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Why Your Org Should Develop Software

11 Jun

If only there was a way to move this to here and make this load automatically in there and all I have to do is press a button, then I could get straight to the part of my job that requires personal attention and knowledge and not have to keep doing the same ten steps over and over.

I hear this a lot. When someone has been in a position long enough, they quickly discover routine tasks that could be automated or ways to make them more efficient. What started as a desire to simplify my job and not waste time performing rote tasks turned in to a career out of writing simple applications to make everyone’s routine tasks easier.

This worked well for me in small companies that lacked resources – and were forward thinking. They didn’t know python from perl and didn’t care. They knew a task that took days now took hours – with no money being spent – and that was enough.

Enter the large organization.

The large organization buys its applications. They have accounting software, web servers, databases, Cognos, SharePoint, and GIS applications. When you have a task that needs to be accomplished, you use one of these applications. If you can’t, go buy something that will.

This line of thinking results in inefficient workplaces.

Joe needs to grab a field from a database and put it on a website. Great, our organization has software for that – Cognos. Does Joe really need a massive Cognos report to display data that really only takes 3 lines of code?  No. So what are his options? Build it or buy it.

These daily tasks that are needed by individuals are often too specific to be solved by off the shelf applications and also simple enough that they could be built in house – the sad part is they aren’t.

The Case Against In House Development

In house development is prevented for a variety of reasons. My favorites are:

Who will maintain it?

  • We can’t have an employee wasting time fixing applications, that costs money.
  • When the employee leaves, who will maintain it then?
  • When we need updates, who will do it.

What about security?

  • In House applications are not secure.

Who is accountable?

  • If we buy it, we have someone to blame when it all goes wrong.
  • We have someone to sue if something goes wrong.

The Case for In House Development

These reasons for not pursuing in house development seem reasonable enough, but we need to examine them and the alternatives.

Who will maintain it?

You need someone to maintain it and it should be your in house development team. It is not a waste of money. If the application results in efficiency gains, they need to be measured with the costs of building and maintaining the application. Who maintains vendor applications? The vendor. But do they maintain it for free? Not always. Need something fixed in your application because you got rid of your image server for ESRI Rest and now your vendor applications don’t work? Too bad. You broke it, not them. Pay, and maybe they will fix the application for you. Did you upgrade to IE 9 because of another application and now your primary doesn’t work. Oh well. Your vendor doesn’t have an IE 9 version yet. If you need a new feature, will your vendor add it? Will they charge you for it? What if your vendor discontinues the product? No support for you – unless you buy the new version or application.

What about security?

I hate this argument. I understand that you have no confidence in your in house developers but to think that because a developer works for a vendor somehow makes their applications more secure is absurd. Let’s just assume that they are more secure for now. Security is measured in what we know today.In 1995, developers were not thinking about SQL Injections. Their applications were secure – as far as they knew. Time proved them wrong. While many rewrote them, we still find these insecurities today. The point is, as technology changes, we see new security holes. While you can protect yourself with what you know today, protecting against the future is difficult. And if you need a fix, will your vendor provide it quickly and cheaply?

Security is not a function of company size and reputation. Microsoft produces software that has numerous vulnerabilities. Of course their software is huge, but so is the company. ESRI ArcServer 10 is subject to cross site scripting vulnerabilities. ESRI has no updates for 10 so you need to buy a newer version. But I haven’t been using 10 for very long and my budgets are tight. Can’t I just get a patch? Nope.

Software is hard and hackers are looking for ways to exploit it. You can code with what you know to be best practices but the key to security is fixing known issues as soon as they arise – not waiting on purchasing to approve a contract for a fix – if your vendor has got around to writing one.

Who is accountable?

Organizations like to be able to point the finger at someone else, but this doesn’t make you function better. If you are a government and are providing a service that doesn’t work, the public could care less who built it, they just want it to work. If they find out you paid a large sum of money for the complicated, buggy, requires a plugin application they are using they are going to be more upset that their tax dollars when toward it.

Go ahead, pass the buck, but your users don’t care. They want to get their jobs done, or interact with your organization. And if it has your logo on it, it’s you even if you didn’t build it. So if you are going to let a vendor control your image and reputation, good luck. At least you can spend even more money to sue them when it fails or when they lose all your customers social security numbers.

