Vectorworks Design Summit 2016 AECbytes Feature (May 5, 2016)

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend, for the first time, a Design Summit put together by Vectorworks, in what seems to have become an annual event for the company to showcase its products, upcoming features, and overall vision to existing and prospective users of its products. The Vectorworks Design Summit is a relatively small event compared to Autodesk University or even Bentley’s annual Year in Infrastructure conference, but it serves as an important forum for Vectorworks users to learn, network, share their experiences with the product, get a condensed “state of the union” of the Vectorworks world, and in general, get affirmation for their choice of design application.

For those who are not very familiar with Vectorworks, here is a brief overview.

Overview of Vectorworks

Vectorworks started life in the 1980s as MiniCAD, a CAD application for the Mac that became cross-platform in 1996. It was rebranded as Vectorworks after being acquired by Germany’s Nemetschek Group, which not only owns the flagship BIM application, Allplan—that it developed itself—but has also incrementally added several other AEC applications to its portfolio including ArchiCAD, another BIM application; Scia, a structural analysis application; Maxon, a high-end rendering solution; Bluebeam, an AEC-specific PDF application; and most recently, Solibri, a model-checking application. Nemetschek is primarily a holding company, which means that the various applications that it has acquired continue to be developed and operated independently, with a large degree of autonomy. At the same time, the strength and backing—not to mention the deep pockets—of such a strong parent company can reassure users of the individual applications in Nemetschek’s portfolio of their survival and continued development.

Over the course of the last 15 years, Vectorworks has evolved from a single application to a family of products for several industries. 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.

The last release of the application, Vectorworks 2016, was a major one and was previewed at last year’s AIA Convention, where I found its new Marionette graphical sculpting capability to be one of the “coolest” features I saw at that AIA. The official release of Vectorworks 2016 came a few months later, and I provided a comprehensive overview of it in my “AEC Technology Updates, Fall 2015” article.   

Upcoming Features

The next release of Vectorworks is coming up soon, and an overview of its key features was provided at the Design Summit, spanning across the range of different industries that Vectorworks caters to. On the AEC front, Vectorworks Architect has a new Structural Member Objects for modeling common structural elements more easily and accurately with automatic snapping and associative behavior that maintains the connection between elements (such as between a column and a  beam) even when they are moved. Other capabilities of this feature include the ability to define structural objects with custom profiles (Figure 1) and create curved structural members, interactive editing in 3D views, and enhanced 2D Top/Plan representations of structural objects. Another building-related enhancement is a Flat Roof tool with drainage modeling capabilities that will allow building designers to model flat roofs in more detail than the simple Slab tool that they had to use earlier.

Figure 1. The ability to define a custom profile for a structural component in Vectorworks Architect.

The upcoming release of Vectorworks Architect will also have the ability to color code space plans based on custom criteria, such as the example shown in Figure 2. As described in my detailed review of the 2011 version of Vectorworks Architect, it is the only BIM application to have a dedicated toolset for space planning and programming. Data about the building program can be entered in a preformatted space planning worksheet with area and adjacency information, which, when completed, can be used to generate a bubble diagram, a stacking diagram, an adjacency matrix, and a conceptual space plan (Figure 2). The space plan can then be used to guide the actual design of the building.

Figure 2. Space plans in the programming module of Vectorworks Architect will have the ability to be color coded.

In Vectorworks Landmark, the application for landscape and site design, the most significant enhancement in the next release is the addition of new irrigation capabilities. There is now a comprehensive set of Irrigation tools for the design documentation and analysis of irrigation systems such as sprinklers and drip systems, with automatic calculations for key factors such as water pressure, water velocity, pipe sizing, gallons per minute and water coverage (Figure 3). With this new toolset, any landscape designer will be able to lay out not just the planned foliage on a site but also specify, accurately and in detail, how it will be irrigated, taking into account pathways, paving, ponds, and other landscape elements (Figure 4).

Figure 3. The expanded set of Irrigation tools in the upcoming version of Vectorworks Landmark.

Figure 4. A detailed site plan with irrigation design details that can be created with Vectorworks Landmark.

There are also several enhancements to the base Vectorworks application that would be available in the entire product family. A revamped Resource manager will provide for more efficient management of library items and a more intuitive interface for accessing Vectorworks resources, with the ability to directly browse resources from multiple library sources, including online libraries, and use them in projects with a simple drag-and-drop operation (Figure 5). Metadata tags will be attached to each resource to improve the organization as well as the searching, filtering and discovery of resources based on user criteria.

Figure 5. The revamped Resource Manager for more intuitive browsing of Vectorworks resources locally and online.

In other enhancements, the point cloud support that had been introduced in Vectorworks 2016 has been improved so that you can now isolate a portion of the point cloud if required to view and edit it.  Going forward, any of the project sharing and collaboration capabilities of Vectorworks Cloud Services—which until now were available exclusively to subscription customers—will be available to non-subscription customers and even non-Vectorworks users, such as the ability to use the Vectorworks Nomad mobile app to view 3D scenes and download files shared by other users (Figure 6). A new Analytics tool will provide insight about who is using what tool—based on collected data from users who opt in to share their data usage—allowing Vectorworks to identify underperforming tools and allocate more resources to the most frequently used tools. The graphics module of the application is being reengineered for enhanced displays, smoother refresh rates, and faster operations; new multi-threading capabilities will improve the overall performance and responsiveness of the application; and a new Web View/Virtual Reality capability will offer the ability to export Vectorworks models to a web-based interface with game-like controls for realistic walkthroughs on a computer screen as well interactive navigation using a VR headset.

