Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 6 (June 2001)

Web-based Architecture

Jerry Laiserin, FAIA

as an architect helping other architects align their practices with new technologies, I am often asked, "Is this, at last, the year of 3D CAD in architecture-especially since the Web makes 3D easier than ever?" To answer, I consider two factors: potential architecture-specific 3D Web standards and the emergence of a "killer app."

Regarding 3D Web standards, thus far they have been slow to emerge because of the limited penetration of the technology in architecture. According to CyberEdge Information Services, architecture barely makes it into the top five uses of visualization/simulation technology, garnering just 3.5 percent of the market. As a result, the Web 3D Consortium, successor to VRML standards groups, is now focusing on formats such as RM3D, a rich media open standard for 3D broadcast content. Also, while proprietary 3D Web formats exist-from Actify's Spinfire to Adobe's Atmosphere-these are geared for mechanical CAD or entertainment, rather than for CAD for architecture, engineering, and construction.

Meanwhile, the number of vendors offering 3D Web formats have dwindled. Vuent, with its enVision navigable Web 3D that looked promising for architecture, was acquired by iEngineer, an ASP not directly serving the AEC market. Even Viewpoint, which numbers VRML pioneers Cosmo and Intervista among its corporate ancestors, now avoids the term VRML and the perceived limits of AEC CAD. This leaves RealityWave as one of the few surviving architectural CAD Web 3D vendors.

The good news is that a potential 3D Web standard for architecture is emerging from the International Alliance for Inter operability (IAI), a consortium of AEC vendors and users in the process of XML-enabling their Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs). Vendors are beginning the process of IFC-compliant certification for their products, including Microsoft (Visio) and Graphisoft (ArchiCAD). This effort may achieve the critical mass necessary to establish a de facto standard.

In terms of a killer 3D app for AEC CAD, while architects, clients, consultants, and contractors have readily adopted post-and-host project extranet services, most implementations of CAD publishing, viewing, and annotating have been limited to 2D. In fact, files in Autodesk's DWF or SoftSource's SVF CAD/Web formats are typically displayed in 2D Java-based viewers from companies like Cimmetry, Infor mative Graphics, and ZoomOn. And while a uniform 2D vector graphics standard such as SVG, which is espoused by Adobe and others, would speed adoption of 2D CAD on the Web, it would get us no closer to a killer app for architectural 3D.

On the other hand, virtual construction, or schedule simulation, with interactive 3D animations of building assembly on an element-by-element basis may be that killer app generating demand for architectural 3D on the Web. Any architect who has administered a construction project in the field will be instantly seduced by the predictive power of pre-construction virtual walkthroughs over the Web. The potential time and cost savings from avoiding just one conflict, such as a pipe running through a duct, or a duct running through a structural beam, easily justify the investment in a virtual construction system. Once implemented, such systems will support 3D collaborative design, Web-based architectural and zoning reviews, and so on.

The leading contender to commercialize virtual construction is VirtualStep of Hayward, California. Its Project Navigator is a downloadable ActiveX control that the company says will be consistent with a Web 3D standard when one is finalized. Project Navigator models can be constructed from 2D AutoCAD files or imported directly from Auto CAD Architectural Desktop or Bentley Systems' Mic ro sta tion TriForma, two of the leading architecture-specific 3D CAD tools.

With a Web 3D standard providing the means and virtual construction and schedule simulation providing the opportunity, it would be a crime if 2001 were not, at last, the year of 3D CAD in architecture.

Architect Jerry Laiserin, FAIA, provides strategic consulting services to architects and their technology providers. He can be reached at