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AECbytes Product Review (September 30, 2009)

ArchiCAD 13

Product Summary

ArchiCAD 13 is the new release of Graphisoft’s BIM application for architectural design which includes a brand new BIM server to support model-based collaboration.

Pros: Server-based BIM collaboration capability first of its kind, and available at no additional cost; includes flexible element reservation system and technology that only transmits changed elements, making collaboration in real time much faster and easier; new Teamwork interface for the server-based collaboration is very simple and intuitive to use; 64-bit support for Windows version, which combined with earlier multi-processing capability, makes it significantly faster; new ability to rotate view makes it easier to work with models that have odd angles; easier curtain wall editing; new embedded libraries, which ensures that objects stay with the model, without significantly increasing file size; various additional modeling, documentation, and interoperability enhancements in latest release; excellent quality of Help documentation for learning the application; availability of  useful add-ons including Virtual Building Explorer, MEP Modeler, and EcoDesigner.

Cons: Remains primarily a single disciplinary solution rather than a multi-disciplinary BIM platform like its top competitors; 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; no distinction between rooms/spaces as commonly defined by a single enclosure and a larger collection of spaces that can come together as a zone; limited conceptual design capabilities.

Price: $4250 for a new license; $895 for upgrade; free educational version for students.

Graphisoft has just released the next version of its popular BIM application, ArchiCAD 13. It is an exciting release as it includes a server-based collaboration solution, making it the first BIM application to have this capability. With a flexible element reservation system and a technology that detects and transmits only the changed elements between the client computers and the server—shrinking the average data package size from megabytes to kilobytes—ArchiCAD 13 has the potential to revolutionize BIM-based collaboration by allowing team members to work together easily and quickly in real-time on modeling projects, from anywhere in the world where a standard broadband Internet connection is available. Let us explore this technology in depth and look at the other new features in ArchiCAD 13, including 64-bit support, view rotation, embedded libraries, improved curtain wall editing, and various other productivity enhancements.

Before getting into the details of ArchiCAD’s new collaboration solution, let us take a step back and understand the current problems that AEC professionals are facing when they need to collaborate on a BIM model.

The Collaboration Problem in BIM

Prior to BIM, the collaboration problem was considerably simpler. Different members of the project team simply worked on different sheets. Of course, this had the problems of coordination and inaccuracy that BIM has been engineered to solve, but it was certainly simpler and more flexible from a collaboration standpoint. With BIM, the collaboration problem is more complex as all the project team members have to work on a single model of the building rather than on separate sheets. The problem is all the more severe in applications that have a centralized model approach such as ArchiCAD and Revit, where the entire model as well as the associated drawings, schedules, and so on are typically contained in one file. In contrast, in other BIM applications such as Bentley’s Building solutions and Nemetschek’s AllPlan where the BIM model and associated information is distributed across multiple files, the collaboration is a little less problematic since different team members can work on different files. However, these applications also lose some of the benefits of the centralized approach such as easier setup, more intuitive approach, more accurate coordination between the different parts of the model, and improved associativity between building elements that allows changes to one element to be intelligently propagated to connected elements.



Figure 1. Coordination versus flexibility in collaboration for BIM in comparison to CAD and paper. (Courtesy: Graphisoft).

While both ArchiCAD and Revit have had solutions to support multiple team members working on a project—ArchiCAD with its Teamwork environment and Revit with its worksets—these have been far from perfect. They require the model to be split up among team members in advance, necessitating elements to be “borrowed” from others when needed. When a user is working on a part of the model, that part is “locked” so that other users cannot make changes to it simultaneously; this seems necessary to avoid conflicting edits, but results in inhibiting a smooth and fluid workflow. There is no easy way to resolve conflicts resulting in changes to different parts of the model by different users. There is also the issue of the master copy and the local copies that the different users are working on, particularly when the teams are geographically dispersed or even when users are working away from the office—the master copy has to be constantly synchronized with all the local copies. This gets increasingly challenging and time-consuming as the model file size increases for larger projects, which inevitably happens for centralized BIM model applications.

