Rethinking Revit: Our Stockholm syndrome

Rethinking Revit: Our Stockholm syndrome

Over recent weeks there has been a furore surrounding Autodesk and their flagship product, Revit. An open letter to Autodesk called into question Revit’s value given escalating licencing costs with stagnant product development. Some long-term customers have even begun considering abandoning Revit altogether and switching to rival software. So how has all of this come about and what’s to take away from the situation? This article offers an alternative view on the matter, suggesting a whole rethink of our relationship with Revit altogether.

The Autodesk open letter

For years, Architects have complained about Revit’s lack of development and rising costs. However, much of this fell on deaf ears. But last month, something very unusual happened. Seventeen firms, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and Grimshaw, published an open letter demanding better value.1 It was not unusual in the sense that someone wrote an open letter – this has happened in the past. It was unusual in the sense that it received the attention of Autodesk’s CEO.

A few days after the open letter was published, Autodesk’s Senior Vice President, Amy Bunszel, responded.2 And this is where things start to unravel for Autodesk. Autodesk predictably went into PR mode and tried to minimise damage. Bunszel claimed, “while we don’t agree with everything in the letter, we are committed to listening.” This comment served only to fuel the fire, and social media went into overdrive. For some, it was not about cost and performance. Instead, it was about Autodesk’s hollow promises of listening to customers when history has repeatedly demonstrated that this is not their modus operandi

With anger growing, Autodesk’s CEO Andrew Anagnost finally responded, some three weeks later.3 The post acknowledges the fact that Revit’s architecture functionality didn’t progress as quickly as it should, but he disputed many other points in the original open letter. One of which is that Autodesk, are working on the ‘next-generation platform for AEC’, a subject which we’ll return to later.

Annual report

At the same time, while all of this was happening, Autodesk released their annual report.4 This report was fascinating reading. As a publicly listed company, Autodesk must disclose detailed financial and operating information – possibly the only opportunity for outsiders to get an accurate view of the facts, free from any PR spin. Some of the key points from the report include US$1.4b in revenue – 30% derived from AutoCAD, while 35% from the AEC collection (which includes Revit). The biggest competitor is considered Adobe, while Andrew Anagnost’s total package is US$11.5m. Stock price increased by 34% in fiscal 2020, 70% over the last two fiscal years and 142% over the last three fiscal years. With record profits and unhappy customers, what is one to make of all of this?

Stockholm syndrome

There has been much discussion about what Autodesk’s monopoly means to the AEC industry. At this point in the debate, many will simply say, if you’re not happy with Revit, use another software. But as Daniel Davis describes:

“practices are so invested in Revit that it can be hard to escape. Companies didn’t just buy a Revit license— they trained staff to use Revit, developed Revit content, and conditioned clients to expect Revit deliverables. And in doing so, they are at the mercy of Autodesk’s next action or inaction, as it were.”5

Of course, architects only have themselves to blame for this. For years, BIM managers have championed Autodesk’s closed ecosystem to minimise IT management and eliminate perceived interoperability issues. In many ways, what we are witnessing in the industry is the psychological condition known as ‘Stockholm syndrome’, where kidnapping or hostage victims have feelings of trust or affection towards their captor. We know monopolies are bad for the consumer, but yet we remain inactive – afraid to change software and afraid to retrain staff. 

The innovator’s dilemma

In our previous article, ‘Understanding innovation‘, we discussed the ‘innovator’s dilemma’, as championed by Clayton Christensen.6 Christensen’s research demonstrates that by listening to customers and giving those customers what they want, has repeatedly sowed the seeds of every successful company’s ultimate demise. This demise is because products frequently overshoot what the market demands, and once a product is ‘good enough’, customers will switch to the cheaper or more convenient option.

Chart showing the impact of sustaining and disruptive technological change

The impact of sustaining and disruptive technological change7

If you consider customer segmentation according to Everett Rogers’ classic bell curve, the signatories of the open letter are arguably early adopters/early majority. And as Christensen and Raynor describes8, customers in the highest or most demanding tiers may never be satisfied with the best that is available. These customers are defined as those who are willing to pay for increases on some dimension of performance. Conversely, those in the lowest or least demanding tiers can be satisfied with very little. These customers are those who would rather make a different trade-off, accepting less performance in exchange for lower prices.

