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AECbytes Product Review (July 31, 2006)

ArchiCAD 10

Product Summary

ArchiCAD 10 is the new release of Graphisoft's comprehensive solution for architectural design that uses a single 3D building model for design development, visualization, collaboration, and producing 2D documentation. It is one of the top three BIM applications available today.

Pros: New release provides the freedom to easily model inclined building elements or apply custom profiles to them, without losing the benefits of BIM; layouting process is now integrated into ArchiCAD by folding the separate PlotMaker application into it; usability greatly improved by new interface enhancements such as the Tracker, readily available element information, automatic guide lines, and improved element snapping; outstanding quality of documentation, including a free Interactive Training Guide providing hands-on interactive training for users new to ArchiCAD; several additional useful enhancements in the new release; cross-platform, with both Windows and Mac versions.

Cons: Drawings are not fully integrated with the model, making the construction documentation process more complex than it needs to be; not sufficiently fluid for conceptual design; the zone element is problematic in some aspects and needs further development; building elements lack knowledge about their relationship with other elements, which would have increased intelligence and ease of use; no modeling constraints of any kind, which does not guarantee the integrity of the model for downstream analysis applications that need to work with it.

Price: $4250 for a new license; free educational version for students; upgrade from ArchiCAD 9 is $795; upgrade from any earlier professional version is $995; optional annual subscription is also available.

Graphisoft recently released the new version of its BIM application for architectural design, ArchiCAD 10. Considering that it was in development for almost two years (see my review of ArchiCAD 9 published in September 2004), one would expect this to be a pretty substantial release. From that aspect, users will not be disappointed—ArchiCAD 10 is packed with many new features and enhancements. Let's take a detailed look at the most critical improvements and see how they far they go towards building upon the strengths and overcoming the limitations of the application that I pointed out in my review of ArchiCAD 9.

More Freedom to Model Complex Building Forms

One of the big "BIM issues" that ArchiCAD has tackled in this release is the modeling of non-regular geometry. In ArchiCAD 9, the ability to model organic building forms was quite limited, and Graphisoft subsequently released a new application called MaxonForm to address this limitation. MaxonForm is based on the high-end 3D design and visualization application, CINEMA 4D, and works as an add-on to ArchiCAD for organic modeling (see my review of MaxonForm published in November 2005). While MaxonForm is a very powerful application, it is also very complex and takes substantial time and effort to master. Also, the elements that are modified or created in MaxonForm lose their "BIM" nature when imported back to ArchiCAD (although they can have parameters added to them for calculation or quantification). Thus, MaxonForm is not the ideal solution, which is why serious effort was made to overhaul ArchiCAD's built-in modeling capabilities so that users would not have to rely on another application to include non-regular forms in their projects.

This overhaul has been achieved in several ways. To start with, ArchiCAD 10 now allows walls, beams, and columns to be easily slanted or inclined, simply by specifying the desired slant angle in their Settings dialogs. The top image in Figure 1 shows an example of a wall in a project that was initially modeled as vertical but has now been set to a slant angle of 80, by selecting the Slant option in the Settings dialog and specifying the angle. This modification can also be done graphically by choosing the Slant option from the pet palette when the wall is selected. You can create slanted walls to begin with by selecting the appropriate options in the Settings dialog before actually modeling them. It is even possible to have double slanted walls, simply by selecting that option and specifying the slant angles on both sides. Beams and columns can be similarly inclined as well.

For even more complex walls, beams, and columns, you can define your own cross-sectional profiles, as demonstrated by the second wall example in Figure 1, created by the curved profile shown alongside. The profiles can be created with different materials on the individual surfaces of the wall. A dedicated Profile Manager interface is provided to create, edit, and manage these custom profiles. These can also be saved in a library for re-use in other projects.

