AEC From the Ground Up Top Tools for Preliminary Design

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

Going digital can spark creativity and speed work along

AN Architectural Colleague, although he considers his practice digitally up to date, told me recently that he still prefers to design with colored pencil and tracing paper. This method, he says, gives him a "feel for the design." Although this sentiment is not uncommon, my belief is that designing digitally from start to finish not only increases productivity, but also aids the creative process. To that end, this article assays various digital tools and methodologies available in the AEC arena for preliminary design.

Wacom Cintiq

Alias Sketch Book Pro

Adobe Photoshop

If you want the best of both worlds, the ability to draw as with pencil and paper while in the digital realm, the Wacom Cintiq with Alias Sketch Book Pro is the way to go (figure 1). The Cintiq is a flat-screen monitor combined with a resistive digitizer tablet. This system is identical to that available with Tablet PCs, which have smaller screens. Because the device is resistive, plastic straight edges and curves may be placed on the screen to scribe lines. The wireless stylus that comes with the Cintiq is pressure sensitive and requires no battery. This system is as close as you can get to drawing with standard instruments. Previously available in 15" and 18" sizes, the Cintiq is now available only in 20.5" size. But the $2,500 selling price of the 20.5" Cintiq is lower than that of the discontinued 18" Cintiq.

 Figure 1. I created this sketch using Alias SketchBook Pro 1.1 with a Wacom Cintiq tablet.
Figure 1. I created this sketch using Alias SketchBook Pro 1.1 with a Wacom Cintiq tablet.

Alias SketchBook Pro 1.1 is a raster drawing program specifically designed for use with a Tablet PC or Wacom Cintiq (although it also works with any digitizer pad). It uses raster brush technology gleaned from high-end software, also aimed at industrial designers. The digital pencil tool is indistinguishable from real pencil and paper. SketchBook Pro 1.1 features a gesture-based user interface built around Alias' patented Marking Menu technology. No keyboard entry is necessary—even layers are labeled by handwriting. Free demonstration software is available at the Alias Web site. Try it, print out the results and see if your clients can tell whether you used a computer or conventional drawing tools. Alias Sketch Book Pro 1.1 for the PC and Macintosh sells for $179.

Adobe Photoshop, a raster-based program, is the most-used graphic software program in the world. It has excellent raster editing capability and can quickly make excellent presentations and tracings.

The new Adobe Creative Suite is a complete design environment that combines full versions of Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, GoLive and Acrobat Professional software—everything a professional office needs for its preliminary design, presentation and public relations requirements. Creative Suite Premium sells for $1,229. Creative Suite Standard, which doesn't include Go Live or Acrobat Professional, costs $999.

Scott Onstott's excellent Photoshop video tutorials are aimed at architects and the AEC market. Videos cover PhotoShop essentials, plans and elevations and compositing. They can be downloaded for $34.95 each at or purchased all together on CD-ROM for $99.95. These video tutorials are amazing—all you'd ever want to know, even things you didn't know existed. These bargain videos will take any PhotoShop presentation a giant leap forward.

Consistent Software Plan Tracer, Plan to Model

PlanTracer and Plan2Model are raster-to-vector converters with a twist. They take any scanned or hand-drawn raster file and convert it automatically into an Architectural Desktop or ArchiCAD 3D model. Users can scan in a paper drawing or input one created using the Cintiq with a raster drawing program. PlanTracer or Plan2model recognizes the sketch intent and creates a 3D CAD model. PlanTracer can be used in conjunction with Architectural Desktop, AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT. Plan2Model turns 2D raster drawings into 3D ArchiCAD models. These programs are not for the digital faint of heart, but with some training, they will recognize freehand sketches and convert them into accurate CAD information. They even recognize and convert written notes in the sketches.

@Last Software SketchUp

SketchUp is probably the best digital preliminary design tool on the market, and a favorite among architects and designers all over the world. New to v4 is the Texture Tweaker, with which any texture or photo can be stretched and manipulated across any continuous surface. Users can now place a photo of a building onto a 3D square created in SketchUp and model directly from the picture. The new Intersector provides all the power of Boolean modeling and is capable of performing multiple changes in rapid succession. The program doesn't produce subtle or photorealistic lighting or provide a Phong or similar photorealistic renderer, but users can export in native Piranesi file format and in Piranesi produce results that approach photorealism. SketchUp includes a free downloadable reader so that clients can interactively explore (but not make changes to) the models.

A test drive is worth a thousand words—to this end SketchUp provides an 8-hour free trial of a fully functional, downloadable version of the program. ArchiCAD and Architectural Desktop users should be sure to download the free plugins for those programs. These plugins help users create models in SketchUp that can be imported to Architectural Desktop and ArchiCAD, automatically reusing the digital information by making roof, walls, slabs and doors in these programs. SketchUp is available for both the PC and Macintosh. Price is $495, or $95 as an upgrade.

auto des sys form Z 5.0

Autodesk VIZ, 3ds max

Alias Maya, Alias Studio

3D designs can be created directly with these programs, and because they are vector or NURBS-based, varying amounts of information can be reused for the construction documentation stage. Autodest includes routines k VIZ is a visualization program that works well with Architectural Desktop (a variant is included with Architectural Desktop). Ithat aid in the creation of 3D objects. Auto.des.sys' form.Z 5.0 is a CAD-centric visualization solution that can be used to generate 3D study models. for a detailed review. Autodesk 3ds max and Alias Maya are excellent full-featured 3D modeling, visualization and animation programs more suited to the movie, TV and game industries, though 3ds max continues to be popular for architectural renderings and animations.

Graphisoft ArchiCAD 9

Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2006, Revit 8

All of these programs feature a 3D conceptual design tool of some type, and all are capable of using this information again during the construction document phase. It's even possible to design directly in the construction documents. A good operator should be able to conceive and document in the same process. These programs are truly 3D architectural solutions (figure 2).

Figure 2. Building Maker is Revit 8s 3D conceptual design tool. All of the conceptual model information can be reused during the construction documentation phase.
Figure 2. Building Maker is Revit 8s 3D conceptual design tool. All of the conceptual model information can be reused during the construction documentation phase.

Digital design

Design sensibility is in the eye (and hand) of the beholder, and the methodologies of designing are as varied as the practitioners. Whether you design with pencil and paper, or clay, or cardboard, the process is the same—to create and then to document that design. The information from designs created with pencil and paper must be digitized before it can be used with modern communication systems or printing devices. Digital information can be obtained from clay or cardboard models by 3D digitizing. However, the biggest productivity boost comes from designing directly in a digital manner—2D or 3D. Going totally digital can be a bit daunting, but for those who are capable of using the tools with proficiency, the results can be rewarding, both creatively and financially.
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H. Edward Goldberg, AIA, NCARB, is a practicing licensed architect and AEC industry analyst. Ed's full-length book, Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2005: A Comprehensive Tutorial (Prentice Hall; is now available; watch for the 2006 version this fall. Ed will deliver a presentation on BIM technology at the AIA National Convention. He also offers online Architectural Desktop training sessions delivered directly to the desktop. Visit for more information, or e-mail

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