AECbytes Product Review (March 31, 2011)
When AEC professionals think of BIM applications, Vectorworks Architect may not immediately come to mind. While Vectorworks has been around for over 25 years now—it originated as MiniCAD in the mid-1980s—it has best been known for providing cost-effective CAD and 3D modeling capabilities on the Mac and Windows platforms. For several years, the tag-line of the product was “CAD for the Smart-Sized Firm.” Its relatively low price compared to other CAD and 3D modeling tools attracted many solo practitioners and small firms, who continue to remain a strong customer base for the product. A few years ago, its developer, Nemetschek Vectorworks (formerly known as Nemetschek North America), started adding BIM capabilities to Vectorworks Architect, allowing it to be positioned as a cost-effective BIM alternative for those architectural firms that are holding back from BIM implementation because of the cost. Let’s explore the BIM capabilities of the application and see if it is indeed possible to create a full-fledged BIM model with it. (A more detailed, comparative evaluation of Vectorworks Architect vis-à-vis other BIM applications can be found in the recently released BIM Evaluation Study Report.).
The parent company of Nemetschek Vectorworks is the Germany-based Nemetschek AG, which also develops its own BIM application, Allplan, as well as owns Graphisoft, the developer of ArchiCAD. After the 2007 acquisition of Graphisoft by Nemetschek AG, there were some concerns about what would happen to the overlapping product lines and whether one or more of them would be phased out. However, all three product lines, ArchiCAD, Vectorworks, and AllPlan, are still around and continue to be actively developed since they each have their own distinct approaches, processes, workflows, and markets. Allplan is very strong in Europe, especially in Germany, and is focused on the entire AEC workflow: design, engineering, construction, cost estimating, and facilities management. (See the review of Allplan BIM Architecture 2008.) ArchiCAD is still predominantly an architectural BIM application, which has allowed it to have a lot of depth in its functionality—it has a powerful BIM server capability for model-based collaboration and several add-ons for MEP, energy analysis, model navigation, etc. (See the review of the last version, ArchiCAD 14.)
In contrast to both Allplan and ArchiCAD, the Vectorworks product family spans across other industries apart from AEC. In addition to the core 2D drafting and 3D modeling platform called Vectorworks Fundamentals, there are several additional modules: Architect for building design; Landmark for landscape and site design; and Spotlight for entertainment design (auditoriums, video screens, seating layout, lighting devices, etc.), lighting and set design, and event planning. A Designer product that combines all of the above modules into one comprehensive program is available for those who need it. The product family also includes Renderworks, a dedicated rendering and presentation module that works with all Vectorworks products.
Even though its developer is based in the US, Vectorworks is surprisingly stronger in countries other than the US, where BIM applications like Revit in particular, as well as Bentley and ArchiCAD, tend to be more dominant. The European market for Vectorworks has grown, despite the fact that both Allplan and ArchiCAD are developed there. While Europe is the largest region for Vectorworks, Japan is its single largest market, but with the recent disaster there, it’s difficult to predict whether it will continue to dominate there. China and Malaysia are other countries in Asia where Vectorworks has a growing presence. The application still caters primarily to small and medium size firms, as evidenced by the users and projects profiled in the Case Studies section of its website (see Figure 1). The BIM Evaluation Study Report included a detailed case study of how Vectorworks Architect was being implemented at King & King, Architects LLP, a regional firm of 75 people serving the Upstate New York area that has the distinction of being the oldest architectural firm in the state.
Figure 1. Some examples of actual projects designed using Vectorworks Architect. Left: Kingsway Primary School at Gloucester, England, designed by the UK-based Quattro Design Architects, Ltd. Right: Mixed-use development in Tarpon Springs, Florida, by rojo Architecture. (Courtesy: Nemetschek Vectorworks).
Let’s move on to take a detailed look at how Vectorworks Architect can be used for building design and documentation, including the functionality that has been added in the 2011 release. While it possible to not use Vectorworks Architect as a BIM application—as will be discussed in more detail shortly—this review will primarily focus on its BIM capabilities in order to evaluate how well it works as a BIM application.
