Some Other Brics in the Wall
Jerry Laiserin

Psssst. Want the automatic 2D output and coordinated 3D change management benefits of a building modeling solution? Don't want to give up the productive familiarity of your old standby CAD software? Prefer to minimize your financial risk while you explore new ways of working? Rather not wait seven or ten years for the perfect migration strategy? Then maybe you should be looking into BricsCAD Architecturals.

Anyone who's been dismayed or intimidated by the complexity and difficulty of tools such as Autodesk Architectural Desktop (ADT) will be pleasantly surprised by BricsCAD Architecturals (BCA). Working either as an add-on to AutoCAD or to low-cost DWG "clone" IntelliCAD, BCA adds all the architectural intelligence one might expect, without sacrificing one's investment in AutoCAD skills and data.

The big issues are connectivity and change management. Everything in a BCA model is connected in logical and predictable ways, which makes it possible to change the model with logical and predictable results. Model walls, floors and roofs are all linked in a manner analogous to that of their physical counterparts—drag the north wall some five feet (about 1.5 meters), and the east and west walls stretch to follow, along with all foundation, floor and roof slabs. Because BCA uses the DWG format for geometry and the XML data format for attributes it is more open and extensible than many other design tools on the market.

BCA is somewhat hobbled by its tangled and confusing corporate parentage. Back in the mid-1980s, some design software developers in Belgium founded an outfit called BricsWorks—more of a technology company than a product company (BricsWorks seemed to gain more from licensing its core software to other developers than from retail sales). Those were the days when the first wave of what we now call Building Information Modeling (BIM) was rising. Folks in the UK were working on a system called RUCAPS, while USA-based Intergraph struggled mightily with a magnum opus called Master Architect, and IBM worked with design giant Skidmore Owings Merrill on what became the IBM/SOM AE Series (AES).

The idea then, as now, was to move AEC design software away from mere digital replication of the paper-based orthogonal drawing process and towards a model-based design process (3D + data) from which paper-like drawings would be byproducts rather than end products. In such systems, drawings are just another type of report from the model database.

Intergraph failed to fully commercialize its announced plans for Master Architect. By the late 1980s, many of the developers who worked on RUCAPS moved on to develop another modeling product called Sonata, which was sold off in 1991 to Alias (who tried, with little success, to market it as Alias Sonata). BricsWorks licensed its core technology to IBM, coincidentally around the same time that IBM was developing AES.

The mid-1990s, saw a second wave of attempts to commercialize the BIM concept. Autodesk acquired architectural add-on vendor Softdesk and began to develop ADT. BricsWorks licensed its technology to Bentley Systems, who combined it with elements of PowerArchitect (an add-on acquired from Ideagraphix) to create what we now know as TriForma. Some of the same folks who'd worked on RUCAPS and Sonata developed yet another modeling product, called Reflex, which was sold off in 1997 to MCAD developer Parametric Technology Corp (PTC) (who tried, with little success, to market it as Pro/Reflex—although the PTC employees who, also in 1997, founded what would become Revit Technology insist there's no connection, many observers note strong similarities between late Reflex and early Revit; PTC ultimately sold exclusive rights to its Reflex technology to Texas-based design-build firm The Beck Group, where it forms the core of their DESTINI, or DESign ESTimating Integrated INItiative; Revit, of course, has since been acquired by Autodesk).

Like other design software vendors (e.g., Autodesk with Buzzsaw and Bentley with Viecon), BricsWorks' founders moved to take advantage of Internet collaboration by forming BricsNet in 1999. In addition to its extranet system Project|Center (acquired from the New Hampshire-based Evolv), BricsNet continued development of its core design software technology, which became BricsNet Architecturals. After some financially difficult times for BricsNet (now a publicly held company whose principal asset is an interest in the privately owned BricsNet|FM, which in turn owns the aforementioned Project|Center and the real estate-oriented Building|Center that had been acquired by BricsNet from the California-based Viscomm), BricsNet's other assets were sold off, typically to their original owners (as is the case with the Architecturals design software, acquired by BricsCAD, a new company formed by some of the original founders of BricsWorks).

The point of this convoluted tale is two-fold: first, today's BCA product harkens back to roots in prior waves of BIM technology, with core concepts similar to or genealogically related to those interwoven into "big-name" BIM products such as Autodesk Revit and Bentley TriForma; second, BricsCAD as a company is separate and distinct from BricsNet and BricsNet|FM and their challenging financial histories.

Those facts make BCA a worthy contender for serious consideration by anyone interested in a quick, comfortable and low-risk way to explore the potential of "third-wave" BIM technology. For less than US$1,500, one can buy a full license of BCA to run on top of AutoCAD. For those who don't have an extra AutoCAD license floating around, BricsCAD will bundle an IntelliCAD license with BCA, at an approximately 10% up charge. A "Limited" package is on special sale for a fraction of these already astonishingly low prices—as little as US$350 (the principal limitation of the "limited" version is the absence of most of the building component libraries that ship with the full version of BCA).

I last took a full, hands-on look at Architecturals (then part of BricsNet) in December 2000 for CADENCE magazine. Although much of the product's detailed functionality has been improved and upgraded since then, my two-years-ago summary assessment still holds:

"…first class architectural modeling and data-handling capabilities on top of plain vanilla AutoCAD. This approach leverages intelligent design while preserving production compatibility. All the bells and whistles are present in this affordable add-on package… Intelligent 3D objects within the context of familiar AutoCAD commands; all objects and models created in Architecturals are viewable in AutoCAD without additional applets or enablers; extraordinary intelligence and programmability; aggressive price for the functionality; forward-looking emphasis on underlying data—acquisition, integration and transmission throughout the building life cycle."

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