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AECbytes Product Review (April 23, 2008)

AutoCAD Architecture 2009

Product Summary

Autodesk AutoCAD Architecture 2009 is object-based design and documentation software for architects. It offers many of the benefits of building information modeling in the familiar AutoCAD environment.

Pros: Updated user interface; search bars for tools and help; integrated RSS feeds; more extensive tooltip support, instructive problem/solution tips; sophisticated navigation modes including ViewCube, SteeringWheel, QuickView, and ShowMotion controls; streamlined workflows with actions, object property matching tool, and property editing simplification; significant AEC object improvements related to walls, spaces, and multiline attributes.

Cons: Pricey, complex, and difficult to master, this enhanced AutoCAD vertical doesn't offer the full benefits of a true BIM system.

Price: $4995 for one commercial standalone seat.

Scott Onstott
Book & Video Author

This product was reviewed three years ago in AECbytes when it went by the acronym ADT. Coincidentally, at that time I was writing a book on ADT called Mastering Architectural Desktop 2006. Since then, much has evolved and changed in AutoCAD and its architectural vertical. I am honored to have been asked to write this review and pleased for the opportunity to get back up to speed on AutoCAD Architecture 2009.

Although AutoCAD Architecture still has AutoCAD at its core, it is really a much more powerful and complex program. Some say that the biggest strength of AutoCAD Architecture is that it's based on AutoCAD. However, at the same time, I have to say that the biggest weakness of AutoCAD Architecture is its AutoCAD core. You might ask—isn't this a contradiction? Not exactly.

If you've used AutoCAD for a long time, then it's natural to grow into AutoCAD Architecture because you can leverage the skills you've built over time while you learn new ones. If you're using an older version of ADT or AutoCAD Architecture, then upgrading to this latest 2009 version has many important benefits which I will review shortly.

However, it is important to consider the big picture first. Think of AutoCAD Architecture as computer-aided design software that dreams of becoming a building information modeling (BIM) system. AutoCAD Architecture gets closer to realizing that dream with every release, but it's never really going to get there because it has CAD at its core. Revit, on the other hand, was built from the ground up as a BIM program. But Revit is a very different animal, and ultimately comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges. Both have their places and assuredly have strong futures. For those who prefer the AutoCAD-based workflow, AutoCAD Architecture will remain their design application of choice, and it will allow them to derive at least some of the benefits of BIM, which AutoCAD alone cannot provide.

Updated User Interface

The first thing that you'll notice is the new user interface (see Figure 1). Autodesk made the decision to go with a ribbon interface in both AutoCAD 2009, and AutoCAD Architecture 2009. If you are a Microsoft Office 2007 user, you will recognize this UI. Tools are grouped into panels that can be expanded vertically. Sets of panels are displayed on ribbon tabs, and you can toggle between showing just the tabs, tabs with panel titles, or the full ribbon.

AutoCAD 2009 makes full use of the ribbon interface, but AutoCAD Architecture 2009 has the ribbon turned on only in the Visualization workspace by default. Of course, you can show the ribbon in any workspace, but it only has base AutoCAD tools on it. AutoCAD Architecture still uses the Tool Palettes to host all generic and styled AEC objects. I can't help thinking Autodesk dropped the ball on this, but I speculate that objects will find their way onto the ribbon in future releases.

All the tired-looking status buttons (like SNAP, GRID, ORTHO, etc.) have been turned into attractive icons, and navigation tools are conveniently included on the application status bar.

Figure 1. New user interface in AutoCAD Architecture 2009.

The "big A" in the upper left corner of the UI is more than a new logo—it's the menu browser interface. Clicking the big A opens a large drop down window that lists all the menus in a vertical list. Clicking a title opens the menu in the adjacent column (see Figure 2). This interface is reminiscent of column view in the Mac Finder. Also included in the menu browser is a list of recent documents, open documents, and recent actions (more on actions later). Being able to open a file from a list of recent documents is a huge time saver—and I can't believe it has taken this many years to see it implemented.

The horizontal menu bar is visible by default in three of four out-of-the-box workspaces. I recommend turning off the menu bar because the menus are in the menu browser and you can't hide the big A. The menu browser has additional functionality—beyond menus—that is quite useful, so it may be worth training yourself to access menu items vertically.

However, why would anyone need to access menus both horizontally and vertically on the same screen? This is indicative of the problem with the UI—it's growing way too complex. Autodesk is looking at ways to streamline all aspects of the UI without completely starting over, so for now at least it is good to have additional interface options.