One word for you: Healthcare.gov.

The feds paid millions for a website that was a complete failure. Nobody cared that the government didn’t build it. The government got the blame for hiring an inept vendor and for spending millions and getting nothing. Can you name the vendor? No, because even you don’t care – it was the governments fault. In response to this fiasco, the feds started 18F and the US Digitial Service – in house developers. But your organization doesn’t need developers because you’re special.

 

The best software is software you use.

The best software is software you use. Basecamp is a popular project management application that started out as the developers internal project management app. They wrote it for themselves. Now, over 15,000,000 people have used it. Git is another example. Git is a revision control system that was developed by Linus Torvalds for his work on maintaining the Linux kernal. It is the most widely used software management system.

Your organization knows what it needs. If it can build it, you will be better off. I am also a realist. I do not think you should build everything. But for the small tasks that make everyone more efficient, why not?

 

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Schedule Revit and Non-BIM Data in Excel – Live

4 Feb

There is a plugin called from Ideate called Sticky that looks like it could be useful, but after watching the video I have come to the conclusion that this is an awful idea. The plugin allows you to bring “non-BIM” data in to Revit. From what I can tell, it provides a live link to an Excel spreadsheet in your Revit Project. This means you can drop the schedule on to a sheet and it will look nice – not like taking a screenshot or other workarounds. The part of this that irks me is that there is no link between the non-BIM data and the data in the linked spreadsheet. And, how much space is this link taking up in my model? I do not need my models to be any larger. Why not create a schedule with a live link between non-BIM data and data you have in a Database? Then you can PDF it and add it to any sheet you want. In my last post, I showed you how to create a view that had Revit data and data joined from another database. In this post, I will show you how to schedule them in Excel.

Get the Data

Open Excel and select the Data tab. Then choose From Other Source. You will be prompted for the database connection. As we have been using SQL Express for the previous posts, that is what I will stick with.

Other Source

When you click next, you will be able to choose the view you created in the previous post.

view

Click through until completed and place it at cell a1. You will then have a table in Excel of your data.

done

I know have non-BIM data merged with BIM data straight from Revit. It is not as pretty as the forms on the Ideate video though is it?

How to Format the Sheet

The data comes in as a single table. The rick to using this data with your existing forms and formatted documents is to link it. When you import the data, do so on a different sheet in your workbook. For example, you probably created your perfectly formatted schedule component on sheet 1, so bring the data in to sheet 2. Then you can copy and paste a link from a cell in the table to the correct cell in your schedule. Below I copied a link from cell c5 to h5. Now the data is exactly where I want it.

pastelink

Hey, You Said Live?

The data may not be live at the moment, so let’s check on it. Select the properties of your data connection and make sure you enable background refresh, set the refresh interval and why not refresh the data whenever you open the sheet.

refresh

You can also click the Refresh All button if you don’t feel like waiting for the refresh interval.

So I have a link in cell h5 just sitting there. I will change the data in the database and see what happens. If I change the 1/2 bathroom to “converted to full bathroom” the table and the link will both update within a minute – or I can refresh all when I made the change.

linkchanged

We did it. Now, whenever the Revit model is exported using DBLink, our spreadsheets will all update with the correct information. We can then use Adobe for printing and adding to our Revit sheets.

 

Revit REST API: Building as a Service

21 Jan

I have written a few posts on Revit and Databases: Revit DB Link pluginModifying Revit Data through the Web and  Linking a Revit DB to a QR Code.  I also wrote a post on the idea of downloading a building.  As I have been doing more coding, a mashup of these posts has finally hit me. I can download a building through the web and I can do it by creating a REST API on top of a Revit model exported to a database. This post will demonstrate a simple Building API using Revit.

