiple windows for example). The app now picks up all reference planes within the family and allows you to see the name assigned to that plane if you named it within the family so you can know what plane you are aligning to. The photo below shows the prompts that you get from attempting an align with a family based reference plane.

Notice the little dialog that indicated the plane & its type (strong or weak reference)

They also added support for adding common architectural symbols to text inserts. In prior releases you had to open Microsoft’s Character Map and then copy and paste the character to get the symbol you wanted. Now you can just right click, select symbol and select from a list of symbol options. I know I used to have to go poking around for the diameter symbol a lot, so that is a nice addition.

All of this sounds like small potatoes, which it is, and if this were all we were getting I would recommend not bothering with the upgrade and sticking with the current version, however they did make some important changes to this release as well. The biggest change which has been a long, long time coming is the ability to host a railing to a topo surface. You can now create a fence that follows the terrain without going through the pain of creating an adaptive family for each fence post to do it. This is huge.

The developers also upgraded railing support and multi-story support to make it actually adaptable. In prior versions anytime you altered a previously created stair, you always ran the risk that any alterations made after the fact would hose the railing attached to it. There was always railing cleanup after changing the stair configuration. Extending the railing off the stair would bring the entire railing to ground level or you would get a railing that wasn’t parallel to the stair, or most often you would get the annoying please split the railing dialog to tell the application where the stair run should end. Railings and the railing editor have always been a weakpoint of the Revit application; the addition of actual adaptable railings should help minimize the pain of creating stairs. These railing upgrades are an important first step, but the railing editor still isn’t completely fixed and still needs a complete overhaul. The user still lacks the ability to create a complex railing where you can independently set the distance between different balusters without using that god awful railing dialog.

Multi-story stairs systems now will work even if you have uneven heights between levels. That is a nice time saver.

You can have varying heights between levels now

Other nice upgrades include more robust support of imported Rino models. You can dimension off of the imported elements as well as Revit seeing them as their own family (without embedding them in a mass family/generic model first) as well as being able to place Revit families on the surfaces of those imported objects (see below).

A light fixture family was affixed to this imported Rino object
Check out this video for a demonstration of the workflow for importing non-Revit native objects.

For further details on the new features in Revit 2018, check out Revitpure’s blog post.

Reviews – Revit 2016

revit 2106

Hello again readers,
It is once again that time of year, time for Autodesk’s annual release of its new software. I have spent the better part of a day evaluating the software, upgrading projects and using the UI to give you an unbiased review of the new version. Revit 2016 has many welcome cosmetic tweaks (such as the ability to change the background color of the workspace) and the ability to print to pdf (assuming you have a pdf writer already on your machine). The video below by Excitech summarizes the cosmetic changes to the Revit 2016 UI quite well. While some of these new features are welcome and useful, they all fall under the category of low hanging fruit (meaning quick fixes to implement on the part of the software development team) not requiring much time or effort. If this is all we got, I would say don’t bother and stick with 2015. Thankfully Autodesk did give its users a couple of really nice upgrade features to make 2016 really worth it.

The Good
I have to say I really like the string based search and select functionality (demonstrated at 3:45 in the video). When you add a component/wall/door/window instead of scrolling through the long list of objects already loaded into the model you can now type the first letter of the component and it will narrow the list of choices to the object you have in mind. That is a big time saver. Saving the thin lines setting in the project file is also a time saver, so you don’t have to re-enable that every time you open a project. The show constraints option is also a great feature. This is particularly helpful inside the family editor. Many times when you are creating constraints or parametric variables within a family you are never really sure how the constraints will effect the object you created. By being able to highlight which elements are constrained you can better diagnose odd outcomes.

However the best feature has to be the new rendering engine. Autodesk had been using NVIDIA’s Mental Ray engine to perform rendering functionality (and while this was considerably better then the original Accustudio engine used in Revit 2008 and earlier releases) it still was very slow taking an unacceptable amount of time to create high quality images. Mental Ray has always been limited by your computer’s video card’s capabilities. The new Autodesk Raytracer rendering engine changed to CPU based processing, rather then relying on the computer’s graphics card to create the rendered image. Moving the work to the CPU, makes the new engine super fast. Even at the HIGH rendering setting, rendering jobs were not taking more then 5 minutes, compared with the sometimes hours wait with the Mental Ray engine. The new engine really shines with interior lighting schemes. Many times I have found that the Mental Ray engine couldn’t complete a rendering job and would end up crashing Revit as the image maxed out the graphics processor’s memory. Take this photo below.
This 3D interior view has 16 artificial lights along with daylight. In the past I could not get my computer to successfully render this image. The new engine finished it on the High setting in 13 minutes at 150dpi with no difficulty.The new engine also has better sky background depiction and better material representation with better color saturation. Compare the 2 renderings below. The top image was created with Mental Ray while the image below it was created with the new engine. Both were set to BEST.

