AECbytes Product Review (June 25, 2014)
Graphisoft typically comes out with a new release of its popular BIM application, ArchiCAD, every summer, and following this schedule, it launched ArchiCAD 18 earlier this month. This happens to also be the 30th anniversary of the application, making it extra special not only to Graphisoft but also to the entire ArchiCAD community of users, developers, resellers, and consultants world-wide. ArchiCAD may not be the leading BIM application, but it has certainly held its own against Revit, providing a much-needed alternative to AEC professionals with a different philosophy and approach that has garnered the application a devoted user base. While ArchiCAD is still synonymous with Graphisoft, the company has, in recent years, expanded its product offerings to two additional applications: BIMx Docs, which was reviewed in AECbytes in February; and the new BIMcloud, which was launched in Tokyo just a couple of months ago. Both of these applications, like ArchiCAD, are squarely in the BIM category, reaffirming Graphisoft’s firm commitment to BIM.
Each new release of ArchiCAD typically has a theme. Looking back at the last few recent releases, the themes have been collaboration and Teamwork for ArchiCAD 13; interoperability and open design collaboration for ArchiCAD 14; expanding design freedom through the Shell tool for ArchiCAD 15; expanding design freedom further with the Morph tool for ArchiCAD 16, along with improved access to BIM content; and enabling a more detailed BIM for last year’s release, ArchiCAD 17. While ArchiCAD 18 has a number of enhancements along several fronts, topping the list is dramatically improved visualization with a brand new rendering engine, making “creative flow” the main theme for this release. Let’s explore the visualization enhancements in more detail, along with the additional improvements for modeling, documentation, collaboration, and interoperability in ArchiCAD 18.
In ArchiCAD 18, the earlier Lightworks rendering engine has been replaced by a new CineRender 14 rendering engine from Maxon, which enables the built-in rendering to be of a much higher quality compared to earlier versions. Looking back at the history of the application, the Lightworks rendering engine was first incorporated into ArchiCAD in 2004 when it was in version 9. This was a significant leap forward for ArchiCAD at that time, as it allowed users to generate photorealistic images of the model within the application without needing to rely on an external rendering program. While the renderings created with the Lightworks rendering engine were of reasonably good quality, especially compared to the built-in rendering capabilities of other BIM applications, ArchiCAD 18 improves upon this significantly by incorporating the rendering engine from Maxon, which is the developer of the ultra high-end, professional 3D visualization application, Cinema 4D. (Maxon is also part of the Nemetschek Group like Graphisoft and is therefore a sister company.) The new CineRender 14 rendering engine, which is the same one used in Cinema 4D, takes the built-in visualization capabilities of ArchiCAD to a whole new level, with stunning renderings that are so life-like, it’s difficult to tell them apart from actual photographs (see Figure 1). Some of the factors that contribute to its increased realism include the ability to capture area shadows in addition to hard shadows, better distribution of light, realistic reflections, and a better representation of surface materials.
Figure 1. The top image shows an actual photograph of a building, while the lower image is an ArchiCAD 18 rendering of the same scene.
The new CineRender engine was chosen not just for its vastly superior rendering capabilities, but also for its ease of use. In contrast to the earlier Lightworks engine in which the individual settings of a rendering were quite complex and not very intuitive, the CineRender engine has a one-button “photo-shot” rendering—similar to the “Auto” setting of a high-end camera—which allows novice users to create professional renderings with the same ease as with tweaking some sliders that adjust the main parameters of the rendering engine. At the same time, it also has many advanced rendering settings—again, analogous to the many options available in a high-end camera—that visualization experts can manipulate to achieve the exact effect they are looking for. They can even go a step further and use the easy link between ArchiCAD 18 and Cinema 4D to continue the model visualization in that application’s dedicated rendering and animation environment.
Figure 2. A rendering created in ArchiCAD 18 using the default settings of the CineRender engine, analogous to the “Auto” setting of a camera.
Some of the other advantages of the new CineRender engine (see Figure 3) include faster rendering preview, which starts from the image center—usually the focus of the rendering—and goes to the edges rather than the traditional top to bottom sequence; background processor support, which not only makes use of all the multiple cores on the computer, speeding up the rendering, but is capable of doing it in the background while ArchiCAD remains responsive for other tasks; an expanded library of surface material catalogs, access to the entire surface material set of Cinema 4D, and the ability to download additional surface materials free of charge from the BIMcomponents.com portal; and new lamp objects to which different light settings including parallel light, area light, and window light sources can be applied, as well as the standard, IES light format for manufacturer-specific photometric distribution.