In addition to the ease with which slanted and more complex walls can be created, what is also impressive is that doors and windows can be aligned with the slanted wall surfaces, as shown in the examples in Figure 1, rather than being forced to stay vertical. All this requires is selecting the "Associated to Wall" option instead of the default "Vertical" option as the Opening Plane in the Settings dialog for the door or window.


Figure 1. Creating non-vertical walls in ArchiCAD 10. The top image shows an inclined wall defined by a single slant angle, while the lower image shows a complex curved wall defined by a custom cross-sectional profile.

Zones—the term for spatial units in ArchiCAD that can represent rooms, wings, or simply functional areas—have also been enhanced to work with non-regular wall shapes. Zones bounded by complex walls take on the shape of their geometry, automatically filling in the internal space, as shown in Figure 2-a. They can be seen as well as interactively edited in 3D. The zone automatically adjusts its geometry to fill the available internal volume determined by the complex walls when edited. (While the vertical height of a zone is determined by a numeric value rather than a slab or roof, it can be trimmed against such an element if it extends beyond it.) Another related enhancement is the automatic creation of the correct floor plan representation at every story of the building for slanted and complex walls, as shown in Figure 2-b. Several options are provided for controlling the wall display, allowing users to define and fine-tune the most appropriate floor plan representation for complex building forms.


Figure 2. Other enhancements related to modeling complex building forms. (a) Creating a zone inside the set of walls shown in Figure 1, one of which has a complex profile. (a) The accompanying floor plan representation of that complex form.

While these enhancements go a long way in giving ArchiCAD users much more modeling freedom compared to earlier versions, it is important to keep in mind that they don't provide full freeform modeling capabilities of the kind that can be achieved with NURBS-based 3D modelers such as form•Z, Rhino, and even MaxonForm. Even the ability to slant walls or apply custom profiles to them is only limited to linear walls. So a curved wall—defined by an arc, circle, spline, etc.—is constrained to be vertical only. Thus, there's no question of having a wall that is complex both in plan as well as elevation, making it very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to use ArchiCAD alone for projects such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Denver Art Museum Expansion, Sydney Opera House, and so on. However, for the vast majority of building projects that are not completely freeform but still want to incorporate some unusual geometry, the enhancements in ArchiCAD 10 make it a lot easier to work on them, without giving up on the benefits of using a BIM application.

Improved Design to Documentation Workflow

In previous versions of ArchiCAD, preparing layouts for printing and plotting was done through a separate application called PlotMaker. In ArchiCAD 10, PlotMaker has been folded into the main application, allowing a better integrated design to documentation workflow. The Navigator palette has been enhanced to display four different maps of the project: the Project Map, displayed by default, which provides a tree structure of the components of the building model; the View Map, which includes all the predefined and custom-created views of the project; the Layout Book, which contains the layouts defined for the entire architectural project; and the Publisher Sets, which are sets of views defined for various output purposes, such as printing, plotting, saving to a local disk or uploading to the internet or an intranet. You would typically start with the Project Map while designing and developing the building model, creating floor plans, elevations and sections, details, 3D views, schedules and so on. You would then switch to the View Map in the Navigator to save views of the model incorporating desired layer combinations, scale, dimensions and annotations, zoom level, etc. These saved views can be subsequently placed on drawing sheets created with master layouts in the Layout Book. Finally, the layouts can be collected in groups in the Publisher Sets, for publishing to different formats such as PDF, DWF, DWG, DXF, and so on, and for different purposes such as printing, plotting, saving, or uploading to an FTP site. Once all the settings have been defined, the publishing process can be started with a single click on the Publish button. All the views and drawings are regenerated while publishing, ensuring that last-minutes changes will be incorporated when publishing the set. It is still somewhat confusing for a new user to navigate through these four different project maps, but existing ArchiCAD users will appreciate being able to create documentation sets and plot or publish them without starting up a separate application.