Image rendered with Metal Ray
Image rendered with Metal Ray
Image rendered with Autodesk engine
Image rendered with Autodesk engine

At the highest setting BEST, the new engine takes about the same time as Mental ray (maybe a little faster) but unlike Mental Ray you can see the results instantly instead of starring at a black screen waiting for the Mental Ray engine to complete its first pass over the image. So if you don’t like the look of a material in the rendering, you can cancel the rendering quickly instead of having to endure the hours of downtime waiting on the old engine to reveal even a fuzzy picture. Huge productivity gains are imaginable with this new engine.

Bugs & Surprises
In my day of using the product, I experienced no crashes/blue screens or other application faults, making 2016 a really solid release. My only complaint is that Sketchup import support seems to have ended with Sketchup 8.0. Any Sketchup models created in the Trimble owned versions of Sketchup (2013,2014,2015) will fail to import into Revit forcing you to save the Sketchup model down to version 8 before attempting to import those models into Revit. (Note: Sketchup import support for the current version of Sketchup is included in the version of Revit available to Autodesk Subscription customers only).

When you do import an object from another application, Revit now pins those object in the family editor, so you have to unpin it within Revit to move it around. It is a minor inconvenience, but I can also understand the logic of making this change. Pinned objects are much easier to track if you change the scale values on the imported item (there is a tendency for the imported object to shift in space as it gets larger or smaller. Pinning saves you the trouble of playing where’s waldo scrolling in and out blindly looking for the imported object in Revit space.

The only bug I encountered was the need to zoom into views within the family editor when creating a new family from any category. When you create a new family, the family editor defaults to the floor plan view as normal, with the pinned reference planes at the center of the screen, but when you select the front or right views you are taken off somewhere in space, loosing sight of the default reference planes, forcing you to execute a zoom extents command (ZE) to re-locate the default reference planes in the right and front views. The screen captures below illustrate this problem. This is an annoyance I hope gets fixed quickly with the first service pack of Revit 2016.

Normal view in family editor
Normal view in family editor
 default front view in family editor
default front view in family editor

Batch File Upgrade Utility
Another surprise discovered in 2016 was the disappearance of the rfa upgrade batch files (used to upgrade families created in earlier versions of Revit). The batch files are no longer included among the installation files. Click this link to download an add-in for Revit that will perform the same family upgrade process even more efficiently. This applet works many times better then the old batch files. It works on project files, templates, as well as families. It is very fast, even though the installation is a little tricky. I created some basic Fileupgrader installation instructions to install the add-in on Revit 2016.

Outstanding issues
Items that really need to be addressed and continue to be ignored are the lousy railing editor which remains primitive and hard to use. The railing editor in its current state severely limits the complexity of crown moldings and trim that you can include in a 3D model. Having preview functionality in a new railing editor is really essential. If you can add or subtract a baluster in whatever location you choose you can better represent the final appearance of the railing in the to be built structure. The justify at center, end, or beginning is just insufficient; a more robust editor should be able to meet all of these requirements not just one. Allowing railings to act like walls that can be edited for situations such as door and window casings is also needed. Under the hashtag of dream requests, would be the ability to insert railings (trim) via schedule (a trim schedule) into rooms saving yourself the effort of having to create railings around the perimeter of each room.

The site/topography tools are another component in need of significant alteration and embellishment. There is a dire need for a gradable sweep tool to lay out level roadbeds for streets and sidewalks and a site-based railing to create fencing that follows the topography over grade changes. The absence of this basic functionality combined with Revit’s high price tag is what keeps Autodesk’s competitors in business.

While Revit 2016 has many new tweaks, the new rendering engine is what makes this release worth while. It will probably be several years before the Autodesk Raytracer is made robust enough to offer the same level of customization found on more sophisticated/expensive rendering products, but being able to create multiple high quality renderings in minutes (not hours or days) without exporting to a secondary product is a huge productivity selling point.

Reviews – Revit 2015

Splash screen
Hello again readers,

It is once again time for my annual review of Revit software. For the first time in several years I am able to personally evaluate the new Revit software not relying on reviews posted by others. I had been using an older version of Revit (2011) so there were quite a few new additions to the application from what I had been accustomed to. Looking over the list of new features, some have expressed disappointment with the lack of real new features/outstanding issues that were left unresolved in 2015. Autodesk played up the Sketchy Lines feature heavily even going so far as to make the R in the upper left hand corner sketchy to reflect this new functionality. Personally I have little to no use for this new functionality, but some may like it. Below is a demonstration. The photo on the left is a model in normal view while the photo at the right shows the same model in exaggerated sketchy line view.

Model in Normal View
Model in Normal View

Sketchy Line Output
Sketchy Line Output

From an appearance standpoint, sketchy lines look cooler on more modern designs (giving a Jetsons flair to your presentation), while a traditional building just looks less crisp.
Sketchy lines in a modern design
Sketchy lines in a modern design
I do get that Autodesk felt the need to include this functionality to compete with Sketchup’s sketchy line settings, but like I said I personally don’t derive much value from it. This post from RevitCat explores the different settings and options for Sketchy Lines in detail if you want to learn more about this new functionality.