The BIM Model Server in ArchiCAD 13

In ArchiCAD 13, the Teamwork component has been completely revamped in order to make collaboration on a BIM model much faster, easier, flexible, and efficient, even for large projects with globally distributed teams. A new component called the BIM Server has been introduced, which maintains the complete and up-to-date BIM model of a project. Team members work on the model using ArchiCAD on their local computers. Thus, there is still the concept of one master model on the server, and copies of the model on the individual office workstations and/or home PCs. The difference, however, is that instead of the whole model needing to be copied back and forth between the master model and the copies, only the modified elements are copied, enabling the synchronization of the master model and the local copies to happen almost instantaneously, irrespective of the size of the model. This has been enabled by a patent-pending technology that Graphisoft has engineered which it calls “Delta Server.” The concept is illustrated in Figure 2.


Figure 2. The new Teamwork concept in ArchiCAD 13, which uses a model server and a technology that detects and transmits only modified elements rather than the whole model. (Courtesy: Graphisoft)

Another key element of the new Teamwork component is a flexible reservation system. Individual model elements and other project-related data, like project attributes or views, can be reserved and released on the fly, allowing for a dynamic and flexible workflow. There is no need to plan ahead, divide work upfront, and reserve large areas in the project prior to starting work, making them unavailable to other team members. Users reserve only the elements they currently need and can release them immediately after the work is done.

What makes the overall technology even more impressive and compelling is how easy it is to set up and use. After just a brief review of the documentation, I was able to set up a Teamwork project, create two fictitious users in addition to myself as the administrator, open up the same project in three separate instances of ArchiCAD on the same computer, sign in to each as a different user, reserve different elements, and explore how the system works. The initial setup involves the use of two applications: BIM Server Control Center, which allows you to set up a server and define its basic properties; and the BIM Server Manager, which is used to create and manage projects, users, roles and responsibilities on different servers (multiple servers can be set up if required.) Both these applications are included in the ArchiCAD 13 installation DVD and can be installed if Teamwork will be used. Once a server has been defined, you can open a project in ArchiCAD and choose to share it on that server using Teamwork, as shown in Figure 3-a. You can then specify all the users who will be working on the project and their roles, as shown in Figure 3-b. All these users will then be allowed join in the project by logging in, as shown in Figure 3-c.


Figure 3. Setting up a Teamwork project.

Users working together on a Teamwork project would use the Teamwork palette to reserve elements, release them, send and receive changes, and see who else is working on the project and the parts that they are working on. There are different ways of viewing the workspace—the option shown in Figure 4 color-codes the workspace so that the elements reserved by different users are displayed in the color assigned to them, making it immediately clear who is working on what. Even the element information display that activates when the mouse is positioned over an element now includes information about whether it has been reserved and if so, by what user, as shown in Figure 4. If another user logs on and reserves an element, that change is immediately reflected in the workspace display of all the other users. You can only edit elements that you have reserved; you cannot modify other elements, even those that have not been reserved by others. New elements, however, can be created by any user and they automatically become reserved for that user. The setup ensures a safe “offline” work option as well—no other user can work on any element you are working on if you are cut off from the network.


Figure 4. TheTeamwork project showing the different elements reserved by the different users who are working on the project simultaneously.

The process is meant to be quick and fluid—you reserve elements as you need them, and then release them when you are done working on them so that they can be available to other users. If you need to work with an element reserved by someone else, you can use the Request command to ask for it (see Figure 5-a). The message will be immediately communicated to that user and will appear in the Messages section of their Teamwork palette. He/she can review it and use the Grant Request option to quickly accept the request (see Figure 5-b). That element will now be available to you for modification (see Figure 5-c).


Figure 5. Requesting an element that is reserved by another user, the communication of that request, and the granting of it, making that element now available for modification.

In contrast to reservations of elements that are immediately visible to everyone, the changes that are being made by the various users are not instantaneously seen, as that might make the process very disruptive. For a change to be seen, it first has to be posted by the user making it through the “Send and Receive” option (see Figure 6-a). It will then only be seen by other users when they, in turn, use the same option to synchronize their model with the master model on the server (see Figure 6-b). Because only the changed elements are sent, the process is very fast. However, the temporary asynchrony does lead to the possibility that edits to the model by different users may create some inconsistencies, particularly since ArchiCAD does not impose many modeling constraints such as the kind Revit enforces. In the case of a Teamwork project, the team as a whole would have to ensure that their individual additions and edits to the model are consistent and there are no design errors. 


Figure 6. Seeing the changes made to the model by another user.

