Real-time and BIM tools: building a seamless archviz workflow

Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) professionals have long used a multitude of architectural software packages to create architectural designs. A vibrant ecosystem of BIM and CAD tools has developed over time, with tools like ARCHICAD, Revit, SketchUp Pro, RIKCAD, and Rhino forming a staple part of the architect workflow for years.

Today, more and more AEC professionals are turning to real-time technology for the interactivity and super-fast rendering it offers. It’s now possible to take the multiple different file types created by the different CAD design tools, and convert that data quickly for use in a real-time engine. 

This enables architects to use the design software they know and love in a seamless workflow that leverages the benefits of full interactivity and immersion. 
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects, Line Creative, and Epic Games
When established CAD tools can interplay with game engines unhindered, real-time features such as the ability to create VR experiences, present designs effortlessly, and build digital twins supercharge the architect’s workflow—and put new capabilities at their fingertips.

Introducing Datasmith

Recognizing that real-time tools like Twinmotion and Unreal Engine could be game changers for the AEC sector, Epic Games has taken up the cause for better, faster, more accurate CAD and BIM conversion to their real-time file formats. The result enables architects to use the design tools they love alongside powerful real-time rendering in a seamless workflow. 

In 2018, Epic Games released Datasmith, a way to convert BIM and CAD data into the Unreal Engine format. Datasmith is designed to convert scenes from a variety of programs including Revit, 3ds Max, SketchUp, SolidWorks, and Rhino, just to name a few

You choose what to export, and Datasmith performs intelligent conversion, including preservation of instances.

Best of all, when you make changes to your design in your software program afterward, simply re-export and click a button in Unreal Engine, and all your changes will propagate into the scene without you having to re-apply materials or other properties.

With some architectural software formats, you can also import metadata. For example, for a floor object, you might store its structural material or even physics properties such as its strength or its heat transfer coefficient.

Epic has continued to add new converters and improve existing ones based on user feedback, with its most recent version of Datasmith released less than two months ago.

VR experiences

With BIM and CAD data quickly ingested into the real-time engine, new opportunities arise to create immersive experiences. Twinmotion and Unreal Engine include functionality for virtual reality experiences, lending them to interactive VR for collaborative review. 

Zaha Hadid Architects, for example, utilizes Unreal Engine as an integral part of its pipeline for design, generating interactive VR walkthroughs for everything from the first conceptual drawings to final client approval. They find that this workflow gives them the ability to visualize the client’s vision much faster, and with less friction, than ever before.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects | ZHVR Group
Similarly, architecture studio KA DesignWorks uses Twinmotion paired with a HTC VIVE to leverage the software’s powerful VR capability. On a recent project to reinvigorate an intriguing building with spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, this VR functionality enabled the studio to make improvements to designs that could have gone unnoticed in 2D renders. 
Image courtesy of KA Designworks

Keeping it simple: Twinmotion

Architects might not need all the functionality that Unreal Engine offers, which is how Twinmotion came into play as a real-time rendering solution. Twinmotion is designed to keep things super-simple, with a focus on presentation. For example, the Royal Horticultural Society recently used Twinmotion to generate a VR walkthrough of a new 154-acre garden, giving its designers the ability to explore the entire project before a single shovel hit the ground. 
Image courtesy of THINKlab, The University of Salford
Twinmotion features direct one-click synchronization with ARCHICAD, Revit, SketchUp Pro, RIKCAD, and Rhino, enabling architects to go from CAD or BIM design to VR in seconds. 

In the Netherlands, design visualization agency PLAN34 uses Twinmotion to present urban development designs at stakeholder meetings, helping guide them through the project in real time and show designs from different viewpoints. 
Image courtesy of PLAN34
When PLAN34 needs to provide a presentation for clients to explore on their own, it uses the Twinmotion Presenter. This feature enables the studio to share individual projects in a standalone viewer, in small executable files that can be viewed by clients and stakeholders without having Twinmotion installed.

This is where Twinmotion really shines—for projects that are all about visualization and simple interaction, designers are finding they can create a collaborative design experience with Twinmotion in a fraction of the time previously needed.

For those who do have a need for complex or data-driven interaction, Unreal Engine is a better choice.

Data-driven 3D models

Unlike traditional renderers, Unreal Engine offers programmable logic. Data—whether from object metadata or a database—can be fed into the engine and made to drive changes to materials, animation, visibility of objects, and just about anything else you can control parametrically. 

This functionality lends itself to a variety of interactive uses—including the digital twins of buildings or even entire cities, where a virtual version of a physical entity is used to monitor or control the real-life structure through analysis of elements like internet of things (IoT) data.
An innovative example of this is the 3D-printed miniature of downtown Tampa created by IMERZA, in which projection mapping and real-time technology were combined to visualize real-time data, providing a unique way to market real estate and assess urban development.

Training and learning options

A recent survey by CGarchitect found that of respondents who are currently testing out rendering engines, 43% are experimenting with Unreal Engine, and 22% are trying out Twinmotion.

Many learning resources are available to help new users learn these tools, making them easily accessible for those looking to explore real-time rendering for the first time. 

A three-part learning course covers the fundamentals of getting up and running in Twinmotion, including a comprehensive overview of its user interface and tools, as well as how to import ARCHICAD, Revit, SketchUp, and FBX content; how to add life to a Twinmotion project using materials, landscape, entourage, and lighting; and how to create images, movies, construction phase animations, and VR applications using the tool. 

Unreal Engine beginners can get started with a wealth of tutorials, such as the one that explains how to export models from Revit to Unreal Engine, or the course that covers everything you need to know about creating architectural exteriors using the toolset. 

Dedication to visualization

Epic Games continues to push the envelope of both conversion and rendering processes, with ongoing research and surveys to find out what users need. Unreal Engine now offers features that rival the finest offline renderers, features like soft shadows and ray-traced reflections. As for conversion tools, Datasmith itself has been updated several times over the past two years, and currently works with more than 20 CAD software packages.

So don’t get frustrated over poor conversion processes to traditional offline renderers. Move on over to seamless conversion to real-time tools, and enjoy a shorter, happier, and more efficient workflow.