Best New Features
For me the best aspect to the new version is how quickly it handles project files. Once a file has been upgraded to the 2015 format, opening a project is nearly instantaneous, even for large projects above 100Mb; there was literately no wait time for the project to open. I did notice that project file sizes tended to get larger post upgrade in version 2015 while in the past, the newer version of Revit tended to compress the project file. This is a minor issue and didn’t occur on every project I upgraded.

The programers at Autodesk seemed to have spent most of their time optimizing Revit to make transitioning between views much smoother. In 2011 if you had a lot of views open and then selected the close all open views button, there would be this uncomfortable hesitation where the program would freeze up temporarily while it closed the views in the background to free up memory. Those near crash pauses are thankfully gone in 2015 and now I give no thought to how many views I have open nor to the issue of closing views. Panning the model in a 3D view works much better as well with no redraw lag, but I don’t care for the fact that the model goes into a plain shaded with no edges appearance while it is being rotated. Once the model is again stationary it reverts back to the shaded with edges view, the default appearance for current projects.

Great Improvements
I really like the new materials dialog introduced in 2014 along with upgrades to the paint tool so you can paint and un-paint a surface. I also like that the dialog box stays open until you close it while in 2011 you had the annoying fly out menu that closed after one selection. Material purging is nice, yet it doesn’t seem to reduce the size of the overall project if at all. I love select by face (introduced in 2014) as well which makes selecting floors and pads much less painful.

The rendering engine in 2015 was also overhauled resulting in images with better depictions of sunlight and sky. I didn’t care for the fact that the rendered image doesn’t begin to be revealed until the second pass of the rendering engine (after 50% complete), where as in previous versions you could see the image being revealed on the first pass. But this is a minor quip that I can live with to get more realistic renderings.

Revit 2015 seems to support importing all Sketchup 8 models flawlessly where 2011 would only import models generated in Sketchup 7. Not having to save Sketchup files into an earlier version is a time saver and a plus. I would hope that imports of the latest version of Sketchup (2014) are supported as well but I didn’t verify that.

I also noticed that Autodesk stopped bundling the Design Review software (dwf/dwfx viewer) with the Revit install. Apparently 2013 was the last year that program was supported. The Microsoft viewer that comes with Windows 7/8 works ok, but there was some offset of the page in the output compared to the view exported from within Revit.

The energy audit features were new to me as well (Found on the Analysis tab) and I like the ease at which you can setup a test of your model for its energy efficiency (note: to submit a model for analysis you need to be a subscription customer that has paid for access to the cloud based service).

Also new was a link on the recent files page to 3rd Party extensions (paid and free) to extend the functionality of Revit. I would have liked the option of disabling that window (as it felt like advertising).

New Resources Pane
New Resources Pane

The Outstanding Issues/The Bad
The folks at Autodesk need to come up with an easier and less painful means of migrating projects and content to the current shipping version. The upgrade batch file utility for Revit content is glitchy, unreliable, and time consuming. If you have used Revit for any length of time, you have likely generated many projects and created GB worth of content. Upgrading all of that data can take days with the current system. Businesses can’t afford to have that much downtime while the IT staff plods through upgrading every file and family to the newest version. The fact that the application has to open, save and close every file to be read in the new version is a painful shortcoming. Why not adopt version based file extensions (i.e .rvt15 to indicate the file version) then simply run an OS batch file to upgrade all of your earlier projects/content to .rvt15. It would require some coding changes but it would be so worth the effort. Bidirectional material support with Sketchup is also a big need. Having to hand enter materials/color values for every material imported from a Sketchup model is needlessly time consuming and tedious. Both apps share a common set of material types, why not harmonize them? I tend to think that these two reasons alone deter users from making the annual upgrade to the latest version particularly when there is so much downtime required to migrate all of your data.

Wish List
One feature that I would really like to see (and perhaps it already exists and I am just not aware of it) is the ability to schedule railings for rooms in a project’s room schedule. For example, say I want all the rooms on floor 1 to have baseboard and crown molding of a specific profile. Currently you have to draw in those components as railings going around the perimeter of each room, creating a new railing for each wall segment. It would be great to be able to just drop the railings in via a schedule and save a boat load of time in the process. The room function calculates the perimeter of each room already, so it shouldn’t be too hard to leverage that data.

Overall Recommendation
While Revit 2014 introduced lots of great features and is worth keeping, I think that the performance benefits that come with 2015 make the upgrade effort worthwhile. Opening files and working within the 3D model is a much more pleasant experience in 2015. If you haven’t upgraded in a while, the difference will seem like night and day. For other takes on Revit 2015 check the links below.
David Light’s Review

Commentary – Making Faces on Buildings

Manhattan's west side rail yards development-popup

A recent project for the development of Manhattan’s west side rail yards raised an important if not really discussed issue in design, putting faces on buildings. My post on facade based design touched on this issue but didn’t really explore it in depth.

