Image courtesy of Modumate

Architects' CAD/BIM process gets a real-time 3D makeover with Modumate

David Weir-McCall |
May 17, 2021
Richman Neumann knows the architectural industry inside out. He’s designed buildings in seven architecture firms and consulted at fifteen more as a sustainability consultant. In every workplace, Neumann noticed something interesting.

In all of their workflows, he saw the exact problem he’d faced as an architect—too little time for design, too much time spent drafting. As a result, there was no time to incorporate his optimizations for lower energy use, lower carbon footprint, acoustic comfort, and other meaningful design improvements.

The conclusion he came to is simple. “Drafting is blocking us from achieving higher-performing buildings,” he says. 
 

In the face of a growing climate emergency, that truth has far-reaching implications. Buildings represent 42% of humanity’s carbon footprint. This could be reduced by up to 50% tomorrow if we had the time to simulate building performance during design.

At the root of this problem—and many others that architects face—is the simple fact that 3D architectural design tools have become outdated. Even the newest tools lag behind those of other industries in terms of graphic quality, modeling efficiency, UX, collaboration, and automation. 

The only way to solve all these issues at once, Neumann reasoned, was to build a new 3D design platform from the ground up.
 
Image courtesy of Modumate

Minimizing arduous drafting tasks 

Design and drafting are the yin and yang of the architectural designer’s process. Throughout his career, Neumann has loved designing buildings—but hated drafting their construction documents.

Design, which involves choosing and composing the parts of the building, is impactful. It’s fun. It activates an architect’s expertise in aesthetics and their problem-solving skills. It improves the built outcome. But it makes up no more than 45% of the hours spent on a project, often less.

Drafting, which involves creating drawing sheets and adding dimensions, tags, keynotes, legends, notes, and cross-references, is painful. It’s repetitive. Drafting these documents does not itself improve the built outcome—it just explains your prior design decisions to a reader, such as a permit official or a builder. Drafting feels like endlessly repeating yourself. But architects spend over 55% of their project timeline on this task.

If you enjoy designing, drafting all those dimensions and tags is a serious chore. Unfortunately for designers, no tool has been created that can capture enough information to automate this task. Until now.
 
Image courtesy of Modumate

Modumate is a standalone 3D modeling platform that automates construction documents. When a user builds a Modumate model, the software instantly exports construction grade drawings, quantity estimates, and renderings for them. 

Over the next two to three years, the company’s vision is to offer a library of algorithms that automatically add dimensions, tags, notes, titles, legends, and other drawing annotations. Its first algorithms—floor plan massing, framing, and opening dimensions—will be released in May 2021. These will help designers focus on the meaningful, enjoyable work: design.

In essence, Modumate is like a hybrid of SketchUp, Revit, and The Sims. It combines the planar modeling of CAD tools like SketchUp, the parametric assemblies of BIM tools like Revit, and Unreal Engine’s visual quality.

There are a number of well-established CAD and BIM tools available on the market, and architectural designers tend to stick to the ones they’re familiar with. Modumate is intended for use as a 3D companion to a 2D drafting platform like AutoCAD, which it feeds with high-quality DWGs and an increasing number of drafting automations.
 
Image courtesy of Modumate

The software is driven by three experts in their field: Neumann, with his architectural background, is CEO of the company. CTO Jason Shankel spent 15 years at Maxis/EA, 11 of which were spent working on SimCity and The Sims. And VP of Engineering Duncan Boehle, who was Neumann’s roommate at Carnegie Mellon University, worked on the Oculus Home VR title. “We only half-jokingly call Modumate ‘The Sims Pro’ around the office,” says Neumann. 

In addition to the ongoing work around automating drafting tasks, the team have also tackled a number of other problems that have plagued architectural 3D design tools for years: poor visual quality, slow modeling tools, confusing UX, and weak or non-existent collaborative workflows.

Model a complete building more efficiently

Building designers want to design spaces that feel good to live in, and it’s easier to judge (and sell) the quality of a design when the image is photorealistic. Currently, most architects are forced to create 3D models in unrealistic apps, then export to a downstream rendering tool to make beautiful images.

Powered by the photorealistic graphical capabilities of Unreal Engine, scenes designed in Modumate represent the final product much more accurately. This enables architects to design with confidence about the look and feel of their spaces.

When it comes to modeling, most mainstream CAD-based tools encourage users to sculpt shapes vertex-by-vertex. But buildings aren’t sculptures—they’re a kit of parts, made up of components like studs, blocks, boards, panels, and handles. Building designers have recipes for how to assemble these parts—we call these recipes walls, floors, roofs, and doors.

Modumate includes a set of BIM tools for modeling these parts and assemblies in one click each. By working with these BIM objects, architects get a clean, clear model of their building much more efficiently, and Modumate keeps track of all the parts with a real-time quantity estimate, takeoff, and bill of materials.

Modeling in real-time collaboration

Multiplayer collaboration is another concept from the world of video gaming that hasn’t yet arrived for building designers. Mainstream 3D design tools typically only allow one user to work on a file at a time, which means the other teammates can’t productively contribute. Or they perform version control by synchronizing each user to a central model on a push-pull cadence, which means most users are working with a model that is hours, days, or weeks behind their teammates’ latest work.
 
Image courtesy of Modumate

Unreal Engine, meanwhile, offers tools for any developer to add multiplayer features to their app. Modumate leans into its game-like roots to offer architects instant collaboration with their teammates, creating 3D objects side-by-side and using text/voice chat to design together. 

The resulting experience, currently in private beta with public access expected later in 2021, feels like a blend of multiplayer game and 3D productivity platform. In addition to reducing communication lag time, building designers can get more teammates involved in the process, which leads to better design.
 
Image courtesy of Modumate

Customizing with source code access

Unreal Engine has been at the core of Modumate since its inception. “Unreal Engine has paid for itself many times over,” says Neumann. “It’s like having a whole team of computer scientists, gameplay and graphics programmers, and more, on your side. And most importantly, Epic Games is growing a community of avid fans faster than any other engine. We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Duncan and Richman had been discussing Modumate’s core concepts informally since they were roommates at Carnegie Mellon University. “We knew from the start that Unreal was the engine for us,” says Neumann. “Our team loves C++ and isn’t afraid to modify the engine’s source code when needed—something that isn’t possible on some other engines. And Epic Games continues to push boundaries faster than any other engine developer.”

With free access to the source code enabling the team to make its own customizations, and the engine’s powerful native features providing the horsepower for development, the Modumate team was able to get to market much faster. “Unreal Engine probably accelerated our development by 18 months,” says Neumann. “Since they’ve solved all the general problems of making a beautiful 3D app, it allows us to focus on the specific goal that Modumate’s going after: a new BIM model that can automate drafting.”
 
Image courtesy of Modumate

A bold vision for building design

“There’s a classic saying in technology,” says Neumann. “‘The next big thing will start out looking like a toy’.”

Modumate is aiming to become a multiplayer OS for construction. Construction projects have a multitude of stakeholders—the owner/developer, the designer and their consultants, the builder and their subcontractors, the insurer, the operator and occupants, the permit official, the buyer, and the lender, to name a few. 

They all have things to say and questions to ask about the building. “With Unreal’s graphics and Modumate’s BIM semantic model, there’s never been a clearer single source of truth or system of record for them to all get on the same page,” says Neumann.

The result: designers spend their time in a bright, cheery, collaborative, virtual 3D environment as they design and build buildings better and faster—and they let automation handle the paper-pushing tasks like drafting documents.

It’s a bold vision for the way buildings are designed in the future—and one that has the potential to make life for architectural designers far easier.
Image courtesy of Modumate

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