Model-Based Design

I created over 160 drawings in the month of June.  I do a lot of civil stuff and would like to share something with you.  I documented a workflow for my Civil 3D projects.

The document is based on a concept called Model-Based Design.  It’s a broad topic but I kept the focus pretty simple.  Create and store data in drawings (models) and draw upon that data to create other drawings.

It details some basic CAD standard stuff like drawing and layer names and the pure joy of having a few good, simple templates.  The most important part is the road map.  The workflow is essentially a data reference road map.

If you need help email me or write me on the discussion group.  I’ll post the templates when I’m back in the office.

Civil 3D Production Guide

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An Ordinary Man Away from Home Giving Advice

The Great Civil Guy Search is over. Well, sort of. Is it ever really over? We hired two, one survived. This made the company very happy. Me not so much but Civil guys are just so hard to come by these days.

Oh, we got lots of resumes and they covered the entire spectrum, from entry level to rocket scientist. I’m almost serious here. One was five pages long. Holy crap. I’ve been doing this thirty-five years and my resume fits on one page. This one even called himself an expert. I have to admit I was a little bit excited. I never met a real expert.

Raise your hand if you predicted this next part. He was late for his interview. He didn’t finish his Civil 3D test. He was poor at labeling, dimensioning, and wouldn’t know a standard if it jumped up and bit him on the pencil. The man owed money to two of his references. Of course we hired him.

The good news is, he misses Monday or Friday every week and comes in late or leaves early on at least one of the days that he bothers to show up. I’m good with that. I’m not sure I could stand him for a full week.

How can you not know how to label and dimension? We label and dimension every single thing we build.


The drafting room was a large open area filled with as many drafting tables as would fit. There were no walls or cubicles. There was a single wall phone mounted near the entrance of the room where we conducted our private business. Everyone in the room could hear, see, and smell… well, everything.

We sat on tall stools at wooden tables and composed highly technical drawings using highly un-technical gadgets like t-squares, triangles, and lettering guides. Smokers had little beanbag ash trays on their drafting boards too but this was way back in the old days. It was primitive. I may be exaggerating a bit here but we were about one step removed from hillbilly hieroglyphics on cave walls.

We drafted on Mylar with ink. No one even knows what Mylar is but that’s not important. WE DREW IN INK. That’s drafting without a net, Bubba. No move. No copy. No rotate. No undo button. But, shoot, this was forever ago. We have so evolved. We still ride horses and carry guns but we smoke outside now.

In spite of all that aboriginal screaming and primordial scratching we learned a craft. We learned to create simple, constructible construction documents. Knowing how to label is only good if you know where.

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Civil 3D Proficiency Exam Cheat Sheet

I may have told this story before but I’m old and I repeat things.  I’m certain I’ll do it again.  Once upon a time I taught AutoCAD to a group of high school juniors.  I was required to test them twice a week with one test provided by the university and the other composed by yours truly.  The university’s goal was for my students to pass the AutoCAD Certification Exam.  My goal was to simply teach them how to draw.

The first week every single student failed the university test.  Only two students failed mine.  I admit to a certain amount of satisfaction when I saw the results but I have a suspicious nature honed by raising six children.  Everybody can’t pass a test anymore than everybody can fail.  What can you learn from a test like that?  I needed a good test.

So I set out to improve mine and after just a few short weeks I started seeing results.  This next part may sound a bit twisted.  My students continued to do poorly on the university test but now more were failing my test too.  What a relief!  Finally, I could objectively evaluate their skills based on their test results and focus their training accordingly.  It’s all about balance.

The final few weeks were so exciting they just flew by.  My young professionals made great progress but hold on to your warm and fuzzies.  The grand inspirational finale you might be hoping for simply did not materialize.  Bummer.

As it turns out, everybody can fail a test and they did.  Not a single one passed that AutoCAD Certification Exam.  In my defense, they could draw and every one of them snagged internships with local companies.  There may be a lesson there somewhere but I don’t have a clue what it might be.

The point of this little excursion is that I don’t want you to fail.  I think you will agree that my Civil 3D test is fairly simple – if you know Civil 3D.  I simply want to know what it is that you know.  Here is what I look for when you take the exam I posted last month.

