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AECbytes Product Review (June 22, 2012)

ArchiCAD 16

Product Summary

ArchiCAD 16 is the new release of Graphisoft’s BIM application for architectural design, which expands its modeling repertoire with a new tool for freeform design and makes it easier for ArchiCAD users to share and access BIM content..

Pros: New Morph tool allows quick creation of massing models within the BIM environment of ArchiCAD as well as the creation of complex freeform structures; integration with the new BIM Components portal allows users to access a wide variety of content developed by Graphisoft, ArchiCAD resellers, building product manufacturers, and other users; built-in energy analysis capabilities encourage sustainability analysis as it can be done right within the BIM application; expanded IFC support and participation in the OpenBIM initiative reinforces continued commitment to interoperability; several additional productivity enhancements; good Help documentation and lots of video tutorials showing how to use the new features.

Cons: Not as easy or intuitive for a new user compared to its main rival, Revit; remains primarily an architectural BIM application that relies on interoperability rather than direct integration for working with other disciplines; continues to lack an associative option for editing basic building elements which would maintain their relationships when modifications are made..

Price: $4,250 for a new license; tiered pricing for upgrade from previous version, such as $895 for upgrade from ArchiCAD 15; free educational version for students, teachers and schools..

Graphisoft has just released the next version of its popular BIM application, ArchiCAD. While a brief overview of some of its main features that were highlighted at the AIA 2012 Expo was provided last month, this review looks at the application in more detail. A new version of ArchiCAD is released every year, and last year, we looked at ArchiCAD 15 and its theme of ‘design freedom” that was epitomized by a brand-new Shell tool capable of modeling a broad spectrum of forms that could subsequently be designated as BIM elements, a revamped Roof tool that allowed quick modeling of complex roofs, the ability to create and edit a model in 3D perspective views, and some additional interface enhancements that made 3D modeling easier and more accurate.

However, ArchiCAD at that time still lacked a dedicated conceptual design environment for the quick creation of massing models. In the current release, it has addressed this limitation in the form of a new Morph tool that brings SketchUp–like capabilities to ArchiCAD, making it easier for users to start conceptualizing their forms within ArchiCAD itself rather than resort to a third-party application for this task and subsequently import those massing models into ArchiCAD. The Morph tool also enables users to create custom-shaped structures of any kind in ArchiCAD. In addition to this new tool, ArchiCAD users now have easier access to a wide variety of BIM objects from various sources, expanded built-in energy analysis capabilities, and improved interoperability with other applications. Let’s explore all these capabilities in more detail.

Morph Tool

ArchiCAD 16 continues to build upon the theme of “design freedom” that was the focus of the previous release with a new Morph tool, which has even more capabilities compared to the Shell tool. It can be used to create freeform elements right within ArchiCAD, without having to create them in other applications and then import them. Compared to traditional building elements created with the regular tools such as Wall, Beam, Column, Slab, etc., elements created as Morphs have practically no geometric limits—every edge and every surface can be moved and shaped in any direction, allowing a wide variety of forms to be modeled. You can create a Morph element from scratch using the Morph tool or convert any existing element, modeled with another tool, into a Morph. Any of the Morph editing techniques can then be applied to it, with the potential to transform it so radically that it is practically unrecognizable from its original shape (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Applying various editing operations to a Morph object in ArchiCAD 16.

You can edit the entire Morph element as a whole, or any of its sub-elements separately, such as faces, edges, and points. Depending upon what is selected, the entire Morph or one of its sub-elements, a variety of editing options are displayed in the accompanying pet palette—push/pull, extrude, bulge, offset all edges, fillet or chamfer an edge, and so on. You can also insert additional faces on existing surfaces of a Morph and move them up or down using the push/pull editing feature, insert nodes on edges and then move them to reshape the object, revolve a profile about an axis to create a revolved Morph, adjust a texture on the surface of a Morph, and apply Boolean operations such as Union, Subtract, and Intersect on Morph objects. These objects appear in all ArchiCAD views and lists and can be classified as any ArchiCAD element that has a load-bearing or non load-bearing structural function and with an Interior or Exterior position (as shown in Figure 2), allowing them to be exported to applications for structural or MEP design, energy analysis, and so on.


Figure 2. Specifying building-related properties for the Morph object created in Figure 1.

Graphisoft has a number of videos showing how the Morph tool is used to create a wide variety of objects, ranging from fixtures to furniture to buildings, in particular, the modeling of various iconic buildings, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the famous chimneys of Barcelona's Palau Güell designed by Antoni Gaudi, and others (see Figure 3). Watching these videos makes the Morph tool look incredibly easy to use. But in reality, I found the process of using it much more arduous. In particular, selecting the desired editing option from the pet palette detracted from the intuitiveness of the Morph tool, and I did not find it as easy to use as SketchUp for conceptual modeling. Of course, if you are an expert in the use of the tool and ArchiCAD in general, you would be able to work fast with it, but this is true for most complex CAD and BIM applications. Most AEC professionals have to work with a number of different applications, and one of the great things about SketchUp is that you don’t have to be an “expert” to use it effectively—it is easy to learn as well as use. In contrast, ArchiCAD’s new Morph tool is not as intuitive. It is, of course, a lot more sophisticated, with many more editing options for creating custom- shaped building structures, but those looking for the simplicity and ease of use of a tool like SketchUp might be disappointed. On the other hand, kudos to Graphisoft for introducing a new tool in ArchiCAD that makes it possible to create conceptual and freeform models right within the BIM application. 


