VectorWorks 2008 (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 Jan, 2008 By: Jerry Laiserin

Enhancements beef up software to compete with the CAD/BIM heavyweights at a featherweight price.

Before manga and anime, I experienced comic books and cartoons. Somewhere in the back pages of those comic books of yore there often was an advertisement featuring "a 98-pound weakling" getting sand kicked in his face by a bully at the beach. The weakling would slink off to another panel of the ad, wherein he would avail himself of the bodybuilding product being advertised and return to the beach a new man with rippling muscles — ready to take on the biggest, baddest bullies around.

VectorWorks, from Nemetschek North America, never was a 98-pound weakling, but it did lack some of the heavy-lifting capabilities of other players on the CAD/BIM (building information modeling) beach. However, with the newest version, VectorWorks 2008 is all pumped up and ready to take on even the biggest competitors.

VectorWorks 2008
VectorWorks 2008

Team Spirit

In my consulting work with A/E firms, I usually find that the ability to share work efficiently within the firm is among the top two or three most important criteria when selecting a CAD/BIM tool. Very often, it is the most important factor. In a midsized or larger firm, this need is obvious, because most projects involve multiperson teams or shifting work assignments among a succession of project team members. However, even the smallest firms and solo practitioners might have part-time and freelance production folks pitching in on projects, and they too require some means of dividing the workload.

Experienced users know that the most common way to divide the design/documentation workload — and manage project file sizes at the same time — is to parcel portions of the overall project into separate files referenced into the main project file. Thus, at increasing levels of sophistication and flexibility, AutoCAD has xrefs, MicroStation has reference files, Revit has worksets, and ArchiCAD has TeamWork. Up to and including the most-recent version 12, VectorWorks relied on what Nemetschek called workgroup referencing, which was not robust enough for managing the shared work of real teams.

VectorWorks 2008 now has true referencing (figure 1), so no CAD/BIM bully can kick virtual sand in VectorWorks' direction anymore. VectorWorks 2008's reference file capabilities allow for solid workflow management, such that an otherwise empty drawing file can contain paths to reference files for the building core, envelope, structural elements, and so on — any or all of which can be used independently. Changes in any reference file automatically update the viewports on what Nemetschek calls the sheet layer.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Viewports, introduced in version 11, behave essentially like AutoCAD's paper space, and the VectorWorks design layer is effectively equivalent to AutoCAD's model space. Switching between VectorWorks viewports and the design layer, therefore, is very much like toggling AutoCAD between paper space and model space. VectorWorks 2008 expands beyond the AutoCAD analogy with features such as the ability to reference multiple design layer viewports into another design layer, which provides the ability to align elements with respect to each other to show both 2D and 3D views to demonstrate how changes in the model affect the plans and vice versa.

VectorWorks 2008 referencing is not limited to VectorWorks-generated content. The external reference file capability includes support for imported DXF and DWG files; image files such as aerial photos, which can be scaled; and bitmaps, PDFs, and georeferenced data. By combining reference files and design layer viewports, it's possible to create some very slick workflows with VectorWorks 2008. One such workflow, developed by VectorWorks 2008 users, is called the shuttle file — a kind of clean container for imported DXF and DWG files, such that successive imports can be compared to review the history of changes in the imported file before accepting it into the VectorWorks 2008 project. A further refinement in VectorWorks 2008 reference files will come as a welcome relief to anyone who's ever forgotten to bind the xrefs in an AutoCAD file. Instead of viewing nothing, VectorWorks 2008 still allows users to see the externally referenced information.

Management Material

The downside to any multiuser, team-oriented design/documentation software tool is that enabling multiple users also enables the possibility of inconsistent use of resources, styles, standards, and the like by those multiple users. This is where CAD management features come in, and VectorWorks 2008 now offers a surprisingly robust and comprehensive set of CAD management tools (figure 2). Consistent with Nemetschek's overall software design philosophy, VectorWorks 2008's CAD management tools nicely balance power with ease of use. Logical, central locations can be established and enforced to store all resources, customizations, libraries, and standards, right down to wall styles and color palettes. Locking of folders and files at the CAD manager's discretion is a function of the operating system (Mac or Windows), not a separate scheme within the application. Unlike previous versions, in which backups were local only, VectorWorks 2008 now supports server-based backup.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Another key management benefit of VectorWorks 2008 is the improvement to working methods throughout the user interface. For example, the view bar across the top of the main screen interface provides immediate information feedback about angles, views, and zooms at the same eye level as most menu commands, rather than in a bottom-of-the-screen status line. This arrangement allows users to keep their focus closer to the point of work onscreen. Similarly, the right-click context menu for every object and element in a drawing has an editable list of commands, options, and tools that lets users move their choice of action from the tool palettes directly to the point of work. As CAD/BIM monitors grow ever larger, this ability of VectorWorks 2008 to help users focus becomes more valuable.