  1. Finish the exam.
  2. I expect you to be disciplined about managing project data so your project folder is the first place I look.  There should be a project folder and sub-folders for the survey data and design data.  All project folders should have logical, intuitive names.
  3. The new design drawing should have a unique, logical name.
  4. The design drawing coordinate system should be set according to the survey legal description.
  5. The property boundary should be created using transparent commands.
  6. The property boundary labels should be created using a label style with bearings and distances set to a reasonable precision.
  7. The property boundary corner labels should be created using a label style with coordinates set to a reasonable precision.
  8. I’m not as interested in the fence as I am your dimensions.  Dimensioning is one of the most productive features in AutoCAD.  By now you should be a master.  Dimension appearance and precision are critical.
  9. I will not hire you if you cannot create and manage points.
  10. My specialty is surface modeling and I like mine unbelievably simple.  Don’t be sloppy with surface boundaries.  It makes me suspicious of the rest of your modeling.
  11. I am particularly interested in how you determine the high point of the east property line. Here’s a hint: Feature lines are one of the most versatile features in Civil 3D.  It is rare that I build a proposed surface without them.
  12. The proposed surface labels are pure style but here I’m looking at label placement.  No trick.  No razzle-dazzle.  I simply want to see how you label a site.
  13. The two biggest challenges in Civil 3D are layering and naming.  I look hard at layers.  If you get sloppy I will catch you.


This position pays very well.  As I am so fond of saying, they call it the Oil & Gas Industry because you will be able to afford oil and gas.  If you’re interested email me.

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Chicken Salad

I need a civil guy with basic Civil 3D skills.  If you are a hard working, self-motivated people person with excellent communication skills in search of a challenging position with opportunity for advancement then you should apply somewhere else.  And stop copying that stuff from the Internet.

Some of you have embellished your resumes for so long that you’re starting to believe your own fiction.  Here’s some friendly advice.  Simply tell me who you are in one paragraph and list the top three things you do best.  I’m not interested in your hobbies, awards, or how incredibly driven and detail-oriented a team player you really are.  You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken poop no matter how much mayonnaise you add.

So, here’s the test.  Really.  I wrote a Civil 3D test.  We’re about to find out if that “proficient at Civil 3D” business you mentioned on your resume is true or not.  There are just a few simple instructions and the data set is just as simple – a boundary survey, a point file, and a topo drawing.  If you have any questions, make a decision.

You must perform under pressure.  You must be creative.  You must be resourceful.  The reality of this job is that you will be expected to deliver your design on time even if your source data is not.  You’re a professional gunslinger.  Stand and deliver.

Civil 3D Proficiency Exam:

Use Civil 3D to develop a small, graded, fenced site using the legal description, point data, and topo drawing provided.  Store all project data in appropriate folders in the c:\Civil 3D Projects folder.

  1. Save the survey topo drawing to the project folder.  Copy it with a new name.
  2. In the new drawing create the site boundary from the legal description and label each segment with a bearing and distance.
  3. Label the property corners with State Plane Coordinates.
  4. Create and dimension a fence placed 1-ft inside the property boundary.
  5. Import the point data.  Display only natural ground shots with elevations centered above the marker and rotated 30 degrees.
  6. Create a surface from the natural ground shots and display labeled 1-ft contours.
  7. Create a proposed surface starting 6 inches above existing ground at the east property line and graded at 1% away from the road.  Slope this proposed site to existing ground using 3:1 slopes.
  8. Label 1-ft contours, spot elevations, and a grade for the proposed surface.

That’s it.  Not much of a test is it?  I expect you to complete it in less than 45 minutes.  Some of you may finish in half that time.  Maybe.  Soon I’ll post exactly what I look for in the test.  I don’t want to tell you now.  That would ruin the surprise.



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New Years Day

My boss once asked me to name five goals for the coming year.  When I asked whether he wanted goals or resolutions he tilted his head to one side and looked a bit confused.  So I went on to explain that a goal is a destination and that a resolution is a path to a destination but he wouldn’t accept that at face value and a fairly lively debate ensued.  He surrendered after some time, I think proving only that one of us was more bone-headed than the other.

