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AECbytes Product Review (June 30, 2007)

ArchiCAD 11

Product Summary

ArchiCAD 11 is the new release of Graphisoft's BIM application for architectural design that uses a single 3D building model for design development, visualization, collaboration, and producing 2D documentation.

Pros: New release includes an innovative and sophisticated Virtual Trace feature that simulates the physical tracing paper concept, making the transition to BIM easier for 2D users; a new Worksheet environment allows drawings to be developed independently of the model, allowing more control and facilitating distributed work processes; Splitter feature allows easier visual comparison of differences between views for better coordination of drawings and models; other enhancements include the ability to apply complex profiles to curved walls, generate a set of interior elevations in one step, built-in PDF support, and bidirectional integration with Google Earth and the Google 3D Warehouse; excellent quality of documentation; cross-platform, with both Windows and Mac versions.

Cons: No new BIM-specific enhancements; continues to lack modeling constraints of any kind, which makes it difficult to guarantee the consistency and integrity of the model for downstream analysis applications; building elements lack associativity with other elements, which would have increased intelligence and ease of use; the zone element is problematic in some aspects and needs further development; lacks any kind of model-based interference checking; not sufficiently fluid for conceptual design.

Price: $4250 for a new license; free educational version for students.

Last summer, I reviewed version 10 of ArchiCAD, which came after a two year development effort and was a pretty substantial release, packed with many new features and enhancements such as the ability to easily model complex walls, beams, and columns, integrated design and documentation by folding the separate PlotMaker application into ArchiCAD, and improved usability by new interface enhancements such as the Tracker, readily available element information, automatic guide lines, and improved element snapping.

The new release of ArchiCAD, version 11, coming just a year after the last release, still packs a large number of improvements to the application, some of which are quite dramatic. The main focus of this release, according to Graphisoft, was to ease the transition from the 2D workflow—which it still found predominant in architectural firms today based on a survey it conducted—to the BIM-based way of working. To this end, it has introduced an innovative "Virtual Trace" technology that digitally simulates the virtual tracing paper methodology architects have been using for decades to produce and coordinate their drawing sets. This is complemented by several additional tools and features that enhance its functionality, including a new Worksheet tool, as well as many other modeling and documentation enhancements. Let's take a detailed look at how these work, starting with Virtual Trace.

The New "Virtual Trace" Technology

The Virtual Trace feature is the ability to display a live reference view alongside the currently active model view or drawing in any model or layout window respectively. It can be used in a variety of ways, by beginning as well as advanced users: as a visual reference, as a temporary editing aid, and for comparing or coordinating drawings and models. The most basic use of Virtual Trace is as a visual reference for those who are more comfortable working with drawings but would like to still create a building model. They can, for example, open a section or elevation view as a trace reference while working on the plan, as shown in Figure 1-a. The process involves simply right-clicking on the section or elevation view in the Project Navigator and selecting the "Show as Trace Reference" command. The reference gets placed by default in a logical position, correctly aligned with the plan. A Trace and Reference dialog, also shown in Figure 1, provides several options such as the ability to move and rotate the reference as needed, and change the color and intensity of its display as well as the display of the active view. Because the reference is a live reference, it can reflect the changes that being made to the active view by using the "Rebuild Reference" button in the Trace and Reference dialog. Thus, changes made to the plan in Figure 1-a can be seen in the reference elevation that is shown, allowing the user to continue working in 2D while still getting visual feedback on how the model is being developed. It is even possible to quickly swap the active and reference views with a single button click, as shown in Figure 1-b, allowing the user to make adjustments to the elevation before getting back to the plan view. Another button in the Trace and Reference dialog works like a toggle switch, allowing the reference display to be turned on or off as needed.

Figure 1. Using the Virtual Trace feature as a visual aid. (a) Working on a plan with an elevation view opened as a reference, shown in a light gray color below the plan. (b) Switching the active and reference views to work on the elevation, with the plan view now available as a reference.

