Autodesk FormIT

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There are now many reasons to include tablet computers in your practice. Autodesk’s latest application is free and allows the capture of ideas wherever inspiration hits.

1. On the iPad launch Autodesk Formit and start a new sketch. A gridded plane appears with a limited number of tools top and bottom. Use a finger to spin the plane, zoom in and out.
2. Using the Set location command, Formit automatically loads the system’s Map application. Select Satellite view, position the view in accordance to how much space you need. Import the map.
3. Using the polyline sketch tool, trace around the buildings shown on the satellite image. There are ‘lock to grid’ and ‘lock to object’ options. The blue circle is grabbed to create an arc. When the outline is complete it highlights green and forms an outline surface.
4. By pushing upwards with a finger the solid is formed, with a real-time distance on screen to get the right height (metric or imperial). The solid can be grabbed and edited by face or edge and can be scaled too.
5. Move around the image and repeat to create a massing model of the site. Shadows are automatically cast in relation to the correct geographic position. It is possible to simulate shadows at any time of day or year.
6. Colours can be added to the various solids from a palette (albeit it a limited one). Other geometry can be added to the layout or new designs for the site can be tested out. All geometry can be passed back to Revit.

SketchUp has probably done the most of any software to bring the architectural profession into 3D and then to Building Information Modelling (BIM). For all its limitations, SketchUp is easy to use and cheap enough to mean it is in the majority of architectural practices.

There has been little to no clear alternative. Rhino, FormZ and Bonzai3D are popular among the more advanced architects but leading technology providers such as Bentley Systems, Graphisoft and Autodesk have left this entry-level area well alone, perhaps because SketchUp is free. Until now.

Autodesk has released a free iPad application called Autodesk FormIt, which helps capture building design concepts on the move. The basic geometry engine is optimised for finger input and can import real-world site information to design in-context with some analysis capabilities. These designs can be exported to Autodesk’s BIM solution, Revit and links via the internet to Autodesk 360, its cloud solution.

Rapid development

Despite being launched in December 2012, the second version has already been released with new features and enhancements. This is one of the advantages of the Apple iPad store model, where updates can be streamed quickly to users’ devices. It is clear that FormIt is in rapid development and Autodesk has plans to greatly expand its capabilities over the coming year.

With that it is easier to forgive the shortcomings of the initial offering knowing this is very much a ‘stake in the sand’ product for the company and will not have many people ditching their SketchUp seats.

FormIt in practice

FormIt is fast. Everything is instantaneous and even with complex models the environment is highly reactive. Sessions are started in the Sketch Gallery. Here all previous sketches are kept and displayed with name and date. Either start a new sketch or click on a previous thumbnail to instantly launch into an editing session.

It is all about finger control from here on in (I guess you could use a stylus but this didn’t seem a good mix to me). Moving a finger left or right spins the model in that direction. Up and down gives similar response with pinching providing zoom. To select geometry put your finger on it; to pick an edge or a face, double tap. Once geometry is selected any finger stroke will edit by moving or resizing it. An added benefit is the numeric values that appear as geometry is edited, allowing for accurate modelling.


There are limited tools — boxes, polyline defined outline, dome, cylinder, semi-circles, wedges and an arrow. The preferences pane provides grid and object snaps, units and access to the space usage graph, which measures the gross area and floor / area ratio.

Location of the model can be provided from a map ‘grab’, pulling in satellite imagery for tracing over. These maps drive the shadows from the sun and a date slider enables sunrise to sunset from January to December. This would be better automated, but for a first effort is valuable.

FormIt works best with rectilinear objects. Domes and curves are not as easy to master, place or edit accurately or perform Boolean operations. I am sure this will come in time. For now using the grids and existing geometry seems to be the best way for placement.

Modelling strategies

It is important to work out just how a model will be built as there are some very basic primitives. These tools are adequate for massing but the more detail that needs to be added, the more thought needs to go in to working around the program’s limitations. This is probably where you would fire up SketchUp on a laptop but having persevered, it is possible with a few days usage to create some acceptable models that include internal volumes, columns, door and window openings, which are just Boolean holes. When adding smaller details to bigger models I did fight against the snap grid and snap object settings (which are either off or on) making accurate placement difficult.


For a first attempt at modelling tool on the iPad, Autodesk has done an exceptional job. I was expecting a lot less in terms of what could be done. Despite my fat fingers, it is possible to create 3D geometry, trace over satellite images, look at sun studies, analyse floor to area ratios and take that work onwards to Autodesk Vasari for more detailed analysis or into Revit for the basis of a full BIM model.

The best part of the program is its ability to import satellite image and model masses in context. I imagine many bored architects on planes roughing out ideas using FormIt.

There is a need for more geometry options; the omission of a wall element seems a major error and curved geometry has to be enhanced, although I have no clue how sculpted surfaces could be created with fingers. A glass object or transparency option would be great for glazing and maybe some construction line capability would enhance the accuracy of geometry placement when working off grid and object snaps.

FormIt only works on Apple iOS / iPad. It takes an afternoon or less to master and with imported satellite data, it is of use in practice today. I am looking forward to see how this Autodesk product develops.


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