AEC From the Ground Up--Software Strategy: CAD Options for AEC

31 Jan, 2005 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg

Low-cost software targets residential design.

Last month's column ( aec.htm) discussed the major BIM (building information modeling) software packages in the AEC arena. This month we focus on a range of other CAD products for AEC design. Many of these products have the advantages of lower prices and less complexity, which makes them easier to learn and to operate.

After twenty-plus years of use, all CAD products for the AEC industry have matured. Today, creditable residential CAD products selling for less than $200 and capable of creating 3D views and construction documents are found at the local computer store. For the design professional or builder who needs a tool for smaller commercial projects or residential work, several excellent packages are available at good price points. Among these are Chief Architect, SoftPlan, ArchT, IntelliCAD, DataCAD, ArrisCAD and AutoCAD LT. All these Windows-based products have a long history of successful use in the AEC industry, and with the exception of AutoCAD LT, are capable of creating rendered 3D views. Macintosh fans will want to check out the soon-to-be-released VersaCAD 2005 for OS X.

Each product is aimed at a distinctive market niche. SoftPlan and Chief Architect target the residential market, although they can be used for light commercial. ArrisCAD and DataCAD are full-fledged CAD programs for residential and commercial buildings of all sizes.

Autodsys IntelliCAD, ArchT for AutoCAD and IntelliCAD

ArchT ($799) is an architectural software package for IntelliCAD that also works with AutoCAD 2000-2005 and all platforms based on those versions, including Architectural Desktop, Building Systems and Map. An add-on product, ArchT provides AEC-specific functionality such as 2D production drafting utilities, style-based design features and customizable records. It also provides dynamic block and layer control and 3D modeling tools.

ArchT allows designers to work in 2D or 3D, and rendering materials may be preassigned to objects so that once a model is built it can be easily rendered in IntelliCAD, AutoCAD or AccuRender. ArchT comes with more than 7,000 2D and 3D blocks that are ready for rendering. Styles allow the user to create libraries of unique walls, doors, windows and other building objects that may be used over and over again. Changing a style changes all objects that use that style. Reporting features can generate custom schedules of any objects in the model. Door schedules, window schedules, finish schedules and area usage reports can be produced, and data can be attached to any object to create custom reports with user-defined formulas. Keynoting is also a standard feature. ArchT includes walls that automatically clean up the intersections or break when a door or window is inserted. Time-saving routines handle column grids, area bubbles, parking stalls and managing multilevel designs.

IntelliCAD 5 ($149) was designed as a low-cost AutoCAD alternative that supports DWG files as well as menu files, script files, shape files, text fonts, hatch patterns, linetypes, LISP programs, SDS/C++ programs and VBA programs. It includes a number of new features and enhancements such as tabbed layouts, entity properties toolbar, dimension styles toolbar, lineweight support, and compatibility with AutoCAD 2004-2005 DWG file format. It also supports drawing recovery for corrupted files, creation of DWF (design web format) files, and draw order to control how entities overlap. The block navigator, used to organize blocks and commands into categories, comes with hundreds of blocks plus samples of thousands more that are available in optional libraries. This tool allows users to visually browse thousands of blocks and organize them into plan, elevation or 3D view and insert them at a specified elevation or scale. The Pro & Pro Plus IntelliCAD versions ($249 and $349, respectively) feature photorealistic rendering. Users can choose from preset lighting effects, surface materials and backgrounds or create custom materials.

Chief Architect

Chief Architect (figure 1) has focused for the past ten years on making its program easy to use for the building professional. In a manner similar to that found in a BIM software solution, users place and arrange walls, windows, doors and architectural objects from a library of more than 8,500 items to create a 3D model. This solution can create full working drawings with detailed plans, layouts and CAD details. Complete dimension tools support one-click automatic dimensions as well as manual dimensions. For space planning, a unique Build House wizard aids users in working with clients. Chief Architect also comes with an ICC Residential Code Checklist to check designs against a comprehensive list of standard building codes. A Symbol Import wizard handles import of 2D and 3D DWG/DXF objects, and a CAD-to-Wall import function allows easy interchange between other CAD systems.

 Figure 1. In a manner similar to a BIM application, Chief Architect arranges walls, windows, doors and architectural objects from a library of over 8,500 items to generate a 3D model.
Figure 1. In a manner similar to a BIM application, Chief Architect arranges walls, windows, doors and architectural objects from a library of over 8,500 items to generate a 3D model.