In addition to being a visual aid, reference views can also work as an editing aid. You can use tools such as Trim and Snap with elements in the reference view to edit the elements in the active view, and transfer attributes and parameters from the reference view elements to the active view elements. While only one reference can be associated with a view at a time, you can quickly switch to another reference by using the pull-down menu in the Trace and Reference dialog. A reference selected for one plan (story) appears in all the other stories as well, while each section, elevation, detail, layout, etc. can have its own unique reference. Reference settings such as color, position, rotation, etc., can be different for every window. These settings, along with the references, are saved in the project file, so they are retained even when the project is closed.

Other examples of the use of Virtual Trace as a visual and editing aid include drawing a detail with the relevant plan or section being displayed underneath as a reference, or working on a section with another section open as a reference. It can also be effectively used to align elements across different layouts for a more professional appearance to the documentation, as shown in Figure 2, where the roof plan view in a layout is being aligned with the ground floor plan in a separate layout, which is displayed as a trace reference.

Figure 2. Aligning the view in a roof plan layout with the view in a floor plan layout by opening the floor plan layout as a trace reference. This time, the color of the reference is set to a pale pink.

More advanced uses of Virtual Trace include comparing and coordinating drawings, models, and details. To this end, Virtual Trace includes tools to help identify and understand differences between the reference content and the active content, especially when the reference view overlaps with the active view. We have already seen that different display colors can be used to differentiate between the reference and active views. There is an additional option to make fills and zones transparent in both views; this would allow information to be uncovered that might otherwise be hidden. You can switch the display order of the reference and active views or manipulate their intensities to see the differences more clearly. If you have zoomed in to an area where the two views are different and you want to quickly check what is on the view underneath, a "Temporarily Displace Reference" buttom allows you to temporarily nudge the reference out of the way. And finally, there is the "Splitter" tool, which allows you to drag a splitter handle horizontally or vertically across the screen to see only the reference view underneath the active view, as shown in Figure 3, making the visual comparison much easier.

Figure 3. Using the Splitter tool in the Trace and Reference dialog to split the screen and compare a structural drawing, opened as a reference, with the floor plan, which is the active view.

Worksheets: A New Drawing Type

ArchiCAD 11 introduces a new Worksheet concept, which serves as a dedicated environment for 2D drawings, either generated from the model, created from scratch, or imported from external files. Let's look at the scenario of a drawing generated from the model. Instead of annotating and dimensioning model views of plans, sections, and elevations, you could transfer them as 2D views to worksheets and finish them in this environment using drafting and annotation tools. This has the advantage of creating a separation between the model and the drawings that can allow them to be developed in parallel by different team members, if required. At the same time, a drawing generated from a model view maintains a link to that view, allowing it to be rebuilt from the source view and remain coordinated with the model. Thus, creating a worksheet from the model is similar to a model-based detail, except that a worksheet is optimized for creating plans, elevations, and sections and is created at the same scale as the source, whereas a detail is created, by default, at half the scale of the original. Also, a worksheet includes any dimension and annotation elements that were there in the source view, whereas a detail contains the 2D copies of construction elements only and not the annotation/dimension elements. Worksheets can be created by a single-click capture method which reproduces the entire contents of the current window as 2D elements, or by selecting a portion of the window to reproduce a partial view only. Figure 4-b shows a worksheet with a partial section generated from the section view shown in Figure 4-a.

Figure 4. (a) A section view, of which a portion was selected to create a worksheet. (b) The worksheet showing the selected portion of the section developed in more detail. It also includes a further link to a detail view.

The new Worksheets feature is made more powerful when combined with the comparison capabilities of Virtual Trace. You could, for example, create a blank worksheet—referred to as an independent worksheet—and import into it a consultant's drawing that may be in the DWG format. You could now use Virtual Trace and its Splitter tool to compare this drawing with the corresponding view in the model and use it for coordination. The example shown earlier in Figure 3 used an imported structural plan used as a trace reference with the corresponding plan view from the model to detect any coordination issues. Even in the scenario where a worksheet is created from a model view itself, the Trace feature can be used to overlay the source view with the worksheet view to determine if the model has been changed. If so, the worksheet view can be easily updated by using the model view as a reference. This manual update, as opposed to an automatic update by rebuilding the worksheet view from the source view, may often be useful if only selective changes need to be updated. This feature is also particularly helpful when the modeling and drawing work has been divided up between different members of a project team and needs to be coordinated periodically.

