Products: Up to Date with ArchiCAD 8
Jerry Laiserin

It's no secret that ArchiCAD has long served as a sort of competitive benchmark for many of its AEC building modeling competitors. The latest version, announced at the recent UIA Congress in Berlin to coincide with vendor Graphisoft's twentieth anniversary, adds significant new functionality, geometry, and speed, along with notable enhancements in ease of use, ease of detailing, and ease of document production and coordination. Expected to ship in the fourth quarter of 2002, ArchiCAD 8 promises to be an upgrade worth waiting for.

For anyone unfamiliar with ArchiCAD, I've culled excerpts from my reviews of the last few versions of the product.

In July 1998, writing about ArchiCAD 6.0, I emphasized its key characteristics as:
"...the single building model; object-oriented technology, including database linking; and the teamwork style of file sharing and project collaboration," as well as "...the closest thing to truly no-compromise CAD for architecture."

In July 2000, writing about ArchiCAD 6.5, I suggested that "any architect or firm contemplating a switch from the 2D world of computer-aided drafting to the integrated 3D world of computer-aided building design is faced today with a wealth of competitive choices. Those seeking a balance of features, cross-platform compatibility and real-world performance in the current, shipping product (not just promised for future release) would do well to take a long and thoughtful look at what ArchiCAD 6.5 has to offer."

In August 2001, writing about ArchiCAD 7.0, I observed that "...there's a lot to be said for a CAD company that has been shipping a continuously developed product for the better part of two decades. Or a company that doesn't tinker with or simply abandon its own file format. How about folks who pay more than mere lip service to industry standards?" Furthermore, I asked, "You want objects? Got it. Libraries of parametric elements? Check. Edit anything in any view? No problem. Automatic extraction of sections, elevations, and details from the building model? Piece of cake. Large project reference file capability via hotlinks? Done deal. User-definable workspaces for efficient teamwork? Included. Programmable database language for extensions to cost estimating or other software? You betcha. Compliance with International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs) 2.0? In less time than it takes to ask the question."

In other words, this is a product that only a curmudgeon or a competitor could fail to love. However, no software program is perfect for all users, nor does any product meet every possible need of any specific user. That's why there's a lot of competing software products on the market and why they're all subject to regular upgrades. ArchiCAD is no exception, with version 8.0 serving to broaden the product's appeal to a wider range of potential new users and to make it even more responsive to the specific needs of existing customers.

"What's So Great About Version 8?"
While absorbing ArchiCAD's new and improved functionality, it's important to read between the lines and appreciate just how well-crafted and feature-rich this software already was, before this upgrade. Consider, for example, speed—both on-screen speed and speed-in-use—a performance area that drew few if any complaints in recent versions. Yet, ArchiCAD 8 adds OpenGL support for hardware-based acceleration of 3-D rendering. There's also smooth, real-time pan and zoom via a wheel-mouse. It is now possible to navigate ArchiCAD models in rendered preview mode (similar to the Accurender view in Revit) and, by selecting any object, view and edit its properties—including its rendered properties—which effectively allows real-time "what-if" substitutions of materials and textures from within any view of the model.

ArchiCAD 8 also speeds up section cuts via zero depth "draft sections," while final sections get the added refinement of user-definable pen weights in the "marked distant area" beyond a user-selectable distance from the cut line. Anyone who has worked with Microstation Architecture for Triforma "section reports" or Autodesk Architectural Desktop (ADT) "live sections" will appreciate ArchiCAD's section view flexibility.

Other model improvements include faster updates on "send and receive changes" in TeamWork—wherein multiple users can carve out separate "workspaces" within a project, yet all share their work consistently on the same model. If this sounds vaguely reminiscent of Revit "worksets," bear in mind that ArchiCAD introduced TeamWork workspaces way back in version 5.1—before the predecessor company to Revit was even founded.

Overall command/function selection has been streamlined, with all menus and dialogs resizable for maximal onscreen access to info and commands. Multiple modes and dialogs have been consolidated into an "Info Box"—a central location from which all attributes of every tool and palette can be controlled and customized. Tool settings include a "favorites" palette that can be saved for different project types, for specific projects, or for certain element types (e.g., favorite settings for the "wall" tool). The "pet" palette (so called because it "follows you around" as you select elements for editing, now applies to all element types—walls, doors, etc.—not just slabs and other polygons as before.

Version 8 to Navigate
ArchiCAD workflow now starts from a Navigator view with a pre-defined Project Map or tree view that includes stories, sections/elevations, details, 3-D, schedules, costs and so on. One can start a new project, open an existing project, or log onto a project via TeamWork. New projects can use the current settings, a template, or defaults. There are user-customizable "view sets" that can be set up, for example, by project phases (SD, DD, CD), or other logical project organization, and the view sets themselves can be set as templates. This last capability makes it extremely easy to set up office-wide and project-specific standards. View sets can be published, for use by consultants, for example ("set up your drawings like this") and can be used to pre-define transmission/issue sets for different recipients ("here's what we send to the client, to the structural engineer, the MEP engineer," and so on). This not only saves time throughout a project workflow, it also minimizes the risk of sending the wrong information (as can happen when forgetting to turn layers on or off or to freeze and unfreeze them).

