Making Breakthroughs in Revit: An Interview with Marcello Sgambelluri

December 27th, 2012

Q: Briefly take us through your journey to your current position.

I was raised on the island of Guam. I met my future wife there and we both left the island for college. After graduation and marriage, we eventually moved to Los Angeles where I started work at my current company, John Martin and Associates Structural Engineers (JAMA).

Figure 1: The Walt Disney Concert Hall

In my early years at JAMA, 1998 to 2001, I had the unique opportunity to work on some great projects including the Disney Concert Hall and the Stata Center at MIT. Back then, I was building three dimensional models for these projects to help coordinate with the architect, and create my analytical models. The work was very exciting to me and I had no idea I was using tools that would later be known as “BIM.” I also didn’t realize that I was involved with something that would revolutionize the construction industry.

After five years at JAMA’s Hawaii office I returned to the Los Angeles office. Because of my BIM experience in the company I asked my vice president if I could be the BIM Director. I was appointed to that position.

Q: Describe your journey to learn Revit.

I am known in the Revit community as someone who pushes Revit to its limits. However, it was not always that way. I started using Revit in 2006 and for three years I only used Revit to satisfy my current project needs and never really used anything other than what was out of the box. 

That all changed in early 2009 when an acquaintance who was working for a construction company asked me if I could create a crane family in Revit that would be fully parametric. I realized then that Revit is much more than a program to be used to document buildings and I started my pursuit to push Revit to its limits so I could better myself. I created my first non-building component family, the Revit Tele-handler.

Figure 2: The Revit Tele-handler

Q: How do you manage breakthroughs in Revit?

When I am learning something new to create a breakthrough in Revit, I go through the following stages.

  1. Honeymoon Phase: Everything is new and extremely exciting.
  2. Frustration Phase: This is when I vent all my complaints and frustrations about the program.
  3. Refocusing Phase: This is when I realize that there has to be a different way of doing something to achieve the end goal. I find a way.
  4. Limitation Phase: This is where I realize that what I achieved has limitations and I learn what they are.
  5. Refinement Phase: This is where I resolve the problem and learn to reduce the limitations and refine my method. When I created the Revit Pumpkin I went through all these phases, it ultimately lead me to discover how to scale and morph in Revit. 

Figure 3: The Revit Pumpkin

Q: What is your motivation in pushing the boundaries of Revit?

I always push myself and any program I use to the extreme edge. Revit is no different and I do this to make myself better. When I know a program’s limits, I know what it is able to do and in turn it makes me better understand the program and how to use it in every way possible.

In the end I become a better user and I help advance the construction industry as a whole, which in turn makes me want to learn more. It’s an endless cycle. Also, there is nothing that motivates me more than when I hear the words “You cannot do that in Revit.”

Q: How has your experience as a licensed Civil and Structural Engineer informed your Revit work and ability to learn and create new techniques?

It is simple. As an engineer, it is my job to solve problems! I look at all problems in Revit as an engineering problem. This means that I am only interested in solving the problem. I don’t spend much time identifying the problem or complaining about the problem. I am simply interested in solving it.

My engineering training has helped me to step back and look at my Revit problems in a new light. It is at these times that I create a new technique in Revit because I have stepped out of my comfort zone and thought out of the box to help solve my problems.

Q: Why do you model complex geometries?

I create each complex family or project for a different reason. However, in general, I try to push Revit to its limits, I try to focus my modeling efforts on geometries that no one has really tackled before and that will fit with what I am trying to achieve.

For example, in my first attempt to create a realistic  “organic” family in Revit I was looking for an animal that had relatively smooth skin, that did not look segmented from the back to the front, and that had a movable appendage that I could eventually make movable via parameters. The elephant was a perfect fit! I chose to do the Revit Cow because Autodesk asked if I could create one for them to test their wall functionality.

Figure 4: The Revit Elephant

The exciting thing about creating complex families and new innovative methodologies is that it is easy to apply them to even the most complicated projects. For example, I used the Intersection Method; the same method to create beams on the Revit Cow was used to create the curved roof beams for the new Tom Bradley LAX terminal expansion project.

Figure 5: The Revit Cow

Figure 6: TBIT LAX Expansion Project (Photo Credit: Benny Chan, fotoworks)

Q: What are you currently working on?

There are a lot of Revit projects and breakthroughs that I am working on. I always keep a checklist of Revit items that I want to look into and I am adding to them constantly. I also get sidetracked sometimes, but it ultimately leads me to be creative. I am currently working out the final steps on how to efficiently scale a family in Revit. Anyone who has tried to scale a family in Revit knows that it could not be done using the “scale” command. I knew this was a roadblock for some so I decided to take up the cause and help out. I plan to show it soon. 

