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AECbytes Product Review (October 31, 2008)

VisionREZ 6

Product Summary

VisionREZ is a BIM application customized for residential design that is available as a stand-alone product or as a plug-in for AutoCAD Architecture or AutoCAD MEP.

Pros: Significantly less expensive than AutoCAD Architecture, making it a compelling BIM option for architects and builders specializing in residential and light commercial design; many tools for quickly modeling roofs, framing, trim, and other details specific to residential design; extensive set of content libraries; ability to generate detailed bill of materials in many different formats; integrates through DWF with other design and engineering applications such as hsbCAD, IntelliBuild, and Alpine; benefits from all the features and improvements to the AutoCAD platform, including the ability to generate high-quality renderings and animations from the model; good quality of Help and supporting documentation.

Cons: Suffers from the limitations of AutoCAD Architecture, including complexity and limited object intelligence and associative behavior.

Price: The upcoming VisionREZ Designer is $1,995; the full stand-alone product, VisionREZ Builder is $2,995; VisionREZ Plug In is $1,995.00.

I last reviewed VisionREZ all the way back in July 2005, when it was still a relatively new application. But even at that time—when building information modeling (BIM) was just starting to become more mainstream—I greatly appreciated the concept of the application, which was a BIM application customized for residential design. It was built on top of AutoCAD Architecture (or ADT, as it was known then) and featured drawing extraction, automatic framing, built-in quantity take-off, and many other smarts specific to residential design, along with rendering and animation capabilities. I found it to be an excellent example of one of the likely future technological trends in AEC: BIM applications customized for specific building types such as commercial, residential, educational, healthcare, retail, airports, and so on, with all the smarts and rules specific to that type built in, making BIM tools much smarter and easier to use than they are now. While I still have to see such examples of customized BIM emerging for other building types, this seems like a good time to take a renewed look at VisionREZ and see how much it has progressed since my last review.

VisionREZ Today

VisionREZ is developed by AmeriCAD Inc., an architectural services and software solutions company that recognized the value of a model-centered enterprise for buildings integrating its marketing, estimating, engineering, purchasing, production, accounting, and general management aspects, long before the notion of BIM became commonplace. It became a registered Autodesk developer and built VisionREZ on top of the object-based AutoCAD Architecture to offer a model-centered solution for the residential and light commercial design segment of the building industry. Last year, AmeriCAD was acquired by Illinois Tool Works (ITW), a global, publicly traded Fortune 500 company that produces engineered fasteners and components, equipment and consumable systems, and specialty products. The acquisition by such a large company gives VisionREZ the potential to grow from being a niche product to a much more key player in unifying the processes of design, engineering and manufacturing in the traditionally fragmented housing industry. In addition to having access to ITW’s resources, VisionREZ is also building links with other ITW construction-related applications including Alpine, which specializes in truss software; hsbCAD, which has several applications for the prefabricated building component manufacturing industry; and IntelliBuild, a parametric modeling application that integrates all the framing and finish components of a structure.

Up until now, VisionREZ has been available in two versions: as a plug-in that works as a 3rd party add-on to full seats of AutoCAD Architecture 2009/2008 and AutoCAD MEP 2009/2008; or as a stand-alone product with a stripped-down version of AutoCAD Architecture that only includes those features needed by VisionREZ. Starting from November, however, two versions of the stand-alone product will be available: VisionREZ Designer, which is targeted towards the designer/drafter and includes all architectural functionality minus Framing, Bill of Materials, and the 3D Manufacturing Model; and VisionREZ Builder, which will be the new name of the current stand-alone product, includes all of its functionality, and is targeted towards the home builder. The new product differentiation makes VisionREZ even more affordable for an architectural firm that specializes in residential and light commercial design as compared to AutoCAD Architecture alone.

How It Works

VisionREZ adds one pulldown menu and several floating toolbars to the AutoCAD Architecture interface, of which the most common ones are visible by default; the others can be accessed and turned on when needed (see Figure 1). All the tasks related to the actual modeling of the project, such as setting up levels, creating walls, doors, windows, floors, roofs, etc., adding furniture, appliances, fixtures, and so on, are carried out with the VisionREZ tools. All other tasks such as viewing and display, generating elevations and sections, dimensioning and annotation, layout and printing, managing project files, rendering and visualization, and so on, are done using the corresponding AutoCAD tools. As you can see from Figure 1, VisionREZ includes all the new interface features and enhancements of AutoCAD Architecture 2009 such as the new tool icons, integrated search, object rollover tooltips, the ViewCube and SteeringWheel navigation tools, and many more that were described in detail in its recent review in AECbytes.


Figure 1. The interface of VisionREZ, showing one of the VisionREZ tool palettes and five floating toolbars positioned just below the main toolbars. The AutoCAD Architecture ViewCube is being used to view the model and the object rollover tooltips are being used to get some basic information about a wall object by hovering over it.

