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AECbytes Product Review (May 20, 2010)

IDEA: IntelliCAD-Based Architectural BIM

Product Summary

IDEA is a BIM application for architectural design built on top of IntelliCAD by 4M Solutions, one of the leading members of the ITC (IntelliCAD Technology Consortium). It is part of 4M’s multi-disciplinary suite of BIM applications.

Pros: Familiar AutoCAD/IntelliCAD interface; full DWG compatibility; centralized BIM application that is very easy to set up; very small file sizes due to efficient structuring of model information; drawings are live views and always stay coordinated with the model; includes site modeling as well as rendering and animation capabilities; integrates tightly with other 4M BIM applications for structural design and building services; comes with IntelliCAD’s drawing, dimensioning, annotation, and layout capabilities for creating design documents; very inexpensive compared to other BIM applications.

Cons: Less power and sophistication compared to other BIM applications; cannot model complex building forms; no tools for creating schedules; the quality of renderings is not as good compared to other BIM applications; no worksharing capability to support distributed design teams; no IFC support for interoperability with other AEC applications; does not support 64-bit computing or multi-processing.

Price: USD 1,500

IDEA is a BIM application for architectural design built on top of IntelliCAD, which is best known as the low-cost alternative to AutoCAD compatible with the DWG file format. The development of IntelliCAD is regulated by the IntelliCAD Technology Consortium (ITC), which does not market or sell IntelliCAD itself but, instead, grants access to the source code of IntelliCAD to commercial and non-commercial members. The commercial members pay a fee to join the ITC and can develop and sell commercial versions of IntelliCAD, while non-commercial members can freely use the IntelliCAD source code for internal or academic use. All members are required to submit the fixes and improvements that they make to the product back to the consortium. Thus the development of IntelliCAD is distributed across developers from different organizations, making this joint effort truly unique in contrast to other strictly proprietary CAD software products developed by individual vendors. IntelliCAD is currently in version 6.6, with a beta of version 7.0 currently being tested by ITC members.There are a large number of commercial companies world-wide who are members of the ITC and supply and support retail versions of IntelliCAD. One of the leading ITC members is 4M Solutions, based in Greece; others include BRICSNET, Autodsys, Inc., CADian, ZwCAD, and many more. The complete list can be seen at:

4M was established in 1986 with the objective of providing the engineering community with advanced CAD verticals. It now has a wide range of solutions for all the building design disciplines including architecture, structure, and building services (HVAC, Electrical and Plumbing, referred to as MEP in the US). All of these are built on top of IntelliCAD and include 4M FINE for building services, IDEA for architectural design including model creation, rendering, and virtual walkthrough, STRAD for structural analysis and design of 3D concrete frames, STEEL for analysis and design of steel structures, and some additional specialized applications. In addition, 4M also sells its own version of IntelliCAD and an IntelliCAD Viewer application. Its applications, all of which are affordably priced compared to other building design applications, are sold in over 25 countries around the world, including many in Europe as well as countries like Brazil and India, where cost is a key criterion. 4M doesn’t have much of a US presence yet, but with the recent releases of its building applications incorporating more BIM capabilities, the company feels that the time is right to break into the US market. Some examples of architectural designs done using IDEA are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Some examples of architectural models created and rendered with IDEA.

This review explores the range and capabilities of 4M’s IntelliCAD-based IDEA application for architectural design and looks at how it differs from industry-leading BIM applications such as Revit Architecture, Bentley Architecture, and ArchiCAD as well as from Autodesk’s own AutoCAD-based architectural design application, AutoCAD Architecture (formerly known as Architectural Desktop).