Vectorworks Architect really started being positioned as a BIM solution with version 2008, which was exhibited at the AIA 2008 National Convention. In addition to being more affordable, its biggest selling point was a flexible and hybrid 2D/3D design environment that allowed an easier and less intimidating transition to BIM. It still allowed architects to work exclusively in 2D using their existing CAD standards if they wanted, while at the same time benefitting from the speed and intelligence of tools creating building elements such as walls, doors, windows, and so on, similar to how AutoCAD Architecture (formerly known as Autodesk Architectural Desktop) can be used to boost productivity for architects compared to using AutoCAD alone (see the review of AutoCAD Architecture 2009). However, Vectorworks Architect goes well beyond object-based 2D CAD, allowing architects to design in 3D with free-form surface and solids modeling tools, create a BIM model with building-specific modeling tools, or use a combination of 2D, 3D, and BIM.
Thus, in contrast to an application like Revit, for example, Vectorworks Architect does not force the user to do BIM. While this flexibility can be seen as one of the main strengths of the application, it also means that setting up a project for BIM in Vectorworks Architect is not as straightforward as in Revit, where you can literally plunge in and start modeling right away. Setting up a new project in Vectorworks is typically done using three distinct commands: Document Setup, where you specify drawing-related aspects such as units, scale, drawing area, grid, text and dimension styles, sheet border, and title block settings; Model Setup, where you specify the number of levels and the height and elevation of each level of the building model; and Create Standard Viewports, where you specify the different kinds of sheets you will eventually want to print (see Figure 2). The second and third commands automatically create the design layers, sheet layers, classes (different categories of building elements), views, and viewports that will be used for the project (see Figure 3). Elements on different levels are modeled by activating the view for that level; they will automatically have the correct heights and elevations. All of the project settings that are defined can be saved as a stationery file for re-use; firms can create many such stationery files for different project types to avoid having to go through the setup process for every new project.
Figure 2. The Document Setup, Model Setup, and Create Standard Viewports dialogs for the project shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The project whose settings were shown in Figure 2. In addition to the “Saved Views” that can be seen in the Navigation palette in the top image, additional views of the Navigation palette are also displayed in order to show all the different project constructs.
Once the project setup has been established, you can start modeling the building elements on different levels using tools such as Wall, Door, Window, Slab, Column, Stair, and so on. Each tool has options for selecting the element type, geometric configuration, and so on. So, for example, the Slab tool let you define a slab either by selecting the walls the slab should bound or by drawing its shape using polylines, lines, arcs, and so on. You can also select the slab type from a large number of available options. Similarly, for walls, there is an extensive library of different wall styles with properties that can be customized such as the different components making up the wall, 2D display options, texture options for 3D displays, and the ability to add data such as fire rating, thermal resistance, manufacturer, URL, etc. Walls automatically join with other walls as they are being created. Walls can be easily reshaped to have a varying elevation, and you can add points that can be moved to create more complex profiles. It is also possible to add features such as projections and recesses to walls using 3D solid modeling tools, while still making them retain their BIM nature (see Figure 4). For greater modeling flexibility, you can draw 2D elements such as rectangle, circles, polylines, etc. first, and then convert them to building elements.
Figure 4. Using solid modeling tools to add a complex recess to a wall.
The Vectorworks Architect interface includes many options for precise and accurate modeling. Linear and angular dimensions are displayed as you are modeling (commonly referred to as “heads-up display”) and these can be edited to create elements that are sized and oriented exactly as required. When dimensions are added as annotations, these are bi-directionally associated with the model: they update when the model is changed (as shown in Figure 5), and changing the dimension value changes the geometry of the associated object. In addition, dimensional and geometric constraints can be applied to 2D objects and some 3D elements such as walls. For example, you can constrain a wall to be horizontal, a hallway to be of a certain width, and so on. These constraints are automatically maintained when changes are made. Some level of built-in associativity also makes editing the model easier. For example, an “Enable Connected Wall Mode” enables wall connections to be maintained when walls are moved (see Figure 5). Snapping capabilities are good, both in 2D and in 3D, and there are visual cues for movement along the X, Y, and Z axes, which are helpful for both BIM and 3D modeling.
