Building Design

ArchiCAD 12 (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 Oct, 2008 By: Jerry Laiserin

Great BIM solution just keeps getting better.


Like fine wine and close friendships, some things just get better with age. Graphisoft's ArchiCAD, which has been around for 25 years, falls into that category for me. Back in the mid-1990s, it was one of the first software products I reviewed, and that first review was a revelation. ArchiCAD was far ahead of its competition at the time — almost anyone who wanted a PC- or Mac-based modeling, drafting, and visualization solution specific to architecture would have otherwise had to buy and integrate two, three, or more programs to accomplish all that ArchiCAD could provide by itself. The product has improved consistently ever since.



Down Memory Lane

Although ArchiCAD was a top contender for many U.S.-based architects in the mid-1990s, the product had a few limitations back then — limitations that for some prospective purchasers tipped the scales in favor of one or another competing product and kept ArchiCAD from becoming more dominant. For example, early versions of ArchiCAD lacked sophisticated means of sharing the work among project team members, a problem long since solved by ArchiCAD's TeamWork function — still, in my opinion, among the market's most robust and flexible solutions for project workload sharing. The ArchiCAD of yore lacked true reference-file capability, an oversight long since fixed by its HotLink capability, something that has been even further enhanced in ArchiCAD 12. Users of older versions had to access a separate, albeit bundled, program — PlotMaker — to generate printed output, an inconvenience long since solved by integrating PlotMaker's functions directly into ArchiCAD itself. These and other perceived shortcomings of the past were corrected well before the current release of ArchiCAD 12, thereby keeping the product more than competitive as a top contender for architectural design and documentation.

 ArchiCAD 12 BIM Software
ArchiCAD 12 BIM Software

As a historical footnote, Graphisoft used the label "virtual building" long before I popularized an old academic/research term — building information modeling (BIM) — to describe this new generation of technologies. In many ways, I thought and still think virtual building is a better descriptor, but Graphisoft asserts proprietary trademark rights to that name, so a multivendor consensus wouldn't have been possible. Hence, virtual building is Graphisoft's preferred term for its BIM approach, and ArchiCAD deserves credit for being the longest-running BIM product currently on the market.

Graphisoft's product development philosophy seems to strive not merely to keep up with its competition, but to actively seek out and provide innovative solutions for customer problems of which many competitors appear only vaguely aware. For example, ArchiCAD's VirtualTrace function, introduced in version 11, is an extremely elegant technique to help users comfortably make the transition between a 2D-based and a 3D-based mode of thinking about workflow for architectural design and documentation. Graphisoft has not only supported interoperability initiatives such as International Alliance for Interoperability/Industry Foundation Classes (IAI/IFC, see September's "AEC Insight" column for more information) but has consistently backed up its participation in standards efforts with real-world projects and use cases that go beyond the mere prospect of interoperability to demonstrate here-and-now reality.

Figure 1. ArchiCAD 12's new system-editing capability starts with a hierarchical format for creating and editing curtain wall components, including a user coordinate system to extrude paths along multiple axes for curved and compound curved elements.
Figure 1. ArchiCAD 12's new system-editing capability starts with a hierarchical format for creating and editing curtain wall components, including a user coordinate system to extrude paths along multiple axes for curved and compound curved elements.

Where We Stand Today

Turning to the version at hand — ArchiCAD 12 — a company spokesperson told me that in planning this release, Graphisoft looked at the industry and recognized a shift from leading-edge users to general adopters as users begin embracing the BIM concept on a large scale. The VirtualTrace feature, along with the BIM Experience Kit training tool also introduced in version 11, helped smooth the transition for early adopters, and version 12 aims to further enhance this experience for a broader class of users.

In response to evolving BIM adoption, Graphisoft's goals for version 12 seem to be focused on three areas of product improvement:

• Speed. Model-based design methods consume more CPU and graphics resources and impose more complex file, data storage, and retrieval requirements than 2D drafting-centric work flows; therefore, software performance must be optimized.

• Design. Users of model-authoring tools increasingly demand the ease of predefined content and the flexibility to create any new systems and content they desire; therefore, software tools must provide both.

• Documentation. Model-based work flows require new approaches to distributing and viewing project information for effective team communication; therefore, software representations must be adaptable to BIM work flows.

Enhanced Speed

Program speed is an important issue in all BIM software because routine operations such as file saving typically operate on the entire building model. This setup has the same effect as saving dozens or hundreds of drawings at once, and it often seems to drag on commensurately. Differences between modeling tools make speed comparisons across diverse products and vendors impossible, but Graphisoft does claim a sixfold improvement for ArchiCAD 12 over ArchiCAD 11 on common tasks such as section regeneration. Much of this speed enhancement has been achieved through what Graphisoft claims are "optimized algorithms for screen navigation to optimize use of the hardware." I leave it to the code and hardware mavens to parse that claim, but in practice ArchiCAD 12 is fast.

Figure 2. Related to ArchiCAD 12's system-editing capability, the program includes an entirely new stair-maker function that incorporates greater flexibility than ever before in complex stair layouts, winders, and so forth.
Figure 2. Related to ArchiCAD 12's system-editing capability, the program includes an entirely new stair-maker function that incorporates greater flexibility than ever before in complex stair layouts, winders, and so forth.

