Lobbyist Wars and the Development of BIM. Part 3: Fathers of BIM Technologies. Who is behind the success of Autodesk and openBIM

In this article, we will highlight the work of all the major “fathers” of BIM technology, who developed CAD tools in the 80s and 90s. We will also analyze who is behind the success of buildingSMART and corporations such as the Nemetschek Group and Autodesk and why the old Autodesk programmers did not like the Revit developers, and the Nemetschek company refused to develop the IFC format.

The main events tree will help you follow the information in this part. With this diagram, I want to show that small ideas and developments were transferred from one development group to another, where, after a new reading, they turned into CAD programs that are used by designers around the world today. The starting point in the scheme was taken from technical universities, from which future CAD tool developers emerged. In the course of the article, separate parts of this scheme will be analyzed.

How the University of Munich created the IFC format.

To the first part of this topic – I was often asked the question why the software produced in Europe is more open and compatible than software from other countries of the world. Why is Europe a good example of the diversified use of BIM software (openBIM)? This “openness” is associated with the active use of the IFC format and openBIM programs. To understand where this diversification or, more precisely, fragmentation in approaches to BIM design came from, let’s look at the history of the openBIM movement.

It is well known: everything related to BIM, openBIM, IFC, Revit – all this was invented by the forward-thinking and progressive company Autodesk.

Still, the history of openBIM does not begin with Autodesk, but with international projects, which were dealt with by the German design office Obermeyer GmbH. The design office under the leadership of Leonard Obermeyer successfully worked on the implementation of both large projects in Germany and international projects in Europe. Since Obermeyer was dependent on international projects, the head of it, Leonard Obermeyer, actively collaborated with the heads of American corporations, such as Patrick MacLeamy (CEO of HOK) and John Walker (Autodesk, Inc.).

Munich colleague of Leonard Obermeyer, Georg Nemetschek, at the same time was categorically against cooperation of German companies with Autodesk and other foreign companies, since such partnerships opened the German market for CAD software creators from other countries. Georg Nemetschek has been developing highly specialized software (mainly for calculating statics), which he has sold since 1977. He believed that local software manufacturers were not yet ready to compete for the CAD planning market in Europe with startups of the early 90s such as Autodesk, Graphisoft and PTC.

In the late 1980s, Obermeyer began to work actively with international architectural firms and suppliers of building elements and structures (such as Honeywell and HOK) in the design of the new Munich airport. The Obermeyer bureau had a task: how in large international projects (for example, the construction of an airport in Munich) to transfer information about a project and a model to production in different regions of the world, where each country has its own rules, its own units of measurement and its own norms.

Fortunately for the builders, just by this time, the problem of standardizing geometric elements had already been solved by the “richer” military industry of the NATO countries, which in the late 1970s, at the height of the cold war with the soviet union, came to the need to standardize data exchange in the production of military equipment. In this regard, in the circles of specialists and scientists, mainly engaged in computer graphics and geometric modeling, a corresponding initiative arose, which was supported by US and Western European firms engaged in the development of complex military equipment for NATO countries. And already in 1985, the US Department of Defense announced plans to create a global automated system for electronic description of all stages of the design, production and operation of military products.

In a few words – by the mid-80s, the military began to exchange data with manufacturers in a neutral standard and produce complex designs through a common data format – STEP.

But after the end of the Cold War, by the end of the 80s, interest in the production of military equipment and the development of the STEP format dropped sharply. The military gains gained during the Cold War are beginning to seep into the civilian sector. ISO standards from the military industry in the STEP format go to the Technical University of Munich, where Richard Junge and his team of students, including Thomas Liebich, seeing the “success” of military equipment designers, try to create a similar data transfer format for the construction industry. Without reinventing a new wheel, Richard Junge takes the military STEP format as a basis, so as not to create a new geometric kernel and develop a format that will become independent from CAD manufacturers.

Quoting Richard Junge in 2000:

From the planning process to construction and budgeting, today each load-bearing component of the model is entered into the data processing system at least six times. This not only takes time, but also carries a huge risk of errors, which can now be drastically reduced by using IFC for data exchange.

