ArchiCAD 19AECbytes Review (August 13, 2015)

In my article on the AIA 2015 Convention held earlier this summer, I provided a brief overview of the new version of ArchiCAD that Graphisoft releases around this time every year. The theme for this year’s release—and there is always one, as evidenced by the last several releases of ArchiCAD—is “Faster than Ever”—a considerable upping of the performance of the application. This has been accomplished through a technology called “background processing,” a significant enough innovation in the CAD/BIM arena that Graphisoft has filed for a patent for it. The other main highlights of ArchiCAD 19 include tabbed windows for multiple viewpoints, point cloud support, smoother and faster 3D navigation with OpenGL, easier application of materials to surfaces, IFC improvements, and additional interface and documentation enhancements. Let’s take a closer look at all these improvements, starting with the background processing capability.

Predictive Background Processing

ArchiCAD has always been ahead of other BIM applications when it comes to the harnessing of computing hardware to enhance performance—it was the first CAD/BIM application to support 64-bit, multi-threading, and multi-processing. To put it in a historical context, multi-core support was introduced all the way back in 2008 in ArchiCAD 12 and 64-bit support was introduced the following year in ArchiCAD 13. This capability, along with many of ArchiCAD’s other benefits for BIM, was reiterated in a white paper Graphisoft released in 2012 called “Get There Faster with ArchiCAD,” which was analyzed in AECbytes Newsletter #55. One of the main reasons that ArchiCAD was able to have these capabilities in advance of competing applications like Autodesk’s Revit and Bentley’s AECOsim Building Design was that they required large parts of the application to be rewritten to take advantage of a computer with multiple cores and 64-bit, which is something that Graphisoft—with its ability to remain nimble and technologically agile, even after its acquisition by Nemetschek AG in 2006—has done several times over the course of ArchiCAD’s history.

In ArchiCAD 19, the application speed has been further enhanced by a technology innovation called “background processing,” or more specifically, “predictive background processing.” Not only does ArchiCAD make use of all the available cores of a computer when it is required to do a task—such as rendering, view generation, or model navigation —any available computing resources are now also deployed to process additional tasks in the background that are predicted to happen. This new capability of ArchiCAD has been developed in conjunction with the ability to have multiple tabs open for a project, each of which can have a different view to which the predictive background processing is applied (Figure 1). For example, let’s say there’s a 3D view open in the active tab and there are five additional model views (plans, sections, elevations, sectional perspectives, and so on) open in other tabs; if a change is made to the model in the active 3D view, the corresponding updates are also made to the views in the other tabs, even though they are not active. Thus, when one of these other views is activated, it is regenerated almost instantaneously since it was already being updated in the background—there is no waiting for the model to be rebuilt, as in previous versions. Moreover, since these updates are happening using background processing, there is no slowing down at all of the work being done in the active view. For architects who almost always need to work with multiple project views and keep switching between them hundreds of times a day, the near-instant updates can save a lot of time and make the application much more responsive to work with.


Figure 1. A project with different views open in three tabs in ArchiCAD 19. Background processing is applied to calculate and apply the changes made in the floor plan to the section and 3D views, making them regenerate almost instantly when they are activated.

Background processing in the realm of software, defined as computer processes that run "behind the scenes (i.e., in the background) and without user intervention” is certainly not a new concept. It is very common in operating systems (for example, see the Windows Task Manager, which will typically show over a 100 open processes even when there no open applications); in web applications where, for example, a task such as a report is being generated in the background while you continue to use the application; in web browsers, where you can open multiple tabs for different web pages and each of them continues to load even when it is not the active tab; and so on. What is different about ArchiCAD’s background processing is that it is being applied in a CAD/BIM context for updating model changes in views that have not yet been activated. Graphisoft has actually filed for a patent for this “predictive background updating” that “utilizes unused processing capability to improve building modeling,” and while we will know about the outcome of the patent application and its implications, if awarded, in due course, there is no doubt about the fact that it is continued evidence of Graphisoft’s ability to push technological boundaries when it come to developing ArchiCAD.

Strictly speaking, background processing is not a brand new innovation in ArchiCAD—it had started in a small way two releases ago in ArchiCAD 17, where it was used to significantly speed up the “automatic junctions” feature that had just been introduced. This feature allowed for the junctions of composite construction elements to be correctly cleaned up, and background processing made this possible not only for junctions in the current view but for all the junctions in a building, of which there could be thousands. Two releases later, we can see that background processing in ArchiCAD has been extended to work with other computer-intensive tasks, and it is likely that the technology will be applied to even more “behind the scenes” tasks going forward, continuing to make the application faster and more responsive.