Figure 2
. The menu browser.

The quick access toolbar appears on the title bar just to the right of the big A—it appears in all workspaces and you can't turn it off. The idea is to put tools that are useful in every workspace on the quick access toolbar (new, open, save, print, project browser, project navigator, undo, and redo are there by default).

Harnessing the Power of Search

AutoCAD Architecture command names are typically very long (i.e. DoorWinAssemblyAdd) so few users actually know command names or type them in like users might do in base AutoCAD. Therefore, a greater reliance is placed on finding tools through the graphical user interface. If you don't know where to find a tool, you might navigate a series of cascading menus, look in the content browser, browse through palette groups and scroll through their palettes, study the ribbon tabs and panels, changes workspaces, open various toolbars, or seek the right icon on the document or application status bars by reading their tooltips. Whew!

As AutoCAD Architecture and its AutoCAD base grow more complicated over time, the sheer volume of information about the programs increases, and it gets harder to find what you're looking for. Fortunately, several powerful search tools have been integrated into the UI.

The Search field at the top of the menu browser allows you to find any AutoCAD command or generic AutoCAD Architecture tool very quickly (see Figure 3). The menu path is shown next to each item in the list so you can try to remember where to find it later, but you might not need to. Once you get used to harnessing the power of search, you might find that it's the fastest method for finding the right tool for the job.

Figure 3. Command and tool search in the menu browser.

There's another search bar on the title bar called InfoCenter. Searching here opens a long popup window, as shown in Figure 4, that gives you integrated results from many help sources including AutoCAD Architecture User's Guide, AutoCAD Architecture Stand-Alone & Network help, AutoCAD User's Guide, Command Reference, Customization Guide, New Features Workshop, and Autodesk Online.

Figure 4. Get the help you need with one search.

The Communication Center icon is adjacent to the search bar and looks like a satellite dish. Clicking this icon opens another long window displaying live update maintenance patch status, Autodesk channel content, subscription information, Autodesk articles and tips, and syndicated feeds (see Figure 5). I was pleasantly surprised to find the popular Between the Lines and Between the Walls blogs subscribed to by default. In addition you'll find the always-useful AutoCAD Architecture and AutoCAD knowledge bases and discussion groups set up as feeds. You can add as many additional RSS feeds as you want, but be careful or you won't get any work done.

Figure 5. The Communication Center puts the AutoCAD & AutoCAD Architecture worlds at your fingertips.

Improved Feature Discoverability

It is much easier to get up to speed with AutoCAD Architecture 2009 as compared with earlier versions because of the new emphasis Autodesk has placed on "feature discoverability." In other words, the software is more descriptive and this helps you figure out what is going on.

Object rollover tooltips are new and they display layer and style info about any object you hover the cursor over (see Figure 6). This can be helpful or annoying depending on your point of view and thankfully, this feature can be turned off if you feel that it obscures too much of the drawing window.

Figure 6. Object rollover tooltips.

Certain tools and editing commands automatically trigger "did you know" messages to appear, an example of which is shown in Figure 7. As a longtime AutoCAD Architecture user, my first instinct would be to get rid of them (and you can), but on second thought I suggest giving these messages a chance. They are quite helpful in the first month or two as you ease into learning the new features and workflows of the new version. Some of these messages can be expanded with a down arrow for more descriptive info and illustrations.

Figure 7
. Context-sensitive "Did you know?" messages automatically appear.

The Project Navigator gets tooltips in AutoCAD Architecture 2009. You can change these to large, medium or small (large shown in Figure 8). In addition to showing a preview image, these tooltips also give "who has it" information so you can go talk to said coworker and ask them why they have a file-lock on the one drawing you so urgently need.

Figure 8
. Project Navigator tooltips show "who has it" information.

How often have you been drawing walls, only to be confounded by the dreaded "red circle of death" (more properly called a defect marker)? In previous versions of the product, you would see a defect marker wherever there were wall cleanup problems. Maybe you were in the dark on why these problems occurred and at a loss about how to fix them. New to AutoCAD Architecture 2009 are Solution tips, one of the best ideas I've seen implemented in years (see Figure 9). Now you are presented with a description of the problem and several possible solutions—so you can take action without panicking.

Figure 9
. Solution tips present the problem and possible solutions.