Not only does the new Teamwork capability make model-based collaboration a whole lot easier, it also comes to ArchiCAD 13 users at no additional cost. Firms of all sizes can benefit from its use. For large firms with distributed teams looking for better ways of working together on large models, the advantages are obvious. But Teamwork can be helpful even for solo practitioners, as it would allow them to collaborate on projects with other solo practitioners, or access their models from outside of their offices, simply by enabling a connection to their computers. Alternately, they can also host their models on outside servers, such as the ones provided by companies such as Amazon or even their local ISPs.

Productivity Enhancements

The dramatically new collaboration capability in ArchiCAD 13 has been balanced out with several incremental productivity improvements, which continue to improve its usability and efficiency. There is a new Rotate Orientation option which allows the project view (floor plans, worksheets, details, etc.) to be rotated while keeping the project coordinates constant. This makes it much easier to work with models that have odd angles—you can simply orient the part that you are working with parallel to the screen, as shown in Figure 7. The top image shows the original view, while the lower image shows the rotated view. The dimensions automatically adjust based on the orientation so that they are still readable; in addition, other annotation elements such as text, labels, markers, and zone stamps have a “Fixed Angle” option that can be selected so that they also adjust automatically to match the oriented view. This option has been activated for the zone names in the example shown below, as shown, and you can see they stay horizontal even when the view is rotated.


Figure 7. Using the new Rotate Orientation feature to orient the view so that the slanted wall is parallel to the screen. The Zone dialog is also displayed, showing the “Fixed Angle” option activated with the angle specified as 0, which keeps the zone names always horizontal, even when the view is rotated.  

Modeling enhancements include the ability to directly edit the reference line and other parameters of a curtain wall in plan, section/elevation, or 3D windows using the familiar Pet Palette commands, without needing to enter Curtain Wall Edit mode (see Figure 8-a). Also new is the ability to slant individual edges of slabs and roofs to match the slope angle of connecting building structures as well as assign different materials to them (see Figure 8-b). A Ruler display can now be activated in 2D windows to aid navigation and editing. The Find and Select option has been improved to enable more complex searches with the ability to specify multiple search values for a single criterion. ArchiCAD 13 also features improved OpenGL display of 3D views, with sharper contour lines and enhanced shading colors (see Figure 9), which can reduce the need to fine-tune the images in other applications.


Figure 8. Modeling enhancements in ArchiCAD 13 for curtain walls and slab/roof edges.


Figure 9. Improved OpenGL display in ArchiCAD 13.

On the documentation front, schedules have been enhanced so that annotations such as associative or static dimensions, text, fills, lines, etc., can be added to the object previews. For doors and windows, dimensions can be placed automatically, as shown in Figure 10-a. When the annotations are associative, they update automatically when any change is made to the model. The regular automatic dimensioning for doors and windows (in the model rather than in the schedule) has also been enhanced with new options to dimension the wall-hole, reveal, window/door unit, and the door’s egress or leaf size. There are several enhancements to fills, including a new Symbol Fill representation that makes it possible to display insulation or any other directional fill more accurately in complex structures (see Figure 10-b); the ability to apply an image fill to any roof, slab or mesh with a cover fill (Figure 10-c); and the availability of a transparent background for gradient fills, along with accurate output of gradient fills in various 2D formats including PDF and DWG.


Figure 10. Various documentation-related enhancements in ArchiCAD 13.  

ArchiCAD 13 also features a key improvement to how library objects are handled. In previous versions, library objects could only be stored in separate files that had to be kept track of and included with the model when it had to be transmitted elsewhere. This often led to a “missing libraries” problem, when these files were inadvertently omitted. Now, these objects can be saved in an “embedded” library, so they always remain with the model and can never go missing. All newly created objects are stored in the Embedded Library by default, and can be organized into folders (see Figure 11). Contrary to what you might expect, having an Embedded Library within the project does not greatly increase its file size, since all the library objects are created with Graphisoft’s GDL (geometric description language) technology, which has a very efficient way of representing objects so as to minimize their file size. Using library objects for repeating elements also brings down the overall file size, since only the master instance of the object is saved in the library; all the other instances are simply stored as references that point to their specific locations in the model.



Figure 11. The Library Manager dialog displaying the Embedded Library, which contains all object files that are saved directly into the project, and other libraries such as Linked and Teamwork Server, which are housed outside the project.