Figure 7: Scaling the Revit Cow

I am also working on site topography for the first time—how to model curved and straight sidewalks that follow the contours of site topography. Also, I am working on how to use the site modeling tools to model complex shapes as shown in Figure 8.



Figure 8: Complex site topography

Q: Describe your typical day.

If I were asked this question a year ago I would have given a completely different answer because as of March 2012, I scaled back my time at work to spend time with my family. I now work part time—four hours per day. Typically, I spend two of those hours in the mornings working on BIM management items and the other two morning hours working on engineering items. Yes, I actually create calculations on production projects! I spend my afternoons taking care of my two boys.

Then for about one to two hours at night, when everyone else is asleep, I work on Revit. It is this time that I create and learn and model. Sometimes, on a long commute, I will model something in my head first. In fact some of the Revit families that I built were first virtually modeled in my head before I ever sat down at the computer.

Q: Do you collaborate with others and what role does collaboration play in your learning and growth process?

I definitely collaborate with others. Generally, I collaborate with others at the beginning, middle, and end of my projects. It helps me develop and refine my breakthroughs; I found that the best way to refine a new way of doing something in Revit is to pass it to others who could determine all its limitations and help suggest improvements. I am always open to hearing how something I created could be improved or explained in a better way. For example, my “Ride the Rail” method defines how to build a rotation rig as an alternative to the traditional rotation methods and it all started from an idea that Jay Zallan initially conceived. Since the Revit community was able to point out limitations in this method I created the “Revolve” method that was a great improvement on that initial concept. The Revolve method is now being used by Reviteers around the globe.

Figures 9 and 10: Revolve Method

Q: What are the top 10 pieces of advice you have for Revit users, whether they are new or experienced?

  1. Train yourself. Aside from the beginner Revit course that I took at my office, I taught myself everything else in Revit. If you want to learn something new in Revit, train yourself. Start now.
  2. If you don’t know how to do something in Revit, try it. Remember it’s only a program—you can’t hurt it!
  3. If you want to try something new in Revit and apply it to your company, just do it! Do it in your own time if you have to. Remember, it’s easier for a manager to forgive or accept something once it is done than to authorize it to be started.
  4. Remember there is so much functionality in Revit there is always something to learn. Keep trying to learn as much as possible. I still learn something new about Revit every day.
  5. Keep a positive attitude about the software. 
  6. Get to know Revit and its environment. The best way to learn something new is to be comfortable around Revit. This includes getting comfortable with project, classic family editor and the mass family editor environments. Revit needs to be second nature to you before you can make a huge breakthrough. Become its friend, not its enemy.
  7. Do not rely on Revit to do all the communication for collaboration. Remember, it is only software. If you need to collaborate with Revit and you need to point out a certain area of interest, then pick up the phone.
  8. Don’t wait for anybody. If you want to achieve something, do it yourself. I was never asked to become the BIM director at my office; I had to ask.
  9. Don’t let hardware slow you down or stop you from achieving your Revit goals.
  10. Use other programs as a supplement to Revit. Remember that you have an end goal in mind, so if additional software would help, then use it.

Q: What is your breakthrough philosophy?

I realized that the only way I could achieve breakthroughs in Revit was to change my mindset about the program. I used to complain about Revit when I first started using it and it was getting me nowhere. Once I stopped complaining about Revit, I was able to solve my Revit problems.

I treated every new feature in Revit as a “gift.” If I did not have this positive attitude about Revit there was no way I would have achieved what I have. I apply my positive outlook on Revit to all aspects of my life. It makes me learn, grow, and see the world in a brighter light. Try it!

Q: What do you have planned for the future?

I have a lot of plans for the future in Revit. I plan to take all of my complex family modeling knowledge and apply it to the classic family editor. I plan to model fully scalable classical architectural columns. I plan to model a fully paramedic, scalable, and animated dragon in Revit. The list just goes on and on. Who knows what I will end up doing next? Stay tuned, and good luck!

About Marcello Sgambelluri

Marcello is the BIM Director at John A. Martin & Associates Structural Engineers in Los Angeles, CA. He has been using Autodesk products including AutoCAD, 3ds Max, and Revit Structure for more than 15 years. He is a member of the ASCE-SEI BIM committee and speaks at structural professional conferences across the country. Marcello teaches classes regularly at Autodesk University and the Revit Technology Conference that focuses on free-form modeling in Revit, and he beta tests the yearly releases of Revit Structure. Marcello received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering and is a licensed Civil and Structural Engineer. He can be reached at marcellojs@johnmartin.com or visit his blog site http://therevitcomplex.blogspot.com/

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