In addition to using worksheets for developing drawings generated from the model or for importing and working with external drawings, worksheets can also be created to add images, charts, diagrams, and so on that are independent of the model but useful for the documentation of the project. The Worksheet tool is active in any window, and has marker and linking options similar to those of other ArchiCAD marker tools such as Section and Detail. Any type of marker can be linked to a worksheet. Since a worksheet contains exploded 2D elements generated from the model, there can often be extraneous elements such as extra line segments and overlapping or superfluous fills, which make editing difficult. There is an option to apply line and fill consolidation functions—another new feature in ArchiCAD 11—to remove overlapping elements, which will make subsequent editing in the worksheet easier.

Modeling, Documentation, and Other Enhancements

Recall that while ArchiCAD 10 introduced the ability to slant walls or apply custom profiles to them, this was only limited to linear walls. A curved wall—defined by an arc, circle, spline, etc.—was constrained to be vertical only. This limitation has been removed in ArchiCAD 11, making it possible to model a curved wall with a slant or a custom profile, as shown in Figure 5. This provides ArchiCAD users with more freedom to model complex building forms without giving up on the benefits of using a BIM application.

Figure 5. Applying a complex profile to a curved wall. The profile selected is shown in the Wall Selection Settings dialog.

Another modeling enhancement is the support for multi-story modules that can be linked to a project to more efficiently model repeating elements. When saving a multi-story project file as a a module file, you can choose to save all the stories, just the current story, or a range of stories. Subsequently, when placing the module into a project, you can choose which story number of the module has to be placed on the current story in the host project. The rest of the stories of the module will be placed accordingly, that is, on stories above and below the selected story. This support for multi-story modules should be useful for large, multi-story projects such as hospitals, apartment buildings, hotels, etc., which have typical, repetitive design units.

On the documentation front, improvements in addition to the new Worksheet capability include enhanced markers for creating cross-references between the various model views, worksheets, and detailed drawings. Any view can be referenced from anywhere—so, for instance, a section can be referenced not only from the floor plan but from another section as well, if required. ArchiCAD 11 includes an Interior Elevation tool that can be used to quickly generate all the interior elevations of a space. You can define the space boundary using polylines or select a zone—all the individual interior elevations of that space or zone are then created as separate views and grouped together in the Navigator's Project Map, as shown in Figure 6-a. To place a set of interior elevations in a layout, the group simply needs to be dragged and dropped in the layout. They are automatically placed in an organized fashion in the correct sequence using the layout's Auto-Arrange setting, as shown in Figure 6-b.

Figure 6. (a) Using the Interior Elevation tool to create a set of interior layouts for the complex-shaped kitchen space in this floor plan. (b) Placing the same set of interior elevations on a layout. They are automatically arranged sequentially.

Other enhancements in ArchiCAD 11 include the ability to assign pen sets to views in addition to layouts, making model views WYSIWYG and allowing easier modification of the specific pens used in the design. PDF support has been built in, so that you can directly save in PDF format without relying on a PDF printer driver. The quality of the PDF output has also been improved, with high resolution arcs and circles and enhanced gradient fills. Support for DWG has been expanded to the 2007 format. ArchiCAD 11 not only joins the growing list of BIM and CAD applications that integrate with Google Earth, but goes beyond it by also including bidirectional integration with the Google 3D Warehouse. It requires downloading and installing a plug-in from the Graphisoft website. Then, a model from the 3D Warehouse can be downloaded directly into ArchiCAD, as shown in Figure 7, and an ArchiCAD model can be directly published to the 3D Warehouse, allowing it to be shared with others.

Figure 7. (a) Downloading a model from the 3D Warehouse directly into ArchiCAD. This action can only be done in a plan view. (b) Viewing the downloaded model in a 3D view.