Further on the subject of drawings, ArchiCAD's included PlotMaker utility has been streamlined, improved and more tightly integrated—although it is still a separate program. The biggest improvement is the Layout Book, which allows multiple sheets to be easily organized into a documentation set. This retains a correspondence between the underlying single-file virtual building logical structure and the sheets/layout. Through a system of master sheets, project viewsets and individual views can be selected and added to the layout book. Once set up, Plotmaker sheets can be "published," whether directly to a printer/plotter, as PDF files via an included conversion utility, or to the web via Project Exchange. The latter, which works from both PlotMaker and ArchiCAD itself, remains the best round-trip web/workflow integration of any AEC CAD product.

G-d is in the Details
ArchiCAD always had excellent drafting and detailing tools, but there is a level of detail that is inappropriate to incorporate directly into the building model in ANY software. Every AEC CAD product has to set this dividing line (between what's "live" in the model and what's referenced in detail), and some do it more elegantly than others. ADT relies on the external referencing or X-ref capability of the underlying AutoCAD. Revit uses a system of "view-specific linework" for 2-D detail drawings (whether from Revit itself or from DWG files) that are overlaid on and linked to section cuts of the model. ArchiCAD 8 also relies on user-settable parametric markers on model sections to position details, whether drawn in ArchiCAD or linked from a DWG file (or any mergeable vector file). The editable detail may be optionally "unlinked" for one-directional associativity: this enables 2-D editing, such as notations in the detail, without updating TO the model; while the detail view remains updatable FROM the model. Whether unlinked or not, the resulting view consists of the model cut, the detail and the detail call-out, with the editable detail accessible by a right mouse-click (essentially as a "property" of the detail view). These detail views can be saved as views in a viewset and then, like any views, saved in layouts for printing/publishing.

One criticism leveled at ArchiCAD in the past was its lack of true solid modeling. CAD tools, such as AutoCAD and Microstation, that started as general-purpose design platforms and came relatively late to the AEC-specific "vertical market" approach, had solid-modeling kernels built in because that was necessary in other markets. Until recently, few building designers worked with true 3-D solids (even now it is unnatural for an architect to think of "adding a negative volume" as the way to cut a hole in a digital wall or a floor). Nevertheless, there are design elements that are best created by Boolean solid operations, so ArchiCAD 8 now includes a Graphisoft-developed parametric solid engine (the company chose this route, rather than license a third-party solid kernel, in order to maintain a link to its GDL development language and external interoperability). However, don't expect VIZ-like or form*Z-like free-form operations. This first release of ArchiCAD solid operations handles things like extruding a profile along a path, making it perfect for real world architectural tasks like crown moldings, reveals, battered walls and so on.

ArchiCAD's underlying GDL language now has a new hierarchy level, called "sub-type," enabling expanded GDL object definitions that identify building elements by matching their sub-type to Industry Foundation Class (IFC) object classes—in line with International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) standards. If that last sentence reads like Martian to you, the important thing is not that you know what GDL, IFC and IAI are about, but that you are aware Graphisoft has consistently shown the strongest commitment of any CAD vendor to shipping products that truly leverage the intelligence of your design data by sharing it as openly as possible with other programs for cost estimating, energy analysis, code checking and so on.

ArchiCAD also supports database-level interoperability (called ODBC) via an interface that allows queries to extract any table of information to an Access or SQL database. This would include things like bills of materials, schedules and so forth—all of which ArchiCAD can report and present on its own as well. For example, version 8's interactive schedules now include columns, finishes, lighting fixtures and so on (previous releases scheduled doors and windows only). Schedules can exported directly as Microsoft Excel spreadsheet files and, when embedded in PlotMaker layouts, updated via Excel linking (OLE).

There must be a zillion more nifty little (and not so little) improvements enumerated on the ArchiCAD 8.0 product page of the Graphisoft website; you can read about them there. One of the niftiest features is the version 8.0 upgrade pricing: just $475 from version 7 and only $750 from ANY earlier version.

Readers e-mail me all the time with the question, "which is the best CAD software"—a question that is essentially unanswerable because one first must ask "best for whom, doing what, and when?" Only by deciding what you want to accomplish and how soon you want to get there can you make an intelligent choice about the most appropriate CAD strategy for you. With 10% of the total market for AEC CAD, ArchiCAD is the strategic choice of some 100,000 users world-wide.

< back