Figure 3. A rendering in progress in ArchiCAD 18, showing the image being rendered from the center out, and the Activity Monitor showing that the rendering is making use of the multiple cores of the computer.
On the modeling front, the main enhancement in ArchiCAD 18 is multi-element editing, where a desired editing operation can be applied to multiple elements at the same time simply by selecting all of them prior to applying the operation. This is illustrated in Figure 4, where a cut in the floor slab is applied to all the multiple slabs that have been selected, making it much easier and faster to model a staircase or elevator shaft that runs across all the floors of the building. The selected elements on which the multi-editing operation will be applied are not required to be of the same type; they can be of different types.
Figure 4. The new ability for multi-element editing in ArchiCAD 18.
There are two major enhancements related to the documentation capability in ArchiCAD 18. There is a brand new Revision Management feature, which tracks and automatically documents changes to the building model, helping to ease the legal burden on architects when issuing a new drawing set to consultants, clients, contractors, etc. by ensuring that it is the correct one and revisions are properly documented. The AEC industry still relies heavily on 2D project documentation for building design and construction, and it is a significant challenge for architects to manage and document the many design changes throughout the lifecycle of the project, Moreover, there are strict rules about how these changes have to be communicated: whenever there is a change, only the modified layouts have to be submitted, and the individual modifications in the revision history list have to be documented on every layout. The process is time-consuming, tedious, and error-prone, making automatic revision management one of the top customer-requested features that have been addressed in ArchiCAD 18. The new revision management solution supports both the traditional revision clouds in 2D drawings as well as BIM-based model-level element modifications, which can be applied with a new Change tool and managed using the accompanying Change Manager dialog (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Applying and managing project changes using the new Change tool and Change Manager dialog in ArchiCAD 18. The Layout Book in the Navigator shows all the layouts that affected by the changes listed in blue.
Multiple modifications can be grouped together under a single Change item and there can be many such items in one revision. Back in the Layout Manager, all the layouts that are affected by the changes made are shown in blue (Figure 5). The Revision History table that is required on every layout is also automatically updated. When all the changes in that particular revision are made, a new drawing set can be issued through the Issue Manager (Figure 6), which automatically collects all the layouts affected by the changes. Layouts can be added or removed as needed from this issue set before it is closed. And finally, when it is time to print, the Publisher can automatically display and print only the layouts in a particular issue.
Figure 6. Creating a new drawing set issue using the Issue History interface, which automatically lists the modified layouts and allows more to be added if needed.
Another significant enhancement in ArchiCAD 18 is better support of the PDF format, which has become the de facto documentation standard for the construction industry. When a PDF file is published from ArchiCAD, it now includes an option to export layers, which allows the recipient of the PDF file to see the entire ArchiCAD layer structure and turn individual layers on and off as needed (Figure 7). This ability to access individual layers also works when a PDF file is imported in ArchiCAD 18. It is done by “exploding” the PDF drawing when it is imported. This not only adds the layers of the drawing to the ArchiCAD project and allows them to be individually manipulated, it also makes the individual elements of the imported PDF available for editing, dimensioning, and other operations (Figure 7). Essentially, a PDF drawing can now be imported into ArchiCAD and used just like any other vector-based drawing format. In addition to importing layers, users can also fine-tune the representation (pen, font conversion and attributes) of the imported PDF elements.
Figure 7. Improved PDF support in ArchiCAD 18. The top image shows a PDF file that has been exported with its layers, enabling them to be turned off or on. The lower image shows a PDF drawing from a manufacturer that has been exploded when importing it, allowing it to be edited and dimensioned.
Graphisoft has always been a strong proponent of openness and interoperability, and was one of the main vendors behind the “Open BIM” initiative launched in 2012 for seamless data exchange between different BIM applications to enable better collaboration between cross-disciplinary design teams. The underpinning of this initiative continues to be the IFC format, and just like previous versions, ArchiCAD 18 continues to significantly enhance its IFC capabilities, with better scheme-driven management of IFC data, including the ability to label it and filter it prior to export; high-quality IFC export in the latest certified format (IFC 2x3); support of different IFC views (such as Coordination View, Basic FM Handover View, etc. ), standards such as COBie, and a wide variety of IFC data types; better ability to handle large IFC files that might be exported from other applications; and an updated add-in for Revit 2015 ensuring smoother IFC-based workflow between ArchiCAD and Revit. The goal, in general, is to support all the major international IFC standards. The interface for IFC data management is also more user-friendly.