My first goal that year was to behave in a more professional manner and I wrote it down neatly at the top of a clean sheet of paper.  I was poised to write more but soon my doodles in the margins spilled out onto the page and I was forced to start over.

After several more sheets of very artistic doodling I conceded that I was stuck in the process and decided to embark on a slightly different path.  I reasoned that since my boss had yet to learn the difference, I would augment my one goal with four resolutions.  Brilliant.

My first three resolutions absolutely flew onto the page.  Don’t be late, don’t cuss, and be
prepared to work, all noble aspirations worthy of most any endeavor.  As I proudly reviewed my list, doubt began to creep in and I became somewhat concerned.  Maybe I should elaborate.  My list looked sparse.

So I did elaborate.  My “Don’t be late” resolution didn’t quite convey my exact intent.  I think it’s important that we be available to clients and co-workers during normal business hours so I’m not particularly fond of alternate work schedules.  It’s frustrating when a problem arises on a project and you can’t find key players because they go home at 2:00 in the afternoon.  I wrote that down.

I drew on the famous Billy Joe Shaver song “Georgia on a Fast Train” for my next elaboration.  In one verse he sings, “I had a fine Christian raising and an eighth grade education…” which I took to mean that I should be capable of conducting a professional conversation minus expletives, vulgarities, and sexual innuendos.  I let this one bleed
into my personal life too.  Drinking whiskey and playing guitars around bonfires is in no way a free pass from being a gentleman.  I Googled it.  It’s a rule somewhere.

At first glance I thought my third resolution would be the easiest yet but I was wrong.  How do you inspire an attitude?  The best I could come up with is a few guidelines to help point me in the right direction.

Being prepared to work means that if I am going to represent my company I should dress accordingly – even on casual Fridays.  I read somewhere you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have.  I like that.  I wrote it down too.

Further, if I am in fact the professional designer I claim to be, it is my responsibility to
embrace the tools of my trade.  If I anchor myself in one spot waiting for the company to improve my skills and qualifications so they can pay me more money I’m afraid the only thing I will learn is how to be a very good anchor.

My brain was tired so I stopped there.  I turned in one goal and three resolutions and every year for the next 15 years I turned in that same list and all was right with the world.  It’s an easy enough number of things for me to remember and I think I’m a better man for it.

This year I’m adding that fourth resolution to my list.  It meets all my resolution requirements.  It’s simple.  It’s direct.  It takes me further down the road towards my goal to behave in a more professional manner.  My fourth resolution is: hang up the phone.

That’s it.  No more phone in churches, meetings, classrooms, seminars, restroom stalls, restaurants, elevators, work, movie theaters, concerts, funerals, weddings, busses, trains, planes, automobiles, hospitals, waiting rooms, libraries, museums, meals, or the
grocery check-out line.  Generally, private calls in public places are rude.  To quote the late, great Otis Redding, “All I’m asking for is a little respect.”

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The Devil’s in the Details…

I’ve been busy – too busy to be both designer and webmaster.  So, to my two loyal readers, I apologize.  Hopefully, this post might somehow make amends while at the same time save you some possible suffering.

2011 Harris County Flood Control District Drafting and Graphic Standards
We are finalizing the 2011 version of the HCFCD’s CAD standards and I think it will be well received.  The focus was to provide a simple, intuitive guideline structured enough
to effectively classify and organize data, yet flexible enough to accommodate an often complex industry.

The influence of the National CAD Standard is evident although most of the specifications are simply reflections of our industry’s local CAD standards.  The biggest achievement in my mind is that it brings us one step closer to Integrated Project Delivery, the collaborative union of people and practices to optimize project efficiency through all phases of design and construction.

This was not an easy effort and I give credit to the staff at HCFCD for the many hours they devoted to the process.  It took considerably more time than we first estimated but I believe the final product has benefited as a result.  Some people will like it.  Some people won’t.  That’s life.

The Long and Winding Road
It recently occurred to me that I had not received notice of my scheduled system scan by my anti-virus program for some time.  My suspicions were confirmed – no scan for about three months.  Further, the program failed to respond when I attempted a manual scan so I contacted the developer.

The technician was quite enthusiastic in troubleshooting the issue, even to the point of performing a free remote system diagnostics.  In passing, he mentioned that my machine appeared slow.  I didn’t agree.  I’m packing some serious horsepower here.  It may not be the fastest box on the boulevard but it certainly is not lacking acceleration.