Interoperability with structural engineering software has been improved in ArchiCAD 13 by including thousands of standard steel profiles from a worldwide industry standard profile database that can be used for creating columns and beams (see Figure 12). This enables structural engineering applications to recognize and identify such standard elements without requiring any settings adjustments. Also walls, beams, columns, and slabs can now be defined as either Load-bearing or Non-load-bearing, which is useful when exchanging data with structural programs. On the DWG/DXF exchange front, several enhancements have been made, including the ability to merge all Layout items plus the model to which they refer into a single DWG, import only needed layers from DWG/DXF files into ArchiCAD, the option to save elements to custom layers when saving to DWG/DXF, and the ability to keep exploded DWG drawings on a single layer to avoid creating large numbers of unneeded layers in ArchiCAD.



Figure 12. Selecting some steel profiles from the large profile database to include in the project.

Faster Performance with 64-bit Support

In addition to the dramatic new collaboration capability and the productivity enhancements, what makes ArchiCAD 13 even more compelling is that it now supports 64-bit processing. With the addition of this to the support for multi-core processors that had been introduced in the previous version, ArchiCAD is now the only BIM application currently available that supports both multi-processing and 64-bit support. Most of the competing applications provide 64-bit support but not multi-processing. Support for these newer hardware capabilities require portions of the software to be re-written to take advantage of them—for example, to support multi-processing, tasks have to be sliced up so that they can be tackled simultaneously by the various processors—which is why applications are taking time to catch up. Graphisoft has to be commended for its lead in keeping up with hardware developments, allowing users with the latest hardware to make maximum use of its capabilities while working with ArchiCAD. I recently upgraded my computer (4 cores, 8 GB RAM, and 64-bit OS), so I was able to experience the dramatic improvements in speed first-hand.

Note that the 64-bit support is currently available for the Windows version of ArchiCAD only, but is in development for the Mac version and should be available soon.

Analysis and Conclusions

ArchiCAD has been on a roll for the last several years, with many noteworthy innovations in recent releases including the Interactive Training Guide and easier modeling of complex forms in ArchiCAD 10, the sophisticated Virtual Trace feature simulating the physical tracing paper concept in ArchiCAD 11, multi-processor support and ability to produce 3D documentation in ArchiCAD 12, as well as add-ons such as the Virtual Building Explorer, the MEP Modeler, and the EcoDesigner, which was launched earlier this summer and exhibited at the AIA 2009 show. It is gratifying to see that this groundswell of innovation has far from abated and is continuing to produce even more significant innovations such as the server-based collaboration capability in ArchiCAD 13.

Is this the holy grail of collaboration that the AEC industry has been looking for? We will have to wait to see how well the Teamwork technology performs in actual practice—with large projects and geographically dispersed teams—until we can answer this question definitively. But at least based on my experience of working with it in a test setting, the technology does seem very impressive. I was also pleasantly surprised by the manner in which this obviously sophisticated technology has been implemented, making it very simple and intuitive to use. Under the hood, the data structure of ArchiCAD has been completely reengineered so that the individual building elements can work with a database server. While the database technology in itself is not new, what is innovative here is that it has been applied to a BIM application. This may help to explain why other BIM applications don’t have this capability yet—it would require some fundamental changes to how their data is structured internally, calling for substantial development time and resources. Now that ArchiCAD already has this capability, it might serve as an incentive to competing vendors to invest the time and the resources to overhaul the collaboration capabilities of their own solutions and make them easier, faster, and more efficient.

While ArchiCAD 13 has, by no means, succeeded in overcoming all the limitations of ArchiCAD that I pointed out in my review of ArchiCAD 12—the most critical one being that it still remains, by and large, a single disciplinary application rather than a platform for multi-disciplinary BIM applications (the recent MEP modeler cannot substitute for a full-blown BIM MEP application)—its new collaboration capability represents such a significant milestone in BIM technology, that at least for now, its limitations all pale in comparison to what it has achieved. It remains to be seen if this will help ArchiCAD to compete more effectively against the market leader, Revit, or even Bentley’s BIM solutions, but it has certainly raised the bar and set a new standard for its competitors to catch up to. It will also go a long way in reinforcing the commitment of existing ArchiCAD users, letting them not just reaffirm, but actually revel in their choice of a 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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