Figure 5. Using the “Enable Connected Wall Mode” to move a wall while maintaining its connections to adjoining walls. The dimensions associated with that wall are automatically updated.
Other BIM modeling highlights in Vectorworks Architect include the ability to easily place elements such as corner windows; a custom stair object that supports a large number of configurations to create complex staircases; tools for modeling straight and curved curtain walls; a tool for dynamically reshaping 3D roofs; roof accessories such as attics, soffits, and fascia; dedicated toolsets for modeling MEP as well as structural detailing objects; and advanced site modeling tools including cut and fill calculations. There are also automatic roof and wall framing tools with the ability to get detailed quantity information of the framing in a schedule for cost estimation and construction, a feature that is especially useful for residential designers. The product’s focus on residential design also shows in its content library, which includes lots of content for homes such as skylights, fireplaces, furniture, fountains, audio/video and home electronics library, etc. Vectorworks Architect is the only BIM application to have a dedicated module for space programming, an overview of which was provided in the article on Trelligence Affinity published last July. In addition, the 2011 release of Vectorworks Architect has added some significant enhancements to the space object, including the ability to create spaces with a single click inside wall boundaries, more BIM and facility-based data fields as well as the ability to define custom attributes for space objects, and being able to represent spaces with custom graphic symbols and configure and create space numbers easily (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Spaces in Vectorworks Architect 2011 can now be created by clicking inside wall boundaries, and they include a wide variety of attributes and settings.
With regard to the approach for storing project data, Vectorworks uses a centralized approach similar to Revit and ArchiCAD, where the model and all associated drawings and schedules are contained in one file by default. For a large project with multiple team members, the recommended approach is to break up the project into multiple files, so to keep the individual files sizes to a manageable level and allow the different team members to work on individual files. There is no concept similar to Revit’s worksets or ArchiCAD’s Teamwork module for enabling more than one user to work on a file. Instead, Vectorworks uses standard referencing technology to assemble multiple files into a single BIM, which can then be used to derive the drawings, schedules, renderings, animations, and other deliverables. Common project resources such as project settings, element styles, materials, symbols, hatches, library elements, and so on can be contained in a shared project template file that is linked to each one of the individual project files using a workgroup referencing link.
Despite the ability to create some MEP and structural detailing elements, Vectorworks Architect is primarily an architectural BIM application, and it is therefore a strong proponent of interoperability using the IFC format to enable its users to collaborate with other disciplines and allow the BIM model to be used for downstream processes (see Figure 7). Its BIM effort began in earnest in 2007 when it released plug-ins supporting the latest IFC format that enabled interoperability between Vectorworks Architect and other IFC-compliant applications, as well as a new GSA-compliant Space object for those users doing work for the GSA (see AECbytes Newsletter #30 on the AIA 2007 National Convention). At the AIA 2010 National Convention (covered in AECbytes Newsletter #45), Nemetschek Vectorworks focused specifically on the theme of “openBIM,” which it refers to as the use of open, international, non-proprietary standards such as IFC and PDF to exchange BIM data between building design participants in their applications. One of the means by which it demonstrates this is by showing how Vectorworks Architect can be used by architects to collaborate with structural engineers using Scia Engineer, a leading 3D structural design and analysis tool that was recently reviewed in AECbytes. Scia is also a subsidiary of Nemetschek AG, making for a natural alignment between the two applications.
Figure 7. Assigning IFC data to a freeform element modeled with Vectorworks’ 3D tools. The same model exported in IFC format to Solibri Model Checker is also shown.