He also discovered almost 200 operating system files that he suspected may have been corrupted by the Koobface virus.  That’s a Facebook virus.  I’m not a Facebook kind of guy but I have children.  Viruses happen.

His evaluation was that a MS Certified technician would be required to get me out of this mess and at considerable expense.  As luck would have it, however, he could perform the same service and deliver me from this evil for a not-quite-so-substantial fee.  I politely declined his most generous offer in, shall we say, a less than polite manner.

I purchased another anti-virus program recommended by a friend and it’s a good one.  Installation was a snap, it was easy to configure, and so far has dispatched the Koobface without an ounce of fanfare.  I like calling it that – the Koobface.

As a bonus, my new anti-virus developer offered a dramatic discount on a remote diagnostics service that promised, among other things, to repair damaged operating system files and increase system performance!

Can you feel my excitement?  Do you see how this story is beginning to tie together?  Well, not so fast, Bubba.  There are a few more twists to this tale before we arrive at our destination.

Keven, my remote technician was a virtual wizard.  He waved his magic wand and, BAM!, my operating system files were reborn.  A few mystical incantations later and ol’ Blue (yes, my computer’s name is ol’ Blue) was smoking fast.  Ok, I may be exaggerating there just a bit. My machine was pretty hot to begin with and I still stand by that earlier assessment.

Anyway, Keven and I said our goodbyes, he signed off for the day, and I settled in with a tall, cold glass of Kentucky’s finest ready to dig just one more detention basin before bedtime.  This transaction had taken a huge bite out of my day and I was ready to be billable.  It just was not meant to be.

I double-clicked on the 2010 Civil 3D icon and watched the splash screen appear and disappear faster than I could type this sentence.  I double-clicked on it again but with similar results.  Hmmm.  I was somewhat concerned but it sure failed fast.

I tried the 2011 version but I swear the splash screen disappeared even faster than before.  Do 64-bit applications fail faster than 32-bit applications?  Maybe it was my recent tuneup.  My look and my mood were deteriorating as fast as that splash screen.

I took a gulp of Wild Turkey and double-clicked on the 2012 icon.  Nothing.  I rebooted and tried all three icons again.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing.  I was officially pissed off now but, in my defense, I managed to contain my anger (if not my sarcasm) through the next three available technicians.

We got absolutely nowhere.  The restore point created by Keven had mysteriously disappeared (magic?) so I couldn’t go back to where we started.  I tried a repair install (times 3) to no avail.  I tried re-installs (again times 3) with identical results.  Squat.

So, here we are – the end of the tale.  Like you, I’m relieved too.  Here’s what I learned:  CLEAN INSTALL

TS17333961 Clean Installation of AutoCAD Civil 3D 2012

TS14929539 Clean Installation of AutoCAD Civil 3D 2011

TS15031904 Clean Installation of AutoCAD Civil 3D 2010

TS1085728 Clean Installation of AutoCAD Civil 3D 2009


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Pay It Forward

The road to Hell is paved with the souls of men with good intentions.  That’s a Norton version of a Karl Marx quote.  Altruism is not easy.  Every year I threaten to help some group or organization but my intentions always seem to fall somewhat short of my promise.  I do give away some turkeys at Thanksgiving but they don’t cost that much.  I could do more.

One of my ideas was to provide free, industry-specific,  CAD training for young people about to graduate from high school.  Not all of them will go on to college but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a career.  One or two of my offspring fall into that category.  If you see one of them on a college campus somewhere I hope you will call me before they get into trouble.

The numbers that I heard are that only 15% of Houston Independent School District ninth graders will go on to college yet 65% of future jobs will require some level of secondary or specialized education.  That sounds a lot like a train wreck about to happen.  If it’s true, I certainly wouldn’t be lacking for potential classroom candidates and the Civil industry is not exactly overrun with entry level designers and technicians.

I prepared a little presentation complete with pie charts, graphs, and some really cool graphics and trotted it down to my friends at the University of Houston – Downtown.  They were very receptive and quite impressed with my pie chart.  In fact, they were so receptive we skipped the begging and pleading and went straight to “ok”.  I was going to have to do something sooner than I expected.