Figure 3. Graphisoft videos showing how the Morph tool can be used to model some classic structures.

BIM Components Library

Along with ArchiCAD 16, Graphisoft has also introduced an online BIM Components library, similar to the 3D Warehouse for SketchUp, which allows users to upload, share, or download components that they can use immediately in their own models instead of taking the time and effort to re-create them. There is direct access to this online database from ArchiCAD through the Object tool, which you would typically use to place library components in the model. Selection of which component to place is typically done through the Settings dialog of the Object tool. By default, the local and linked ArchiCAD libraries can be browsed in the Object settings dialog, as shown for the collection of Chairs in Figure 4. Selecting one of these components shows its properties in detail.


Figure 4. The collection of components in the linked ArchiCAD library that gets opened by default when the Settings dialog for the Object tool is selected. Selecting one of these components shows its properties in detail on the right side of the dialog.

However, if you use the Search function at the top and search for a component, say chair, many more chairs are loaded, because the default search option is to look in both the local library and the BIM Components portal. If you select a library component among the search results, you will see the same properties dialog that was seen earlier in Figure 4. On the other hand, if you choose one of the search components retrieved from the BIM Components portal, you will see some basic information about the object, including the fact that it is from the BIM Components portal. The portal contains free components that can be downloaded and embedded in the project library, as well as premium content that is not available for free but only available for customers with active service contracts with Graphisoft. The difference between the two types of content is indicated by two different icons next to the object preview—the premium content is indicated by a Lock icon. 


Figure 5. The expanded set of components, including those from the BIM Components portal, that are displayed by default when a component type is searched. The right side of the dialog shows some information about an object that is from the portal and provides the option to download and embed it, if it is accessible.

You can also directly browse through the BIM Components portal at http://bimcomponents.com/ (see Figure 6). This is a public website containing GDL objects. (GDL stands for Geometric Description Language and is the file format used for ArchiCAD objects; those with advanced knowledge of GDL can even use it to create objects by writing scripts.) Anyone can access the BIM Components portal to browse, search, view and even download objects for free. To upload (which you can do either from your browser or directly from ArchiCAD), to comment on, and to rate the objects, users must first register using a valid email address. It is not necessary to be an ArchiCAD user to access or upload to the BIM Components Portal.


Figure 6. The BIM Components portal website.

The components in the BIM Components portal are BIM-ready, which means that they have BIM information associated with them. Figure 7 shows this for one of the objects from the BIM Components portal for which the Download and Embed option was chosen.


Figure 7. One of the components selected in Figure 5 that was downloaded from the BIM Components portal and embedded into the current project. Clicking on it shows that it has the full range of properties that any BIM component would have.

Built-in Energy Analysis Capabilities

Another key feature of ArchiCAD 16 is built-in energy evaluation functionality, which has been done by integrating the entire functionality of EcoDesigner, which was a plug-in earlier, with the application. (For more details on EcoDesigner, please see its review in AECbytes published in Fen 2010 shortly after it was launched.) In fact, the functionality of EcoDesigner has not just been integrated, it has been re-implemented to work on a native ArchiCAD basis. The rationale for making energy analysis a native ArchiCAD function was to make sustainability analysis available to all ArchiCAD users right within the BIM application where the building model has been created, without exporting to any other tool or downloading any plug-in. It is specifically designed for use at an early design phase, when cost-saving design strategies can still be effectively compared and implemented.

The energy evaluation relies on the geometry analysis of the BIM model and hour-by-hour weather data based on where the building is located. Most of the geometry analysis of the model is automated—when the Energy Evaluation option is selected, the architectural building model is directly turned into a single Thermal Block energy model. Opaque and transparent elements of the building envelope and internal structures are automatically detected and listed with their relevant properties. A single ArchiCAD element is automatically split into several parts depending on its position (e.g., underground vs. above-ground parts), if necessary, in order to generate precise energy calculation input. There are multiple energy model visualization options, one of which is shown in Figure 8.


Figure 8. One possible visualization option for the building energy model.

If required, you can conveniently assign additional data to the building energy model from extended built-in lists, such as the physical properties of structures and openings; levels of self-shading and different shading devices; environmental settings such as soil type, surrounding surfaces, wind protection, and external shading conditions; operation profile of the building such as its day-to-day usage (see Figure 9); type of MEP system including basic heating, cooling, hot water generation and ventilation methods; any green system such as solar collectors, air-to-air energy recovery, and heat pumps; primary energy and CO2 emission factors;  and the prices of the local energy source. Climate data can be imported from analytic weather data files or obtained from the online weather server.


