Only a little over a year ago I reviewed ArchiCAD 8 in the August 2003 issue of Cadence magazine. While that release had several new features that were useful-the Project Navigator palette and other interface elements, a Detail tool for easier creation of detail drawings, Solid Element operations based on Boolean geometry for the creation of custom objects, a new Layout Book for organizing all project documentation into a single file, and others-it was a regular upgrade rather than a major "must-have" one. The new version of ArchiCAD, being rolled out by Graphisoft this month, is being billed as a major one. It is also the first release of ArchiCAD since several new key executives took over in the management team, and thus reflects a new philosophy and approach. This review takes a detailed look at what ArchiCAD 9 has to offer and assesses its strengths and limitations as a building information modeling (BIM) solution, or "virtual building" solution as Graphisoft prefers to call it.
Since the concept of BIM has by now become well known, this review will not go into its specifics. For those to whom the concept is still new, please refer to my June 2003 cover story in Cadence, "Should We BIM?" A broad overview of ArchiCAD, for those not familiar with the application, can be seen in my review of ArchiCAD 8.
Before getting into the details of the new release, a couple of things about it are worth noting. First, Graphisoft went through an unusually extensive beta program since it wanted to ensure that ArchiCAD 9 was thoroughly tested and tried before its release. There were more beta testers than ever before, in several countries all around the world, and an intensive 3 day workshop was conducted with select users and developers. In addition, many participating firms used the beta on real projects, allowing Graphisoft to incorporate their feedback into the release.
Secondly, Graphisoft has recently launched its "Transition Club" program, which is designed to allow clients to switch from a drawing-based to a model-based process by providing them with the training and consultation needed to make a smooth transition. This program should give a boost to the dissemination and adoption of the new release.
Graphisoft characterizes all the improvements in ArchiCAD 9 as resulting from its focus on making the program more "easy, polished, and powerful." Ease of use has been improved by several enhancements in the interface that make it simpler and less cluttered, including docking palettes, customizable toolboxes, and a new palette layout that provides more screen real estate (see Figure 1). ArchiCAD 9 ships with a library of over 1000 GDL objects that can now be searched by name to find a needed library part more quickly. (GDL stands for Geometric Description Language and is a technology originally developed by Graphisoft for representing intelligent building objects computationally.) A new quick selection option has been provided for faster and easier selection of elements.
To make the application more polished, several existing functions have been revamped to reduce iterative work, increase productivity, and improve usability. The pet palettes, ArchiCAD's context-sensitive editing tools, have been enhanced to provide quicker drafting and element modification. It is now possible to directly create an independent Detail that is not linked to a Detail Marker placed on the Floor Plan. Dimension texts have been provided with visible handles, which makes locating and moving them easier. The Autosave functionality has been enhanced, allowing the data of all the open project files to be recovered in the event of a crash instead of just one file. Element representation has been improved with additional display options for lines and fills, the ability to assign a hatch pattern to construction elements like slabs and roofs, better text rotation, and additional features for better column display in 2D. Views can now be saved with dimension style and unit settings as well as transparency settings in sections and elevations.
Many other improvements also fall in the "polished" category. The connection to PlotMaker-ArchiCAD's dedicated utility for preparing layouts for printing and plotting-has been fine-tuned to make the link between modeling and documentation smoother. PDF output has been enhanced, along with the ability to publish PDF files from both ArchiCAD and PlotMaker without the need to install a separate PDF driver. A new NCS (National CAD Standards) compliant grid-based drawing numbering system in PlotMaker makes the management of large documentation sets easier. DWG/DXF exchange has been improved in several ways including compatibility with AutoCAD 2005, more accurate import and export, the ability to drag and drop AutoCAD DWG files from the desktop, and the ability to use the i-drop method to directly place DWG content from a web page into ArchiCAD. An expanded set of installation options makes it easier to manage and maintain the software in large offices, and terminal server technology is now supported that allows users to work with ArchiCAD from a remote location over the Internet.