Because this is a builder-centric program, it provides excellent residential framing capabilities. Framing items each have individually editable materials. The program supports automatic blocking and bracing (linear or staggered) for walls, joists and rafters, and platform edges can have materials applied to them. There is a new post-and-beam framing tool capability, and I-joists are now included.

Unique to this genre of software is Chief Architect's ability to produce a cost list and estimate. A Materials List creates a take-off list from the design by room, floor or defined perimeter. Material costs can be calculated by room and by category. The Materials List includes columns such as equipment, unit costs, percent markup and labor requirements in a Microsoft Excel-like format for cost and job estimating. Chief Architect can automatically generate a schedule of materials for each CAD layer: doors, windows, cabinets, electrical, HVAC and so on.

A library of more than 350 cabinets, doors and hardware makes it easy to arrange and customize kitchen cabinets. Cabinets can be detailed with color, wood type, countertop material, door and drawer styles, open shelving, backsplash, crown molding, millwork and hardware such as hinges, handles and pulls.

Chief Architect 9.5 comes in four versions: full version bundle, full version, base version bundle and base version. The base versions don't offer photorealistic rendering and certain features such as the ability to automatically generate a CAD detail from any view. Bundles include more tutorials, support and libraries. Prices range from $1,195 for the base version to $1,895 for the full version bundle. Additional products include the Roof Designer's Toolkit and the Kitchen & Bath Designer's Toolkit, which provides content such as modern appliances, sinks, tubs and toilets. Each toolkit sells for $295. Chief Architect offers a Client Viewer CD ($10, volume price) for sharing designs with clients.


SoftPlan offers five products aimed at the residential and light commercial market: SoftPlan ($2,385), SoftList ($2,985 with SoftPlan included), SoftTalk ($200), SoftPlan Review ($200) and SoftPlan Lite ($985).

SoftPlan Architectural Design Software is a CAD program developed specifically to automate the design and presentation of residential and light commercial construction projects. Users build a virtual model that then becomes the basis for a complete set of working drawings and 3D renderings. As with Chief Architect, SoftPlan users create detailed floor plans using familiar objects such as walls, windows and doors. The program contains a floor and roof framing system and allows users to add automatic or completely custom roofs and generate instant cross sections, elevations and wall details. Complete site plans can also be created based on engineering data.

The included SoftView module takes the drawing created in SoftPlan and generates a 3D rendering. SoftView can create multiple cross sections and elevations from any or all sides. Shadow capability, lighting effects, textures and backgrounds are available.

SoftList uses the drawing information added in SoftPlan to generate a materials list and cost estimate report. SoftList counts all construction materials and adds user-definable costs, markups, waste factors and labor rates. The material list can be customized as well as exported to other software packages, including estimating, accounting and scheduling programs.

With SoftTalk, a user can access SoftPlan's menus through voice recognition technology. All menu items can be activated verbally while the cursor is in the drawing area.

SoftPlan reView improves communication throughout the building process. Through a PC or a Pocket PC, reView allows anyone involved in a building project—the designer, builder, trade contractors or client—to view, comment on and mark up drawings. reView files can be viewed on a Pocket PC, providing the convenience of taking drawings to the site, lumberyard and client meetings to record changes or punch items. Any markups or comments added to the reView drawings can be loaded directly back into SoftPlan.

SoftPlan Lite is an easy-to-use package for those with less-demanding design requirements or a limited software budget. This product can create working drawings, and a scaled-down version of SoftView generates elevations, cross sections and basic 3D renderings.

Lite provides the tools to complete basic residential designs. Should design needs change, an investment in SoftPlan Lite may be applied at any time toward the purchase of the full-featured SoftPlan.


DataCAD ($995; upgrade from previous version, $295) is a professional-level AEC CAD program for architectural design, photorealistic rendering, animation and construction document creation. DataCAD includes tools such as automatic door and window insertion, associative dimensioning and hatching, automated 3D framing and OpenDWG-based DXF/DWG translators. According to the most recent AIA (American Institute of Architects) firm survey, DataCAD is ranked as the second most-widely used software by registered architects.

The most significant change in DataCAD 11 from previous versions isn't apparent on program startup. The program now operates at double-numeric floating-point precision and is accurate to 14 significant digits, making it equivalent in precision to AutoCAD and most other CAD programs. It has special features for builders and contractors— for example, its built-in framing utility automates 3D framing for floors, walls and roofs.

Once a design is complete, the program can output a file that contains the bill of materials, including a list of board feet for framing members. DataCAD Estimator (sold separately) creates a comprehensive estimate, including overhead and profit.