Obermeyer (in that time he was 60) patronizes his former faculty and, in close contact with the Richard Junge team, turns to his friend Patrick MacLeamy (CEO of HOK) with the idea of creating a global format for the exchange of construction data.

Patrick MacLeamy, seeing the perspective and scope of the project, brings the whole topic with certification and the creation of a (cartel) organization for writing rules and using the new format to the United States. Further development of the IFC format is transferred to the Autodesk company, which, taking over the Munich developments, is additionally trying to rebuild the format to suit its needs. A few years later, in 1994, Autodesk registers the entire development of the IFC format in its name. Patrick MacLeamy, displacing German roots from all history, creates, together with Autodesk, the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) of American consulting and telecommunications firms, which write standards and rules for the use of this new IFC format according to their requirements.

The IAI is officially registered with the Chicago Chamber of Commerce in 1994. The Americans completely take the initiative to further develop the format and write standards. And in 2005, organizations with an incomprehensible abbreviation IAI were given a more hype and understandable name – buildingSMART. From this point on, buildingSMART aims to establish its own rules of the game in building design throughout the planet Earth.

And Patrick MacLeamy, the creator of buildingSMART, becomes famous for claiming to be the first to develop the concept of the McLimie Curve in 2004. However, it later becomes known that the basis of these ideas and similar curves first appeared in an article written by Professor Boyd Paulson in 1976 about 28 years before the “MacLeamy Curve” developed.

BIM’s father – creator of SONATA or RADAR CH?

If the format for (open) BIM modeling was one – STEP / IFC, then with regard to the first real program for BIM (3D) modeling, everything is much more complicated. These are RUCAPS, Sonata, Reflex and RADAR CH. But which program was the first to truly be used for BIM modeling?

RUCAPS was the first program to be used in conjunction with a single workstation for real building design. Developed by British engineers Dr John Davison and John Watts who worked on a project for the University of Riyadh, RUCAPS has become one of the prototypes and reference points for many subsequent programs in BIM modeling. RUCAPS pioneered the concept of construction in phases, which greatly helped in the construction of the third terminal of Heathrow Airport in London. These and even earlier developments, perhaps, later formed the basis of the programs that became the real prototypes of the already modern programs – Sonata and Radar CH. But which came first: Sonata by Jonathan Ingram or Radar CH by Bojár Gábor and Ulrich Zimmer? Who can be considered the father of BIM?

Many sources on the Internet indicate that ArchiCAD (the first version was called RADAR CH) in 1984 became the first BIM software available on a personal computer. Outside experts noted that in the 1980s, Soviet engineers were ahead of their Western counterparts in topics related to computer graphics and geometric modeling. Because exports to communist countries were limited, programmers from the Soviet Union used to work on very small and simple computers. This meant that they had experience creating relatively complex software that could run on relatively simple hardware.

Dr Jonathan Ingram, in turn, claims that the first BIM software was his Sonata program, published in 1985. In support of his words, he refers (in personal correspondence with me, unfortunately, I cannot verify their authenticity) to open letters from the creator of ArchiCAD, in which Gabor Bojar admits that Sonata also influenced the creation of RADAR CH.

Quoting Gabor Bojar: “We always highly respected and regarded Sonata as one of the best if not the best competitor of ours in the early days of our market entry in the UK. We particularly admired that this excellent piece of software was written by a single person, when all other competing solutions (including our one) has been built by large development teams. In addition, we agree that from quite a few technical point of view Sonata was more advanced in 1986 than ArchiCAD at that time. We still believe, however, that the first release of ArchiCAD in 1984 (called RadarCH on Apple Lisa) with its 3D building modelling capabilities, parametric and intelligent 3D objects, can be regarded as a pioneering predecessor of BIM. Having said that we agree that in 1986 Sonata surpassed already the matured definition of “BIM”, specified only about one and a half decades later. Regarding the influence of Sonata on the ArchiCAD development, it naturally influenced us, without infringing any IP of Sonata or T2. Competitors always do study and influence each other, this is a standard and fair business practice, as long as competitors refrain from infringing each others.”