Figure 9. Specifying the Operation Profile of the building for energy evaluation.

Once all the necessary input data is provided, the energy evaluation report can be generated. As with the earlier EcoDesigner, the energy analysis is done by a well-established and certified energy calculation engine, VIPCore. It uses an accurate dynamic calculation algorithm that evaluates heat transmission of the building envelope structures at every hour of the day throughout the year, and produces an Energy Evaluation Report that displays detailed graphical and numerical feedback on energy-related structural performance, as shown in Figure 10: the annual energy consumption according to consumption type (heating, cooling, lighting, usage) and prime energy usage (gas, oil, coal, electricity, etc.); the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the building's operation over the course of a year; and the monthly energy balance contrasting the amount of energy the building emits with the amount of energy it absorbs from the environment and its own internal heat sources. You can use this report data to optimize design parameters, such as building area and orientation, fenestration, shading, composites, glazing ratio, green strategies, etc., in order to minimize its energy consumption and carbon footprint.


Figure 10. The energy evaluation report that is generated once all the building inputs are provided for energy analysis.

Other Highlights

Other highlights of ArchiCAD 16 include several IFC improvements such as easier IFC Property management, support for multiple IFC standards, an extended IFC database with new data types to meet these additional standards, import of IFC sites as morphs rather than GDL objects for more accuracy and flexibility, which also leads to faster IFC import. ArchiCAD 16 also features integration with the popular e-SPECS application for automating the derivation of specifications from the model. The integration is similar to how it works for Revit, and is a healthy sign that the ArchiCAD universe of third-party plug-ins seems to be growing. There are several additional productivity improvements designed to make modeling and collaboration easier and more efficient for ArchiCAD users.

Analysis and Conclusions

In my recent review of Revit Architecture 2013, a competing BIM application, I criticized it for not having any “game-changing” enhancements, for not having any grand visions or overarching themes but instead relying on enhancements to several of the existing features of the application. ArchiCAD 16 fares better in comparison as it has introduced a brand-new tool that enables users to create conceptual and freeform models right within the BIM application. With the Morph tool, ArchiCAD also erases its long-standing limitation of the lack of a conceptual modeling environment. While I did not find this tool as easy to use as SketchUp, which is the most popular application architects use for creating conceptual models, it can be used just as efficiently by those who develop expertise with the application and with the Morph tool in particular. It also provides a lot more capabilities than the modeling features in SketchUp, once you have learnt to use them, especially for creating complex, organic forms. Above all, the Morph tool gives ArchiCAD capabilities for freeform 3D modeling that are difficult to find in other BIM applications, so it does give ArchiCAD some legitimate bragging rights for being ahead of the game in this aspect.

The introduction of the BIM Components portal is another major advancement for ArchiCAD that addresses the need of its users to have access to a wide variety of content for their models right from within their BIM application. Revit has already had some integration with Autodesk Seek for a while, so its users have been able to access external content, but for ArchiCAD users, the BIM Components portal fulfils a dire necessity to be better connected to the outside world. With this nicely designed and well integrated portal, ArchiCAD users can freely contribute and use content, and building product manufacturers can also add models of their products to this library so they could be more easily accessible to ArchiCAD users. Thus, with this portal, Graphisoft is essentially creating a more formal community of ArchiCAD users, who can share models and find custom components for their BIM projects much more easily than in the past. At the moment, most of the content in the portal has been created by Graphisoft or ArchiCAD resellers, but there should be a lot more user and manufacturer created content once some time has passed and the portal gains momentum.

The other main enhancements, such as the built-in energy analysis capabilities, will undoubtedly be very helpful to ArchiCAD users; and the expanded IFC support reinforces Graphisoft’s commitment to interoperability and its push for OpenBIM (see the recent article, Around the World with BIM, for more on OpenBIM) to exchange data seamlessly between AEC professionals using different BIM applications when they need to collaborate.

In conclusion, ArchiCAD 16 has some critical new capabilities which help to give it an edge over competing BIM applications in some respects. However, it is not any closer than other BIM applications to dramatically making BIM more intelligent, where AEC professionals do not need to painstakingly model every single detail of the building but provide only high-level ideas and can then rely on the application’s smarts to figure out its details. As I pointed out towards the end of my BIM Evaluation Study Report, “compared to other fields such as EDA (electronic design automation, or CAD for the computer chip industry) where the lower level design tasks have almost entirely been automated, BIM is still a relatively ‘dumb’ technology where the user is forced to model everything in the building.” By and large, current BIM applications, including ArchiCAD, have not made any advances along this front. It would be great if Graphisoft could apply its strong technological skills towards dramatically improving BIM, where the equivalent of a “napkin sketch” can be the basis of inferring and automatically modeling much of the building.

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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