Open Letter to architects

To: Architects around the world

Subject: An open letter that reflects perspectives of a BIM enthusiast


Industry Context


In late 2020, many architecture firms united to voice their frustrations in an open letter. Their concerns revolved around the pricing models for Autodesk platforms (primarily BIM360 and Revit), as well as the slowing of Autodesk's related product development. They voiced that they were feeling ‘left in the dark’ on the roadmap that Autodesk had for supporting architects and demanded increased transparency and innovation.



Personal Context


I am a BIM consultant. I am not an architect.


I relate to them, I help many of them, I often wear black shirts - but I am not one of them.


Admittedly, this means that I look at the architectural profession with personal bias – my passions and interests represent an exceedingly small piece of what makes the AEC industry what it is. I understand and appreciate that on average, an AEC professional does not have a direct need for, appreciation for, or remote interest in BIM. It is the thing that the industry ‘must do’ to deliver our projects, coordinate our designs and many other things that make the projects keep turning. It is still a dark art of sorts.


At times, I will be critiquing the architectural profession rather unabashedly. My opinions are my own, but I can say with confidence they reflect the frustrations of many others like me – and I will not hide behind a consortium of companies to give me any anonymity. I welcome any constructive dialogue that may emerge from this letter, and I hope it provides an interesting set of points to add to the wider debate which the original open letter enabled.



Organisational context


“First we needed to obsess about our customers. At the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customers unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. There is no way to do that unless we absorb with deeper insight and empathy what they need”.


(Satya Nadella – Hit Refresh – The quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a better future for everyone. Page 101).


This was the actual quote used in the open letter.


Innovators declare; they do not sign a petition to declare alongside them in anonymity or vicarious obscurity. I would say this quote only applies to the largest and most forward-thinking firms in our industry currently - an upper minority. I also believe that many firms do not prioritise the needs of their clients above the sanctified pursuit of 'design' - whatever that may be these days.


I encourage you all to reflect on this quote. It is well suited to the rhetoric of the open letter, but the profession could learn much from it also.



The pot called the kettle black.


The open letter was concluded with the following requests:

  • Transparent action plans

  • Non adversarial practice

  • Innovation and progression

I would not use these terms to broadly describe the architectural profession. Would you?


It is no secret inside the architectural community that fees are a major issue for our industry, and its struggle to remain outwardly profitable. If you go in on a project at 3-5% of the total project cost, you can bet your bottom dollar (which let us be honest – you are getting down to) that at least one competitor is well under that number (and has a high chance of winning on that basis).


I recall seeing bids as high as 8% when I first began working in the industry, and veterans of the practice assure me 15% was not unheard of prior to this as well. Construction costs rose, housing costs rose but for some reason ours did not.


Fee scalping is the literal definition of adversarial practice and represents the lowest form of innovation any business can exhibit. I also believe it is one of the biggest issues holding back our profession – low profit = low funds for innovation. Architects are in a race to the bottom, and there are not many beans under the AEC table there to fight over.


Before trying to regulate software costs, the profession should be regulating theirs.


RIBA, AIA etc. – I'm looking at you. Protect the integrity of the profession. It is the reason you were formed, and continue to be funded by practicing architects.



Get your hands off my toilet families, Autodesk!


I could not help but notice the concern in Question 9 in the open letter. It was also around this point that I had to question why most of these questions were not in the form of a question, but I digress(?).


I agree with the letter in the sense that cloud platforms present many grey areas when it comes to content use and ownership. Having said that, most architects dived into the BIM360 cloud well before truly assessing the risks and consequences – why did they wait so long to voice this concern? Surely this concerned our insurers more than it concerned us?!


Autodesk provides lengthy privacy policies covering how they can and will use your data – I have read most of them, and so should you. They will answer the majority of your concerns (and probably confirm some of them).


Autodesk should not care about your Revit families, and if they can even manage to open your 1GB+ central models they probably will not care about them either. The IP that really matters to Autodesk is your data, BIM360 is their ‘Alexa’ – listening to our working habits and scraping our models for insights. I feel that if Autodesk wanted to, they could become a construction leviathan, thriving off our deepest, darkest model-kept secrets that were signed away with an 'I agree' tick box. You signed the box, you used the platform - moving on...


AEC firms need to better define what IP really matters in preserving the integrity of our business' and industry. This will better inform how they may obfuscate our own data kept in the cloud, or demand software vendors to for us. The fact they did not specify this clearly in this section makes me feel like they do have a good understanding as a profession over what IP they are most concerned with protecting.