Diagram showing Everett Rogers’ classic bell curve of five distinct customer segments—innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards

Everett Rogers’ classic bell curve of five distinct customer segments—innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards

The real question we should be asking is, “is Revit meeting market demands relative to their target market?” While Autodesk loves showcasing generative design, 3D printed bridges, and other bleeding-edge technology, their target customer segmentation is non-consumption – those who aren’t even using Revit. In this context, there is some logic to Autodesk not investing in developing Revit. By listening too heavily to the demands for improved functionality, there is a strong possibility that Autodesk will overshoot market demands.

Good enough

Given the content of the open letter to Autodesk, I appreciate the irony in suggesting that Revit may be overshooting market demands. But consider this, if architects really wanted the Rolls Royce of BIM, why aren’t they using Dassault Systèmes Catia? Catia is infinitely more powerfully than any of Autodesk’s software. So why don’t more architects use it? Quite simply because it is expensive, prohibitively more expensive. Dassault Systèmes doesn’t publish the price of Catia, but as the saying goes, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. Catia has massively overshot what the architectural market demands and so architects have looked elsewhere for a more affordable product in Revit that is ‘good enough’ for its needs.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for Revit users to claim that Revit shouldn’t be further developed for fear of over-shooting market demands. I too would love to see improved functionality in Revit as it would make my day-to-day activities significantly easier. But I also acknowledge that Revit is not the future and that R&D investment would be better spent elsewhere.

Jobs to be done

Clayton Christensen argues that people ‘hire’ products on a ‘jobs to be done’ basis.9 When customers become aware of a job that they need to get done in their lives, they look around for a product or service that they can ‘hire’ to get the job done. Theodore Levitt famously said, people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.10

people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole

When Revit was introduced some 20 years ago, the job to be done was, “how can I efficiently document my project?” Revit was remarkably successful because it solved this job to be done. It provided three main benefits which AutoCAD couldn’t:

  • Consistency. Revit demonstrated it was possible to have plans and sections in sync, thereby ensuring more consistent and accurate documentation;
  • Collaboration. Revit allowed multiple users to edit the same file; and, 
  • Coordination. Revit allowed users to create 3D elements from 2D views to understand designs better.

But like the Shavasana pose in yoga, many quickly realised that it is easy to do, hard to master.

Of course, there were many other benefits afforded by Revit, but these were the most compelling. But like the Shavasana pose in yoga, many quickly realised that it is easy to do, hard to master. To create basic designs was easy, very easy. But it took years to become an expert and understand the ins and outs. Only a seasoned user, for example, will know that to create a ramp, you should use a sloped floor and not the actual ramp tool. And there are hundreds of scenarios like this one.

Next-generation AEC platform

But Revit is now 20 years old and the ‘job to be done’ is changing. It is no longer about documentation a project, but about many different jobs:

  • Analysing contextual data;
  • Performing basic environmental analyses;
  • Harvesting and reusing design intelligence; and
  • Developing assets for fabrication.

Revit is incredibly poor at all of these jobs to be done. However, that doesn’t stop it from trying. But at some point, the swiss army knife approach of trying to get Revit to do everything will no longer work. Users will begin to demand dedicated tools for each of the jobs to be done. Of course, this concept is not new.

A diagrammatic workflow of Project Quantum, Autodesk University 2016

A diagrammatic workflow of Project Quantum, Autodesk University 2016

In late 2016, Autodesk announced Project Quantum, possibly one of the most conceptually exciting approaches to creating an AEC software ecosystem. Project Quantum was later was renamed Project Plasma, but the fact is that it’s been four years and Autodesk have been very tightlipped about its development.11 Many, including myself, are hopeful that Project Plasma is followed through to fruition. But Autodesk has a habit of killing off products faster than Game of Thrones kills off characters.

The answer to the wrong question

Revit was designed to improve how architects and engineers document buildings. The issue, however, is that it was the answer to the wrong question. The question should never have been, “how can we document a project better?” Instead, it should have been, “how can we design and construct buildings better?” When all you’ve had is AutoCAD, Revit was a godsend. But we must acknowledge that Revit and BIM are merely digitalising old ways of working. It is a sustaining technology that is slowly become less relevant.

The question should never have been, “how can we document a project better?” Instead, it should have been, “how can we design and construct buildings better?”

It is anyone’s guess if Project Plasma will see the light of day. One would think with US$1.4b in revenue, Autodesk would have a healthy R&D budget to make this happen. But regardless of Autodesk’s priorities, there are numerous startups out there working on solving how to design and construct better buildings, including our MetricMonkey software. Individually these may not amount to the ‘Revit killer’, but collectively they might. A highly specialised network of tools will always perform better than the swiss army knife.