The Navigator palette is accompanied by the Project Organizer, which allows views and files to be easily moved or copied from one map to the other. Views can be saved by dragging and dropping viewpoints from the Project Map to the View Map; layouts can be created by dragging and dropping views from the Project or View Map into the Layout Map (see Figure 3); and both views and layouts can be linked to a publisher set item by dragging and dropping them from the first three maps into the Publisher. Another related component is the Drawing Manager, which is used to monitor the status of all project drawings and change their settings when needed. Unlike Revit, for instance, where sheets contain live views of the model and are always synchronized with the model, drawings in ArchiCAD are a separate entity that can be set to either automatically update when the model changes, or frozen at a specific state and then manually updated when required. The latter option can be useful if you wish to keep the drawings untouched until they are approved or you are ready to move on to the next stage in your work. The Drawing Manager is where you would check the status of a drawing, update it if required, modify its update type, or reestablish, repair or change links.


Figure 3. Using the Project Organizer to create a new layout in a project.

Other documentation-related enhancements in ArchiCAD 10 include parametric and associative drawing titles placed automatically within drawings that can include various kinds of information about a drawing such as ID, name, and scale, and which can be customized according to a firm's drawing standards; section/elevation and detail markers that can be linked directly to views or drawings placed on layouts; the ability to import pages from a PDF document as drawings into layouts or model views, for example, a complete standard detail onto a section drawing or manufacturer's specifications onto a detail drawing; support for the U3D file format which allows 3D PDF files to be created from ArchiCAD that contain navigable 3D models; interactive element schedules that allow changes to be made to the model by modifying values in the schedule; the ability to define and place various project indexes such as a drawing list, view list, or sheet index; the ability to save different pen settings, for example, one set for on-screen display and another set for output documents; a separate on-screen view option that can be globally applied to all views to temporarily over-ride their individual view settings; and the availability of linear and radial gradient fills for higher level of graphic quality.

Interface Enhancements

ArchiCAD 10 introduces several new interaction methods designed to make the application easier to use. The Tracker is a brand-new graphical plus numeric input feature that is automatically activated during any drawing, modeling, or editing operation. It tracks the cursor movement and displays the instant, up-to-date numeric values relevant to the active tool. So, for instance, if you are modeling a wall in plan view using the Rectangle option, the Tracker gets activated once you select the starting point and then displays the two length values as you move the mouse, allowing you to specify the opposite point of the rectangular wall more accurately. You can also type in the required values in the Tracker for exact precision. Similarly, for an editing operation such as changing the height of a wall, you can use the Height value shown in the Tracker for more accurate graphical input, or type in the value for precise numeric input (see Figure 4-a). Another related enhancement is the ability to see the most relevant information about any element, including all its attributes and parameters, by simply moving the mouse over it with the Shift key pressed (see Figure 4-b). This helps the designer to quickly identify elements at a glance in large and complex projects, without needing to select them and then view their attributes. The same information is also automatically displayed when an element is selected, without requiring the use of the Shift key. Having all the relevant data, graphical or numeric, always at hand is a great help in guiding the user when needed and continuously providing valuable feedback.


Figure 4. New interface enhancements in ArchiCAD 10. (a) Specifying exact values numerically using the Tracker. (b) Seeing relevant information about an element by simply moving the mouse over it with the Shift key pressed. (c) Displaying colors and shadows in sections and elevations for better-looking drawings.

ArchiCAD 10 also simplifies and improves element input with new temporary guide lines that automatically appear whenever you are in the process of creating a new element or editing an existing element, enabling you to find accurate drafting and snapping lines, points, arcs, directions, parallel and perpendicular lines and angles, and intersections of non-existent lines, all without using keyboard shortcuts or the Control Box. Element snapping has also been improved so that if you start dragging an element, you can snap any of its nodes to the edge or node of any other element. Other key interface enhancements include a new 3D Explore mode which allows easy game-like navigation and exploration of the model in a perspective view; the ability to use the 3D Orbit mode for navigating the model even in the middle of an editing operation; the option to continuously update sections and elevations with modifications in the model so that they are always in sync with the model; and the ability to display story level lines in section and elevations as well as use shading with real material colors for the elements, which greatly improves their presentation quality (see Figure 4-c).