If you just want to lock down Revit families from being edited, move on. The BIM community debated this intensely for the last 15 years and our conclusion was it does not matter. My Revit model drives like a Ferrari but unless you have the manual, you will probably crash it.



Digging ourselves out.


BIM360 is too expensive for the downtime it gives us. Revit is far too expensive for the holding pattern it follows. But you buy it anyway.


Autodesk gave us the shovel, but

you

did

the

digging.



And here you are


Why would Autodesk want to help you out of their money pit? You keep complaining about there being no ‘Revit-killer’ on the market, but until architects seriously invest in a potential candidate, it will be hard to climb out. To the few who managed to, well done. To those who are trying, keep going.



Revit 2.0


The concept of a ‘Revit-killer’ is inherently flawed – it seems most firms expect the next program to be just like Revit, only cheaper and a bit better. One of the most common questions we see when a new BIM program appears is ‘will it be able to open all our Revit families?' and 'can we keep using them in the same way?’.


You are digging sideways not climbing out.


In the conclusion of their letter, architects demanded ‘a replacement of Revit from the ground up to reflect the functionality needed for a 21st century digital industry’. You may as well be asking the gods for hubris.


One only needs to look at the history of most Autodesk software to realise they have nearly always begun with their platforms as acquisitions. If you are looking for the next Revit, it will not be built by Autodesk from the ‘ground up’ – it will probably be bought out by them.


Look elsewhere.



Do you see what I-F-Cee?


The main point I agree with in the entire open letter is of course a technically focused one. Revit (and many other closed platforms) need some serious adjustments to better tune their exports in the IFC format. I tried ignoring these for a long time in the hope something simpler would emerge, but it seems this is the future of BIM collaboration.


I will say it for the other users – setting up Revit for IFC sucks. It is clunky, unforgiving and most people do not make effective use of the output, so it is of low reward for all the work put in.


It would be great to see Autodesk integrate default IFC parameters by Revit category/family template and develop more well guided procedures for IFC mapping of data. One should not have to be an expert scholar in the IFC data schema to generate an output that satisfies it.


Score one for the architects here.



Not all of us want out. But we want change.


You might think after that last paragraph that I cannot stand using Revit, and that I would like nothing more than for it to be made redundant in a timely manner. As a sole trading BIM Consultant that is anything but the case.


For the most part I love using Revit. It is not perfect, but it is still one of the best options out there for putting together a BIM model - until the point of which you need to collaborate in a non-Autodesk platform. I have built a large portion of my business around this, and it has served me well.


For this, I thank Autodesk.


But I am also frustrated. I see a lack in cohesion between our industry beyond the software that we use. I feel architects no longer make the effort to properly understand engineers, builders, and project managers (and many of them do not make this effort in the other direction). Regardless of the software that we use, we cannot deliver effective BIM in such an environment.


Of course, this is not always the case, but I must take a moment to point out that the open letter could just have easily included many engineering firms. I am not sure if any of the collaborators of the letter have tried using Revit for MEP, but I have – and my gosh do the architects have it easy in comparison! Most engineering tools are half-baked at best, and their roadmap is far more dismal than the architectural one in most years.


I hope to see alternative platforms emerge that are focused on interdisciplinary working. This is the reason why I do not entertain the notion of such platforms as ArchiCAD taking over Revit’s market position – the platform has not enabled non-architects to easily participate in a similar manner. ArchiCAD architectural users may debate this, but the real question is why don’t the engineers?


I do not just want Revit to improve, I want more suitable collaborative options.



The truth is out there.


One of my biggest frustrations with the open letter is that it reflects an industry demanding a solution to their problems from others. As the wisest gurus have said in the past, ‘true change comes from within’ - no-one understands the challenges architects face than architects themselves.


I see no mention in this letter of emerging alternatives such as BrisCAD BIM, Hypar and TestFit. If you really want to spook Autodesk, try some of these out. And I do not mean download the trial, give it a spin and shelf it for later – I mean really try them out on your projects. Innovate! Challenge your own technical habits and question the road you find yourself down.


If you cannot afford to do this and must remain with Revit as your solution, then there is still a solution of sorts available to you. Hire developers that can create alternative approaches and apps to capture the weaknesses in what Revit offers your firm as it comes. The best firms using Revit are those that go outside the box, and not begrudgingly.


Be the change in the industry you want to see. Do not ask a company which made $3.43 billion USD in 2020 to do it for you. If you were making that much revenue, you would not change either and you certainly would not feel the need to write an open letter.


- Gavin Crump @BIM Guru

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