What lies ahead for Revit is uncertain. AutoCAD is now over 40 years old and still going strong, so it would be fair to say Revit will be around for some time yet. But my prediction is that when a suitable alternative(s) does come along, which significantly improves the job to be done and meets market demands, change will be swift. Disruption is a process, not an event. And this process is already well underway.

Conclusion

It was refreshing to see organisations snap out of what we’ve coined our Stockholm syndrome. In many ways, however, the open letter to Autodesk is all bark with no bite. Until customers start voting with their feet, there is little motivation for Autodesk to change.

It will be interesting to see if debate around cost, licencing and performance will prevail, or if there will be a shift in interest towards how and where Autodesk’s profits are invested into the so-called next-gen platform. I could forgive many of Autodesk’s misgivings if we knew there was a better solution just around the corner. But with little information publicly available, all one sees is rising licencing costs, stagnate development and marketing propaganda.

In any case, what has become clear from the Autodesk open letter saga, is that Architecture is no longer just about architecture. Slowly and surely, architecture and software are converging, and the industry as a whole must take agency in its development. Ignore it at your peril.

References

1 AEC Magazine. (25 July 2020). Autodesk AEC customers demand better value. AEC Magazine.

2 Bunszel, A. (31 July 2020). A Reply To Our Customers’ Open Letter On Autodesk Revit. Autodesk.

3 Anagnost, A. (17 Aug 2020). Autodesk and the Architecture Industry. Autodesk.

4 Autodesk. (2020). Annual Report.

5 Davis, D. (27 Aug 2020). Architects Versus Autodesk. In Architect Magazine.

6 Wintour, P. (27 Nov 2019). Understanding Innovation. Parametric Monkey.

7 Doctored image from Christensen, C. (2016). The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p.XX.

8 Christensen, C & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p33.

9 Christensen, C & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p75.

10 Levitt, T. in Christensen, C & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p99.

11 AEC Magazine. (3 June 2019). What comes after Revit? Autodesk aims to reinvent collaborative BIM. AEC Magazine.

22 Comments on “Rethinking Revit: Our Stockholm syndrome

  1. I serve the landscape architecture industry. It has been hilarious at times watching architects pat themselves on the back for using Revit, going so far to say that landscape architects must use it also — when there isn’t even an ability to draw a Curb, let alone a million other non-starters with it.
    BIM needs to be about collaboration, with each discipline using the software that works best for them. That will restore competition in the marketplace to make a decent product at a realistic price.

    • What programs do landscape architects use? I’m an architecture student and for the life of me have never been able to figure out how landscaping is modeled on a computer other than placing a few trees here and there in lumion or 3ds max. I’m sure there must be a better way.

      • Here in the US, many of them use our software, Land F/X.
        Landscape architecture is about dealing with a library of tens of thousands of plants with long botanical names, labeling them accurately, designing the irrigation system, and dealing with the topography. All things poorly served by Revit.

  2. Well Written and well thought out Paul, Great stuff.

  3. Excellent article and some very interesting points. As a VDC Manager we tend to see this play out from the sidelines while the A/E and the Trade Partners stumble through it. At least there are alternatives when it comes to Navisworks.

  4. Great Article, definitely food for thought..

  5. I suggest reading the open letter carefully. One of the main points is exactly about ‘the future’, whether it’s Revit or something else, and how Autodesk is approaching the current and future needs of architectural design practices.

    • Rui I suggest you read Anagnost’s reply which says Autodesk is working on something but will only share under a NDA.

  6. The main problem is: there is no cheaper or better alternative to Autodesk’s Revit that justifies retraining staff.
    Archicad costs about the same and Trimble never got SketchUp further developed to become a real rival for Revit.
    If the current competition is not able to challenge Autodesk’s status then we have to – indeed – wait for that disruptive new technology / product.

    • Bricscad BIM and Vectorworks Architect are great BIM choices with powerful BIM capabilities and immersive design workflows.

      While Bricscad is taking DWG to the next level ( BIM ) is also selling the promise of fast implementation and better design workflows to make borrow tasks with Bimify and Propagate AI technologies.

      Vectorworks is also taking the User interface and the User experience to the next level with their 2021 release.

      While Sketchup is not yet a BIM platform, with an organized method and the implementation of some standards and templates you can use Sketchup + Layout as a excellent BIM tool for medium scale projects. (100.000 square foot or around):

      http://www.sketchup-layout.com

  7. Well, the question should be ‘What can I do for Autodesk?’ instead of ‘What can Autodesk do for me?’

    Welcome to the world of digital cooporate monopoly!