In addition to IFC support for interoperability, Vectorworks Architect also comes with a powerful API and scripting capabilities which can be used by third-party vendors to create plug-in applications. An example of this was demonstrated at the AIA 2008 National Convention with a plug-in called ThermoRender that was developed by a Japanese distributor to consider the thermal environment when developing urban areas and the measures for mitigating heat-island effect and global warming. It worked with the building model created in Vectorworks Architect and enabled the surface temperatures of a proposed design to be visualized, as well as the calculation of critical values such as heat island potential, mean radiant temperature, energy consumption, and CO2 emission.
Other third-party tools include InteriorCAD (for millwork design), CameraMatch (for aligning a 3D model view to a photograph), and the recently released DeckWorks by Trex (for designing custom decks). There are also several more third-party tools such as VectorPlugins (vectorplugins.com), VectorBits (vectorbits.com), and VectorDepot (vectordepot.com), but these are focused primarily on Vectorworks’ 2D CAD functionality. The full list of plug-ins for the application can be seen at:
Starting with version 2009, Vectorworks incorporated the Parasolid modeling engine, a technology developed by Siemens that was well established in the manufacturing industry. This greatly improved the generic 3D modeling capabilities—both traditional and free-form—of the application and also speeded up the modeling operations by 4 to 5 times. The extensive 3D modeling toolset of Vectorworks includes tools for creating primitive solids, extrusions, surfaces of rotation, sweeps, NURBS curves and surfaces, constructive solid geometry (boolean operations), etc. While these may not be as powerful and comprehensive as those of dedicated 3D modeling applications like Rhino or form.Z, they are far more sophisticated compared to other leading BIM applications and allow freeform geometry to be easily modeled. These organic forms can also be assigned meaningful building-related IFC data, if required, as shown earlier in Figure 7, so as to not lose the benefits of BIM. The 2011 release of Vectorworks Architect has made several improvements to its 3D modeling environment to make it more intuitive and fluid, and has also implemented a new Push/Pull capability (see Figure 8). While this is not as easy to use as that of SketchUp and involves some more steps, it can certainly help to speed up the modeling process for Vectorworks users.
Figure 8. Using the new Push/Pull capability in Vectorworks Architect 2011 to easily subtract an arched space from a rectangular solid.
Up until the 2010 release, the integrated Renderworks product had the Lightworks rendering engine, which allowed high-quality photorealistic renderings and animations to be generated within Vectorworks. In the new 2011release, this has been replaced by a new 64-bit CINEMA 4D rendering engine, which is much faster and produces even better quality renderings. (CINEMA 4D is developed by MAXON, which is also a subsidiary of Nemetschek AG and therefore a sister company to Vectorworks.) Renderworks incorporates ray-tracing as well as radiosity-based illumination and includes features such as multiple decal texturing, blur reflectivity shaders for more realistic reflections, different rendering modes including artistic and sketch styles for creating non-photorealistic images when required, the ability to drag and drop textures on the faces of 3D objects and have different textures on individual faces, 3D entourage such as plants that render quickly and look realistic, and support for HDRI (High Dynamic Range Images), which makes creating realistically-rendered objects and exterior scenes easier. Two examples are shown in Figure 9. A Camera tool is available to set precise views. Renderworks allows three different types of animations to be created: standard fly-overs about a point in space; walk-throughs with a moving camera; and daylong solar/shadow study for a given location and day of the year. Animations are created in Quicktime MOV format.
Figure 9. Examples of artistic as well as photorealistic renderings created with the Renderworks add-on to Vectorworks. (Top image courtesy of Daniel Jansenson; lower image courtesy of Michael Schannè)
Similar to other BIM applications, drawings in Vectorworks are simply different views of the model and are created as viewports placed on sheets. Some viewports such as plans and elevations are automatically created during project setup, while viewports with 2D or 3D sections can be generated by drawing section lines where required. Plan and elevation viewports are automatically updated when changes to the model are made; for sections, however, an Update command has to be selected to see the changes. For each viewport, you can specify the layers and classes that should be visible in it, as well as the display style. Vectorworks includes a full set of drawing, dimensioning, and annotation tools. Dimensions and annotations can be added directly in the model views or in the viewports. For dimensioning, there is a convenient tool that dimensions all the exterior walls and openings of a floor plan with a single command. Similar to other CAD and BIM applications, there is automatic coordination of sheet numbers and drawing numbers across sheet borders, drawing labels, and section markers, eliminating cross-referencing errors. Other key documentation-related capabilities include a Notes Manager for easily managing drawing notation callouts and keynotes; a set of Redline tools for annotating drawings with redlines and sketches; and the ability to create schedules of any elements that are bi-directionally linked to the model.
