WRITING THIS FROM BOSTON, it seems hard not to think about this as a 21st century Boston Tea Party moment. Except, it’s not being handled that way. At least not yet.
On July 27, a group of global and elite British design firms, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Grimshaw, and Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners, and nearly two dozen others, sent a public letter to Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost asking essentially for more attention in the development of Revit for architecture practices working at the leading edge of design, while simultaneously committing to fairer and more stabilized pricing.
Questionnaire and Letter
Approximately four weeks ago a questionnaire was circulated among IT and digital design directors in London firms, equating to approximately 5,000 paid seats and USD 22 million of revenues (2015 – 2019 time frame) amongst 25 large practices with most of them having international operations. Eight firms chose not to sign the letter but completed the questionnaire. The signatories include:
- Allies and Morrison
- Aukett Swanke
- BVN Architectural Services
- Corstorphine + Wright
- Fletcher Priest Architects
- Glenn Howells Architects
- Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners
- Scott Brownrigg
- Sheppard Robson
- Simpson Haugh
- Stephen George + Partners
- Wilkinson Eyre Architects
- Zaha Hadid Architects
The questionnaire contained nine questions (you can download the letter and questionnaire here) with a rating scale between 1 and 10 (1 being strongly disagreed and 10 being strongly agreed). The questions focus on the Revit platform but also on issues like Autodesk licensing and industry-wide demand for data interoperability. The net sum of the results of the questionnaire is, given the context of this development, substantially low. (The average response was between 1-3.)
There are three primary areas of concern for most firms behind this letter. The first area of concern is Revit’s lack of development and progress. A single issue highlights this area—Revit runs best on computers with high-frequency clock rates (high GHz) because it is single-threaded and does not make much use of today’s modern multi-core CPUs. (I will touch on this more later below)
The second area of concern is Autodesk licensing models and increasing costs for Revit. The firms in the questionnaire say their Revit licensing costs have increased by 70 percent and beyond from 2015 – 2019. The most pressing issue emerging now is the new named licensing model and the elimination of network licensing.
And finally, the third area of concern is more about getting Autodesk to change its culture with respect to how they see and work with their clients (customers). This part of the letter hasn’t been touched on as much in the broad news coverage this “letter” has received this week. The letter explicitly references Microsoft’s “reinvigoration under Satya Nadella” and largely suggests by way of light comparison that Autodesk would find greater success if its mindset and culture reflected this quote provided in the letter:
“First we needed to obsess about our customers. At the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet customers unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. There is no way to do that unless we absorb with deeper insight and empathy what they need.”
This quote comes from Satya Nadella—Hit Refresh: The quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a better future for everyone, page 101.
So at issue on this final third point is that these British design firms feel that Autodesk lacks the mindset and empathy needed to understand their needs.
A Quick Check-In
All of the reports thus far that we have read fail to reach out directly to hear from any of these British architecture firms. We had the chance to hear from Scott Brownrigg and we also tried to hear directly from Autodesk and who appears to have sent the same reply to the media:
“We are aware of the open letter from several design firms addressed to Autodesk. We take their feedback seriously and are currently reviewing its contents to inform our response and address their concerns.”
We look forward to hearing from Autodesk hopefully soon but in the meantime, Simon Jardine, Technology Director, and Shareholder at Scott Brownrigg, was happy to discuss with us at length why his firm got behind this letter and what they are hoping will come of it.
I’ll be short with you and jump to that last part. What they are hoping for is real change.
Specifically. “What I really want to see with Revit,” says Jardine, “is it sits on a truly multi-user relational database; it has a modern front end that truly uses every bit of horsepower in a computer, and is very responsive and allows users to do those changes very quickly—multiple users in the same model working together without any conflicts on changes.”
That’s just part of what Jardine says Scott Brownrigg really wants. They want what has been clarified in the letter. They have been told for years that Autodesk was working on a future beyond Revit that got beyond Revit’s modern-day shortcomings. Revit’s future was supposed to become liberated from its underlying 20 years old code—a codebase written in the era of computing when all anyone of a practical and conservative nature could seemingly envision was Microsoft’s continued PC era dominance. Nobody back then saw the future of the iPhone and iPad, Apple’s second era ascendency, Google’s ascendency, and the era of social media and mobile + cloud-first software development.