VectorWorks has always had a smart cursor functionality that was once unique to this product. VectorWorks 2008 adds a heads-up floating data display near the focus of action of the cursor, with data relevant to whatever's being worked on (such as lines and angles). Other nice touches include highlighting of object selections and multiple selections (in a dense drawing, these highlights may be easier to see than traditional handles and grips, which are still provided as well). Even the icons — in both the Mac and Windows interfaces — have been freshened up and made more legible and more logical (figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3

Can't We All Get Along?

VectorWorks always had strong import/export capabilities, and the latest version is no exception. Notwithstanding Autodesk's efforts to establish TrueDWG as the industry benchmark, everyone else in the industry, including Nemetschek, communicates very well in the real world of file and data exchange via DWG translators. This is how VectorWorks 2008 reads and writes AutoCAD 2007/2008 files (handling of DWG and DXF as xrefs was discussed above). Similarly, while Autodesk has made extensive and forceful arguments in favor of its DWF publishing, viewing, and markup format, everyone else in the industry, including Nemetschek, communicates very well in the real world via the widely accepted PDF format.

VectorWorks 2008 provides the now de rigueur support for importing Google SketchUp models, as well as exporting 3D content back to Google Earth. Dating back to its earliest Mac-only days, VectorWorks maintains strong presentation capabilities along with specialized graphics files import and export formats to support printed and onscreen presentations. These presentation capabilities have been expanded in VectorWorks 2008 to include support for object transparencies and support for unlimited colors, as well as color swatch libraries from Pantone, Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, and others.

For an additional $400 per seat, users can add RenderWorks, which now includes support for backgrounds and interactive shadows in OpenGL, libraries of new textures, and Final Gather, a sophisticated rendering function that combines the light bounce and indirect lighting effects of radiosity with the speeds and efficiency of ray tracing.

Is it BIM-olicious?

With apologies to Beyoncé, Destiny's Child, and Snoop Dogg (who Wikipedia credits for coining bootylicious as "a portmanteau of booty and delicious"), BIM-oliciousness is the question of the day for every design-authoring tool. Unfortunately, every authoring-tool vendor tries to spin the definition of BIM in a way favorable to the home team. Instead of competing BIM-capable products, the user community is confronted with competing BIM definitions. Anyone can wordsmith components of a definition of BIM to support the childish taunt "I'm BIM, and you're not." Try this one on for size: a BIM authoring tool must support a full array of NURBS surface-modeling tools to create and manipulate the widest possible range of building geometry. Sounds reasonable enough for architectural software, until the realization sets in that such a definition would decree Revit and ArchiCAD not-BIM, while VectorWorks 2008 — with its built-in NURBS modeling — would revel in its BIM-oliciousness.

The solution to this problem lies not in further gaming the system. The Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) model format is an internationally recognized standard for data interoperability in AEC. The National Institute of Building Science (NIBS) is hard at work on a National BIM Standard (NBIMS), to supersede and incorporate the National CAD Standard (NCS). The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the world's largest property owner/manager, now requires IFC certification and support for the IFC/GSA Space Object in all federal design projects (figure 4). In Singapore, support for the IFC Code-Checking view is now required for building permit applications. There may be many paths to BIM-ness, some of which need not pass through IFC certification, but surely it is the case that any tool which is IFC-certified (as supplemented by local requirements such as NBIMS and/or the GSA Space Object) is indeed BIM-olicious. In other words, IFC certification is a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition of being BIM.

Figure 4
Figure 4

At this writing, VectorWorks 2008 has achieved IFC2x3 (level 1) certification and supports a GSA-compliant Space Object, which currently is undergoing review by the GSA for acceptance. Nemetschek maintains an active presence and full participation in the NBIMS effort. By the time this appears in print, those qualifying tasks should be concluded. Then, as I have written before, the question any design firm must ask is not "how is Tool X BIM-ier than Tool Y?" The real question should be, as it always has been for design software, "how will this tool improve our process, and what are the tradeoffs for achieving those improvements?" In that regard, VectorWorks 2008 offers a different set of tradeoffs than its BIM-authoring competition. VectorWorks 2008 may not provide the ultimate in "Look Ma, no hands!" drawing revision (a questionable benefit anyway, in the opinion of many practitioners), but it also doesn't require a radically different production workflow that precludes ever going back to non-BIM production. The dollars that will buy one seat of most competing BIM-capable tools will buy roughly three seats of VectorWorks Architect (although I've referred generically to the product as VectorWorks, my real focus as a former practicing architect has been on VectorWorks Architect; the all-in VectorWorks Designer package that includes the very powerful LandMark site/landscape design tool, among other goodies, adds only $400 to the per seat pricing). VectorWorks offers quantity discounts for multiple seats, and free student versions are available at

The bottom line? VectorWorks 2008 combines true reference files, robust CAD management, productive usability enhancements, and real-world BIM capability. For many design firms, those features will add up to a winning combination. Highly Recommended.

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