  8. Interesting article. Your suggestion that “Autodesk may overshoot market demands” is possible with some customers – but that is only for ‘New Functionality’. The other thing that Autodesk has been neglecting with Revit development is: Fixing the many broken functionalities and inconsistencies that impair our efficient use of Revit – that is what I want to see addressed.

    • Hi Tim. It is not Autodesk’s modus operandi to fix bugs. They’ve repeatedly demonstrated this through the years. So I think any development that does happen will be ‘new functionality’.

  9. Nice article and a point of view which is not uncommon in organizations. When your trained people are your most expensive assets and the thought of replacing software, re-training them is like inviting trouble, it is not surprising that most business owners fall for the bait and stick to Revit.

    I have seen huge resistance from CAD-BIM users towards change and business owners have limited bandwidth to change their opinion.

    Change will happen but not at the speed competitors are expecting.

    • Technology change is accelerating. The old tradition of mastering one software and sticking to it for your professional career is slowly dying. Much like how attitudes to jobs have changed (no longer working in one company for life), so too companies must adapt to changes in technology. Solution – hire people willing to learn and adapt, not the master fixed in their ways.

  10. Maybe part of the issue is that Revit is built on a parametric paradigm that is focused on making things rather than the messier and fragmented architecture workflows that are still part of the industry. Revit’s “Location level” operations work well in my experience but its limitations with detail modelling and interaction with other geometries is problematic. After 20 years, why can it not read and write CAD geometries and drafting details giving some choice to haw we undertake our work. The waste is significant. Productivity, in terms of contract documentation, feels like half of what I was experiencing in the 1990s using well-tuned and organized CAD systems. Practical interoperability is difficult, even between different versions of Revit. After Revit was purchased, the various Autodesk code streams never combined and evolved into new approaches. They remain siloed, maybe talked about but practically, “non BIM”.

    • Hi Kerry. Can you elaborate on ”parametric paradigm that is focused on making things rather than the messier and fragmented architecture workflows.” not sure what you mean by this.

      • Hi Paul
        To me, it is about scale, workflow and how you tell the story. Take Fusion 360. A parametric design system where small things are designed, drive the drawings and documentation, and provide the workflows to support direct links to CNC and 3D printing. There is a direct data relationship cascade from design to production. This process is scaled up in the car industry where economies of scale support the significant capital required in IP, robots and processes to produce a sophisticated and highly complex product at scale. Again, design is directly driving the production and we see this across many manufacturing industries. – except much of architecture and building. This workflow does happen in some cases and increasingly so as building is becoming industrialized. That said, a lot of building in the 21st century is still like constructing one uniquely designed Boeing 747 on a very muddy rugby field in the rain and the rugby team, who have been asked to build it, do not know how to build airplanes, just want to play rugby, and are not talking to management.

        Enter Revit, which is fundamentally based on the parametric paradigm. It deals with the simple stuff well, – mass design studies – and the more complex, 1:100 plans, elevations, sections, renders etc. The finer detail, 1:10. 1:5. 1:1, is still drawn as it is not feasible for most users to model at this level of detail with Revit. In my experience, it does not offer the full range of tools, the fidelity or the interoperability to model to this finer level. Nor does it provide efficient documentation tools to power the documentation compared to well tuned CAD systems. Often the resolution of the detail falls to the builders with architects abdicating this aspect of the work.

        The parametric paradigm often breaks down and does not support the actual workflow but, in some cases, it can work by using innovative thinking, perseverance and re-framing expectations. I guess this is how we make progress.

        With the fragmented nature of building projects, the politics, software marketers, vested interests and Revit’s shortcomings described in the letter above, one can see why the industry is questioning its future.

  11. Paul – A good read on a timely topic. Thank you. Two points rang out for me from my spot in the relative center of the VDC universe. 1) “disruption is…already well underway” which combined with “A highly specialized network of tools will always perform better than the Swiss army knife”, well describes where many relatively advanced VDC-oriented firms find themselves in the current digitization revolution. From my early days, and for numerous expert level users in the AEC sector I dare say, the typical Autodesk opinion has regressed from knee-jerk worship to reluctant shrug. This is a very good thing which might positively transform Autodesk as well.

    • I think there has always been a reluctance to Autodesk products. It’s just now people are speaking up and social media provides a platform for those expressions to be heard. Hopefully this makes a positive change. We’ll see…

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