When I was in design school this technique (making the building look like a face or using features associated with faces) was heavily critiqued as being childish and unrefined. I have also heard other critics speak of it glowingly referring to the architect’s work as ‘playful’ or full of ‘wit’. Edwin Lutyens and John Hejduk were two of the more famous architects who put faces on many of their buildings. While I don’t think anyone would refer to their collective works as amateur, the more recent examples like this Manhattan project leave me wondering about the wisdom of the technique. When I saw the project shown above yesterday for the first time I was immediately reminded of the iconic cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. See the resemblance. I doubt that the developer of said project would want their tower to be associated with cowardliness or fragility, yet that is the image I am left with.

Manhattan's west side rail yards development-popup

Another project in Australia made the entire building into the profile of a face. This is more clever but in a way creepy like something out of novel 1984 as if Big Brother was looking down on you from above.

If I can draw anything from the successful face projects versus the less successful ones is that the architectural elements used to created the faces have to have a specific use or purpose rather than being just pastiche (superfluous ornament). These two examples by Lutyens and Hejduk illustrate how the window and the awning can be used to make a powerful statement while providing utility to the building.

Lutyens Cottage with its window 'eyes'
Lutyens Cottage with its window ‘eyes’

The face created by the awnings on Hejduk's  Kreuzberg Tower
The face created by the awnings on Hejduk’s Kreuzberg Tower

Readers what do you think about faces on buildings? Does it look like child’s play or is it sophisticated design?

Child's drawing of a house
Child’s drawing of a house

Also check out this image gallery of other buildings with faces.

Reviews – Revit 2014


It is spring, time for my annual review of Autodesk’s Revit software. This year’s release Revit 2014 is not yet available for download, but David Light from the UK had the opportunity to evaluate the new release early and made a pretty detailed summary of the 2014 product on his website. The link to David’s article can be found in the links below. My own machine has become too slow and too old to fully support the latest release, but I will comment on the changes that the David Light article raises.

Revit 2014 System Requirements
If you are considering upgrading or just starting out using Revit 2014 make sure that your computer meets the min specs. I have provided a link to the Autodesk’s system requirements page below. It seems that the Windows XP OS is no longer supported by Autodesk, so that forces you to have a computer less than 10 years old. 4Gb of memory is the recommended minimum and a minimum of 5Gb of free disk space for installation of the software. A Shader model 3 graphics card is also required to create and render images using Revit. For optimal performance Autodesk recommends 8-16Gb of memory using Windows 7 or 8 with the latest Intel ICore processors. In short you are going to be spending some money for a high powered machine to run Revit 2014.

Key Improvements
1.)The ability to Create non-rectangular cropping for a view. For example, if you wanted to create a callout for a T-based stair, this new feature could allow that.

2.) Material UI improved. All elements are incorporated within a single window now. See below.
3.1_thumb The pesky Replace button found on older versions of Revit is now gone. The user used to have to select replace to open the Render Appearance Library dialog (where you choose what kind of material an object was). Now you can select the type of material within the same window instead of opening a new screen. That is a nice time saver. I still wish they would address importing materials from Sketchup objects better. Currently Revit detects the colors that most closely match the object material from the Sketchup library, but makes you enter those same color values into the Revit settings dialog for that material by hand. It is a real pain. Or better still just use the materials from Sketchup as a recognized Revit material library. Then you have perfect portability between the two programs. There is so much great content created in Sketchup, and I see a lot of it being imported into Revit families every day, I don’t see why Autodesk doesn’t make this easier. But alas the poor user continues to have to suffer through this shortcoming.

3.)Scheduling Improvements. Can now schedule architectural columns, detail items, entourage, generic models, grids, levels, pads, roof soffits, structural beam systems, structural area reinforcement, structural path reinforcement and structural fabric area types.

4.) Easier selection of objects. This is huge and probably the best change in the new version for me. In older versions of Revit, it was almost impossible to select a pad in plan view or within a 3D view without first creating a section, then opening the section, then finally selecting the pad to edit. With the new select by face option you can now select hard to access objects like pads much quicker and without the pain of the additional steps I mentioned. That is a really great feature that is long overdue.

5.) Improved 3D performance – In the past with large models if you attempted to pan around a building you would experience a lag time as you waited for the building to completely redraw in its new view angle. The downtime can be annoying. The developers made some coding changes to disable redraw until you reach your desired new view angle. This supposedly reduces wait times. However considering that Autodesk asks its users to shell out for a $300+ video card just to use the software, one would think there would be no lag time at all given how high end the video graphics specs are. But all improvements are welcome.

