ARCHICAD 20AECbytes Review (July 7, 2016)

The new version of ARCHICAD—typically released by GRAPHISOFT around this time every year—was formally launched at a first-of-its-kind “LiveSteam” event this year, in which the live physical launch held in Budapest was simultaneously broadcast online and therefore available all over the world. (A recording of this event can be seen at: Those familiar with ARCHICAD know that each new release of ARCHICAD revolves around a theme, and for ARCHICAD 20 this was “A Fresh Look at BIM,” which has been achieved by a revamped interface, a significant improvement in adding and managing model information, and the ability to bring in conceptual designs created in Rhino and Grasshopper to jumpstart the detailed design process. Let’s explore each of these enhancements in more detail, starting with the Rhino/Grasshopper integration.

Real-time Bi-directional Rhino/Grasshopper Integration

The ability to create parametric forms for conceptual design­ through scripting—also referred to as algorithmic or generative design—is becoming an increasingly important feature consideration for BIM vendors. Some of them are developing this functionality in-house and incorporating it within their applications—such as Bentley whose GenerativeComponents is now part of its core MicroStation modeling platform, and Vectorworks with its new Marionnette feature—or else, developing it as a separate application that integrates with its main BIM application—such as Autodesk developing Dynamo and integrating it with Revit. GRAPHISOFT has taken a different approach to this and has developed a bi-directional integration with the hugely popular Grasshopper design scripting plug-in to McNeel’s Rhino 3D modeling application, which is being used to conceptualize sculptural forms for signature architectural projects all over the world (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Some well-known architectural projects in which the algorithmic modeling capability of Grasshopper played a critical role include the Shanghai Tower by Gensler, shown at the top, and the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center by NBBJ. (Courtesy: Gensler, NBBJ)

Rather than re-invent the wheel and develop an algorithmic design tool from scratch, GRAPHISOFT decided to integrate with the “best in class” application for this purpose that is already out there. While there are other design tools which also provide some level of integration with Rhino, ARCHICAD’s integration goes a lot deeper, with a “live connection” that enables real-time, bi-directional geometry transfer between the two applications and allows visual scripting to be used to create and manipulate a BIM model. Available in the form of an extension that can be downloaded and installed, it actually installs two separate components simultaneously: a plug-in for Grasshopper, and an add-on for ARCHICAD. The conceptual design can be started in Rhino as usual with the scripting capability enabled by Grasshopper; however, the ARCHICAD plug-in adds an additional tab in Grasshopper (see Figure 2), which allows ARCHICAD/BIM elements such as walls, doors, windows, slabs, columns, etc., to be included in the scripting capability. This developing design being scripted in Grasshopper can also be seen in ARCHICAD by starting the Grasshopper connection. As shown in Figure 2, the modeled elements are native ARCHICAD components, which can be individually selected and edited if necessary.

Figure 2. The new Grasshopper-ARCHICAD Live Connection allows ARCHICAD’s building elements to be included in Grasshopper’s design scripting capability.

In addition to including building elements in the design script, their settings as well as input parameters such as surface material can also be included in the script, allowing dimensions, profiles, colors, and so on of the developing design to be manipulated interactively and set as desired. Also, as shown in Figure 3, any changes made to the underlying script are reflected at once in the ARCHICAD model, even if changes have been made to the design directly in ARCHICAD. Thus, the connection is actually “live” and operating in real-time, allowing those conversant in Grasshopper to conceptualize building forms and elements using its sophisticated design scripting capabilities without losing the ability to work with BIM elements.

Figure 3. The settings and input parameters of building elements can also be included in the Grasshopper script, any changes to which are immediately reflected in the 3D model in Rhino and the BIM model in ARCHICAD.

Two additional solutions have been developed as part of this integration: a Rhinoceros Import/Export Add-on which allows users to pass on a model created in Rhino to ARCHICAD and vice versa; and a Rhinoceros — GDL Converter, which enables native ARCHICAD objects to be created in Rhinoceros. While the Rhino Import option passes the entire Rhino model to ARCHICAD, the GDL converter allows users to save only a selected part of a Rhino model in native ARCHICAD format, either as a single object or as a library container file containing multiple object parts (Figure 4). Needless to say, these are not “live” integrations of the kind enabled with the Grasshopper add-on, but they are useful as a means of bringing the organic forms that can be modeled directly in Rhino—without scripting—into ARCHICAD.

