AEC

AEC on Macs (AEC Insight Column)

1 Apr, 2008 By: Jerry Laiserin

Macintosh supports the practice of design in the AEC world.


Apple's January 24, 1984, public announcement of the original Macintosh computer touted the system's "extraordinary computing power with exceptional ease of use" — characteristics that remain true of Macs today and that help account for the system's continuing appeal to creative professionals.

That appeal, however, has not extended to the global mass market. Of the nearly 270 million personal computers sold worldwide in 2007, less than 3% were Macs. (In the U.S. market, which skews toward a more affluent, better-educated, and more creative demographic, Macs accounted for just more than 6% of new personal computer sales.)

Despite these demographic odds, dedicated fans among AEC professionals remain loyal to the Mac's ideals, using Macs in far greater proportions than the general population. This loyalty is supported by a wide assortment of Mac-native software capable of any AEC practice task.

In 2006, Apple changed its Macintosh hardware design to the Intel CPU family of chips (the central processing unit inside the computer) — which is the same CPU family used by Windows PCs. Apple's Boot Camp software supports toggling an Intel-based Mac between the native Mac OS (operating system) and Windows XP or Vista. Third-party virtual-machine software, such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, allows users to run Mac OS X and Windows concurrently on the same computer.

This latter capability turns the global PC demographics equation on its head. Macs are the only PCs that can run essentially 100% of the software on the market, both Windows ware and Mac-native applications (the current Mac OS X 10.5 [A.K.A. Leopard] is certified as an implementation of the UNIX operating system as well). Thus, Windows on a Mac can run AEC software applications such as AutoCAD. Any browser-based application that requires the Windows-only Microsoft Internet Explorer browser, such as Autodesk Buzzsaw, can run on the latest Macs as well.

Macs, Macs Everywhere

Although Windows-on-Mac makes business sense for Apple, many Mac-using AEC professionals would question the rationale for running Windows software when Mac-native programs are available with equal or superior performance and user experience. Counting software that started on the Mac and is now available for both Mac and Windows (often in a single version dubbed Universal), there's actually more AEC-relevant Mac software out there than can be covered in one article. I'll defer Mac-based home-building software for a future article on design and production tools for home builders; ditto for Mac-based engineering software. Of the rest, I apologize in advance if I omit any otherwise-noteworthy products due to space limitations.

Figure 1. ArchiCAD 11 on the Mac combines the power of mainstream BIM authoring with the polish of the Mac interface, as in this visualization and contract document example for a 531-room Wyndham Hotel in Phoenix by Orcutt | Winslow. (Courtesy Orcutt | Winslow Architecture, Planning, Interior Design)
Figure 1. ArchiCAD 11 on the Mac combines the power of mainstream BIM authoring with the polish of the Mac interface, as in this visualization and contract document example for a 531-room Wyndham Hotel in Phoenix by Orcutt | Winslow. (Courtesy Orcutt | Winslow Architecture, Planning, Interior Design)

Mainstream building information modeling (BIM)–authoring applications, such as Graphisoft's ArchiCAD (figure 1) and Nemetschek North America's VectorWorks (figure 2), were the mainstays of Mac-based architectural design and documentation even before the recent popularization of the BIM label. Solibri Model Checker is a critical element in any BIM automation workflow. To integrate buildings models with their sites, ArchiCAD relies on ArchiSITE, while VectorWorks offers Landmark — one of the best building-siting and landscape-design programs on any platform (and a favorite among landscape architects).

Figure 2. The Mac version of VectorWorks Architect from Nemetschek is a mainstream BIM application that can handle design projects even at large, urban scales. (Designed in VectorWorks by Grüntuch Ernst Architekten, Berlin)
Figure 2. The Mac version of VectorWorks Architect from Nemetschek is a mainstream BIM application that can handle design projects even at large, urban scales. (Designed in VectorWorks by Grüntuch Ernst Architekten, Berlin)

Spotlight, another VectorWorks add-on, supports general lighting design but brings a unique focus to theatrical and stage lighting. Modeling, rendering, and/or animation software for the MAC OS includes form•Z and its companion tools renderZone and radioZity; MAXON's CINEMA 4D and the Maxonform plug-in that adds non-uniform rational B spline (NURBS) geometry to ArchiCAD; and the popular Artlantis Render, with plug-ins for both ArchiCAD and VectorWorks (which also offers its own companion rendering package called RenderWorks).

The ubiquitous Google SketchUp is available in a Mac version, which works with TurboSketch Studio, a rendering plug-in. And, of course, Google Earth and the Google Earth Warehouse are compatible with the Mac's Safari browser. The 3D paint program Piranesi works and plays well with SketchUp or with any other 3D modeler. Objects Online offers libraries of building-component models, furniture, people, and other entourage for both ArchiCAD and VectorWorks.

Drawn Together

For drafting and documentation needs when full-blown BIM authoring isn't needed, Mac stalwarts include VersaCAD, MacDraft, and PowerCADD, which is available with a justly famous add-on package called WildTools that supplements an otherwise-2D program with isometric and perspective capabilities.

Astute readers may recognize that vendors of many popular AEC design tools for the Mac are based in Europe. Solibri, for example, is from Finland, and ArchiCAD is from Hungary (I should note that ArchiCAD, MAXON CINEMA 4D, and the US-based VectorWorks are all owned by the Nemetschek Group, based in Munich). Piranesi was developed in the United Kingdom, which also is home to the LightWorks rendering engine that underpins Mac tools such as radioZity, RenderWorks, and renderZone. France and the Canadian province of Quebec seem to have a special affinity for graphics and rendering software: Mac examples include Abvent's Artlantis and the legendary on-again, off-again architectural modeling program Architrion (there's also a US-based Architrion work-alike called BOA). Italy is represented with tools such as DomusCAD, DigiCAD 3D, and Domus Terrain.

Additional Resources
Additional Resources

This globe-trotting recitation is not to slight the made-in-America Mac standbys such as form•Z, PowerCADD, or VectorWorks. Rather, it's to reinforce the global appeal of the Mac interface to software developers and creative users alike.

Taking Care of Business

On the practice side of AEC business, Mac tools afford comparably strong coverage. Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite (including Photoshop) run natively on Macs, in addition to their Windows versions. The same can be said for MindManager, the most popular mind-mapping and/or information visualization program. AEC Details, from AEC Software, is a task-management tool that originated on the Mac, as did FastTrack Schedule, a Microsoft Project–compatible scheduling tool from the same vendor.

The architect-developed PORTFOLIO Prime from Arch Street Software was one of the first practice information management (PIM) tools on any platform. Architecture Information Manager from Architectronica is another architect-developed contender in this category (Architectronica also provides many useful accounting and project-related tools). ArchiOffice, a newcomer in the architecture/engineering/accounting/PIM space, is yet another architect-developed program. On the straight accounting side, QuickBooks Pro is the most popular project/job cost software for the 90% of architecture and engineering firms with fewer than 25 total staff members.

Firms looking to manage their collections of digital image files often turn to Canto Cumulus or Extensis Portfolio, but general database needs can be met via Bento or FileMaker Pro (both from FileMaker, a subsidiary of Apple).

For project workflow and collaboration, many Mac-using architects and engineers rely on Copper Project, which also supports contact management, or client relationship management (CRM). Other folks turn to the suite of Web-based tools from 37 signals: Basecamp, for project management and collaboration; Backpack, an information organizer and calendar; and Highrise, for online content management and CRM.


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