Like Microsoft, Autodesk seems to follow the tenant that every other release is a good one. Windows XP was good, Vista bad, Windows 7 good, Windows 8 bad. Autodesk’s Revit 2009 was good, while 2010 with the intro of the ribbon, caused headaches forcing all users to learn a new UI. 2011 was good as it finally restored the rendering functionality removed in Revit 2008(backgrounds) as well as being the last release that you could access the old UI if needed. 2012 was a mixed bag; you got material purging and cloud support but the back end settings were altered and service packs were necessary creating extra work for tech depts. 2013 was also a bad release by David Light’s estimation for the continued shortcomings of the materials dialog. It sounds like Revit 2014 may have finally righted the ship after two iffy releases.

Revit 2014 System Requirements

David Light’s review

Commentary – Architecture School Rankings for 2013

Even though the Architecture profession exists in its own little world, they too possess a ranking system which attempts to rate the various design schools available to students in the US. Unlike the US News/World Report findings which cover all US colleges/universities, a firm called Design Intelligence compiles its own findings through interviews with design school students and uses a variety of other criteria specific to design schools to determine America’s best design schools. Keep in mind that there are only about 100 schools in the US that offer an accredited degree in Architecture and in some states there is not even one school that offers an accredited degree, so you need to do your homework if you are seriously considering Architecture or Interior design as a career option. For an official list of accredited schools click here.

The list below taken from the Design Intelligence Survey ranks the top twenty schools for the different design majors.

Top 20 Architecture, Graduate

1.Harvard University
2. Columbia University
3. Yale University
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
5. Cornell University
6. Southern California Institute of Architecture
7. University of Virginia
7. University of California, Berkeley
9. Washington University in St. Louis
10. University of Cincinnati
11. University of Michigan
11. University of Texas at Austin
13. Kansas State University
14. University of Kansas
15. University of Pennsylvania
15. Rice University
15. Princeton University
18. Iowa State University
18. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
20. Clemson University
20. Savannah College of Art and Design

Top 20 Architecture, Undergraduate

1. Cornell University
2. Southern California Institute of Architecture
3. Rice University
3. Syracuse University
5. California Polytechnic State Univ., San Luis Obispo
6. University of Texas at Austin
7. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
7. Rhode Island School of Design
9. Iowa State University
9. Auburn University
11. Pratt Institute
12. Carnegie Mellon University
13. University of Notre Dame
13. University of Oregon
13. Boston Architectural College
16. University of Southern California
16. Cooper Union
18. Pennsylvania State University
19. University of Arkansas
19. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Top 15 Landscape Architecture, Graduate

1. Harvard University
2. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
3. Cornell University
3. Louisiana State University
5. University of Virginia
6. University of Pennsylvania
7. Pennsylvania State University
7. Rhode Island School of Design
7. Texas A&M University
10. University of California, Berkeley
11. Kansas State University
11. University of Georgia
13. Auburn University
13. University of Texas at Arlington
13. University of Texas at Austin
13. University of Washington

Top 15 Landscape Architecture, Undergraduate

1. Louisiana State University
2. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
3. Pennsylvania State University
4. Kansas State University
5. Texas A&M University
6. Cornell University
7. Calif. Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
7. Purdue University
7. University of Georgia
10. Ball State University
11. Iowa State University
11. Texas Tech University
13. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
13. Michigan State University
13. Ohio State University

Top 10 Interior Design, Graduate

1. Savannah College of Art and Design
2. Rhode Island School of Design
3. Pratt Institute
4. Cornell University
4. Parsons The New School for Design
6. New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk Univ.*
6. School of the Art Institute of Chicago
8. Boston Architectural College*
9. Kansas State University*
9. University of Oregon


Top 10 Interior Design, Undergraduate

1. Savannah College of Art and Design
2. University of Cincinnati
2. Rhode Island School of Design
4. Pratt Institute
5. Auburn University
6. University of Texas at Austin
6. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
8. Boston Architectural College
8. Cornell University
8. Kansas State University
8 Parsons The New School for Design

Top 10 Industrial Design, Graduate

1 Art Center College of Design
2 Pratt Institute
2 Rhode Island School of Design
4 Arizona State University
4 Auburn University
4. Cranbrook Academy of Art
7. Georgia Institute of Technology
7. Ohio State University
7. Savannah College of Art and Design
7. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Industrial Design, Undergraduate

1. Art Center College of Design
1. University of Cincinnati
3. Pratt Institute
3. Rhode Island School of Design
3. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
6. Auburn University
6. College for Creative Studies
6. Savannah College of Art and Design
9. Carnegie Mellon
9. Syracuse University