Figure 6. Viewing a Vectorworks model in the Nomad mobile app, a capability that will now be available even to non-Vectorworks users.

Design Keynote

A key event at the Vectorworks Design Summit was the Design Keynote by Eva Franch i Gilabert, who is the current Director of the organization, Storefront for Art and Architecture. For those not familiar with it—I had not heard of it prior to Eva’s talk—the Storefront for Art and Architecture is a non-profit art and architecture institution, located in the Soho area of Manhattan in New York City, which is committed to furthering innovative ideas in architecture, art and design. Founded in 1982, the institution hosts various exhibitions, performances, discussions, competitions, and research projects, all of which are far from conventional, go beyond disciplinary labels and boundaries, question the foundations of art, and address a wide range of contemporary political issues such as immigration, gun control, poverty, identity, crime, etc. Not surprisingly, Eva’s talk, simply entitled “Alternatives,” was one of the most unconventional talks I have ever heard in any architectural event, let alone a technology-specific one.  A very eclectic personality herself, Eva held the audience captivated for over an hour as she talked extensively about the importance of experimental ideas and practices in design, the details about some of the work currently being done at the Storefront, and the reasoning behind the design of the US Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale, for which she was one of the main curators.

While there wasn’t any specific reference to technology in Eva’s keynote or even Vectorworks—apart from the mention of Vectorworks sponsoring some of the Storefront’s research—I later found that Vectorworks Spotlight was being used for designing the different installations and the supporting configurations of the Storefront interior, which is constantly being redone based on the event or exhibition currently being hosted (Figure 7). In fact, the closest that the talk came to discussing technology in any form was the idea of “Labor LEED” proposed by the Storefront. Similar to the LEED rating as a measure for the sustainable design of a building, Labor LEED would be a measure of how much labor goes into the design and construction of a building, taking into account not just the number of workers and the numbers of hours they are working, but also aspects such as where they live, how they travel to the construction site, the carbon footprint they use in the process, and so on. If this idea was to take off, AEC software vendors could conceivably develop Labor LEED calculation tools, similar to how we currently have LEED rating tools. Of course, this is a broader issue than something that falls entirely within the purview of the AEC industry, but it does relate to design and construction and is definitely something for us to keep in mind as we go about doing more conventional tasks such as cost estimates, constructability analysis, field logistics, etc. for our buildings.

Figure 7. One of the installations at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. (Image Courtesy: Dwell Magazine, http://www.dwell.com/article/eva-franch-i-gilabert)

Analysis and Conclusions

Attending the Vectorworks Design Summit was a great way to learn more about Vectorworks—both the company and the product—and get the opportunity to talk with some users of the product to find out what makes it “tick.” The biggest draw, at least in the US, seems to be the price point— Vectorworks is at least half the cost, if not cheaper, than other competing BIM applications such as Revit, ArchiCAD, and AECOsim. The other big advantage that users cited was its flexibility as a design tool—it is not as constrained as say, Revit, which “forces you to do things in a certain way.” I found it interesting that Vectorworks users did not mind sacrificing the “smarts” that typically come with constraints for more freedom in design, that the kind of model integrity which comes from using a more intelligent modeling tool—which in turn can enable more accurate analysis and evaluation of the design—is not a paramount consideration for them. Just as “it takes all kinds to make a world,” it obviously takes a range of applications to serve the entire spectrum of the AEC industry, and it is a great indication of the vitality of our industry that we have this range.

That said, I find it somewhat of a pity that Vectorworks, the company, is so focused on the AEC market—apparently, 70% of their revenue comes from AEC—when the product family has so many additional capabilities that give it the potential to excel in other industries. For example, its Spotlight application for interior, event, set, and lighting design is unique by being the only application that has a direct link to building design as well, courtesy of the Architect module. It is likely that the demand for this kind of design is only going to grow—given society’s insatiable appetite for entertainment—which means that Vectorworks Spotlight has a bright future and could become a leader in the field. Similarly, Vectorworks Landmark, which is also unique in the landscape architecture industry, can be further developed so that it can be used for larger scale urban planning and design rather than just for individual landscape projects. This calls for the company increasing the amount of resources allocated to these products, which would seem to be a wise decision in light of the potential of these applications to become market leaders in their respective fields.

On the BIM front, while the continued enhancements to Vectorworks Architect are important for its users—such as the new structural component and the flat roof tool, the improvements in working with point clouds, multi-threading, graphics and performance improvements, and mobile access for model viewing and sharing—the fact of the matter is that Vectorworks was late to the table when it came to “BIMifying” its application, and it is still playing catch-up with other BIM vendors in the features and functionality it provides. Vectorworks Architect has some unique capabilities which could have conceivably given it a leg up—such as the Marionette feature it introduced last year, and its long-standing space planning and programming module—but the company has not capitalized on these so far. There are no case studies showing how Marionette is actually being used in a design context by architects rather than to just sculpt interesting forms using a scripting language by programming enthusiasts. And as for the space planning and programming module, this could be developed into a whole new product by itself, with capabilities similar to the newly launched Archetris or the long-standing Trelligence Affinity.

Hopefully, with a parent company like Nemetschek providing Vectorworks with stability and support, it will ramp up its development on existing products and explore expanding into other areas. It would also be good to see a tighter integration—that goes beyond open standards and interoperability— of Vectorworks with the other sister products under the Nemetschek umbrella such as Scia, Bluebeam, and Solibri, all of which can greatly enhance the capabilities of the 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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