So, I went home, sharpened a pencil, and opened a new spreadsheet as evidence that some serious planning was about to get underway.  (I can’t think without a pencil.) But before I could scribble my first outline I ran head-on into an economic wall.  I can afford to teach an occasional free class.  That’s not a problem.  I just can’t afford to recruit the students.  My plum of an idea was shriveling on the vine right before my eyes.  Ok, I know plums grow on trees but watching a grape shrivel just doesn’t evoke the same image.

Enter Genesys Works, a non-profit organization that recruits high school students to participate in a 14-month professional development program with graduates garnering  internships with local Fortune 500 companies.  Almost 1,000 invitations are whittled down to less than 300 via an extensive interview process conducted by Genesys Works staff and the sponsoring companies.

Those that endure this program also receive assistance with college applications, grants, and scholarships.  Some don’t make it but an amazing percentage do – a heck of a lot more than 15%.  Almost 95% go on to college and 70% of those will graduate.  These numbers are from students likely to be the first in their families to graduate high school.  This is huge.

Larger still is their transformation into young professionals.  Suddenly, they walk and talk and dress like professionals and they wear that change for the world to see.  Their friends see it.  Their families see it.  It is a joy to witness.  This is better than turkeys.


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Not in the Books

An organization that provides housing for financially disadvantaged families decided to develop a piece of property on a local creek.  The original design called for a sizable slice of hill on one end of the property to be dumped into the flood plain at the other end of the property.  What was left of the hill would be propped up by a large retaining wall.  Someone changed their mind, the design was scrapped, and I was called in to perform a little dirt balancing magic while salvaging as much of the original plans as possible. 

The project designer did a remarkable job for her first effort with Civil 3D.  She received formal training from a local Autodesk reseller and immediately applied what she learned to this project.  My comments are more cautionary in nature for the benefit of us all than they are criticism of her techniques.  You Civil 3D instructors out there pay attention.  Know the difference between showing a class what you know and teaching a class what to do. 

First and foremost, remember that Civil 3D is not a tool, it’s a toolbox.  Generally, it will contain the right tool for the job.  For some tasks, your pencil is the right tool for the job.

Data references are not mandatory but they certainly help.  They improve program performance, especially when working with marginal system resources.  They’re also useful when examining alternative designs without compromising the original drawings.  Start small.  Data reference just the existing surface.  Make data referencing good CAD habit.

Feature lines are your friends.  They are the premier surface modeling component – simple to create, easy to edit, and, when used as surface breaklines, dramatically reduce manual surface editing.  They also serve as finish grade features in your plans.  My rule is: if you can draw it, you can model it.

With few exceptions, point labels do not make good plan labels.  Labels associated with an object such as slope labels or spot elevations for surfaces are usually more functional.  They automatically update when moved or when the model changes.

Roadway earthwork quantities are calculated to the top of stabilization, not to the top of the finish grade.  I create my mass grading surface from the bottom of my corridor assembly allowing for one foot of cut behind the back of curb.

Don’t overlook earthwork expansion and compaction factors.  The cut factor will be greater than or equal to 1, the fill factor less than or equal to 1.  These factors are usually specified in the soils report.  Until you see the report, use 1.0 (cut) and 0.9 (fill) unless instructed otherwise.  They can make a substantial difference in your volumes.  Always let the project engineer know that you are providing adjusted numbers.

My final suggestion is to consider using -* as a suffix for some objects listed on the Object Layers tab of the drawing settings.  This technique applies the object name as a suffix to the object layer name, creating a unique layer for that object.  Then the object can be frozen independent of other similar objects although they share common component layers.  In other words, you can freeze a surface or an alignment without having to change its object style. 

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I Didn’t Know That

Throughout the year I stumble across AutoCAD and Civil 3D features that I scribble down to share with my friends.  This week I moved into a new office and my stacks of scribbles reminded me that it was time to either share or shred.

I know the name of this article is a bit odd but you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Tips & Tricks and I didn’t have the minimum number of scribbles required for a Top Ten.  So, I went with my first response when I found each these little jewels – I didn’t know that!  My guess is some of you may respond the same way.  I do something weird with my eyebrows too but I wasn’t sure how to fit that into the title. 