Further performance benefits take advantage of multi-processor capabilities in some newer PCs, and I believe ArchiCAD is the only AEC CAD/BIM tool exploiting multiprocessor hardware that is currently shipping as of this writing. ArchiCAD 12 can use as many as eight processors for certain operations, with company-claimed calculation time on a quad-core coming in at one-third that of a traditional single-core CPU performance.

Another, albeit harder to quantify, aspect of speed improvement in ArchiCAD 12 comes from optimized file management. One such example is in the HotLink Manager (essentially for reference files), which includes nesting capability to support nested details, for example. In ArchiCAD 12 a change in any submodule file causes all referenced instances to update, so that only one master instance need be saved for all nested submodules. This capability makes all updating and referencing faster and more accessible for the entire project team.

Enhanced Design

A fundamental challenge for all BIM software is the juxtaposition of the benefits of predefined content and predetermined relationships among components versus the designers' natural expectation that the design process should be free of software-imposed constraints and limitations. Parametric entities and families of these entities comprise the core technology for addressing this trade-off in most BIM modeling tools.

Graphisoft implemented this approach with ArchiCAD Library Parts long before most of its competitors even addressed architectural design. ArchiCAD 12 ratchets up the competition with new systems editor functionality that is initially represented by a curtain wall tool (figure 1), but which could be applied in future releases to any other systems, such as stairs (figure 2), railings, fences, roof framing, skylights, or solar panels. For curtain walls, the system hierarchy consists of a scheme, a base surface and grid, a frame, panels, accessories, and so on. Several North American curtain wall manufacturers reportedly are developing content so that the systems editor can operate on real parts at any desired level of detail.

Figure 3. Major innovations in 3D documentation offer dedicated snapshots of cut portions of a model, populated by objects that remain live-linked to the model, and to which you can apply associative dimensions and annotations.
Figure 3. Major innovations in 3D documentation offer dedicated snapshots of cut portions of a model, populated by objects that remain live-linked to the model, and to which you can apply associative dimensions and annotations.

The Edit mode supports creation of new content as well as changing any element within an existing design. A new editing environment enables users to extrude elements along paths on different axes for tremendous geometric flexibility. Everything can be customized using Graphisoft's geometric description language (GDL), an open, scriptable tool for creating and publishing parametric content — although it should be noted that GDL is not for the novice programmer or the faint of heart.

Enhanced Documentation

As with most technological developments, early BIM processes mimicked existing 2D, drawing-based work flows in much the same way that automobiles initially were conceived as horseless carriages. Most BIM modeling tools have a method for extracting, reporting, or otherwise deriving traditional-looking 2D drawing views from the model, and ArchiCAD is no exception. However, ArchiCAD 12 provides significant new support for the industry's increasing tendency toward 3D documentation.

Figure 4. Among ArchiCAD 12's many production and publishing enhancements, image fills and user-creatable translucent fills are especially useful for presentations.
Figure 4. Among ArchiCAD 12's many production and publishing enhancements, image fills and user-creatable translucent fills are especially useful for presentations.

ArchiCAD 12's new documentation features serve many useful purposes in a BIM work flow. One is partial structure display, whereby any view or component can be published as architectural (which includes all building elements), framing (which excludes finishes), or structure only. These multiple display modes enhance project team communication and workflow, especially across multiple disciplines (architecture and structural engineering). Any of these 3D display modes can be used as the basis for associative dimensioning, ensuring that data critical to various engineering analysis programs is transmitted along with the building geometry.

ArchiCAD's existing marquee tool and cutting planes supported the creation of detailed 3D views of any part of the building model, but the capture window for 3D documents in ArchiCAD 12 creates a dedicated snapshot, similar to a section (figure 3) in which all components remain live objects to which one can apply associative dimensions and annotations. These 3D documents remain linked to the model and reflect any changes in the model.

The Big Picture

  • 1. To summarize, ArchiCAD 12 offers significant breakthroughs in
  • 2. speed of model-based design through the optimized use of CPU and graphics hardware resources
  • 3. design flexibility for modeling by innovative systems editor capabilities
  • 4. documentation enrichment that enhances multidiscipline, multidimensional workflow

Those advances would suffice for a major new release of any established product, but ArchiCAD 12 includes myriad other improvements such as
  • 1. a new way to break out and publish work sets without having to update and plot out the entire model
  • 2. more granular access into the data structure and tree hierarchy of IFC files to better support user information for things such as the GSA space object
  • 3. improved DWG support, including ACIS solids plus numerous tweaks and refinements to the already-slick interface and ArchiCAD's already comprehensive design, drafting, modeling, and publishing tools (figure 4)

For users of earlier versions, ArchiCAD 12 will be a must-have upgrade. For anyone contemplating a transition from drawing-based processes to model-based workflow, ArchiCAD 12 deserves to be high on the shopping list. Users of competing BIM modeling solutions might want to take another look at everything ArchiCAD has to offer in this latest incarnation. Highly Recommended.


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