The Interactive Training Guide and Other Documentation Improvements

A lot of effort has been made in this release of ArchiCAD to improve the quality of its documentation and make the application easier to learn. The biggest development on this front is the brand-new Interactive Training Guide, which has been developed for beginners and existing users, allowing them to learn the basics of ArchiCAD quickly and easily. It is a free download from Graphisoft's website and includes a collection of exercises organized in chapters that take you step-by-step through the process of developing an architectural design project from scratch. All the steps are captured in narrated movies that can be opened within ArchiCAD, allowing you to follow and repeat the exercises as presented in the movies, at your own pace (see Figure 5). The movies are nicely synchronized within the application, so that once you complete a step by watching the associated movie, the movie for the next step is automatically loaded. Another important component of the Interactive Training Guide are the pre-set ArchiCAD project files for the different chapters, which include several help tags and pre-set project views, allowing users to focus on learning the core material without worrying about the settings. As an alternative to using the movie clips, a Training Guide e-book in PDF format is included, which explains every step and is backed up with plenty of screenshots. It also provides hints on related features and techniques that are closely connected to what you are doing during the training. Although the Interactive Training Guide is most effective when used interactively within ArchiCAD, it also be used by those who do not have ArchiCAD to get a better idea of how the application works—they can simply review the e-Guide PDF document and watch the narrated movies.


Figure 5. The new Interactive Training Guide is very effective for hands-on interactive training for users new to ArchiCAD.

In addition to the Interactive Training Guide, significant effort has been invested on other training material as well. There is a detailed and well illustrated New Features Guide in PDF format, completely independent of the main documentation, which makes it easy to understand and learn the new features of the application. The main Help documentation is available in both HTML and PDF format, and is comprehensively written and illustrated. ArchiCAD 10 also provides help in the actual working context through a "What's this?" or "Help" button, accessible by right-clicking at any location of the ArchiCAD screen. This jumps directly to the relevant section of the Help documentation, without you having to manually search for it. And finally, there is a wealth of material available on Graphisoft's website, including movie clips demonstrating all the new features in detail as well as sample projects created by users that can serve to give a good idea of how real-world projects have been executed using ArchiCAD 10.

Analysis and Conclusions

In addition to the new features and enhancements described here, ArchiCAD 10 includes several other improvements related to modeling, documentation, dimensioning, multi-user collaboration enabled by the Teamwork component, and project setup that are beyond the scope of this review to cover. The magnitude as well as the nature of the enhancement makes it one of the biggest ArchiCAD releases to date. The freedom to easily model inclined building elements or apply custom profiles to them will be particularly appreciated by designers, as they are no longer constrained to a vertical/horizontal world when using BIM on a project. While ArchiCAD still cannot easily model completely freeform buildings, those are the exception rather than the rule in any case; it is at least serving well the increasingly common trend for buildings to have somewhat irregular forms. The new interface enhancements such as the Tracker, readily available element information, automatic guide lines, and improved element snapping greatly improve the usability of the application. The presentation quality of the drawings generated from ArchiCAD is now significantly better with the ability to display colors and shadows in sections and elevations and the availability of linear and radial gradient fills. Several enhancements across the board also make the application a lot more efficient to work with.

The quality of the documentation in ArchiCAD can now be rated as outstanding, particularly the Interactive Training Guide. I have yet to see such an innovative and effective approach to training in the entire CAD/BIM world—and the best part of it is that it is free! Graphisoft deserves plenty of kudos for making such a concerted effort to provide effective training as part of the application, rather than forcing users to rely on professional help to learn to use it. Professional training can, of course, greatly expedite the learning process, but at least ArchiCAD users now have the necessary resources to learn the application on their own and at their own pace if they want to.