There are a few additional things to keep in mind regarding ArchiCAD’s background processing capability. To start with, it can only use the computing resources that are available, which means that if many additional applications are open, there will be fewer resources for ArchiCAD overall and even fewer for background processing. Also, the more the number of open tabs with different views, the more the amount of background resources to keep them updated—a number of 6 to 7 open tabs is optimal. There is an option to turn off background processing for a laptop if it is not plugged in to a power source, along with the option to turn it off altogether. And finally, how the background processing works can actually be seen with CPU monitoring tools that are available on both the Mac and Windows platforms (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Display of CPU usage tools showing how the background processing in all the computer’s cores kick in to update views in inactive tabs when a change is made to the model in the active view.

Visualization Enhancements

The last release, ArchiCAD 18, had a new CineRender rendering engine, which enabled the built-in rendering capability of the application to be of a much higher quality compared to earlier versions. In ArchiCAD 19, the focus is on improving the visualization experience while you are actually modeling. This has been done by optimizing the OpenGL engine that is used for the 3D model window, making 3D navigation significantly smoother, faster, and free from flickering—even with extremely large models.

Another significant visualization enhancement is the new 3D Surface Painter tool that allows users to quickly apply different materials to model surfaces in a 3D view using an intuitive drag-and-drop operation. Whereas earlier, seven clicks were needed to change the material of a surface, in ArchiCAD 19, you can simply open the Surface Painter palette and drag and drop the desired material on a surface, as shown in Figure 3. This palette provides access to all the materials in the current project, in catalog libraries, as well as other external sources, and includes a Search option to find a specific material. It also allows the settings of a material to be configured as required. There are options to apply a material to a single surface or to all the surfaces of an object; it is also possible to select all the surfaces of multiple objects that have the same material in one step and choose another material to apply to all of them. Any application of a material can be previewed first to make sure it is okay before it is actually applied.


Figure 3. Using the new 3D Surface Painter tool to “drag and drop” a new material on a surface.

In ArchiCAD 19, the Surface Painter tool works only in a 3D view, but hopefully in future releases, it will allow surface materials to be changed in 2D views as well, which many users might find convenient.

Point Cloud Support

If there was one aspect in which ArchiCAD had been trailing behind its leading competitors, it was in its support of point clouds that are becoming increasingly common for capturing as-built conditions of buildings and their surroundings using laser scanning devices. Up until now, ArchiCAD users who wanted to import point cloud data in ArchiCAD had to rely on third-party tools like Point-Cab for this purpose (as illustrated by Scott Page in his 2012 AECbytes article, 3D Laser Scanning: As-Built Reality Capture for BIM). In the new release of ArchiCAD, this limitation has finally been addressed with native point cloud support. ArchiCAD 19 can directly read point cloud data in two industry-standard formats—XYZ and E57—and bring in the scan as a library object, allowing it to be viewed and navigated just like other ArchiCAD elements (Figure 4).


Figure 4. Viewing a point cloud natively imported in ArchiCAD 19.

Thanks to the re-engineered OpenGL engine described in the preceding section, the navigation of even very large, detailed point clouds—with close to 100 million points—is very smooth. Not only can the imported point cloud be used as a reference for modeling, there is also the option to visually compare it with a constructed model and check for any additions, deletions, or other discrepancies, as shown in Figure 5.     


Figure 5. A visual discrepancy check between a point cloud capturing the as-built conditions of a building and its constructed model (shown in red) for a refurbishment project.

Additional Enhancements

In addition to the ability to have multiple views open in tabs—that are already pre-generated and ready for viewing thanks to background processing as described earlier—other interface enhancements in ArchiCAD 19 include the ability to quickly access additional related views from those in the open tabs without having to select them from the Navigator palette. In addition to the temporary guidelines that were available earlier, in ArchiCAD 19, you can drag and place permanent guidelines in both 3D and 2D views for more precise modeling, as shown in Figure 6. These guidelines can be aligned with the angle of an object and move along with it; they can be copied and edited just like regular lines; and of course, they can be hidden when required without requiring them to be placed on a separate layer whose visibility settings have to be manipulated. In addition to these permanent guidelines placed by the user, ArchiCAD 19 also automatically displays snap guides and snap points during a modeling operation for greater precision.


Figure 6. Placing permanent guidelines in both 3D and 2D views to assist in accurate modeling.

On the interoperability front—an area ArchiCAD is particularly strong in—improvements have been made to how IFC files are imported: IFC Spaces are always converted to editable ArchiCAD Zones by retaining their original geometries; it is now possible to override materials and representation styles of IFC model elements; IFC data can be mapped to GDL parameters of ArchiCAD library objects; property update functions are now customizable; and IFC data handling in the IFC Manager has been speeded up. Inter-disciplinary collaboration has been additionally enhanced by improving the collision detection between the ArchiCAD model and the MEP model brought in through the MEP Modeling add-on application. It now works with all MEP-type elements regardless of which MEP application the model was created in (Figure 7).


