On the Job: 3D Modeling Boosts High-End Home Design

14 Jul, 2005 Cadalyst

VectorWorks Comes Through for Architects Seeking Highly Flexible System

Morehouse MacDonald & Associates, a firm that specializes in high-end custom homes in New England, has standardized on a highly flexible CAD system that is allowing it to fulfill its long-time desire to model in 3D.

"Like most of the architects at this firm, I got started using AutoCAD software and got used to the idea of building a drawing one line at a time by entering text commands," says Peter Bruneau, project manager for the Lexington, Massachusetts, firm. "We took a giant step forward by switching to VectorWorks from Nemetschek. All major commands are on icons right in front of us, and we can draw with polygons and rectangles, which is faster because far fewer lines have to be drawn."

Anthony Frausto, the firm's information technology manager, adds, "[VectorWorks] allows us to work in 2D and 3D using the same interface and same tools, making it possible to view the design from any viewpoint in the early concept phase and address issues that otherwise wouldn't become apparent until we had much more time and money invested in the project. VectorWorks also provides a huge array of tools that aid in communicating with clients, such as the ability to easily incorporate bit-maps into a drawing and generate subtle color overlays."

Morehouse MacDonald & Associates is one of the leading architecture firms designing custom homes in New England. The firm typically spends about a year working with its clients to develop a design that turns requirements and dreams into reality. The company's client base is primarily in the Boston metropolitan area, but it is designing more and more structures in other parts of the country.

"The challenge of designing high-end, one-of-a-kind homes is that nearly everything has to be built from scratch," Frausto explains, "which in turn means that everything has to be designed from scratch. We can't just pop in windows and doors from a typical CAD library. We have to design every item to the high level of detail and integrity required for it to be quoted and built by leading woodworking shops in the region."

Frausto adds that the firm is just beginning to provide CNC (computerized numerical control) data to woodworking shops that will be used to directly produce the components on computer-driven machine tools. Moving directly from the design drawings to manufacturing will further increase the company's need to ensure the accuracy of every detail.

Starting Off with AutoCAD
Most of the architects of the firm started off using AutoCAD. "AutoCAD is a powerful tool, but getting to each of its functions can be challenging," explains Vu Alexander, AIA, another of the firm's project managers. "For example, to draw an arc, you begin by typing in Arc, and then the program provides a series of parameters and options you need to enter. Layering is complicated by the need to type in a command to turn a layer on or off."

Project manager Bruneau adds, "Having to move between model space and paper space in AutoCAD creates some major complications. After you decide what area you want to print, you usually have to think about rescaling that section of the drawing so that it will look right on paper. You have to continually think about the scale of text and other annotations and how they will look when they are printed. Then you typically have to enter a series of commands to print a drawing. This requires a considerable amount of time and effort that interferes with the conceptual development process."

Morehouse MacDonald & Associates made the decision to use VectorWorks because the firm concluded that the software provided equivalent functionality to AutoCAD, yet is more flexible, far easier to use and substantially less expensive.

"VectorWorks is much more friendly," Alexander says. "The icons are right there on the screen for just about any operation you might want to perform. When you click on a tool, the options you need to fully define what you want to do are very clear and self-explanatory. Typically, you have the option of entering the needed information either graphically, such as by dragging an arc to the desired size, or by typing in a dimension."

VectorWorks also provides a SmartCursor that snaps onto virtually any significant geometric feature, streamlining the process of generating a design from basic geometric shapes. The SmartCursor automatically identifies relationships such as endpoints, midpoints, center points, tangencies and real and extended intersections. If Alexander wants to connect a line to the midpoint of another line, for example, he says all he has to do is move the cursor in the general vicinity of the midpoint, then when a midpoint cue appears, click the mouse. The program does the work of maintaining alignments and ensuring that geometry is precise, freeing the user to concentrate on the functionality of the design.