Object Selection
You can select more than one object to match with the Select Similar command.  Simply pick your target objects and pick Select Similar from the right-click menu.  I may be the last to know this one.  It never occurred to me to try it with more than one object.

Object Creation
Select an object, pick Add Selected from the right-click menu, and you are ready to create another of the same object with the same properties.  This one is the winner of my 2010 Red Hot Chili Award.

You can assign transparency to objects and layers.  The range is between 0 and 90 with the transparency growing with the number.  Design is art and transparencies certainly help me paint a prettier picture.

Object Visibility
Variations on the Express Tools’ Isolate Layer command have finally been promoted to a spot on the right-click menu.  The Isolate Objects command displays just the objects selected.  Everything else is hidden.  This is very convenient for working in congested areas of a drawing.  New is the Hide Objects command which, as the name implies, hides selected objects.  The End Object Isolation command restore both to their original condition.

Traditionally, using splines in civil has been discouraged.  Other than making pretty contours they weren’t very functional outside of manufacturing.  The trouble is they can’t be used as surface components and, until now, they couldn’t be converted to anything else without considerable effort. 

That has changed.  Both the SPLINEDIT and PEDIT commands quickly convert splines to polylines.  Precision is user controlled and the PEDIT command even gives the option of converting the spline to arcs or line segments.

Frankly, it’s great that we finally have this as an option but I still don’t recommend using splines.  The conversion creates many, many vertices, which as you know may cause performance issues.  I think we can all agree that we suffer enough of that already. 

Text in Linetypes
Text in linetypes is a wonderful thing unless it happens to be upside down.  A new Upright option can be added to your linetype definitions to maintain linetype readability in any orientation.

Another option would be to reverse the direction of the line or polyline using the REVERSE command.  It’s also available as a PEDIT command option.

Associate Project
Drawings can now be permanently associated with a project but I think more important is the fact that at last someone at Autodesk had the testicular fortitude to include the word “project” on the data shortcuts menu on the Prospector tab of the Toolspace.  Good move guys.
I knew if I waited long enough someone would finally admit there is, in fact, a Civil 3D project.  Autodesk’s dogged determination to distance Civil 3D from Land Desktop served only to confound the migration to the program, particularly with regard to data and project management.  How hard could it be to call a working folder a project path and a data shortcut folder a project

For that matter, how hard could it be to overhaul all that knee-jerk crap tossed into the menu bar several releases ago?

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, guys and girls.  In case you missed me I have been busy shaking the proverbial money tree or bush or whatever you prefer to call it.  I’ve been vacationing too.  My wife took three weeks off last month and, being only occasionally semi-employed, I gave myself equal time off to run the streets with her.  5/6 of our children came home for the holidays and a glorious time was had by all.

On the civil front, I have been contracted by the Harris County Flood Control District to update their 1997 Drawing and Graphic Standards.  I intend to integrate my work standardizing the City of Houston Platting Department into this project.  My goal is one community standard for all of Houston.  No, I have not been smoking anything.  Sometimes you just have to go where the voices lead you.

This project will address submittal standards as well.  I know most of y’all trust me but some of you out there are funny about being told what to do.  If you are interested in what I have in mind my contact information is somewhere on this website.

My surface modeling struggles with Civil 3D are not a secret.  The number that constitutes a large data set has apparently been significantly reduced since C3D 2009 SP3.  I cannot model some of the same surfaces in C3D 2011 even after dramatic upgrades in hardware, software, and operating system.  I am unable to delineate drainage subareas except using relatively small data sets.  The good news is, some of you haven’t upgraded.  The bad news is, some of you have.

I have posted repeatedly on the Civil 3D discussion group but to no avail.  I had hoped for at least, “I don’t know”, or, “I can’t talk about it” but I got absolutely zip, nada, goose egg, nothing. That is not entirely true if I count platitudes and unacceptable work-arounds.  The Civil 3D product manager even states that the product is not well suited for large data sets.  This is grim.

I am exploring acceptable alternatives.  I know, “acceptable” is a moving target but we have work to do and it won’t get done using mediocre software masquerading as a global solution.  Ultimately, it may be part of the solution but right now it’s looking pretty small.

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