These lists can serve as a starting point for helping one choose a design college, but they don’t predict your chances of graduation, nor do they reflect how you will perform on your ARE exam (the multi-part licensing exam required to obtain an architect’s license). Sure bragging rights matter (but more to the admissions staff then to the students enrolled at a particular school). Every school wants to be top dog and all of the ‘top schools’ pride themselves in remaining high on the rankings list in their respective categories year after year. Looking over past Design Intelligence surveys, I found few discernible changes in the schools or their order in the rankings over a period of a decade. When a change did occur in the rankings it was due to the arrival of a rising star architect who had recently assumed a leadership role at the school in question and the school received a bump in the rankings because that new leader’s work was in vogue in the architectural community. That ‘it’ factor alone doesn’t make the school any better per say, it is just a factor that shuffles the numbers. The consistent performances of the top schools should also not be taken as a sign that these top schools are consistently excellent or worthy of their hefty price tags either. Some ivy-league schools coast on their reputations and some are just plain over-rated. Also newly accredited programs tend to be more innovative then some of the old guard schools that have been accredited for decades. (FYI MIT offered the first accredited Architecture degree back in 1865.) When I applied to design school back in 2006, I was unaware of the Design Intelligence survey and based my decision on location and time required to complete the degree alone. The photos above were the schools I visited in person as part of my college search. Looking at Design Intelligence rankings, I see that many if not all of the schools I visited are ranked highly today, but I would not personally rank all of them as excellent, some were far from it. But opinions are just that, subjective; one man’s garbage is another man’s gold.

Every school on the list has a slightly different focus to its design curriculum (with variations in preferred computer software packages used at the school, favored architects emphasized for students to emulate, and favored teaching styles). All of these details are not listed in any of the magazines or surveys(Design Intelligence included) and the only way you find out this info is by talking with students enrolled at the school or by attending the school itself. However, probably the most important factor that isn’t publicized at all in any of these rankings relates to the Architecture profession itself.

I found that Architecture is very much a cross-generational profession, meaning if your parents are architects, you (their children) will most likely show an interest and aptitude for the profession as well. With only a limited number of design schools to choose from, your favorite architect’s son or daughter is more then likely to be in a design class with you. These famous architects operate successful practices and know which skills are most valued on the job. They also know what is taught in today’s design schools (as many teach graduate seminars or lead design studios at said colleges and universities) thus are likely to advise their own children to apply to certain schools over others. Use their wisdom to your advantage. The Design Intelligence rankings don’t publish the lists of names of the students enrolled in a particular design program at a particular school, but you can find out that info by checking out the online work featured on each school’s website. Each design studio will list the names of the student’s work featured for that particular studio. Looking over those websites you will likely recognize the famous surnames from some of the best known design firms in the US today. As most design studios have only 5 to 10 students in each section, the lists of names is quite manageable to research. So for example, if Frank Geary or Richard Meier is your favorite architect, start with the schools from the list above checking each school’s website and see where their kid’s name pops up, (I know it is kind of stalking) but that is often the best testimonial of a program’s quality that you are going to find and much more meaningful then any of these rankings. And keep in mind, you don’t need to limit your list to big name architects, if there is a local architect in your hometown and you like their work, ask what school they attended and if they were happy with their education. In the Architecture profession, personal recommendations carry a lot of weight in all aspects of the business.

My final piece of advice on selecting a design school is to know your strengths as a designer and try to select a school that emphasizes/supports your strengths. Are you a good drawing student or do you design exclusively on a computer screen? Are you more suited to an engineering/trade school environment or a theory based education? These questions are important as finding a school that works for you rather than in its own way can make the difference between keeping your sanity or flunking out. The arduous process of obtaining a design degree will be a lot less frustrating and doors will open a lot easier if you have a supportive faculty that rewards your abilities rather than enduring a program where you find yourself butting heads with the faculty, which ultimately leads to transferring or dropping out altogether. Also if you are the child of a practicing architect, by all means avail yourself of your parent’s advice in selecting the right school and feel free to ask them for help with design problems that come up during your design education.

The percentage of people who graduate with a design degree is very small compared with those that start one. Design school has one of the highest attrition rates of any academic program due to the heavy workload and constant evaluation process that design students are held to. Every person I know that made it through had parents or close friends in the profession who probably helped them to make it to the finish line. Being able to bounce ideas off a practicing architect and being able to ask a parent to explain a concept when many Architecture professors often only speak in generalities or what I call ‘Archispeak’ will save you from making silly mistakes or embarrassing yourself during important evaluations. Also having a family member in the profession creates an automatic employment opportunity (sure it’s nepotism) you can pursue when you graduate. In this economy that is huge when so many architects are out of work and finding your first job can be so difficult.

A design education is an enormous investment in time and money so choose, but choose wisely as the knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade so eloquently stated. Do your homework before selecting a school, and that means talking to at least 3 different students at each school you are thinking of attending. Visit campus while classes are in session and if possible visit on a crit day. Don’t rely solely on Design Intelligence’s rankings or the testimonials of a school’s star student to make your decision on where you will do best. These people often paint a distorted picture of the school. Ask about the criteria I mentioned above and research your favorite architect’s background and the schools that his/her children currently attend. Above all, know yourself and where your talents lie and leave the rankings for the trashcan where they belong.