On the internet, you can also find an image (right) from Graphisoft (RadarCH), which is considered proof of the first visualization in 1984.

All in all, there are more questions than answers in this story. There is a question about the first Radar CH rendering, since Macs with colour support did not appear until 1987. But why did Steve Jobs bet on a Hungarian-Soviet startup behind the Iron Curtain and did not negotiate with close startups that developed software in Silicon Valley (most likely, Gabor Bojar was illegally able to import several Mac computers to Hungary and rewrote his software from slow Soviet computers on a fast Mac). When asked how Gabor Bojar got access to Sonata’s work, Jonathan Ingram chose not to answer in writing.

In short, a tangled story in which only Interpol, the CIA and the KGB can help us figure out who, when and from whom took the ideas. Or maybe these two programmes had a common theoretical basis.

I would assume that both Radar CH and Sonata software started from a common theoretical basis (RUCAPS or its equivalent). But the Hungarian Radar CH was only a 3D system, with limited parametric components, while Sonata already had some advantages in creating working drawings, e.g. elevation plans. As a result, after both systems were published, these programs may have later taken inspiration from each other. As Gabor Bojar said:

Competitors always do study and influence each other, this is a standard and fair business practice, as long as competitors refrain from infringing each others.

At the same time, on the other “more successful mainland”, a new era of CAD and MCAD software is dawning with PTC (Nasdaq: PMTC) and its innovative Pro/ENGINEER product.

The Creation of PTC and the Emergence of Solidworks and Revit

In 1974, the Russian mathematician Samuel Petrovich Geisberg, professor of mathematics at Leningrad University (now St Petersburg), emigrated first to Israel and then to the USA (Geisberg’s wife, who worked on military projects in Leningrad, emigrated to the USA a few years later).

After several years in the United States, Geisberg proposes to develop a radical new approach to CAD software — a program based on solid geometry and using parametric, feature-based methods to define parts and assemblies. No company Geisberg worked for agreed to fund his ideas, and he decided to start a new company to develop cutting-edge design software.

So in May 1985 Samuel P. Geisberg founds Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC Inc.). And in 1988 the company introduced their first commercial Unix-based product called Pro/ENGINEER, immediately involving John Deere as their first customer.

Heisenberg’s quote:

The aim is to create a system that is flexible enough to encourage the engineer to easily consider different designs. And the cost of making changes to the design should be as close to zero as possible. In addition, traditional CAD / CAM software of the time unrealistically limited the ability to make inexpensive changes only at the very beginning of the design process.

So Pro/ENGINEER became the first CAD software for parametric modelling of solids. What set PTC apart from other software vendors was the overall completeness of the entire planning cycle. Pro / ENGINEER was the first to develop !the concept of a single data model for the entire project! this concept was later successfully implemented in Revit by Leonid Raiz, a former graduate of the same Leningrad University (and most likely a former student of Geisberg) and a former PTC employee.

Pro / ENGINEER has revolutionized the MCAD (Mechanical Computer Aided Design) market. Element-based parametric modeling, which is the foundation of Pro / ENGINEER, will dominate the industry for a quarter century, and all the leading MCAD systems (CATIA, NX, SolidWorks, Inventor and Solid Edge) will become the conceptual successors of Pro / Engineer.

In 1995, Jon Hirschtick created a new startup, SolidWorks, and recruited a large number of PTC developers along with PTC Vice President and Development Director, Michael Payne. PTC is suing Solidworks for poaching employees, but both companies managed to settle the case before too much damage was done. Solidworks immediately becomes the main competitor to Pro / Engineer and in 1997 the French company Dassault, best known for its CATIA CAD software, acquires SolidWorks for $ 310 million.

PTC’s revenue, with its core product Pro / Engineer, rose sharply from $ 163 million in 1993 to $ 809 million in fiscal 1997. In the same 1997, the revenue of the entire Autodesk corporation was half that of PTC and amounted to $ 497 million. While AutoCAD boasted limited 2D modeling functionality, PTC has become a true 3D design program for the entire engineering industry. By the mid-90s, the company’s clients were BMW, Fiat, Ferrari, Toyota, Hyundai, PSA and Volkswagen, Caterpillar, John Deere and other major players in the global industry.