The API

I am going to use a RESTish API. I use the -ish because there is no real specific for REST but rather guidelines. The way it works is you submit a get, post, delete or put request and get a JSON response. For this example I am going to hack together two endpoints: getWalls and editWalls. They will be located at http://localhost:8081/revitAPI/getWalls and http://localhost:8081/revitAPI/editWalls.

getWalls

When we hit the endpoint for getWalls, we want to have all the wall information returned as JSON. In this example, I will return the id and comments only. The page returns:

[{“id”:184159,”comments”:””},{“id”:184183,”comments”:””},{“id”:184205,”comments”:”Paul-NewestNewest-Comment”},{“id”:184237,”comments”:””},{“id”:184261,”comments”:””},{“id”:184290,”comments”:””},{“id”:184337,”comments”:”My Other Wall”},{“id”:184406,”comments”:”My Wall”},{“id”:184441,”comments”:””},{“id”:184476,”comments”:””},{“id”:999999,”comments”:”999999″}]

editWalls

editWalls takes two parameters: id and comment. Passing a valid wall id and a comment will result in the Revit Database being changed to reflect the new comment. If successful, the endpoint will return:

{“result”:{“status”:”Success”}}

Putting it Together

Now I have two RESTish endpoints. What do we do with them? Below is a simple webpage that edits and retrieves the wall table from Revit.

Capture

 

Clicking get walls returns a list of walls.

Wall Schedule. Notice the Badge Displays the Number of Results.

Wall Schedule. Notice the Badge Displays the Number of Results.

 

The edit walls menu allows you to put text in the box and it will return the wall schedule with the value of wall 184205 changed.

Paul Comment was added

Paul Comment was added

I can then open Revit and see the changes after loading the DBLink plugin.

Capture2

Thoughts

While this post seems similar to my post on modifying Revit data through the web, you are correct, but there is one fundamental difference – the model can now be queried. In my earlier posts, I only went one way- web to Revit. In this post, the model can talk to us and tell us what is in it – Revit to web. While I only displayed a table of results, you could query by height, area, sort, filter, or perform a whole host of operations on the results of the getWalls endpoint. Furthermore, you now have the ability to make the data public. Anyone could write a webpage analyzing your building data and if you do not allow edit capabilities, there is absolutely no risk to your model.

Note To Architects: If you designed a single front end to a Revit REST API, you would only need to change the urls to ship it to every client you have a BIM for. Write once, sell multiple times. As an architect, why stop making money when the building is complete? Why not get in on the facility management side and make money for the life of the building?

Making Money With BIM

29 Oct

Once in a while I will post something nontechnical- a rant if you will. Today is one of those in a whiles. My experience in architecture has led me to believe that architecture firms care only about construction drawings and the tools that are immediately required to produce said drawings. That is being a bit harsh, they might throw in a render here or there. Research and development are nonexistent as is exploring new technology. Maybe I should restate my previous claim that architects care only about CDs and say that: If it ain’t billable, it ain’t doable. Architects also seem interested in selling their design services only. The economic downturn should have taught them that they possess more than design skills and there is money to be made in other areas – but I fear it did not. Let’s explore making money with BIM in light of these observations about architecture firms.

BIM is expensive – if you buy Revit – and has a learning curve. Training doesn’t come cheap and lots of firms want to hire a BIM specialist to train everyone to keep costs down. This just results in slower learning and inefficiencies in projects. Firms tend not to give the model away and can’t command higher commissions because they use BIM. The client only wants the CDs anyway so why would they pay extra for anything else? If all this is true, how do we make money with BIM?

The usual way to justify BIM is that you will save money by decreasing the number of change orders or competing your project faster. This is the old sell my design skills thinking. Why not leverage the model to sell additional services on the back end.

Architectural data a a service.

The architect has a model that can be updated throughout the lifecycle of the building. Repairs and maintenance on the building can be updated in the model and given back to the client. The BIM can be sold as a subscription based software package for facility management through a web based front end. The client doesn’t need, nor do they often want, the BIM in some proprietary format like .RVT. They want a schedule and maybe an image showing where something is. This makes the task even easier. 90% of a clients needs will be updated properties of the building – not changes to the geometry. Simplifying the job even further. Data is valuable. Data is worth $$. The architect holds more data about a building than the owner. Multiplied by the number of buildings the firm has built.

Why let a client go when a building is done? Architects need to expand their services. Architects hold data that is vital in operating the building for decades to come. The data was created and paid for during the design of the building. Any money made off of it after design is profit. How easy with all the tools available today to stand out and find additional revenue streams based off work that is already being done. It could be something as simple as handing over an HTML version of an owners manual – not a pdf. Or if a pdf, at least embed hyperlinks or other interactive features.