Figure 4. Saving a selected portion of a Rhino model as an ARCHICAD Library Container File (LCF) and placing it in an ARCHICAD model.

Information Capture and Management

ARCHICAD has traditionally been strongest on the DD (detailed design) and CD (construction documents) phases of building design, and while the Rhino/Grasshopper integration now gives it a leg up in the initial SD (schematic design) phase as well, it is also making a concerted attempt to become more useful in the post-design phases. This is being done by making it easier to add, display and share the “information” in a BIM model—the non-geometric meta-data that is attached to building components which is not graphically visible (such as cost, manufacturer, fire rating, etc.) but which is important for accurately representing the building for downstream CM (construction management) and FM (facilities management) processes.

This meta-data in a BIM model comes from a variety of sources and standards such as IFC, COBie, LEED, ARCHICAD’s own GDL, etc. In earlier versions of ARCHICAD, this property data had to be added and managed through each element’s respective dialog box, for example, the fire rating property had to be defined individually for each element type such as wall, door, etc., to which it had to be applied. In ARCHICAD 20, there is now a consolidated Property Manager interface for defining different types of properties and specifying the elements they should be available for, making it easier to add property data to different elements. The actual assignment would still have to be done using their Settings dialogs, but the properties have already been defined, are available in a consolidated group, and simply need to be set to the desired values, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Defining a set of properties in the new Property Manager dialog along with the elements they should be made available to, and then accessing these properties in any of the specified element’s Settings dialog to set them to desired values.

Another new feature that makes it much easier to add and manage property data for elements, especially when this data comes from a different discipline and/or from one of the other members of the project team, is a Property import/export capability. You can simply export the property data of an element type, say doors or curtain walls, to Excel, send it to other team members, have them populate the spreadsheet with the required values, and import it back into the project. The elements in ARCHICAD will now have this property data associated with them. This allows a whole range of element property data to be conveniently updated in one step, for example, a manufacturer of a specific component type can simply fill out its specific properties in the spreadsheet, and it just needs to be imported to become part of the BIM model.

In addition to improving the ability to add information about the building, ARCHICAD 20 also improves how this information can be displayed and shared. A new Graphical Overrides feature is available to control the display of elements in both 2D and 3D views, where all the elements with similar properties are represented in a desired color and style. This allows custom views of the model to be easily created based on specific criteria for displaying different aspects of it such as structure, MEP, space type and usage, fire safety, renovations, and so on. Multiple such override combinations can be defined, as shown in Figure 6. The ability to color-code models based on specific criteria not only facilitates communication between the design teams using ARCHICAD, but also with other disciplines and applications through IFC-based model exchange.

Figure 6. Defining graphical overrides to highlight all the building elements that are load-bearing.

In addition to the enhanced communication facilitated by the new graphical overrides feature, ARCHICAD 20 provides several additional interoperability enhancements such as support for the latest IFC 4 format, which defines new coordination workflows to improve information sharing between different disciplines, and full support for the newer BCF format. (While the IFC format is focused on the building data in the model, the BCF format is focused on capturing the communication about the building data in the model.) It includes improvements such as exporting color-true precise element geometry, implementing survey point (national datum definition), enhancing property management and mapping, and sharing physical properties of building materials, all of which allow more accurate IFC and BCF files to be generated from ARCHICAD.

Other Enhancements

ARCHICAD 20 sports a new user interface with vectorial icons for a crisper look and redesigned toolbars to maximize the working area, as shown in Figure 7. Both the Info area at the top as well as the Toolbar on the left can now be intelligently resized to display more or less information, and rarely-used commands have been restructured to make the interface cleaner and more user-friendly. A new horizontal Quick Options bar now available at the bottom of the graphics window provides quick access to frequently used options, and multiple views can now be opened in tabs to make it easier to switch between them without having to use the Navigator, which can remain closed until needed, further increasing available screen real estate.

Figure 7. The new interface in ARCHICAD 20 is crisper and easier to use, with quick options and tabs to maximize the working area.