Sophisticated Navigation

ViewCube is a new intuitive navigation mode that is present across most of Autodesk's 3D product line. The ViewCube works within style dialog boxes (see Figure 10) and in the Object Viewer, as well as in the drawing editor when a visual style other than 2d wireframe is used.

Figure 10. ViewCube: style and object navigation control.

The SteeringWheel is another example of a cross-product navigation control, and it works in the drawing window in AutoCAD Architecture (see Figure 11). The steering wheel has several different modes and options allowing intuitive first-person 3D navigation. It blows the doors off the old 3DORBIT and older DVIEW commands, and makes it very easy to compose an attractive view.

Figure 11. SteeringWheel offers many intuitive 3D navigation controls.

QuickView is yet another two word NavigationFeature. Clicking the QuickView icon on the application status bar makes interactive icons of all open drawings appear (see Figure 12). Each drawing's modelspace and layouts are directly accessible.

Figure 12
. QuickView lets you directly jump to another drawing's modelspace or layout.

ShowMotion works very much like QuickView except it shows views within the current drawing (see Figure 13). Views can now be still, cinematic, or animated and ShowMotion can fluidly move between them.

Figure 13
. ShowMotion gives interactive view access

Streamlined Workflow

Autodesk has taken a page from Adobe and included actions in AutoCAD Architecture 2009. Click the Record button, do something, and then click Stop (see Figure 14). Afterwards, replay your action at any future time. There is no easier way to "program a computer" than by recording an action—there is zero coding. Just like in Photoshop, you can pause an action to request input, or to display a message. It will be very interesting to see what innovative actions users come up with and share in the coming months.

Figure 14. Photoshop-like actions are now part of AutoCAD Architecture.

In previous releases you had to follow a convoluted sequence of steps to do something as mundane as turn off the display of a door frame—select door, right-click, choose Edit Door Style, click Display Properties tab, double click Plan display representation, turn off frame visibility, click OK and OK again.

Now it's intuitive and much more straightforward—select door, click the display tab of the Properties palette, open display component drop-down and turn off frame visibility (see Figure 15). In other words, you can now edit objects just like you edit AutoCAD entities.

Figure 15
. Intuitive AutoCAD Architecture object property editing more in-line with AutoCAD.

Quick Properties, shown in Figure 16, is a new feature that streamlines the Properties palette by showing a mini properties window at the cursor location when you select an entity. Unfortunately it only works for AutoCAD line work at this time, as it is helpful to be able to see and change properties at a glance.

Figure 16
. Quick properties work only for AutoCAD entities.

Match properties (aka the paintbrush button) used to only work for AutoCAD entities in previous versions of AutoCAD Architecture. In AutoCAD Architecture 2009, Match properties works on objects as well—so you can copy style or object display overrides from one object to others (see Figure 17). This is a killer feature. It saves loads of time to be able to copy a style from one object to another, without having to learn the style name and open dialog boxes or popup lists to make the change.

Figure 17. Match properties command now works with styles and objects.

Each display configuration can be linked to a drawing scale in AutoCAD Architecture 2009. For example, you can link 1/2"=1'-0" scale to the High Detail display configuration. This association is done in the Drawing Setup dialog box (AecDwgSetup command). This makes perfect sense because chances are every time you show a drawing at 1/2" scale, you are looking at an enlarged plan or detail drawing where you'd want to show a high level of display information anyway.

The upshot is that this linkage simplifies things by essentially taking display configuration out of the picture. Now when you change scales, the appropriate amount of detail will automatically be shown, assuming your CAD or BIM manager has set up your company templates properly. Scale and display configuration linkage is drawing-specific.

Significant Object Improvements

Walls have been greatly improved in AutoCAD Architecture 2009. In the past, problems with wall cleanup have been difficult to sort out and resolve, partly because of an arcane definition called the graphline which may or may not have been in the same location as the justification line. The graphline has been internally merged with the justification line so they are now one and the same. Walls simply have fewer cleanup issues now because of this.

As I already mentioned, solution tips will appear if there are wall cleanup issues that need your attention. In addition, walls cleanup automatically across xrefs, no matter how many instances of that xref you have in a drawing. This is especially useful when you need multiples of the same element externally referenced into a construct—the walls cleanup, no worries.

In the past it was always a hassle to have to go to the Properties palette to change the direction or justification of a wall segment because this act interrupted the flow of drawing. Now you can use the Ctrl key to flip wall directions and the Shift key to cycle through justification options (see Figure 18). This might not sound like much, but it is a huge time saver when you're drawing a lot of walls.

