Tom Szťkely, P.E., LEED AP

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June 26, 2006

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AutoCAD, Building Information Management, 3D, and the Real World.


Because of the facts that many of my clients are Architects and that almost all of them provide me with base drawings in AutoCAD format, I get to see a lot of different ways of using the program, none of which have impressed me, and more than a few of which have been the cause for much gnashing of teeth on my part.


While Autodesk continues to add useful capabilities with every release, I have never been asked if I could work in an Architectís 3D model instead of providing 2D MEP drawings, and have only rarely seen my clients use any but the slightest portion of the programís information management and parametric design capabilities. 


Autodeskís ABS (nťe AEC) and ďstandard symbolĒ add-ons encourage better use of AutoCAD, but itís the old story about leading the horse to water.   They can also bite you in the fanny.  More later.


Not to get ahead of myself, but I just read a review where AutoCAD 2007 is the release which will make 3D so easy that we in the community of facility design professionals could be falling all over ourselves to turn out packages similar to those which have been produced by aircraft and automobile manufacturers for a decade or two now.




I first saw AutoCAD when CP/M was the dominant PC operating system, and taught it for a few years beginning with the transition between releases 11 and 12.  In all the intervening time, I have had, count Ďem, 2,  of approximately 540 projects where I received base CAD drawings which reflected the use of some of AutoCADís advanced features, but even they were implemented in a way which made my life (and therefore the production of the projectís design/construction package) more rather than less difficult.


We all (well, many of us, anyway) have read about how some (usually, but not always, large)  project was executed  by implementing cutting-edge CAD/BIM techniques and capabilities which, after an initial teething period, was agreed by all involved to be the greatest thing since sliced bread.


Why then, is one of the most constant complaints we engineers make, the one about how much effort is required to turn the base drawings we receive into something we can actually use?


Autodesk, welcome to the real world.  This part was actually easier in the days of halftone mylars.


Because, as a one-person shop, I have to be many times more productive than a conventional professional design house, Iíve come to use lulls between periods of frenzied production to develop and refine the way I use the product.   I canít tell you how happy Iíd be if someone upstream in my various project design chains had a clear understanding of how to use  AutoCAD, just in terms of turning out a clear, well-integrated, and efficiently produced, project package; BIM and 3D can wait a bit.


Let me tell you what I think does not contribute to such an end.


-The AIA (or any other) Layering Standard. 


Letís see, everything we do is such custom work that our profession is as much art as science, but we gotta wrap it around standard layers, or to compound the counterproductivity, standard symbols developed by some committee or another.


-CAD operators who take the old ďeach draftsman/designer turns out packages which look so different from each other that they look like they came out of different officesĒ affliction to levels only attainable via CAD. (ďTo err is human, to really foul up, requires a computer.Ē)


This is a real shame, and shows the huge disconnect between the AutoCAD knowledge of principals (not infrequently near zero) in some design offices and their CAD operators or CAD manager.  One hopes, that as CAD fluent graduates become principals, this will go away.


-Add-ons such as Autodeskís  Architectural Desktop and Autodesk Building Systems. 


This is the fanny-biting I was referring to earlier.  I mean, we canít even get ourselves to the point where we can get clean unencumbered base drawings when delivered by straight AutoCAD, and this is supposed to help???


I just completed a 28 drawing MEP design package where the base drawings I received did not, thankfully, contain the usual gazillion layers thrown in by the add-on the upstream design office happened to be using.  There were other issues, however, which sent me in a direction where I shot myself in the foot on productivity, spending time on things that didnít require the effort I put into them.


Live and learn.  OK, so whatís the good news?


Well, this last project I was speaking of, was the latest in which Iíve used the technique of putting the work of all trades on the same base plan, and halftoning it as I do the architectural background, for all trades except the one being shown in the drawing.


That is, while I show all the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing/sprinkler work on the same externally referenced background, on, say, the electrical drawings, all work except the electrical work will be halftoned.  Carrying this further, the electrical notes and callouts are only on the electrical drawings, with similar treatment given to the work of other trades.


This is great for coordination of the work between trades, and is easy for me to do since Iím the only one who works on the drawings.  This should, however, be implementable in a multi-person design house via clever use of the office network, file-locking, and automatic writes of temporary ďworkingĒ files from the individual designerís workstation to the central file server.  (I am NOT a big fan of what has become the de facto standard in some offices, where a designer works on one huge file of all the projectís plans, sections, and elevations, and ends up pushing a lot of electrons around, as this begins to become impossibly unwieldy as a project matures.)


Another thing Iíve taken to doing (for quite a while now) is to embedding things like equipment schedules and electrical panel schedules in drawings as live spreadsheets, editable in the source program via a double click on the item in the drawing.  This is merely cool in the former case, and a real time saver in the latter, as the spreadsheet is doing all the necessary bookkeeping math vis-ŗ-vis loading and balancing. 


Iíve also embedded bitmapped copies of correspondence with agencies and utilities in the drawings showing work dependent upon that correspondence. What Iíve been toying with doing next (in addition to figuring out how to make Autodeskís Field and Sheet Set data capabilities work for me) is adding electrical and plumbing layer and symbol information on my mechanical equipment symbol blocks so when I insert, say, a condensing unit on my MEP background plan, it already includes a local electrical disconnect on the electrical layer as part of the inserted drawing.


Now, if only I could get immediately usable base plans.

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