Link to Design Intelligence survey

Architecture News – NYC Design Competition for Affordable Apartments

Hello readers,

Although this is somewhat old news (the contest was announced back in July) I felt that the topic was important enough to warrant posting. The contest sponsored by NYC Dept of Housing Preservation and Development was to design an apartment complex which contained apartments that were no more than 300sqft in size. The small footprint would in theory keep costs low and make it affordable for young people trying to find a place to live in NYC. A photo of a sample layout is shown below. The submission deadline for the contest is Sept 14, 2012. For an idea on what a 300sq ft apartment feels like, check out this brief news clip.

While the idea of living in a 300 sq ft apartment is novel, I am not sure how I feel about this project or its goals. On the one hand, high density development is considerably more sustainable than living in the suburbs; however there are costs with being so close to your neighbor. The limited personal space in a city of millions can feel suffocating and the forced interaction with your closest neighbors can raise stress levels and anxiety in an already hectic city.

Another way of looking at this project is seeing it in terms of social control being exerted over the young and poor in the city. Architects through design control the way people live and move through their spaces. In a way this is more personally intrusive then any government mandate could ever be. Through the physical layout of the apartment you are dictating to someone how they make their morning or evening routines in their own homes. This is exerting a level of influence that peripheral issues such as taxation or regulation could never touch. With so much at stake, the onus on the architect to get it right becomes very high. Take something as small as the way a refrigerator door opens. If the door opens the wrong way, every time you use the appliance you will be irritated by having to step out of the way of the door. These little inconveniences compounded over months, combined with the stressful city life can make someone downright miserable over the long term. Thoughtful design makes life easier while poor design choices serve to annoy and make life all the more difficult.

Given the degree which you are affecting someone’s life by though this housing, the short timeline given to develop plans for this project seem grossly inappropriate. As a designer/architect you need the time to iterate to make the design as optimal as possible as well as attempting to consider every possible factor in a living environment. Even after all of that work, you are still going to miss things. There are unexpected outcomes in even the best planned developments. The absolute failures of urban housing projects for the poor in the past should serve as reminders to carefully evaluate the merits and pitfalls of the even smallest detail in the design. Do we really want to be short changing another generation with sub-standard housing?

In addition to the logistics and functionality of the apartments there are hundreds of social issues at play in housing. The final design will ultimately reflect the architect’s values and ideals for living more than the values of the young people living there. Is the architect an extrovert or an introvert? If introvert, he may value privacy and solitude in the design more. If extrovert, he may opt to create more common spaces for people to gather in, and by doing that how will the ambient noise from those common spaces affect those that may want more privacy? What is the architect’s opinion on technology? Should we be attempting to get people out of their phones and conversing with their neighbors or should this housing act as a cocoon where one can escape away from the trials and interactions of the city? Also the issue of park space is another issue to consider. When you consider all of these separate topics and how they interact with one another designing a suitable building becomes an ominous task. That is why so few architects succeed at large scale central planning, there are just too many variables.

One also has to ask if this project is really designed to help the young or just serve as an additional source of income for the rentier class that collects their bloated monthly rent checks from the city dwellers seeking accommodations within the city limits. Does this development scheme offer any type of equity to the young person living there?

If it doesn’t, a better solution would be to offer the apartments to young people by having them pay into a currency pool used to fund the building’s construction and maintenance using an alternate currency such as Bitcoin. By paying rent into a monetary system that is by nature deflationary rather than inflationary, the tenants’ purchasing power is preserved and equity is created rather than destroyed. The current rent system sends the tenants’ funds to an often unknown landlord’s pocketbook while the increasingly worthless US dollar erodes what little money the tenant might have left over after paying his rent.

Under the Bitcoin scheme, at the end of his/her stay in the building, he/she can sell their share in the apartment to the next occupant for a set fraction of the same number of Bitcoins that he initially payed to occupy the apartment. As each whole Bitcoin is worth more over time, equity and profit are created for the current and future tenants. That way they could walk away with some equity to buy a real home or property in the future.

Although this scheme will be affected by the fluctuations in the value of Bitcoin currency, (i.e. the more people who demand the currency, the more value each coin holds as the number of coins is limited to 21,000,000) recent trends seem to indicate that the currency is increasingly acting as a repository for value in the face of corrupt or collapsing governments. As public trust in the formal government erodes, more of the economy and people move from the formal to the informal sector of the economy.* There has been a direct correlation between the increasing price for Bitcoin and the unraveling of the economies of Greece/Europe in recent months. With most developed countries including the US facing default on sovereign debt and the unpopularity of austerity measures needed to remedy those debts, the poor are turning to outlets that will protect their savings from inflation or taxation.

So to conclude, it would seem that there are a lot of factors to consider when designing for this seemingly simple 300 sq ft apartment competition, from layout to financing.

* For further reading on the subject of formal vs informal sectors of the economy see Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital & Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West & fails Everywhere Else

Software Review – Revit 2013 Architecture

It is April and time for my annual review of the new release of the Revit Architecture software. With each passing year the software seems to become more and more bloated (or robust depending on your view of things). The Revit families and material libraries that are downloaded from Autodesk during the install of 2013 are up to 800MB now, so you need a machine with lots of free space and memory for it to run. But enough on the install process, lets get right to the good, the bad, and the ugly for this year’s release of Revit Architecture.