By the mid-90s, Pro / Engineer became a global leader in the engineering planning market. Now, to seize the initiative in the less lucrative construction industry, in 1996 PTC buys the Sonata program for $ 32 million from developers Jonathan Ingram and Gerard Gartside. By this time, Sonata had already been reborn as Reflex and was actually used on only a few projects in England. But PTC believed Reflex could form the backbone of a new product line for integrated building design.

PTC paid dearly for the relatively immature Reflex software and grossly underestimated the effort it would take to create a competitive architectural building design program. As a result, PTC was unable to release a decent product for the construction industry and sold Reflex technology to the Texas company The Beck Group.

The success of the SOLIDWORKS team, which built the product from PTC and sold the product for 311 million to Dassault Systems, apparently influenced two more PTC employees. With the knowledge of working with Pro / ENGINEER and Reflex, two of PTC’s top developers – Leonid Raiz and, a year later, Irwin Jungreis split from PTC and in 1996 found their own software development company called Charles River Software (in Cambridge , Massachusetts, where PTC and Solidworks already had offices). 

Leonid Raiz and Irwin Jungreis saw the prospects for a combination of Pro / ENGINEER and Reflex, and, apparently, did not agree with the sale of the product to the Texas company. Therefore, he sets out to create a version of the software that can handle more complex designs than ArchiCAD, while still leveraging the ideas of the general model and parametric design that he gained while working on Pro / ENGINEER and Reflex. The code for the new program was written by Leonid Raitz’s team from scratch so as not to violate PTC and Reflex patents. But how long did the startup Revit have before investors wanted their money back in 2001? The problem with Revit’s monthly subscription model was that money was slow in coming in, and the company had a cash gap by the end of each quarter.

If you take 60 Revit employees who earned an average of $ 100,000 per year, and if Revit received $ 100 a month per subscription, then the company needed 5,000 subscriptions to pay back the investor’s investment each month. How long will it take for Revit to grow to 5,000 subscriptions and just recoup recurring costs?

It was this question that most likely drove Leonid Reiz to sell the company for $ 133 million to Autodesk.

How BIM startups evolved. Mergers, acquisitions, and history.

In 2002 Leonid Raiz sells its startup Revit to Autodesk. Sales of Revit licenses provide explosive growth of Autodesk corporation, and already 3 years after the purchase, in 2005, Autodesk sells 60,000 Revit licenses per year, and since 2019, Autodesk makes a billion in revenue from Revit product every year. Thus, the small corporation Autodesk, which grew by leaps and bounds in Silicon Valley, with its only successful 2D AutoCAD product, the developers of RUCAPS – SONATA – Pro / ENGINEER presented the opportunity to become the world leader in 3D design.

Those who are the first to do great things usually fail, but they leave the conquered footholds to those who follow them. Samuel Butler

How did the rest of the BIM startups from the 90s evolve?

ArchiCAD, which was originally conceived as a CAD program for pipeline design, has become a successful Hungarian startup in the European market. After the publication of the IFC format, Graphisoft discovers that ArchiCAD is ideal for working with this format and begins to actively implement the use of the IFC format in its products, which allows ArchiCAD to enter the global software market and by the early 2000s become a leader in structural design. Perhaps the IFC format suited Radar CH well, since some of the meanings of the created STEP overlapped specifically with RUCAPS, or with another similar program that Gabor Bojar took as a basis for his Radar CH.

The Nemetschek Group is a quiet and confident player in the European CAD software market with its small, specialized design products. At one time he refused international cooperation and the development of the IFC format, but in 2006, out of fear of a sharp expansion of Revit, he buys Graphisoft and becomes Revit’s main rival. With the purchase of Archicad, the Nemetschek Group finally discovers the openBIM theme with its global mission and, together with the buildingSMART cartel schemes, enters the battle for the planning market in Europe.