DataCAD LT ($195) is a new, low-cost 2D/3D architectural CAD program for design professionals. All of the fundamental architectural drawing and modeling features of DataCAD are included—automatic door and window insertion, associative dimensioning and hatching, unlimited undo/redo, 23 standard and hand-lettered fonts and OpenDWG-based DXF/DWG translators. 3D models created in DataCAD LT can also be exported to o2c format for Internet distribution.

Purchasers of DataCAD LT can take advantage of a $150 credit toward purchase of full-strength DataCAD. All drawings from DataCAD LT are fully compatible with DataCAD.

DataCAD also offers o2c_Interactive!, a 3D viewing and presentation program that allows users to explore design scenarios in 3D, on the fly, using the compressed o2c format. O2c stands for Objects to See, a 3D file format that is optimized for Internet-based communication. O2c_Interactive provides tools to edit materials and textures, batch process photorealistic images and publish to the Web as an HTML file for presentation. Unique to o2c_Interactive! is the ability to save and recall multiple schemes to visualize various material finishes. O2c files can be sent as e-mail attachments or embedded into Word, PowerPoint and HTML documents. DataCAD LT 10 and DataCAD 10 export 3D models directly to o2c format. Users of other CAD program can convert either 3D DXF or DWG files to o2c format via DataCAD LT or DataCAD. O2c_2Go!, a freely distributable version of o2c_Interactive!, allows clients to view presentations and walk through rendered models.

Sigma Design ARRIS 8.2, ARRIS Architect's Studio

ARRIS, whose parent company, Sigma Design, is owned by an architect, is designed specifically for architects and building professionals. ARRIS' Architectural Studio ($995) comprises five interrelated modules:

ARRIS CAD is the centerpiece of the ARRIS family. It incorporates all the drafting and management tools needed to handle architectural projects of any size or complexity.

ARRIS Architect (figure 2) provides the tools to create complete contract drawings. It extends the capabilities of ARRIS to automate the entire drawing process. Built-in intelligence automatically generates stairs, elevators and so forth in response to prompts, so you can make fast, accurate changes and design refinements. The program includes architectural symbols for details, section bubbles, markers and plumbing and electrical fixtures. 3D extrusion helps the user visualize a project in 3D. Design elements contain both graphic and nongraphic information such as materials, fire ratings, costs and more. A large selection of generic 2D and 3D furniture, fixture and equipment items is available.

Figure 2. ARRIS Architect provides the drafting, visulization, management and collaboration tools needed to handle architectural projects of any size or complexity. The program can be customized.
Figure 2. ARRIS Architect provides the drafting, visulization, management and collaboration tools needed to handle architectural projects of any size or complexity. The program can be customized.

ARRIS 3D visualization includes tools needed to create both simple and complex wire frame geometry. Used in conjunction with ARRIS Architect, it links models directly to construction documents.

ARRIS Site enhances the capabilities of ARRIS to create site plans and construction documents as well as to prepare site studies and marketing proposals for potential clients. Site plans are created by entering survey information, drawing existing contours or spot elevations, laying out proposed contour lines and adding details such as vehicles, trees, shrubs and people.

Following the completion of the site drafting work, users can generate a 3D model or contour section, including input of site boundary information. This module also provides tools for parking lot design and concrete flatwork.

ARRIS Details produces detail drawings and composes sheets of details. It simplifies the labor-intensive aspects of the drafting process and enables users to work with several differently scaled drawings on the same sheet. There is no limit to the number of drawings or scales that can be included on a sheet.

Included with ARRIS Architect's Studio is a free one-year subscription to eZ Meeting (regularly $400). EZ Meeting enables real time collaboration on ARRIS drawings, 3D models, digital photos and other project information.

In this article
In this article

Autodesk AutoCAD LT

Little needs to be said about this product except that it's really AutoCAD without certain features, specificially 3D capabilities, sheet set management, customization (LISP, ARX, VBA), presentation graphics, CAD standards management and network licensing. If you own LT ($899) and want AEC capability, you can choose Smart Architect LT PRO 2005 from drcauto ($1,495; and LT Architect from Cad Logic (£495; as add-ons.

As I mentioned last month, I recommend that you try the demos of each of these programs to see if they match your needs and working methodology. I also remind you that familiarity with a software program has a great impact on productivity. When users are already accustomed to a particular product, it may pay to upgrade within that product line rather than switch to another product. ?

H. Edward Goldberg, AIA, is a practicing licensed architect, industrial designer, and AEC industry analyst. Ed's new full-length book, Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2005: A Comprehensive Tutorial (Prentice Hall, 2003) is available now ( Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2004: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Autodesk Architectural Desktop 3 are also still available. or visit his personal Web site at

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