You would start a new project by first specifying the height setting, for all the individual levels as well as for the various objects within each level such as walls, doors, windows, cabinets, fixtures, and so on. These are already defaulted to values appropriate for residential design, but there could be minor variations for every project. While version 3 of VisionREZ allowed a total of 5 levels, including basement and roof, the current version of VisionREZ allows up to seven level settings to be defined, increasing the scale of the projects that can be modeled. The model is defined level by level, as in most BIM applications. Since VisionREZ is built on top of AutoCAD Architecture, it is still very much based on layers, and each level comes with a predefined set of layers for holding different types of information related to the model, viewports, presentation drawings, working drawings, electrical drawings, framing drawings, and so on. However, users don’t need to actually worry about the layers, as the different tools automatically activate the relevant layers. Thus, to start modeling on Level 1, for example, you would set the WD (Working Drawing) toolbar to 1, as shown in Figure 2. Similarly, other toolbars such as ED (Electrical Drawing), PD (Presentation Drawing), FD (Framing Drawing), and so on also have all the level numbers for modeling the corresponding objects separately on each level.


Figure 2. Setting the WD toolbar to 1 for modeling the objects on the first floor of the project.

VisionREZ includes all the behavior that is now standard in an object-based modeling application, such as automatic clean-up of walls, automatic cutting of walls when doors and windows are placed, and some level of object associativity that allows, for example, connected walls to maintain their connectivity when one of them is moved. In addition, it also includes some “smart’ behavior that is specific to residential design. So, for example, floor and wall cabinets, plumbing fixtures, electrical switches, and so on automatically snap to walls, in the correct orientation, and move along with them if the layout is changed. Some of the content is automatically associated with other inserted content (in a kitchen layout, for example, a microwave, oven, and electrical outlets will be associated with the main kitchen cabinet), and will move along with it. Objects such as sinks will automatically be subtracted from countertops. For electrical drawings, various smarts are available such as the ability to place lights and fans in the center of a room, wires to connect fixtures to their switches, and so on.

The focus on residential design is also reflected in the ability to created models that are much more detailed than the average BIM model. VisionREZ already had an extensive content library for residential design when I reviewed it three years ago; it has grown even further in the intervening years and now has over 1000 types of interior content. For example, the number of trim types and styles that can be used to attach trim to doors, windows, openings, and roofs has been greatly expanded. Figure 3 shows the tool that was used to add the arched keystone trim to a window assembly—it was a simple one-step operation that just required the window assembly to be selected after activating the tool. Some of the other trim tool palettes are also shown. The trim is context-aware and auto-adjusts when the object it is anchored to is modified. Trim can be anchored to other trim and the starting and ending points, shape, width, depth, length or rotation can be adjusted. There are also tools to add, delete, break or miter trim.   


Figure 3. Using a trim tool of a specific style to quickly add an arched keystone trim to a window assembly. The wide variety of trim tools and styles is also shown.

Another aspect of the application that has been significantly enhanced is roof design. An entire roof can be modeled as one object, or it can be modeled as a collection of individual roof slabs. There are several methods to create it. You can draw it point by point, or you can convert a polyline shape into a roof. Figure 4 shows the roof that was automatically created by simply selecting a polyline shape, especially made complex to demonstrate the power of the tool. It also shows how the default roof shape that gets created can be further modified by dynamic editing, using the various types of grips for changing the vertex location, the plate height, the pitch, and a toggle switch that changes an edge from being sloping to non-sloping and vice versa. These tools make it very easy to configure the roof as desired. If you have a 2D roof plan that indicates the eaves and ridges, there is a dedicated tool in the Roofs tool palette to convert that to a roof object, which can be a very convenient option. Figure 4 also illustrates the Properties dialog for the roof object, showing the number of styles it can be set to as well as the large number of options available to define its trim, fascia, soffit, overhang, and other settings, which are critical in addressing the complex requirements of residential roof design and development.


Figure 4. Using the Roof tool to convert a 2D polyline to a 3D roof object and then using dynamic editing to configure it as required. The Roof Properties palette showing the large number of roof settings is also shown.

Similar to roofs, framing is another critical and complex component of residential design. VisionREZ provides tools that greatly simplify the framing of floors, ceilings, roofs and walls by automating the layout using built-in smarts and rules specific to residential design. Figure 5 shows an example of the framing layout of a floor plan that was created by applying the framing tools room by room. Tags can be added to all the structural members of the same type in one step. VisionREZ uses AutoCAD Architecture structural members for the framing, and these can be anchored to the floors, ceilings, roofs and walls that they frame, allowing them to automatically adjust to a certain extent when these objects are modified. An anchor can also be released, allowing framing objects to behave independently. Framing is represented in both plan and model views and can be created or edited in either view. Framing members can be displayed in schedules and can be extracted for bill of materials.


Figure 5. The framing layout for a floor plan generated very quickly by using VisionREZ’s automated framing tools.

