Conceptual Design

BricsCAD Shape Offers Free DWG-Based Architectural Concept Modeling

19 Apr, 2018 By: Randall S. Newton

New AEC-centric tool from Bricsys enables users to move their conceptual models into CAD applications to create full BIM models without rework.


BricsCAD Shape is a free conceptual modeling software application from Bricsys, a Belgian CAD developer that specializes in DWG compatibility. The product is new: the Windows version was released January 22, 2018; the Mac OS version shipped April 16, 2018. Shape may be new but the company behind it has a long track record. Founded in 2002, Bricsys is the second CAD company started by CEO Erik de Keyser. (Most of the architectural tools in Bentley MicroStation have their roots in Triforma, a product De Keyser and partners sold to Bentley Systems before starting Bricsys.)

Bricsys says that BricsCAD Shape will always be a free product. The stated goal is to give the architectural community a free, CAD-accurate, yet easy-to-use conceptual modeler. Other "free" AEC-centric conceptual modelers are either restricted to non-commercial use (Trimble SketchUp Make) or free only for a limited feature set (Autodesk FormIt). Shape stores data in the DWG CAD format popularized by AutoCAD, so it has an initial potential audience in the millions.

Shape is positioned as a first tool in a building information modeling (BIM)-centric design process. Bricsys has invested heavily in recent years to make BricsCAD, its DWG-based CAD product, a BIM-capable modeler. Bricsys believes there is demand for a DWG-based BIM approach to architectural design — in contrast to Autodesk, which markets its BIM application Revit, based on its own proprietary data format. The company's best-selling — and DWG-based — AutoCAD is not promoted as a BIM platform. Shape supports DWG 2018, the most current revision of the format: the 3D technology is solids, not wireframe.

Many architects start their design workflows with sketching tools like Autodesk SketchBook; they are good for shape exploration but lack the geometric precision of CAD. The tools in Shape are designed to make fast work of assembling basic architectural elements. Unlike in Revit or other BIM-centric tools, the user does not need to classify building elements upfront. The result is a workflow more like traditional architectural design, which starts with conceptual exploration of space and elements before moving into design detailing. Models created in Shape can be exported to BricsCAD BIM, or any other CAD product that supports the DWG format, and used to create a full BIM model without rework.

A Peek at the Look and Feel

BricsCAD Shape has a minimalist user interface. Command options can be accessed from a menu or optional toolbars, can be typed directly, or can appear with the QuadCursor, a cursor-based input which presents context-aware command options, depending on cursor location and current user action. “It is a GUI [graphical user interface] where nothing is missing but — just as important — there is nothing too much,” is how de Keyser describes the QuadCursor. At times, the QuadCursor becomes the Manipulator, an alternative cursor to simplify moving existing objects.


The intuitive QuadCursor offers context-sensitive input options based on location and user action. Image courtesy of Bricsys.



At first look, Shape is reminiscent of SketchUp, a popular 3D wireframe modeler used in AEC for conceptual design and construction documentation: An icon of a person sits at the 0,0,0 xyz coordinate base; the initial menu shows limited options. But the initial similarity to SketchUp quickly disappears as the user becomes familiar with the BricsCAD/AutoCAD paradigm and resulting workflow.

As in full-featured BIM editors, Shape structural elements are intelligent. Walls, doors, windows, roofs, and other elements carry metadata of their definition, materials, dimensions, and more. If the shape of an object changes, the metadata and other relevant constraints are updated.


After a component is placed into a model, it can be reshaped as needed. Image courtesy of Bricsys.


Feature Improvements

Shape may be a free product, but Bricsys is betting this first view of its technology will serve as an onramp to BricsCAD BIM, so the company plans to keep updating the product. The first update, released in April 2018, sent ripples through all aspects of the product:

Wall Creation: This Shape tool is a multi-functional starting point; it now offers easy creation of walls, slabs, and structural elements. For walls, the user can select a start point, move the cursor to the next point, and Shape automatically creates mitered wall connections.

Smart Modeling: BIM Drag simplifies changing the height or width of walls. BIM Connect brings disjointed walls together: simply highlight any face, and select “Connect with Nearest” from the QuadCursor. Push/Pull is a new tool for local editing of a single solid object. Extrude creates 3D elements from 2D line work, which is useful when working with imported drawings.

Windows and Doors: Bricsys has expanded the collection of doors and windows in the components library. Size and location are easily edited. Creating custom windows is also possible.

Materials: A wide variety of material types and color swatches can be applied to model elements using a drag-and-drop workflow.

Components: There are perhaps millions of 2D and 3D components available in the DWG format, all of which can be imported into the Shape component library. The existing components categories consist of Furniture, People, Landscaping, and Transportation.


BricsCAD Shape offers a wide variety of architectural components for populating a model. Image courtesy of Bricsys.


Visual Control: Like virtually all CAD products, Shape uses layers to organize geometry. A new feature allows easier selection of layer viewing, by toggling which layers appear. A Visual Styles feature provides tools for controlling the appearance of models, including perspective view control using a slider. A Quality slider controls on-screen rendering quality.

Structural Steel: A full set of American (AISC), British (BS), and European (EURO) structural steel profiles are available, including circular and rectangular hollows, structural beams, angles, tees, and channels. All profiles are fully parametric, and can be extruded to create solid structural elements.


Structural steel components from several national standards are included with BricsCAD Shape. Image courtesy of Bricsys.


A Solid First Impression

BricsCAD Shape may be new, but it is based on 18 years of CAD development; anyone who has used AutoCAD, or most any other CAD product, will feel at home quickly. The approach is to make the conceptual work the most important thing, while not losing precision. The software is responsive; the QuadCursor in particular seems to read minds at times.

Bricsys sees the current CAD marketplace as ripe for an unusual type of disruption, in which CAD users are able to move to BIM without losing a generation of DWG files to legacy status. Shape has a distinct advantage over two other conceptual modelers — SketchUp and Autodesk FormIt — in that Shape uses DWG as its native file format. It also boasts top-notch parametrics features, based on technology Bricsys acquired from Russian CAD developer LEDAS a few years ago.

Whether or not Shape convinces you to invest in the full DWG-based Bricsys BIM modeling platform, you will have a precise and compact conceptual modeler at your disposal — and for a price that’s hard to beat.


About the Author: Randall S. Newton


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