Analysis and Conclusions

Not all new releases of applications necessarily have a "killer feature," but ArchiCAD 11 certainly does—in its new Virtual Trace technology. Simple and intuitive in concept but extremely sophisticated in execution, Virtual Trace is an innovative translation of the familiar tracing paper architects are used to working with from the physical to the digital world. As we have seen, it spans across a broad array of tasks—as a visual reference, as an editing aid, and for comparing and coordinating models and drawings, including those coming from external consultants—for all levels of users, beginners to advanced. For a new feature, Virtual Trace is surprisingly well-developed. References are easy to place and reposition, there is full control over how they appear relative to the active view, you can switch the active and reference view in one click, and there are several aids for easy comparison of the two views, including the slick Splitter feature. For users new to BIM, being able to work on a plan and see a live elevation or section being simultaneously developed will be extremely helpful. You could try and simulate the same environment in another BIM application by using two or more windows, but this is not as intuitive or as elegant a solution as Virtual Trace. And of course, the comparison capability of Virtual Trace in conjunction with the new Worksheet tool and environment is completely unique to ArchiCAD. The ability to separate the drawings from the model that is afforded by worksheets provides more control over the documentation process and makes it easier to divide up the modeling and documentation tasks between members of a project team.

While ArchiCAD 11 does feature some additional improvements in modeling, documentation, and interoperability, these pale in comparison to the dominance of Virtual Trace, making this release really focused on 2D and on going from 2D to BIM, rather than on BIM itself. It makes ArchiCAD a compelling choice for those who are currently working in 2D and looking for a gentle transition to BIM. Considering that the majority of the AEC industry is still in this exploratory mode, the development of ArchiCAD 11 to focus on 2D and transition is a smart move by Graphisoft.

An added plus for users new to BIM is the quality of the documentation in ArchiCAD, which is excellent. Introduced in the last release, there is an Interactive Training Guide that can be downloaded for free from Graphisoft's website. It walks you through the basics of the application, directing you to actually perform the exercises interactively within ArchiCAD. The main Help documentation is available in both HTML and PDF format, and is comprehensively written and illustrated. In addition, movie clips are available on Graphisoft's website demonstrating the new features, along with sample projects created by users that can serve to give a good idea of how real-world projects have been executed in ArchiCAD.

On the flip side, the focus on 2D does come at the expense of no new enhancements on the BIM front. ArchiCAD continues to have some critical limitations that I had pointed out in my last review. These include the lack of modeling constraints and lack of associativity between building elements, which makes it difficult to guarantee the consistency and integrity of the model for downstream applications such as energy analysis, structural analysis, egress, circulation analysis, etc. ArchiCAD still does not 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; its Zone tool has to be used for spaces as well. Also, it is missing any kind of model-based interference checking or clash detection, which means that you cannot, for instance, import a structural model and check for conflicts with the architectural model. ArchiCAD users would have to rely on an external application like NavisWorks to do this, which would have been fine as long as it was a neutral third-party application. But the recent acquisition of NavisWorks by Autodesk does, I think, put some pressure on ArchiCAD to come with its own model-based conflict detection capability.

Also, it would be nice to see BIM applications getting smarter, so that users have to put in less effort in creating and editing models. Take the simple example of a space. It has traditionally been represented by architects using a single outline, which to them, not only represents the walls of the space, but also its spatial area and volume, and its floor and ceiling slabs. In contrast, in BIM applications, you have to separately model the walls, the floor slab, the ceiling slab, and add spaces or zones inside the walls to designate the rooms inside. Why can't all four steps be achieved with a single step? One of the reasons why an application like SketchUp has been so successful is because of the smart inferencing it applies to the task of 3D modeling, which makes the modeling a lot faster and more intuitive. Going forward, we need similar smart inferencing capabilities in our BIM applications as well to reduce the number of routine modeling tasks required to build a model. Let's hope that the same minds which engineered the brilliant Virtual Trace technology in ArchiCAD 11 can come up some innovative ways to make BIM smarter in future versions of ArchiCAD.

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

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