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CAD loosens up; architects get sketchy

Could Autodesk's Architectural Studio computer-aided design software do for architecture what Quark and PhotoShop did for graphic design--namely, revolutionize the process?

Autodesk, best known for its complex drafting software, hopes to capture the creative side of architecture with a new program for making sketches and models.

Architectural Studio springs from the architect's and designer's traditional practice of roughing out ideas with pencil-and-paper sketches and quick 3D models, said Douglas Look, senior design strategist for Autodesk. The program attempts to transfer that process to the computer. It will be released Tuesday in conjunction with Design Site, a collaboration tool that lets designers work together online to revise and expand sketches.

The goal is to unite the high-tech and no-tech sides of the architecture profession. Autodesk's AutoCAD computer-aided drafting (CAD) program has become the standard for creating blueprints there, but most initial work is still done in pencil.

"We wanted this to be a mediation environment for everyone in the office," said Look. "Architects need to be able to communicate their ideas to the CAD professionals. This is designed to help bridge that gap."

Woodbury, N.Y., architect and industry analyst Jerry Laiserin said Architectural Studio holds great promise.

"I hesitate to use the word 'breakthrough,'" Laiserin said, "because it's so overworked, but I think this really represents a different approach to design documentation on a computer. To architects who may not have been comfortable with the kind of CAD tools that have been on the market, this is a tool they can be productive with right away."

Jeffrey Tarter, editor of software-industry newsletter SoftLetter, said Architectural Studio fills in the creative gaps left by CAD software.

"When you look at what's happened with graphics artists using software as a creative tool, that really hasn't happened with architecture," Tarter said. Graphic design was revolutionized in the '80s with the advent of the graphical user interface and programs like QuarkXPress and Adobe Illustrator and PhotoShop, which have very nearly rendered X-Acto knives, Spray Mount adhesive and other traditional tools of the trade obsolete.

In architecture though, the drawing is still "a huge challenge," Tarter said, "and that's largely because of the rigidity of the CAD software. CAD is just not a medium for sketching or developing ideas."

Architectural Studio attempts to re-create common sketching tools with a palette that includes various pencil and paper choices and simple tools for building 3D models.

"We looked at the typical architect's desk, which is actually a very efficient multimedia space," Look said. "We tried to learn from that environment."

The software will work with a basic mouse-and-monitor PC setup but is at its best when used on portable, touch-sensitive monitors, which display drawings as they are being made. Such displays--Wacom's Cintiq tablet is one--are specialty items now. But the concept is expected to become more widespread as Microsoft pushes its Mira and Freestyle initiatives for roaming PC access.

"I think the experience is best with one of these interactive tablets," said Look, "and we see there's going to be great support for that kind of technology just in the next year."

Reducing the paperwork
Laiserin said CAD skills are standard for anyone who has graduated from architecture school in the last decade, but even those fluent in programs such as AutoCAD prefer to do early work on paper. Senior-level architects relieved of drafting duties may have little reason to touch a PC.

"To the extent there is a division (in architecture studios)...this may be the tool that's going to help bridge that gap," Laiserin said of Architecture Studio. "It has a very simple and intuitive interface that I think makes it much more accessible to architects who may not have been comfortable with the kind of CAD tools that have been on the market."

Besides allowing easier sharing of designs, making sketches on a PC will help create a smoother transition to the blueprint stage, Tarter said. Some design data can be shared between Architectural Studio and programs such as AutoCAD and 3D Studio, Autodesk's application for creating detailed 3D models. This provides at least a starting point on the PC, without the need to translate this basic information from a sketch on paper.

"I think it's a good way to get the CAD people to deal with general concepts," Tarter said. "The translation process is a lot of work now."

Architectural Studio will work with Design Site, Autodesk's new service for remote collaboration on drawings. Laiserin said Design Site won't do much to streamline the revision process with clients, who typically look at finished drawings, but it should help improve the early part of the design process. Architects can seek design input from a greater range of colleagues, without having to lug drawings around.

"In the design process, going all the way back to architecture school, there is this collaborative process," Laiserin said. "You're working on something and you show it to colleagues. That's one of the ways you work out ideas.

"This really expands the possibilities for that kind of collaboration," Laiserin said. "It's not just faster, better, cheaper--it also gives you new ways to come up with better designs."

Tarter said he expects the new Autodesk tools to gain fairly rapid acceptance.

"In some ways it's surprising this kind of collaboration hasn't taken hold at an earlier stage--the need seems pretty obvious," Tarter said. "But architecture has always been a bit of a technological holdout. Architects have been pretty slow to adapt more than basic CAD technology."

Part of that may be because of the steep learning curve required to master CAD. Laiserin hopes the click-and-draw interface in Architectural Studio will spur Autodesk to reconsider the customer experience for AutoCAD and other programs.

"I think there are lessons learned that would be valuable for Autodesk to apply to other products," he said. "It would be nice if more software was as easy to use as Architectural Studio."