Overview of IDEA

IDEA is essentially an architectural design application built by 4M on top of its version of IntelliCAD. Thus, it has some similarities with AutoCAD Architecture, which is built on top of AutoCAD. Unlike AutoCAD Architecture, which is not marketed as a BIM application by Autodesk (see the blog discussion on this topic following its AECbytes review), 4M has continued to work on IDEA’s BIM capabilities and has significantly overhauled them in the new release, version 10, which it refers to as its “next generation” BIM technology. IDEA follows a centralized approach similar to Revit and ArchiCAD, where the model and all associated drawings and other related information are in one file. The improvements made in version 10 include reducing the file size dramatically by structuring the model information in it more efficiently (see Figure 2), introducing a Project Browser-like capability which allows different 3D and 2D views of the model to be easily accessed, real-time rendering capabilities, continuous update of project drawings to always keep them synchronized with the model, high design accuracy, more tools for creating parametric building objects, expanded object libraries, and other enhancements.

Figure 2. The size of this project file, including the model and all the views shown in the Viewpoint panel, is only 2.95 MB.

In addition to its affordable price tag of USD 1,500—which is lower than any other BIM application—the key strength of IDEA is that it provides BIM capabilities in combination with AutoCAD-like functionality and DWG compatibility. Thus, its interface is very familiar for AutoCAD/IntelliCAD users, and all the standard commands from these applications such as Copy, Move, Trim, Break, Mirror, Extend, Copy-Paste, etc, can be applied to building objects such as walls, openings, slabs, beams, columns, and so on. The full DWG compatibility facilitates communication between designers as well as between members of the extended project team. In addition to tools for modeling parametric building objects, IDEA enables material and texture information to be associated with them, which in turn can be used to create photorealistic renderings using a dedicated module called PhotoIDEA, as well as animated walkthroughs, using a WalkIDEA module. There is also a module for site design, and the capability to export a simple bill of materials from the model in Excel format. Because of the compact file size and the IntelliCAD engine, the performance of the application is fast, even for large scale projects.

Being part of 4M multi-disciplinary BIM suite, IDEA also has the advantage of being able to integrate directly with other 4M disciplinary applications such as STRAD and STEEL for structural engineering, and FINE for building services. Also, since it is built on top of IntelliCAD, it provides access to all of its drawing, dimensioning, and annotation features for producing design documents.

Let’s move on to look at how a building model is created in IDEA.

Creating a Building Model

The first step in creating a building model in IDEA would be to set up the number of levels of the building and their respective elevations (or heights). This is done using a Building Definition command, which brings up the Levels Management dialog. Figure 3 shows the levels in metric units that were defined for the multi-level project shown in Figure 2. Here, you can also select the level you want to work with by using the Current option. Alternately, there are tools in the interface that quickly let you move up and down levels. Creating a new level automatically creates its corresponding plan view in the Viewpoint Panel, which is positioned by default in the bottom left corner of the interface. You can also directly select the level that you want to work with by double-clicking on it in the Viewpoint Panel, as shown in Figure 4. All new building elements are created on the active level.

Figure 3. Setting up the building levels and their elevations in the Levels Management dialog.

Figure 4. Choosing a level to work with from the Viewpoint palette.

It should be noted that while the level elevations can be changed later using the same Levels Management dialog, these changes do not automatically update all the building elements created on the different levels as easily and quickly as they do in an application like Revit. This is one instance where the capabilities of IDEA do not match up to those provided by more high-end BIM applications. Thus, it would be more important in IDEA to set up the building levels and heights as accurately as possible to begin with, as changes would be more difficult to make once the elements are modeled.

Once the levels have been set up, you can use the different building element tools to model elements such as walls, doors, windows, slabs, roofs, staircases, beams, and so on. These elements can be modeled directly or can be created from 2D objects. Each building element tool is accompanied by a selection dialog where you can specify various attributes and parameters of the object. So, for example, the dialog of the Outer Wall tool (shown in Figure 5) lets you select the wall type, dimensions, material properties, and thermal properties, along with options to add a beam, insulation, connection to a roof, if present, and a few others. A similar dialog is available for modifying the properties of a wall after it has been created. This aspect of IDEA is similar to other BIM applications and works for the different building objects in the same way.