In another significant interoperability development, ArchiCAD 18 introduces full BCF (BIM Collaboration Format) support. BCF is an open file format that allows the addition of textual comments and screenshots on top of the IFC model layer for better communication during design coordination (Figure 8). ArchiCAD 18 integrates BCF information natively into the BIM model in the form of ArchiCAD Mark-Up entries. BCF can be considered the workflow part of IFC-based collaboration, and is endorsed by buildingSMART. With its support of BCF, ArchiCAD can integrate more seamlessly with other BIM applications that also support this format, including coordination, structural, and MEP engineering software like Solibri Model Checker, Tekla BIMsight, Navisworks, Tekla Structures, Revit. MagiCAD, and others.
Figure 8. The top image shows a clash detected in ArchiCAD 18 being exported in the BCF format. It can then be opened and reviewed in any application that supports the BCF format such as Tekla BIMsight, shown in the lower image.
ArchiCAD 18 also integrates with Graphisoft’s new BIMcloud for real-time model-based collaboration by the extended design team located anywhere in the world, using traditional computers as well as mobile devices. More details about BIMcloud can be seen in the recent AECbytes article, written shortly after the BIMcloud service was launched.
There has always been some dramatic development in every new version of ArchiCAD in recent times, and this year was no different with the vastly improved built-in visualization capabilities enabled by the new CineRender rendering engine. Users will appreciate being able to create high-end renderings of their projects within ArchiCAD itself, and with fluency and ease, similar to how the increasingly superior capabilities in digital cameras and smartphones allow the vast majority of users to simply “point and click” to take photographs. The new Revision Management capabilities and the improved PDF support should be extremely useful to architects in professional practice where 2D documentation is still very much the norm. The limited number of modeling enhancements in this release was a little disappointing, and I hope Graphisoft will accelerate them in future releases to make ArchiCAD better prepared for a future AEC world where modeling will certainly take precedence over drawing.
Working with ArchiCAD 18 was the first time I had the opportunity to see BCF (BIM Collaboration Format) in action, and I was impressed at how easy it was to import a clash detected in ArchiCAD to a coordination application like Tekla BIMsight for more detailed collaboration between multiple disciplines. This seems to be exactly how we should be working together in the building industry, with each discipline using its own “best-of-breed” applications and being able to share relevant data seamlessly across them. It is good to see vendors like Graphisoft pushing the envelope when it comes to interoperability and the IFC, and demonstrate how it can be used to solve actual problems in AEC. It makes the IFC much more than a theoretical construct—and therefore of limited interest to the average industry professional—to a format that is becoming increasingly relevant in building design and construction and supported by a growing number of AEC technology vendors.
The enhancements in ArchiCAD 18 add to an already long list of the application’s many strengths: it is cross-platform, running on both Windows and MacOS; it draws upon the full power of computing hardware, with support for multi-threading, multi-processing, and 64-bit; and its file sizes are relatively small, even for large and complex BIM projects, due to the efficient internal structuring of data. Despite being pegged as an “architectural BIM” application, it goes a lot further: it can import multiple models and run clash detection, allowing any problems detected with the architectural model to be fixed within the application itself; it can export both BIMx and BIMx Docs files for easy navigation and sharing of building models and drawings on a tablet; it has built-in collaboration capabilities that make it easy for multiple team members to work together on a design; and it facilitates real-time collaboration with the extended project team by integration with Graphisoft’s BIMcloud.
And finally, a shout-out must be made for ArchiCAD’s Help functionality which continues to be stronger than ever, with even more videos available on its website than before demonstrating the new features and other aspects of the program in detail. The high quality of these videos is a testament to the time and resources Graphisoft puts into them, and reflects how important ease of learning is to the company. This level of commitment is sadly quite uncommon in the AEC technology industry, where learning any kind of application is quite a struggle and may require specialized (and often expensive!) training. It is so refreshing to have a professional-level application that can actually be learnt on one’s own.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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