The future of architecture is data. Those that have it and can use it will win. Design is important, and always will be, but the services you can provide above and beyond that is where value resides for you and the client.

This concludes my rant. It is lacking in detail but it is my preliminary thoughts on the issue. The ideas need to be flushed out and elaborated on but the meat is there.

Architectural Criticism

29 Nov

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized…Think big. –Daniel Burnham

Architectural Criticism is dead, and so is the architectural critic. We just don’t read about architecture. I pre-ordered Alexandra Lange’s book “Writing About Architecture.” I even wrote a short piece on it at The Urban Times. I care about the built environment but I am not an architect. And I know far too many architects who have no interest in architectural criticism. Who think Ada Louise Huxtable was Bill Cosby’s wife on the Cosby Show and that Bjarke Ingels wore a swan dress to the 73rd Academy Awards.

Bjork: Icelandic Singer

Bjarke: Danish Architect

If architects show little interest in the current state of their field, why should the rest of us? Because we are forced to live in it, to look at it, to work in it. Architecture affects our lives more than almost any other discipline. What gets built is of crucial importance to all of us. It is the role of the architecture critic to educate us, the non-architects, about what is built and why we should or shouldn’t like it.

Do I need Paul Goldberger to tell me whether a building is good or bad? While he may provide a context or background I was unaware of, I can come to my own conclusions as to the aesthetic of the building. If I think it’s ugly, Goldberger is not going to change my mind. What he, and so many other architecture critics are doing, is writing for each other, for the architect, for the intellectual. The rest of us don’t know all the jargon. I couldn’t tell you Bauhaus from my house. The jargon and the pseudo-intellectualism is the primary reason that we do not read about architecture.

Another reason that we don’t read architecture is because we don’t care about a building in Qatar or China – even if it is by Hadid or Gehry. Did you know Zaha Hadid is designing the new National Stadium in Japan? Did you care? Does this change the way you live your life? Do you now have a strange desire to see all buildings NURBy? Buildings go up in every city. The majority of which receive no fanfare. They are designed and built by local architects, that nobody could name. There are no movies about these architects. They are not celebrities. But they impact our lives. These are the architects we should care about. That we should be reading about. I spend more time in Home Depot than the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Should a critic write a review of Home Depot or Starbucks?

Beijing National Stadium: The Bird’s Nest

Architectural critics write about new buildings by starchitects. Goldberger, in a speech “Architectural Criticism in the Age of Twitter,” said:

Crowdsourcing is not the express train to wisdom. The most popular is not always the best. The new is not always easy to understand. And the last word will always be history’s. But this is always the critic’s challenge. In an age in which attention spans are ever shorter, it is the critic’s job to take the long view.

This sounds fantastic! The critic takes the long view. But does he? He reviews a building when it’s built, or maybe when it was designed and planned. But does he ever go back and re-review the building. Does the building function? How has the building aged? Does it still function as intended or was it modified? His long view is one of more thought – not just initial reactions and tweets of images. But this intellectual thought does not improve the building. In a few years we will all know what we think of the building and nobody will remember the critics review.

If a building is a failure, does criticism prevent the same mistakes in the future, or are we too late? A failure of a building is an expensive mistake that we must live with for decades. If criticism doesn’t educate us, it does nothing.

Pruitt-Igoe: A massive failure that lasted 20 years.

While we may not be reading about architecture, we are reading about the City and the Urban. Maybe this larger view is the future of architectural criticism. The design of buildings is important in what they contribute or take away from the system. Some critics and writers, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, have always looked at the surroundings of a building – the impact that it had on the city. Jane Jacobs also has more of a mass appeal than Paul Goldberger. The rest of us care about our surroundings. But we see them as larger than a single address. They are our cities and towns. This is the puzzle we are putting together and trying to understand.

Architects and critics need to expand their view. To look beyond the property line.

…..to think Big.

What Should Revit Be?

2 Nov

I received a comment on my post “Report Revit Unconnected Wall Heights“:

LOL… as long as you don’t mind inaccurate results! If the wall in question has door/window openings then your wall area figure is not that of the entire length of the wall. Autodesk needs to address this now – it’s ridiculous that we even have to have these conversations….. just make the damn paramter accessible!

The comment is correct, of course if there is an opening the formula is off. But it’s algebra and I assume you know that. But, this post gets at an important question: what should Revit be?