As with all the modeling aspects of the application, the Bill of Materials (BOM) capability is also relatively quick and easy to use. You simply activate the BOM tool, select those parts of the model for which the BOM is to be generated, and specify the format in which you want to create it: Access database, Excel spreadsheet, DWF file, etc. Figure 6 shows the Excel spreadsheet that was generated by using the BOM tool on a sample model. As you can see, it lists all the raw data for each component of the building, with different categories in different tabs. This format comes from the pre-defined Excel template spreadsheet that ships with the application. This can be used as a starting point to create customized spreadsheets that can be used for estimating purposes. You could also include product number or accounting items for integration with accounting and purchasing. Publishing  the BOM to DWF, as shown in Figure 7, allows for a visual review of the model components and its associated data. Underneath its seemingly simple operation, the BOM module in VisionREZ is actually very comprehensive with many options and settings, allowing the output to be customized as desired.


Figure 6. Exporting a BOM spreadsheet of a sample project and viewing it in Excel.


Figure 7. The BOM for the same project exported in DWF format, being viewed in Autodesk Design Review.

Given that VisionREZ is built on top of AutoCAD Architecture, it benefits from being able to use many of its other export capabilities as well. Thus, in addition to the BOM export to DWF shown above, you can also simply export a DWF or DWFx file, which can used to interoperate with other ITW solutions such as Intellibuild and hsbCAD. So, for example, a VisionREZ 3D model can be exported to Intellibuild for wall panelizing development and returned to the VisionREZ DWG file format via DWF. You can also import and export IFC files. Either of these file formats, DWF and IFC, can be used to bring a VisionREZ model into NavisWorks (see my recent review of NavisWorks 2009), where it can be used for design coordination and conflict detection with other models. See, for example, Figure 8, which shows a NavisWorks model of a house that was structurally engineered as a team effort between VisionREZ, Jordan Engineering, Alpine Engineered Products and Truswal.


Figure 8. A VisionREZ model being visualized in NavisWorks along with models from complementary engineering applications. (Courtesy: AmeriCAD)

VisionREZ also has access to the visualization capabilities of AutoCAD Architecture, within the application to generate quick renderings as well as by exporting the model to a sophisticated rendering and animation application such as 3ds Max or 3ds Max Design. Figure 9 shows some examples of interior and exterior renderings created from VisionREZ models that were exported to 3ds Max Design. It allows the model to be used as the basis for creating rich visualizations and animations, not just for communicating design intent, but for marketing purposes as well.


Figure 9. Renderings of VisionREZ models created in 3ds Max Design by an in-house AmeriCAD graphic artist. (Courtesy: AmeriCAD)

Analysis and Conclusions

For architects and developers specializing in residential design that are comfortable with the AutoCAD platform and familiar with AutoCAD Architecture, the use of VisionREZ as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in is a no-brainer—it is much more effective and efficient compared to just using AutoCAD Architecture, or even any other general-purpose BIM application such as Revit or ArchiCAD. The smarts that are built into the application for residential design and the large number of content libraries that come with the application greatly cut down on the time it takes to design as well as to develop a detailed building model, and produce the necessary documentation and bill of materials that will be required to construct it. As an added bonus, the application lends itself well to the creation of outstanding renderings for visualization and marketing, as we have seen in Figure 9. The growing interoperability with the other ITW applications such as hsbCAD and IntelliBuild, and the ability to coordinate models with an application like NavisWorks, allows for a much more robust design and engineering process, leading ultimately to a better quality building. Users will also appreciate the quality of the Help documentation accompanying the application—including tutorials complete with sample files—and the availability of video tutorials online, which provide ample resources to master the application.

As I pointed out in my last review, while VisionREZ benefits greatly from being built on top of AutoCAD Architecture thereby getting access to Autodesk’s continuous improvements to the AutoCAD platform, it also suffers from the same limitations that AutoCAD Architecture has as a BIM solution—complexity, limited object intelligence and associative behavior, sections and elevations that have to be regenerated to reflect changes to the model, and so on. So, for example, changing the height settings in VisionREZ after the model has been created does not automatically update it. In exploring the roof framing, I found that while minor changes to the roof maintained the configuration of its framing, it did not work that well for changes that were a little more dramatic, requiring the framing tools to be re-applied. There are several more such examples. Complexity is also a factor that new users would have to consider. AutoCAD Architecture is a complex enough application and users new to it would first have to spend time mastering its subtleties before they could move on to learn how to use VisionREZ productively.

It would be ideal, of course, to have VisionREZ built on top of an application like Revit that has more associative behavior and is easier to learn and use. AmeriCAD disclosed that it is extremely interested in doing this, but Revit’s API is not sufficiently developed yet to allow them to develop an application like VisionREZ to plug into it. I hope that Autodesk can speed up the development of Revit’s API to allow this to happen soon, as I do believe that BIM can get a lot smarter than it currently is when it can start being customized for specific building types.

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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