To make the application more powerful, the performance has been enhanced in some key areas and some new capabilities have been provided. Rendering has been dramatically improved by incorporating the LightWorks rendering engine into the main application, so users will no longer need to use an external rendering program for generating high-quality properly lit photorealistic images of the model (see Figure 2). The application speed has been substantially increased, to the extent that it is now 30% faster than ArchiCAD 7 and 80% faster than ArchiCAD 8. Operations such as automatic section generation, changing views, file open and save, and element creation and modification are noticeably faster. The Text tool has been revamped to allow fully formatted text to be created or imported. And finally, the ArchiCAD workspace is now fully customizable and individual users can save their desired settings in user profiles, which they can recall when needed.
Let us now move on to look at a few of the key new features of ArchiCAD 9 in more detail.
The new Quick Selection option of the Arrow tool combined with the improvements in the pet palettes make editing operations in ArchiCAD 9 significantly easier. The Quick Selection option, shown active in Figure 3, allows elements to be selected by simply clicking within the boundaries of their enclosing polygon on the Floor Plan; you no longer have to find an edge or a node of an element to select it. Previously, the pet palettes showed different options depending upon whether the active tool was a selection tool or another tool; now all options for a particular element type are unified in one palette, irrespective of which tool is currently selected. An example of how these two enhancements work effectively together when making modifications is shown in Figure 3. First, a new node is inserted within an existing wall segment using the New Node option in the pet palette (Figure 3-a), breaking it up into two parts. Subsequently, one of the parts is dragged out by activating the Offset Edge option in the pet palette (Figure 3-b). This automatically stretches the existing walls and adds a new wall segment, wherever necessary, to maintain a connection with the original wall configuration (Figure 3-c).
It is now possible to apply fill patterns to construction elements such as floor slabs, roofs, zones, and meshes in the plan view, with the ability to also see the same pattern in 3D view. A new type of fill called "cover fill" has been specifically created for this purpose, and it can be activated separately for each individual element. An example is shown in Figure 4, where a tile hatch pattern was chosen for the slab element of the kitchen/dining area of a residential project. The 3D view reflects the same hatch pattern, and did not require any extra effort to create.
In ArchiCAD 9, the Text tool has been improved significantly so that rich-text elements can be created. Multi-line text can be created with full-scale font options, multiple styles and alignment in any direction. Text blocks can be created in the Floor Plan, in Section/Elevations and in Detail Drawing windows. The content of text blocks can be formatted as a whole, or you can also individually format characters within the text block using the Text Editor, as shown in Figure 5. ArchiCAD is compatible with most common word processing applications, which means that text can also be imported from them into ArchiCAD without losing its formatting.
ArchiCAD 9 continues to build upon the core strengths of the application that I highlighted in my review of version 8: comprehensive feature set for the core architectural tasks of 3D building modeling, 2D documentation, and visualization; superior TeamWork module for collaboration that partitions the building model intelligently so that multiple users can work on it; support for openness with a full-fledged API (Application Programming Interface), which allows the application to be customized and add-ons to be developed for expanding its capabilities; and IFC compatibility, which allows ArchiCAD to interoperate with other building applications for energy analysis, cost estimation, scheduling, construction management, and so on.
I was pleased to find that many of the limitations of the application that I had pointed out in my review of ArchiCAD 8 have been addressed in this version. While the application is still missing dedicated tools for programming, space planning, conceptual sketching, or quick 3D massing, this limitation is starting to be addressed by plug-ins. A plug-in already exists that can translate 3D conceptual design geometry developed in SketchUp to the appropriate building objects in ArchiCAD. A plug-in that will create a link between ArchiCAD and a third-party programming and space planning tool is in the works and is expected to be available before the end of the year. Such key partnerships can help building information developed at the early stage to be intelligently reused in the subsequent design development phase.
Other limitations that have been successfully addressed include the overhaul of rendering capabilities that are now on par with dedicated visualization software, and the redesign of the interface to make it less busy. The online documentation too has been greatly improved and is no longer simply a PDF version of the printed manual. The editing improvements described in the previous section and illustrated in Figure 3 are helpful in tackling problems like the lack of built-in wall connectivity I had discussed in my review of ArchiCAD 8.