I alluded to the answer in “BIM: Split vs Merged Models.” Revit should not be what I think this commenter wants it to be – all things. I hear this a lot – Revit should do this and why can’t it do that? Because, it cannot do everything. What it does is one thing really well – model. AutoDesk has included the tools in Revit for you to make it do anything you want – the Revit API. Can’t program in .NET? Then hire someone who can and build what you want. You need to learn to modify your tools. Look at Ghery, HOK and SHoP Architects, they do. Call Case Inc – they can build it for you. But if you expect an out-of-box application to provide every functionality that only you may want – you’re SOL.

I think Revit should stick to modeling. What I would like is for Revit to allow me to export my model to a database just by clicking R–>Export–>SQL Server. And bring it back – or at least join a DB to Revit. Then I can use the database to handle the data. And I can use Crystal Reports.

We can disagree on what Revit should be, but we should be able to agree that an architect must learn to modify his/her tools and to be able to create their own tools.  If you have a pen that only writes in green – replace the cartridge, don’t cry to the manufacturer to make it in red. Want to use “sf” in Revit schedules but hate that you can’t sum in excel because the field is now text? Write a formula like INT(=LEFT(A2, LEN(A2)-2) ) to strip it. Don’t cry to AutoDesk that when you export it doesn’t export as an integer.

Architects need to learn to use information – it is the I in BIM. To learn, you need to go outside of architecture to the land of information systems, computer programming, and statistics. – they exist but outside your site boundary line. It’s alright to cross it, I promise, it’s safe…

BIM: Split vs. Merged Models

1 Nov

As we move to BIM, architects need to acquire new skills, particularly in the area of information systems. In school, magazines, and competitions, images are what matter – design is king. Design will always be important, but we are in an information age of architecture. BIM, Energy Modeling, and Form Finding using Scripts are the new architecture. Databases have become a tool of the trade and I fear that architects are lacking in their knowledge of them – if you refer to an Excel spreadsheet as a database, you are lacking. I am not advocating that architects become programmers and information systems experts, but I am suggesting that without at least basic skills you will fall behind. AutoCAD has had a LISP environment since 1986 yet the majority of architects I know would tell you that LISP is a speech impediment. How little knowledge we have of our tools. It’s like using a pencil but ignoring the eraser on the end and starting over whenever you make a mistake.

 

My interest today and the reason for this post is to offer my two cents on the difference between split and merged models.

 

Simply put, a merged model is a model with geometry and data combined. This would be a Revit model where all the data about the objects – rooms, walls, doors – exist in the model. This is the model type that Revit leads you toward. And what happens when you embed large amounts of data in to Revit? Your file size becomes massive and performance takes a hit. For what? So that you can create a schedule later or to color code a floor plan? What if you need this data for something else? Are you going to export it to CSV every time you need it? What about a client? Are they going to need Revit to update the information about their building?

 

A split model, on the other hand, is where the geometry and the data are in different systems. The geometry is in your Revit model and the data is in a database – SQL Server or MySQL. A split model is superior to a merged model and this is what we should be aiming for.

 

There are certain pieces of data that will always be in Revit. The area of a room or a wall should be determined by the geometry, not entered in a database. But the overriding point is that the model should have the geometry and an ID for each object. That is all. You should have a database with tables for Walls and Rooms and these tables should have an ID and the rest of the data – use, type, department, fire rating, load bearing.

 

So how do we create schedules and create fancy color coded plans without the data? We use a JOIN and connect the tables of data to the geometry based on the ID.

 

The data about our building will change far more often than the building. Painting walls, replacing doors or carpeting can be updated in a database. The model only needs to be updated when something is added – an addition – or removed – demolition.

 

Another reason for split models is that we should keep our tools separate. Do you really need a 3D modeling application to also be a full blown database application? No. We only need the ability to connect them. Let Revit do what it does best – model.

 

Planners use split models in GIS, programmers use a Model-View-Controller framework and web developers have been working to remove the code and logic from the design of web pages for years. This is nothing new. Architects need to look at how other professions have solved this problem and learn from their best practices. I remember a quote from an officer in the Coast Guard that went something like this: “The data about our buildings is worth more than the buildings themselves.”