Architosh has discussed at length Project Quantum, for example. But Autodesk for years has been coy about its next-gen Revit future. (see: Architosh: “Autodesk Explains Project Quantum—And Why It Matters in AEC,” 3 May 2017) With the media and perhaps more cleverly with its own marquee customers. Now a revolt of sorts has broken loose, styled in a conservative manner via the “open letter.”
For all intents and purposes, Autodesk’s client firms behind this letter appear to want a no-fuss about-face change. A true rebellion appears to them too costly but isn’t out of the picture. Simon Jardine told me that when it comes to rail projects, his firm uses Bentley software because many clients of that project type demand it. He hinted they could perhaps use it more. But when I asked him directly if his firm is that unhappy why not just switch to another BIM player he demurred and suggested no other player (other than Autodesk) has the “gravitas” in the industry.
So you are always compromising your setups either one way or the other to get the ideal workstation in the hands of the architects.
This notion about gravitas is something many of my colleagues in the media would likely challenge. But the really interesting observation about this choice of word is the letter’s overall soft but pleading tone. Nowhere in the letter is there any kind of threat. It is as if they are all consigned to a future that has already been mapped out before them but the terms of that future continue to change.
Indeed, the latest licensing debacle is the new names-based licensing model. As Simon Jardine explains it, it means ultimately more cost because every user of Revit—regardless of how little and less often they touch Revit—will need their own named license. Today firms use multi-user network licenses and here is why.
“…the way our architects work is that people don’t spend the whole day sitting and working in Revit. Parts of their work-life are spent in there and parts are not. But having a named license for all of them means we have to buy more licenses and the costs just keep going up.”
All architecture firms are comprised of staff at various experiences and responsibilities. Mid-level and up architects increasingly take on project management roles and tasks and do far less drawing, modeling, production of any kind, and instead spend time in meetings, on phone calls, and on building sites. At different times they dip into production and design tasks and at that time they need access to Revit and other similar tools. So licensing models should reflect that type of access load.
And speaking of other similar tools. Today’s modern architectural workflow is a fast-moving target of change. Visualization is a big part of that change and those tools excel on modern multi-core CPUs. Even Revit itself is recognizing this with its Unity-based connections to new visualization features. But Simon Jardine is correct when he says, “So you are always compromising your setups either one way or the other to get the ideal workstation in the hands of the architects.”
This story started by mentioning the Boston Tea party, that first moment in the liberation of the American colonies. Taxation without representation is sort of what this letter feels like. Except, in this case, increases in licensing costs without consideration of what really matters to these firms in the analogical equivalent.
Nobody wants to throw Revit into the ocean, however. Instead, they are asking Autodesk to simply respond to this letter in a Nadella-like manner. And they are being explicit.
The letter asks Autodesk to form a transparent action plan that is “customer-centric, non-adversarial, innovative, progressive, and deliverable” that includes these core things:
- a vision, roadmap, and investment strategy that targets adding value and performance for design-based organizations that prioritize the replacement of Revit from the ground up to reflect the functionality needed for a 21st-century digital industry.
- a commitment to continuously improving the application, and industry interoperability (including IFC) as well as expanding geometry support and alignment to international data standards.
- engagement to build a cultural partnership with all customers based on trust, empathy and respect
- a proposal for cost stability
- research and development commitment that is, focused on the needs of the global design community
Readers please take note of the first bullet point. Revit was supposed to be replaced with something new. It may have had backward compatibility with Revit or good interop with Revit but it was meant to be a ground-up brand new codebase. In other words, it was to Revit what Fusion has been to Autodesk Inventor.
As we move forward with this evolving story, insofar as our hoped-for contact with Autodesk is concerned, what we most want to hear about is where the company actually stands with regard to the future of Revit.
Our next task with this story however will take us deeper into the needs of the firms who have signed this letter. If you are a firm not on the letter but want to talk to us about Revit and Autodesk, please be sure to email us or make a note in the Comments box below.