There is an Offset option within the AddWall command that allows you to space a new wall some distance from a wall you've already drawn, measured from any wall component. This means you can offset the wall directly from a structural component without having to do the math in your head to subtract the gypsum board on-the-fly while you're in the act of drawing walls. Again, this is a big help.

Figure 18. Drawing walls has become more streamlined.

Custom wall and opening endcaps were another sore spot in the past. I am happy to say this has finally been sorted out as you can easily grip-edit existing endcaps in place (see Figure 19) or have AutoCAD Architecture automatically calculate new endcaps based on polylines that you draw in-place. The new endcaps you've edited or drawn can apply to just one object or to a whole new style.

Figure 19
. Editing endcaps has been greatly improved.

The space object has been updated in AutoCAD Architecture 2009. In the past, you might have deleted and recreated spaces whose boundaries had changed. Now they will automatically update to their boundaries, much like hatch patterns. In addition, you can draw line work and have it automatically create spaces by changing the Bound spaces property to Yes (see Figure 20). This feature even works across xrefs, making it quite convenient.

Figure 20
. Line work can now bound spaces.

One of the annoying things about attributed tags in previous versions of AutoCAD Architecture was that they often overflowed the spaces or rooms that they identified. In AutoCAD Architecture 2009, attributes support word wrap onto multiple lines and you can change the text justification with grips (see Figure 21), so there is no reason why you can't keep things neat and tidy.

Figure 21. Multiline attributes support word wrap and justification can be edited with grips.

Increased Interoperability

Windows Vista now supports the DWF format natively through its XPS Viewer, which is nice for those who are on Vista as they don't have to download anything to see DWF files. The XPS viewer has to be downloaded for use on Windows XP. AutoCAD Architecture 2009 imports and exports IFC files so you can exchange data with BIM systems that support this standard that defines intelligent objects. DGN version 7 & 8 are now importable into AutoCAD Architecture. All-in-all, AutoCAD Architecture 2009 sees a modest increase in interoperability.

Improved Visualization

AutoCAD Architecture 2009 features real-time viewport lighting and shadow casting, but the quality of these features depends on whether your graphics card is supported by Autodesk. AutoCAD Architecture 2009 works on my 3 year old PC which is still perfectly adequate to create production drawings. However, I don't see any of the real-time visualization features because my graphics card isn't on Autodesk's approved list (even though it was for ADT 2006). The upshot is you may have to buy new graphics cards for older computers in order to take advantage of the new visualization capabilities in AutoCAD Architecture 2009, or in any Autodesk product.

In the visualization department there is an obscure system variable, VSLIGHTINGQUALITY, that can now be set to 2 for per-pixel lighting. This setting greatly increases realism at the cost of increased render time, so use it only for high quality output.

Analysis and Conclusions

AutoCAD Architecture 2009 has many notable improvements over last year's version, including a new user interface, integrated search tools, improved feature discoverability, sophisticated navigation controls, a few streamlined workflows, significant wall and space object tweaks, multiline attributed tags, and slightly improved interoperability and visualization features.

Of these features, I believe the improvements to the wall and space objects will be the most helpful in day-to-day work and the integrated search tools and streamlined access to object properties (and match properties) great time savers. I don't like how cluttered the UI has become but have come to expect it in an application that is built on top of an application that is now 27 years old. I appreciate the fact that Autodesk is trying to make it easier to use AutoCAD Architecture with various tooltips, help files, discussion groups, knowledge bases, blogs, and videos.

In conclusion, I suggest that it is worth upgrading to AutoCAD Architecture 2009 if you are an existing AutoCAD Architecture or ADT user and your firm is manifestly unwilling or not ready to switch to a true BIM solution, preferring to stay on an AutoCAD-based platform. However, I would not recommend AutoCAD Architecture, or even AutoCAD, to students or to firms who are able to allocate enough time to train properly on an application such as Autodesk’s own Revit Architecture that is purpose-built for BIM.

About the Author

Scott Onstott is the author of Mastering Architectural Desktop 2006 (Sybex/Wiley). He has a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and has served as an instructor there, in addition to working in several prominent engineering, architecture, and interiors firms in San Francisco. Scott has contributed to over two dozen books and videos on AutoCAD, ADT, VIZ Render, Revit, 3ds Max, VIZ, Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, Fireworks, and Dreamweaver. He can be reached via:

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