by James Hughes, AIA
Director of Technical Services
When I was a student at Louisiana Tech University back in 2002, we were taught to hand model with chip board and drafting dots (we were too poor to afford balsa or especially bass wood models).

Being a craft-oriented program, we had to seek out permission to deliver designs in AutoCAD – even as late as 2002. This simultaneously helped and hurt us. It helped us develop fundamental design skills at the expense of “real world” design software skills.

We knew that 3D design would soon be upon us, though nobody was saying “BIM” – and this only 14 years ago.

Think about the long transition that hand drafting to AutoCAD drafting had.

Rendering came on the scene shortly after. Back then, renderings were only used for projects holding a price tag in the several millions. Now, even down and dirty parking lots and reroof projects get renderings.

Being an AEC industry software partner to hundreds of firms in many markets has given me an exciting view of market adoption of new design tools. It also has forced me to keep an eye on the horizon for new solutions.

For me, what is most exciting is realizing how faster the profession of architecture has begun adopting new technologies. As ATG began presenting BIM to Virtual Reality workflows to customers last summer, I was surprised to hear that:

  • 25% were already utilizing VR as a visualization tool
  • 50% were absolutely getting into it immediately
  • 25% had no plans of getting into it but still thought it was “cool” – it’s worth noting that this last group tended skew older than the other groups.

It wasn’t that long ago that rendering was seen as a novelty, much like a party trick firms used to win over a client. But what we began to realize was that it allowed the customer to finally understand the space as we already did.

That tool has real value. A similar understanding of volume, scale, material finishes and circulation is just as revolutionary to clients who experience their upcoming designs in Virtual Reality.

Readers should check out Autodesk’s newly announced “Live” service for the immediate future of VR. Most firms are unaware of how quickly their competition is moving into this space.

The workflow of developing renderings in a way that is not coaxial to the flow of producing construction documents will be drawing to a close. Many firms are spending an extraordinary effort with rendering to cross the “uncanny valley” over to the side of having wavy grass that catches the light just so.

All of these firms are keenly aware that these rendering efforts are services that typically do not feed back into the end deliverable of construction documents. This tremendous inefficiency has left room and desire to explore alternative ways to help clients “get it.”

Virtual Reality and drone capture are our immediate horizon of cutting edge. Without much knowledge of Autodesk’s internal development, other than to report that Autodesk previously announced they have been in partnership with Microsoft, I estimate that in four years we will be fully engaged with Augmented Reality as both a design and representation tool.

This will be the real transformation, because it will transform the way that we design and not just the presentation of the design.

I say this at speaking engagements, “The future of design is wonderful and weird.” It is headed toward the direction of personal holodecks. Or maybe more strange, architects renting empty office floors to wander around waving their hands grabbing and discarding virtual elements.

That is a future that is hard to imagine for more than a few seconds at a time.

So how will architects engage with the coming technologies?

I postulate that we will engage with it in the way we have been trained, unless and until a better workflow develops. The way I typically design buildings may be characterized as 60% plan view, 20% elevations, and 20% details.

So while walking around in the middle of a space to bring up walls around me would be odd, it would lack context from a better considered viewpoint. I would rather sit at a conference room table with an Augmented Reality depiction of the 3D object come up. In that way, I would be modeling it from above, but would be able to transition to side views and dynamic sections of areas that I need to examine simply by moving my head or somehow moving my hands in a futuristic power gesture of sliding a building slice around.

What we have coming is both wonderful and weird.



James Hughes, AIA, is the Technical Services Director for ATG USA, Inc., in North Little Rock, Ark. James knew at age 11 that he wanted to be an architect. It began with a love of drawing that turned into a passion for design. In college, he branched into graphic design and earned a degree in that field as well. James has more than 12 years of architectural experience, including seven years in mentored internship and five years as a project coordinator.  As a licensed architect in Arkansas, most of his work has been in the fields of education, higher education, federal, postal and state parks.  James is a certified product specialist in Autodesk Revit and works with customers throughout the Midwest and Gulf South to enhance their design process through product adoption and training.