Figure 7. Collision detection in ArchiCAD between the architectural model and the MEP model of the same building that was created in Revit MEP (shown in top image).

Rounding up the list of the key enhancements in ArchiCAD 19 are the ability to export more element information and parameters, including hyperlinks, in the BIMx format enabling them to be viewed by anyone using the free BIMx app (Figure 8); improvements in dimensioning and labeling when creating 2D documentation; more accurate quantity takeoff for composite structures such as walls with layers, with the ability to account for hidden (i.e., covered) surfaces in area calculations; and improved PDF export with the ability to ensure that layouts (i.e., sheets) get exported together with their visible layers.


Figure 8. Viewing the many additional properties of an ArchiCAD element, including hyperlinks, in a model exported to BIMx. It should be noted that the free BIMx app needs to be updated to take advantage of the improved export from ArchiCAD 19.

Analysis and Conclusions

I have been able to review every release of ArchiCAD starting with version 8 in 2004 (shortly after the launch of AECbytes), which has given me a good perspective on its evolution. The application has continued to make steady progress, improving its capabilities and including a significant breakthrough technology every year, such as server-based model collaboration in ArchiCAD 13; interoperability and open design collaboration in ArchiCAD 14; the Shell tool for expanded design freedom in ArchiCAD 15 followed by the Morph tool in ArchiCAD 16; automated junctions enabling a more detailed BIM in ArchiCAD 17; and the new CineRender rendering engine in ArchiCAD 18.

This year’s release is no exception on the technology front with the new background processing capability, enabling users to switch between multiple model views in open tabs quickly and with almost no time lag. The additional OpenGL and visualization enhancements, the (long-overdue) point cloud support, and the many additional interface, documentation, and productivity improvements all add up to make ArchiCAD 19 a solid release. Add this to the existing cross-platform (Mac and Windows) capabilities and the stellar learning resources available for the application (as pointed out in previous reviews), and it’s not hard to see what makes ArchiCAD tick, not only for its existing users, but as a compelling BIM option for those looking to start out with BIM or switch from their existing application.

On the flip side of the coin—and there is always one!—I found this version of ArchiCAD significantly slower compared to earlier versions on the aging hardware of my computer. What was a top-of-the-line machine when I bought it some years ago—with 4 cores, 8 GB RAM, and 64-bit OS—no longer seems able to keep up with applications like ArchiCAD 19, despite it exceeding the minimum system requirements specified for the application. My computer works perfectly well for all the other applications that I need to use on a regular basis, but I clearly need to upgrade to continue to test CAD/BIM applications like ArchiCAD 19 and get a full sense of their capabilities. To be fair to ArchiCAD, this is a problem endemic to all applications, starting with the operating system itself (Windows, in my case), which are all becoming increasing bloated and in constant need of more computing resources, forcing users to upgrade even if they don’t want to. I would love to see an application which actually becomes leaner as it develops and reduces its hardware requirements!

This brings forth another point—that of “speed” and the constant drive to make applications faster, which is the crowning glory of this version of ArchiCAD 19. As an industry, is our focus simply going to be on making BIM applications faster and more powerful so they can handle bigger and more complex projects? Because the fact is that the more capable an application, the more you are going to throw at it, the more expectations you will have from it, requiring it to be even more capable, ad  infinitum. It is a never-ending process. It is similar to the recent Viewpoint article which pointed out how much documentation is created from BIM simply because it is so easy to create. While the focus of that article was on the need for a system to “manage” all this information, how about we try not to create so much information in the first place? Do we really need 50 rendered views to visualize a scene? Do we really need to model every detail of a building? Do we really need (a gigantic set) of 2D drawings to construct a building when all the information to build it is contained in its BIM model?

While the initiative to adopt this “less is more” philosophy lies primarily with those defining professional practice requirements and standards, BIM applications such as ArchiCAD can certainly help—not by continuous performance improvements that simply encourage the “do more and more” mentality, but by working on developing more “smarts” so that we can do  “more with less.” (A more extensive take on what these “smarts” would do in BIM appears in my recent Viewpoint article, Why Isn't There a Smarter BIM Tool for Building Design, Yet?) Graphisoft has shown, time and time again, that it is capable of creating breakthrough technological advances. I hope it chooses to apply some of that technological prowess in “thinking outside the box” and coming up with a newer kind of BIM.

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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