After a relatively late start, Vectorworks Architect has made great strides in incorporating BIM capabilities in the last few years. Its 2011 release, in particular, included a host of enhancements for BIM, such as improved tools for creating spaces, doors, windows, stairs, and roofs, a new slab tool, new 3D wall components, a dedicated tool for creating wall end caps, ODBC connectivity, and streamlined IFC export and import. Its new CINEMA 4D rendering engine can produce stunning photorealistic renderings and animations, and it comes with a full gamut of 2D drafting, dimensioning, and annotation tools for creating construction documents from the model. Especially noteworthy are its advanced 3D tools which allow complex organic forms to be modeled and assigned with building element attributes, which is something that the other, more popular, BIM applications are not so good at. Another significant plus point of Vectorworks Architect is its cost, which is almost half of other BIM applications. Its cross-platform capability makes it a good fit for those firms who prefer the Mac platform. I also found the application well supported by good built-in documentation and online resources, including sample files and video tutorials.
On the flip side, the project setup for BIM is far from intuitive; it is also very confusing with too many constructs. This is currently the weakest aspect of the application for BIM implementation and could be a deterrent to those who expect a faster and more intuitive way to set up the model and be able to graphically add and manipulate building levels. Also, while the interface of the application has been significantly improved, its hybrid 2D/3D design environment does make it more CAD-like than BIM-like. It still has a “Unified Views” option that needs to be active in order to see all the building elements at their actual levels in 3D; if this is unchecked, all the elements are just positioned on the ground plane. It still retains the concept of a “screen layer” in which 2D elements are created parallel to the screen plane rather than in a global 3D plane, so switching to a 3D view would still show these elements parallel to the screen rather than in 3D. While these are no longer the default options, they could still be accidentally selected by the user and become a potential source for confusion. The application is still retaining these options for backward compatibility, but in time, these antiquated settings do need to be phased out if the application wants to be regarded as a serious BIM contender.
Another limitation the application needs to overcome is its lack of worksharing capabilities, especially if it is attempting to be positioned as a viable BIM alternative for medium and large firms in addition to small firms. In that case, support for large projects, model collaboration, and distributed workflows will be definitely needed. The lack of a multi-disciplinary platform, which includes structure and MEP BIM applications in addition to architecture, is true of Vectorworks Architect just as it is for ArchiCAD, but like Graphisoft, Nemetschek Vectorworks is putting its weight solidly behind the IFC platform to address this limitation. It remains to be seen whether AEC firms see the IFC as a viable alternative to a single platform and are open to adopting single-disciplinary BIM applications that rely on the IFC for interoperability. It would be helpful for Vectorworks Architect to at least build more direct links with applications like Nemetschek Scia for structural design, given that they belong to the same parent company.
In any industry, it is important for the consumer to have choices, and Vectorworks Architect does a good job of providing architectural firms with a cost-effective BIM alternative. It does not have all the bells and whistles of more established BIM solutions and may never be able to catch up with all of their capabilities, given its relatively late start, but it does work. It is certainly possible to create a full-fledged BIM model in Vectorworks Architect and use the IFC for model-based collaboration with other disciplines. Is it a “true” BIM application? Well, that is a matter of debate, and there was a contentious one on this issue following the publication of the AutoCAD Architecture 2009 review (see its blog posting); much of that discussion would be applicable to Vectorworks Architect as well. But ultimately, the deciding factor is whether it works or not, and from that perspective, Vectorworks Architect can certainly be regarded as a viable BIM solution, as evidenced by the many architectural firms around the world who are using it for model-based design.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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