Figure 5. The different attributes and parameters that can be set while creating a wall object in IDEA.

While IDEA does not have the capability to model organic building forms, it should be noted that it does have a versatile Roof tool that provides a wide range of options to design any type of roof structure and add components such as attics, lofts, skylights, inclined openings and others. It also includes tools for building elements such as gables, ramps, rails, chimneys, pergolas, and so on. In addition, there are libraries of objects, accessories, and symbols that can be used to populate a model, for example, trees, furniture, people, and so on. An example of a model created using these elements is shown in Figure 6. As you can see, the application works particularly well for residential design. A dedicated module is also available for creating topological model from contours for sites that are not flat. 

Figure 6. Model of a residential design created with IDEA using library elements such as furniture, trees, and people.

The actual modeling and editing can be done in 2D views as well as 3D views. We saw that the plan views are available by default for all the different levels of the building. Some 3D views are also available by default. A set of commands is available to create other 2D views such as elevations and cross-sections of the building model, which can be saved in the Viewpoint panel for easy access (see Figure 7). All of these are simply different views of the model, so they automatically update when the model is changed. Additional 3D views can be created by using familiar tools such as 3D Orbit and can be saved as well. IDEA does not have built-in associativity between building elements, so moving a wall does not automatically stretch the connecting walls to maintain connectivity, as it does in Revit. However, similar to ArchiCAD and Allplan, a Stretch command is available that can be used to modify a selection of elements simultaneously—it is based on geometry rather than on understanding and maintaining the relationships between building elements. Also, as mentioned earlier, all the traditional AutoCAD/IntelliCAD modification tools work with the building elements as well, so users familiar with AutoCAD would be able to modify elements in IDEA very quickly.

Figure 7. A new side view created for the model that was shown in Figure 4. The view is saved in the Viewpoint panel for easy access.

Generating Drawings, Renderings, and Walkthroughs

We have already seen how drawings can be generated from the model as project views, and they always stay coordinated with the model because they are live views. Developing these drawings into project documents is an easy task in IDEA for anyone who is familiar with AutoCAD or IntelliCAD—you can use different layouts with different project views for creating drawing sheets for printing. Annotations and dimensions would typically be added to the model views and could be adjusted as desired in the layout views. The dimensions are associative and automatically update whenever a change is made. The display of drawings can be customized by using required line styles, line weights, colors, hatches, title blocks, and so on.

The photorealistic rendering capabilities of IDEA are provided by the PhotoIDEA module. It comes with a large library of real-world materials with texture such as marble, wood, stone, carpets, etc., that can be applied to objects and adjusted to render them as required. It also allows lighting sources, including the sun, to be positioned, and includes other settings such as background, fog, and the use of bitmap images to add as entourage to the rendering. PhotoIDEA uses a number of different rendering options, starting from the quick OpenGL mode to higher-quality and more time-consuming settings that include lights, materials, and ray-tracing technology. Like any other visualization application, generating a good rendering in IDEA takes time. Some examples are shown in Figure 8. While the rendered images are of decent quality, they are not as good as those produced in other BIM applications, all of which now use dedicated rendering engines such as mental ray in Revit, Luxology in Bentley, and Lightworks in ArchiCAD. This is another aspect of IDEA where capabilities fall short compared to higher-end BIM applications.

Figure 8. Examples of renderings created using the PhotoIDEA module of IDEA.