First the Good
Revit has finally allowed for the creation of a legitimate T-based stair like the one shown in the photo below. Prior to this release, the best you could do is make a 2 run stair and then make another separate stair starting at the landing of the first stair to create the right side of the T. This was awkward and required determining the height of the landing of the first stair among other things. Given the robustness of the program and just how common a T stair is, it is amazing that it took this long to finally get that feature into the program.

Creating a T stair is a bit complex using Revit 2013, but it least it possible now. I was surprised that they (Autodesk) bothered to create a single button based option for winder stairs (considering these are rarely used today and against code in all commercial/civic buildings) but they opted to skip a single button option for the much more common T stair.

Here is a link to a video demonstrating how to create a T Stair in Revit 2013.

The whole stair tool user interface was also given a huge upgrade which was very much needed. Stairs and railings now are automatically created and dynamically adjust to meet the levels in your project. No more editing railings post stair creation to reflect landings and stopping points after the fact. You can also specify where you want the railing to attach to the stair; at the tread or the stringer which is really nice.

Option for selecting tread or stringer circled in red in UI

I also liked that they now number the risers so you don’t have to count stairs anymore, which is nice.

UI indicates riser number at beginning and end of run

Spiral stair logic was also upgraded. Prior to this release you could never create a true spiral stair that had more than 16 risers to reach a level without exceeding the 360 degrees radius within the run command, so using the run command for a spiral stair was not only confusing but kind of pointless. Also creating a fully code compliant spiral stair involved guesswork trying to figure out how the angle between risers shown in Revit correlated with what code dictated for min tread depth on the outer edge of the stair. The new stair UI makes things much easier.

Other nice additions
For those users with the latest and greatest video cards, a new interactive ray-trace feature was added. This allows users to instantly see a 3D view rendered without going through the hassle and downtime of waiting for a rendering session to complete. My video card was too old for that feature to work properly but I like that it is now available.

Screen Capture of raytrace session

They also added Bentley modeling import capability for users of that program.

The Bad
Material libraries still continue to be a huge headache. Every year they add more complexity, data fields and bloat to the dialogs. In Revit 2013 you now create individual custom libraries for each project. You can then specify a storage location (i.e. on your computer or a remote server) for those libraries. This feature was designed to dovetail with server-based and cloud-based support utilized in very large architecture firms. For the single seat user whose projects all reside on their local machine it is just unnecessary. In my mind, the old Accustudio static library (found in Revit 2008) approach to material management worked best. The library is created once and all the materials you created over your lifetime of using Revit are always available for every new project, no maintenance or yearly upgrade process. I understand the need for project and file portability, but you spend more time upgrading your old libraries to meet the ever changing standards that Autodesk creates that it easily requires a full time person to maintain and upgrade these ‘floating’ libraries with every new release of the product. When will Autodesk realize that this is a huge and I mean huge productivity drain for an office.

The Ugly (The Microsoft Mentality towards UI Design)
Autodesk has unfortunately opted to follow Microsoft’s practice of burying functionality under countless dialog boxes and buttons just to execute a specific function. Lets compare the old UI (Revit 2009) versus the new UI (Ribbon) to illustrate. In the photos below I chose to execute the stair command within Revit and these two screen captures illustrate what the user experiences for both UIs. With the old UI, all the options for a command were clearly visible for the user to choose and select. Encapsulating the options for a command within the function dialog was more concise and logical instead of searching for the button on the ribbon that does the same function within the new UI. Put another way, there is no wayfinding with the Ribbon user interface.

The Stair Function with the Ribbon UI

To a new user of the product, you are left wondering what button on the ribbon do I select. Only after scrolling the mouse over the draw button do you see the same options that were all clearly visible in the old UI. Making the user read the labels of all the tabs in the ribbon and then having them decide which button they should press is not terribly intuitive and creates an unnecessarily steep learning curve for new and existing users of the product.

Many would argue rightly that the new UI is better in that you aren’t switching between the tabs to access functionality. The old UI only allowed you to access sections under the basic and drafting tabs which made for unnecessary mouse clicks to access that particular function. A software developer would also point out that the tab architecture is more associated with early Microsoft apps then the Ribbon, yet it executes the command much faster. The ideal outcome would have been to integrate the customized quick launch toolbar and retain the command structure associated with the tabs, but the likelihood of that happening now seems pretty slim as Autodesk has fully embraced the ribbon and it is now in its 3rd year of use.

Overall Assessment of Revit 2013
The stair improvements in Revit 2013 are great, but it is not enough to make me upgrade from the far superior Revit 2011 version that still supports the old UI without the server bloat or the fussy dialogs and configuration settings. That is my take, I welcome other opinions so feel free to comment on this article.