Simplified Printing
Bruneau notes that printing is now simplified. "VectorWorks eliminates the extra step of setting up the original image through a viewport. The software provides an outline of the paper that shows the drawing relative to the borders of the page. Everything appears on scale on the page so you can edit the paper drawing just as if it were the actual model. The layering system in VectorWorks provides the flexibility to layer drawings so that each item only needs to be drawn once.

"For example," Bruneau continues, "if I am drawing a foundation plan, I can put the walls in a separate layer and use them in the basement plan just by turning them on. Or, if I am doing an electrical plan, instead of copying and pasting the floor plan drawing, I just turn it on in the electrical drawing sheet. Of course, AutoCAD provides exactly the same functionality but it's much easier to access in VectorWorks. VectorWorks lets you move from one layer to another or turn an object on or off in a layer with a single click of the mouse, eliminating the layering overhead involved in working with AutoCAD."

Frausto adds that the flexibility of VectorWorks is very valuable in creating drawings that are easy for clients and builders to understand.

"Our CAD software provides a great deal of flexibility in generating fills, like a color hatch that's transparent on top of other colors," he says (figure 1). "We use graduated color -- for example a terra cotta-like color at 60% -- to emphasize different areas of plans and elevations. VectorWorks provides the subtlety of color that in the past we could only achieve with a watercolor wash. We show depth in 2D drawings by making the background objects 20% lighter than those in the foreground and use transparent cross-hatches to simulate shadows. We also frequently add hand drawings by scanning them and importing them into a VectorWorks file. We have reduced the time required to create perspective drawings by over 300% by printing a wireframe and rendering over it by hand."

Figure 1. This larger format print of an Environment and Set Backs Plan for an existing site demonstrates how Morehouse MacDonald & Associates use color, especially pastel-like colors, in design site plans and site analysis work.

3D Catches Problems Earlier
Frausto continues to say that the firm is working more and more frequently in three dimensions.

"The biggest advantage we have found so far from working in 3D is that we can view each aspect of the design from many different angles," he says. "Often we discover that the design looks different than what we intended. Typically the model becomes a point of departure as we produce paper sketches and new models of the section in question. Then we update the model and view the design modifications from various angles to be sure we have fixed the problem. The 3D model is also very useful to the builders. Some houses are quite large and complicated, so if they are built on a site with a grade change they can be hard to understand from a 2D view. We provide the builders with a 3D model that they can interrogate to get any information they need."

In one unusual application, Morehouse MacDonald & Associates used 3D models to study the view from the sea of a personal boathouse/lighthouse it designed for a client. Designers generated several computer renderings to show how the lighthouse looked at various times of the day. They showed these renderings to their client and were able to make several improvements as a result.

In another case, the Weston project, the firm's architects used VectorWorks to produce a flythrough of a new project to demonstrate to the zoning board that the design would not have excessive visual impact. (figures 2 and 3). Ultimately, the project was approved and brought to fruition (figure 4).

Figure 2. This image is part of a QuickTime animation sequence for the Weston project. Morehouse MacDonald & Associates used VectorWorks to easily build a complicated and tedious site/architecture study flythrough presentation for the architectural review board of Weston, Massachusetts.

Figure 3. Another image from the QuickTime animation sequence for the Weston project.

Figure 4. The completed Weston project, which was designed in 3D by Morehouse MacDonald & Associates. The firm was commissioned to design a grand Adams-style home on a magnificent piece of land west of Boston. Special care was taken to marry the structure to the land. (Photograph by Sam Gray)

Ultimate Flexibility
Frausto adds that one additional advantage of VectorWorks over AutoCAD is that it works equally well on PC and Macintosh platforms. "Although we have not fully maximized the cross-platform nature of VectorWorks, it is understood that at any given time the two platforms have various advantages and disadvantages," he says. "I see the CAD platform, our CAD data and the staff's core workflow processes as the 'true platform' in the office, not the OS, and so unlike AutoCAD, using VectorWorks affords us operating system flexibility. Our IT strategy, at heart, is about being a nimble business; to borrow from HP's current slogan, VectorWorks makes us an 'adaptive enterprise.'"