The other key feature of IDEA worth noting is the WalkIDEA module, which allows you to take a real-time virtual tour walkthrough of the photorealistic 3D model, walking both inside and outside the model, and saving the virtual trip as an AVI file. It has several options for moving up or down staircases, opening doors, and so on. In addition, WalkIDEA can also offer the experience of a 4D stereoscopic reality through a pair of stereo glasses. A sample walkthrough created using IDEA can be seen at:

Strengths and Limitations  

When I first set out to review IDEA, I was prepared for an application with functionality similar to AutoCAD Architecture, given that it was built on top of IntelliCAD, which was similar to AutoCAD. However, IDEA was a lot more powerful than I anticipated. Because the model and all views and drawings are contained in one file, it is much easier to set up and use, and is missing the large and confusing array of constructs that account for much of the complexity not just in AutoCAD Architecture, but also in distributed BIM applications such as Bentley Architecture and Allplan Architecture. At the same time, its IntelliCAD engine provides users with a BIM as well as a CAD application at a price equivalent to that of AutoCAD LT, which is much less expensive than AutoCAD itself as well as other BIM applications. IDEA even beats Vectorworks Architect from a cost perspective, which has, so far, been the least expensive of all BIM applications.

Other key strengths of IDEA, in comparison to other BIM applications, are its high DWG compatibility and AutoCAD-like interface, which makes it very easy to learn and use for AutoCAD/IntelliCAD users. My own AutoCAD skills have become a little rusty, so I did have a bit of a learning curve, but the building tools work in a similar manner to other BIM applications and are not hard to figure out. For 2D CAD users looking for a gentle transition to BIM, IDEA is a compelling option, not just because of the familiar interface but also because it is a full-fledged BIM application in contrast to say, AutoCAD Architecture, which has intelligent objects but not full BIM capabilities.

With IDEA, you can create a building model complete with a topographical model of the site, derive 2D and 3D views from the model that are always synchronized, and use the views for creating drawing sheets in layouts. The rendering and walkthrough modules extend the capabilities of the application further and allow for the creation of decent-quality renderings and animations from the model. IDEA even has the added advantage of being part of a multi-disciplinary suite that integrates tightly with the other 4M applications for structural design and building services. You can define spaces within IDEA, for example, and use those space definitions directly in the FINE application for thermal analysis, as shown in Figure 9. Another big plus is the small file size, thanks to the efficient internal organization of the data. Most of the sample building projects I saw were in the 2 to 3 MB range, and an entire complex of buildings can be contained in a single file of size 20 to 30 MB.

Figure 9. Opening the DWG project file with the architectural design and space definitions that was created in IDEA in the 4M building services application, FINE, and using the same spaces directly for thermal analysis.

The low cost of IDEA does come, of course, at the expense of some limitations. It is not as sophisticated as the leading BIM applications and provides less design options. There are no modeling tools for the creation of unusual forms and complex geometry, so freeform building designs would be difficult to create with IDEA. While the Bill of Materials capability is helpful, it is quite basic; also, IDEA lacks the tools for creating schedules such as doors, windows, and so on. The quality of the renderings does not match up to that provided by other BIM applications. There is no worksharing feature to support distributed project teams, and the IFC file format that would allow interoperability with other AEC applications is not yet supported (but it is in development). The application also does not support 64-bit computing or multi-processing, thus preventing users with newer computers to take full advantage of their capabilities.


IDEA is a low-cost BIM application that is not as powerful and sophisticated as leading BIM applications such as Revit, ArchiCAD, and Bentley Architecture. However, for an application that is priced only at the cost of AutoCAD LT, it is a remarkably capable application with the ability to create a building model and derive drawings, renderings, and walkthroughs from it that always stay coordinated with the model. Just as IntelliCAD continues to remains a great, low-cost alternative to the more expensive CAD programs, providing most of their functionality, in the same way, IDEA is an exceptional, low-cost alternative to BIM applications, most of which are priced 3 to 4 times higher. Especially for those familiar with AutoCAD, IDEA makes for an easier migration to BIM, unlike an application like Revit that might be seen as too revolutionary as well as very expensive. It is good to see more BIM alternatives emerge in the AEC industry, providing users with a wider range of options. IDEA may not be suited to very large firms or for those creating complex building designs, but it is definitely a compelling option for smaller firms doing more traditional designs who would like to transition from CAD to a basic BIM application that has a familiar interface and is fast and easy to use.

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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