While the integration of the layouting process into ArchiCAD—achieved by folding the separate PlotMaker application into it—is definitely a big improvement that will make it easier to create construction documents, it is one of those areas where ArchiCAD is playing catch-up to applications like Revit, which had integrated documentation with modeling from the start. And unlike Revit, where the drawings are simply a view of the model and are always in sync with it, ArchiCAD still maintains a separation between the drawings and the model, but is working hard behind the scenes to keep them in sync if the drawings are set to the "automatic update" mode. While this definitely has the advantage of allowing the drawings to be frozen at a specific state and then manually updated when required, it does behoove the question of whether or not this is true BIM behavior. And even if this question can be dismissed as being only of rhetorical rather than practical significance at the moment, the separation of drawings from the model does add a layer of complexity to the construction documentation process, as evident by the four separate maps of the project in ArchiCAD's Navigator, which would be confusing for a new user to grasp.

Looking back on my review of ArchiCAD 9, the new version continues to have a few critical limitations that I had pointed out in my last review. One is the lack of associativity between building elements. For example, if you create a set of walls enclosing a rectangular space and subsequently move a wall, the connecting walls do not automatically stretch to maintain connectivity. Similarly, if a zone is placed inside an enclosed set of walls that are subsequently modified, it does not automatically adjust to the new volume; a separate command is required to update the zone to re-fill the volume. Another related problem is the lack of any kind of modeling constraints whatsoever. Walls can intersect with other elements, doors and windows can be moved out of walls, doors and windows can overlap with each other on the same wall, and so on. To a certain extent, ArchiCAD's new modeling freedom has been made possible because there are no built-in constraints within the application. The price ArchiCAD has to pay for this is in its inability to guarantee the consistency and integrity of the model, which would be critical for downstream applications such as energy analysis, egress, fire safety, circulation analysis, and so on to work with the model and provide results that can be trusted. Architectural researchers working in the field of building modeling have determined that one of the most critical attributes of a building model is integrity—the model should not allow you to create a "junk building." So far, no BIM application really meets this requirement (see my recent review of Revit Building 9), but ArchiCAD, with its near complete lack of modeling constraints, is very far from this goal. It might not be a critical issue right now, but it will be in the future, when the focus of BIM will increasingly be on analysis and simulation rather than on automatically generating construction drawings.

Also, as I pointed out in my review of Revit Building 9, all BIM applications need to rethink how they deal with spaces/rooms, as none of them have quite got it right yet in my opinion. This includes ArchiCAD with its zone element. To start with, it should make a distinction between rooms/spaces as commonly defined by a single enclosure, and a larger collection of spaces that can come together as a zone. Also, the very existence of walls should automatically define some kind of volume, whether fully or partially enclosed, and the application should be smart enough to determine when such a volume has been created. The user should not have to go through the additional step of explicitly creating and placing a room/space/zone element within a set of walls, as this subsequently creates problems such as keeping that element synchronized with the surrounding volume, as I pointed out earlier. ArchiCAD too does not automatically detect the vertical footprint of a zone by elements such as slabs and roofs but uses a numeric value instead, so that to calculate the true volume of a zone under a complex roof, you have to first specify its height to be greater than that of the roof and then trim the zone against the roof. Also, zones in ArchiCAD cannot be seen in sections at all, which is another unfortunate consequence of explicitly creating them rather than them being implicitly defined.

In conclusion, ArchiCAD 10 is right on track in providing users with what they critically need right now—more modeling freedom, improved ease of use, vastly improved training, and better integration of drawings with the modeling workflow. In the long term, more attention needs to be paid to the issue of model integrity by incorporating more intelligent modeling behavior that takes into account the physical properties of building elements and their relationship with other elements, so that the model can be free of modeling errors before moving to the analysis and simulation phase. How it can do this without detracting from the user experience represents the ultimate challenge—not only before ArchiCAD, but before any current-day BIM application.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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