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Of Autodesk and the Freedom Tower

Lessons for software developers?

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Autodesk is famous for Autocad and it is the market leader in computer-assisted design, with some 2500-plus third-party developers producing complementary products.

Developers might like to think about this – developing for a specialist platform - if you're good, might cut down on competition and give you a measure of career security.

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM), the architect firm, for example, used the AutoLISP programming environment in AutoCAD to create new tools for modelling, analysis and documentation, just for the Freedom Tower project - rebuilding the World Trade Centre site post-9/11 - although they will doubtless have wider application.

However, Autodesk claims to be an ideas company, not just a specialist 2d and 3d design automation company (in support of this, it was one of the sponsors of Ted Nelson's ground-breaking Xanadu project). The results of the collaboration of SOM with Autodesk Consulting (and also with Jaros Baum & Bolles, JB&B, the M/E/P engineers on the project, and WSP/Cantor Sinuk Group, CSG, the structural engineers), also appear to bear this out.

The Freedom Tower is an extremely visible project, politically, and consequently high risk. SOM has used a range of Autodesk products including Revit, an architectural design and documentation system, and Buzzsaw, (a collaboration management tool, to produce a “virtual project environment”, to help to minimise this risk.

This environment enables engineers and architects to visualise the emerging design in 3d, animate the design as, for example, the sun passes overhead and shadows change, and identify and mitigate any issues before they are committed to concrete. However, the project and information management tools behind this make it more than just a cosmetic picture.

Although it is early days yet and the functionality of the building simulation is pretty basic, it has the potential to transform the building process, according to Phillip Bernstein, VP building solutions division at Autodesk and lecturer in Professional Practice, Yale University School of Architecture. The essence of this approach, perhaps, is the avoidance of process waste by using automation to avoid "information backflow".

In the conventional process, at the end of every stage in design and construction, information is rationalised and committed to paper for handover to the next stage and whatever doesn't reach paper is lost; it is then laboriously built up again before the next stage can really get underway. In contrast, automation allows the outputs of one stage to be transformed into the inputs for the next, without loss.

Paul Sefetsky, digital design director, SOM NY, gives a fascinating picture of this new process in action. He shows that by modelling construction itself you can promote collaboration and deliver what has to be an iconic building – which can be seen (in simulation) to be iconic, a symbol of the recovery of NY post 9/11, long before the project completes in 2010.

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