Meanwhile, corporations such as Autodesk and Nemetschek continue to promote ideas from the 80s and 90s as their unique advantages, while they are silent that they got these technologies rather through a happy coincidence, and hide their roots and their history. so as not to remind once again how equal everyone is.

BuildingSMART will not mention the German roots in the creation of the IFC format and the buildingSMART organization itself, having set itself the goal of becoming the global Internet in the construction world and turning into the Soviet Union with membership cards, its own ideology for using IFC and “passports” – buildingSMART Certification.

Graphisoft and Gabor do not like to remember their communist roots, they only remember their “successful” heroic struggle against the Soviet regime and the installation of the world’s first monument to Steve Jobs.

Autodesk does not like to mention IFC and buildingSMART, after developers in 1996 could not cross their 2D products with the IFC format (as today, no developer can normally “make friends” with the IFC format with Autodesk programs).

We can also only imagine how thousands of Autodesk programmers in Silicon Valley – the creators of a program that did not have significant changes from year to year – in the early 2000s could not stand a dozen “brazen upstarts” from the East Coast (with a Russian background), who wrote an improved copy of Pro / ENGINEER over the years from scratch. And the head of Autodesk at this time, Carol Ann Bartz, not expecting a significant profit from this “startup”, after purchasing in 2002 described Revit as a “small experimental user base” (speaking of predictive capabilities of company heads).

In conclusion

The question of who can really be considered the father of BIM will probably forever remain open. 

Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. John F. Kennedy, 1946

We can say that the real father of BIM is the ideas of Soviet and British mathematicians and programmers who were able to grow on the fertile monetary soil of investments in the United States.

And Samuel Geisberg helped his former PTC employees create startups that, after being sold to corporations, today set the direction for CAD and MCAD planning worldwide.

During the 80s, the time of the acute phase of the struggle between communist and Western ideology, in a time of lack of transparency and the inability to bring a product to the market as fast as TikTok is spreading today, creating programs was a dangerous and thankless task. Our generation today has the opportunity to develop software from comfortable chairs, programming new tools and at the same time watch Youtube videos on the second monitor, ordering pizza through Uber.Eat

But Charles Eastman, Samuel Geisberg, Robert Aish, Georg Nemetschek, Jonathan Ingram, Bojár Gábor and Leonid Raiz – I think they would agree that they were not inventing anything super new. They took the designs of their older colleagues and teachers and gave these old ideas new meaning and new design.

Developers who have successfully sold their product, as a rule, leave the project after the sale – they buy real estate in Silicon Valley and become venture capitalists themselves. Further interest in product development decreases, and as a result, all the ideas that were bought at the peak of their development live another 10-20 years of rich life, after which they transfer their positions to new tools. Developers from the old team usually cannot settle into the new parent company and leave. And then someone from the old team in the next cycle starts creating new tools, improved versions of the ones they got from their teachers.

We can only hope that in our time the Internet and professional communities will replace universities for us and that such new self-taught students will increasingly create Open Source products.

And Autodesk, PTC Inc. and Nemetschek Group would like to wish that instead of multi-million dollar bonuses to their managers, they transferred a couple of million euros to charitable accounts at the Technical University of Munich, St. Petersburg and Liverpool.

And then, perhaps, fate, after 30 years, will give these corporations the opportunity to buy some good product created by graduates of these universities.

I express my deep respect to all the individuals, developers, firms and corporations mentioned in this article. Thank you very much for your work and for the products you have gifted to the world. 🙋‍♂️ The article contains a large number of facts, dates and connections. If you have any additions to this scheme, or if you find a discrepancy in the specified data, please write to me. I would be glad to receive your comments, clarifications and criticism. I will be happy to add updated or new data to this diagram. Thank you very much for your understanding. I’m looking to new сontacts: https://www.linkedin.com/in/boikoartem/

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jonathan ingram
jonathan ingram
3 years ago

The first colour image on a Mac was in 1987 when Apple bought out a colour monitor. Radar CH image above must have been from 1987 or afterwards

1 year ago

Really enjoying your research and ontology, keep up the great work