Limitations I had pointed out earlier that have not yet been addressed include the continued focus of the application on architectural design. The long-term success of a BIM solution is contingent upon its ability to be used by structural, MEP, and other engineers for design and analysis. There is still no associativity between building elements, which would have allowed for faster creation and editing of the model. While a marquee selection tool does allow a group of elements to be simultaneously modified, it cannot fully make up for the lack of associativity. Concerns that building in associativity can prove overly constraining to the user are genuine, but a simple solution to this problem would be to make it optional: the user can select whether to modify with associativity or without. With regard to the interface, while the redesign is certainly a great improvement over the previous version, the interface is still quite complex to master. I found no change in the dialog boxes, which are still overloaded with graphic and textual information.
As the concept of BIM goes more mainstream, several other issues emerge that need to be considered in evaluating a BIM application. From the discussions at the AIA Technology in Architectural conference held in Oct 2003 in San Francisco (see Cadence AEC News Tech #108), several professionals expressed concern about the form-making limitations of BIM solutions. To address this, ArchiCAD needs to improve its ability to model organic building forms, which are currently quite limited.
Another issue that is going to gain in significance is the integrity of the building model created with a BIM application. Downstream applications such as energy analysis, egress, fire safety, circulation analysis, construction scheduling, and so on require the building model to be correctly defined, otherwise the applications will simply not work or will yield unreliable results. Currently, ArchiCAD has no guarantee of model accuracy, since it does not enforce the user to create the model in a specific way. Modeling errors-and there could be many of these-will have to be detected by external applications like the Solibri Model Checker (see my review of this application in the Dec 2002 issue of Cadence magazine). This creates an additional layer of inefficiency, which can be eliminated if the modeling application could guarantee a properly defined model to begin with.
ArchiCAD might also want to eventually rethink its layering ability. Layers are critical in a general-purpose CAD application, because every discipline will use it differently. However, in a building modeling application, each building element really belongs to its own category. So the provision of layers also leads to the possibility of errors-a user could, for instance, accidentally switch to the Beams layer and start creating walls in it. The elimination of layers might help to reduce complexity, falling in with the very worthy objective of Graphisoft to improve the ease of use of the application. By the same token, the separation of the plotting utility in the form of the PlotMaker application can also do with some rethinking. Integrating it with the main application can make design and documentation seamless rather than separated.
The current goals of the development effort for ArchiCAD-making it "easy, powerful, and polished"-are very appropriate for the current state of the AEC industry, whose processes and deliverables are still very much drawing-centric. ArchiCAD 9 has a host of enhancements and new features that make it faster and easier to use and address the entire gamut of architectural tasks-modeling, rendering, and generating 2D documentation. This makes it a solid release that is decidedly superior to its predecessor, and it will be appreciated both by existing users as well as potential clients who are looking to gradually transition to a model-based workflow.
Looking ahead, what is critically needed is also a focus on making the program smarter and more intelligent by capturing the behavioral attributes of building components and their relationships with other components. Complexity has been the bane of all CAD systems to date, leading to the designer-technologist schism in the majority of architectural firms. The success of BIM depends almost entirely upon its use by the designers themselves rather than by a separate set of computer-savvy technologists. So the focus of a next-generation BIM system has to be on making the system really smart so that the user can model a design with a lot more fluidity and a lot less effort than that required to create 2D drawings using a CAD system. For example, imagine being able to define in one step, using one single tool, a rectangular shape that represents four connected walls, the space enclosed by the walls, and also the floor and ceiling slabs for that space. Contrast this with the current scenario in ArchiCAD (and most other BIM applications) where you would have to create separately, with different tools, the walls, the floor slab, the ceiling slab, and the enclosed zone (which is the ArchiCAD equivalent of a "space").
A BIM solution needs to be so smart that it is almost effortless to use, and hopefully, applications such as ArchiCAD will soon evolve to realize this vision.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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