Another interface feature that has been significantly enhanced in ARCHICAD 20 is the Favorites palette, which now provides both 2D and 3D thumbnail previews of saved elements. Additional information about any element in the palette can be obtained by hovering over it, as shown in Figure 8. The Favorites for each element type can also be accessed from individual tools—for example, Wall favorites can be accessed from the Wall tool. Favorites can be organized into folders for better management and access, and can also be searched. Essentially, the Favorites palette can be set up by the BIM manager of a firm and deployed on all the ARCHICAD installations to enforce modeling standards by encouraging the use of the same type of elements firm-wide. Favorites can also be easily imported and exported to share them across projects.

Figure 8. The revamped Favorites palette in ARCHICAD 20.

On the visualization front, the rendering engine has been updated to the latest version of Maxon’s CineRender based on Cinema 4D R16 engine, which has resulted in several noticeable improvements including more realistic surfaces, reduced render times, realistic contact shadows, multiple reflection layers, and control over blurriness and distance dim. Free-form NURBS objects—such as those imported from Rhino as described earlier—can be handled more accurately. It is now possible, in a 3D perspective view, to switch to a two-point perspective in any camera position, maintaining the original position and viewing angle (Figure 9).

Figure 9. ARCHICAD 20 now allows a two-point perspective in any camera position.

While major performance enhancements were made in the previous version of ARCHICAD, there are some additional improvements in this release as well including faster drawing update through the use of multiprocessing, the ability to handle even very complex project library structures quickly, improved handling of nested hotlink structures, and faster hotlink update by removing unnecessary library elements from the project. Background processing is now used to check the drawing status of external references while server communication is carried out in a separate thread, which not only provides faster feedback about the status of external references, but also enhances the general responsiveness of the application.

Analysis and Conclusions

With ARCHICAD 20, GRAPHISOFT is clearly extending the reach of the application from its traditional stronghold of the DD and CD phases of building design to the earlier SD and later CM and FM phases, which is very prescient given that BIM is being required to do more and more in AEC. The integration with Rhino/Grasshopper, the top-rated solution for organic modeling and algorithmic design, is a very smart move, given the large number of designers who are already using it for conceptualizing building forms. While integration with Rhino/Grasshopper is not new or unique to ARCHICAD, what is novel here is the depth of the integration, with the ability to use ARCHICAD’s building elements in the design script and the real-time, bidirectional link between the two applications, which works as if the algorithmic design functionality was built into ARCHICAD natively. Of course, users would have to own Rhino/Grasshopper and be conversant with it to take full advantage of this integration, but algorithmic design is a complex task requiring the investment of time and resources and for those willing to undertake it, having this ability in ARCHICAD will make it a more compelling BIM option.

Similarly, making it easier to add, manage, display, and share meta-data about building elements increases ARCHICAD’s BIM repertoire and usability as a tool for not only creating building designs but also imbuing them with real-world properties. Of course, it continues to remain primarily an architectural BIM application, but the addition of better building information management capabilities and its continued support of interoperability—a strength it continues to build upon with every release—makes it better able to work with the host of other applications focused on other disciplines or aspects of the AEC workflow. As buildings get increasingly complex, there is a concomitant increase in the number and complexity of applications dealing with different aspects of their design, construction, and operation, and it seems like a better strategy to find ways to make them work together rather than attempt to develop all their capabilities in-house. This might sometimes call for deeper API-level integration rather than just open-standards interoperability, and ARCHICAD 20 has demonstrated, with its Rhino/Grasshopper integration, that it can do the former as well as the latter.

Going forward, it would be good to see ARCHICAD develop more of these deeper API-level integrations with key AEC applications, starting with structure and MEP, so that it is seen as more of an end-to-end BIM application that can compete with Autodesk’s Revit and Bentley’s AECOsim Building Designer. Its strength as an architectural design application is beyond question, as it has been for many years. Rather than using its development resources to keep perfecting its architectural functionality—and there will be no end to minutiae if one is focused on that—it should instead concentrate on developing these stronger connections with other established AEC applications as it has done with Rhino/Grasshopper.

Or it can enter unchartered territory and surprise us all with something totally unexpected and original!

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

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