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The right CAD for you

An assessment of current software will help practices judge which package is best suited to their needs

Life would be much simpler if there were one computer-aided design (CAD) system which was the best for all architects - but there is not. The choice depends on the projects that are being worked on, the sort of drawings that will be generated, whether it is for a traditional or a hi-tech designer, the size of the office, and the amount of money being spent.

Choosing a CAD package is a long-term decision. Although offices do replace one platform with another or even use more than one CAD system, the implications of switching - not only the cost - should not be underestimated.

Your software will be closely associated with other applications such as rendering packages, data libraries, add-ons, hardware specifications and old drawings.

Four of the major solutions available in the UK are examined here.While all could, to an extent, be adopted by any potential user, some definitely do certain jobs better than others.

AutoCAD Architectural Desktop

AutoCAD is globally-used software in the CAD world, and has become the industry standard.

AutoCAD 2000 Architectural Desktop, the version designed for architects, is a drafting tool that performs strongest in features related to 2D representation, where it is probably the most efficient of the packages reviewed. But as an AutoCAD whiz states: 'AutoCAD is perfect if you know what you want, and then you draw it.' It is not the absolute visualisation or 3D experimentation tool, and renderings look rather inadequate and unattractive.

AutoCAD is used by architects, civil, structural, mechanical and services engineers.

This ensures fast and easy communication of drawings and data transfer with those professions, but also means that the software does not always behave as an architectural tool, despite its special version for architects. Accuracy, popularity, reliability, and a practical approach to 2D representation have to be set against rigidity in designing and an approach that is not ideally user-friendly.

PROS: An almost unparalleled tool for 2D drawing, and traditional representation methods of architectural entities. AutoCAD drafting is outstanding for symbols and diagrammatic representations, which is useful for drawings for planning applications that contain arrows, leaders, labelling, dimensions and other annotation. Symbols and elements may come from the existing library which also includes a good choice of doors, windows and other widely used elements, or they may be composed by the user and stored as 'blocks'.

The advantage of a 'block' is that when it is multiplied (for example a column is used 200 times) the amount of data added to the file is not exponential but just the one column and the positions of the others. This allows the file size to stay relatively small and easy to handle, provided the elements are repeated. Blocks are stored as editable elements.

Additionally, an AutoCADfile exported to 3D Studio Max is compressed to a fraction of its initial size.

Flexibility in terms of composing software, with the help of a variety of plug-ins (software extensions on top of the basic package).

A huge user base, making it easy to find efficient, economical operators.

CONS: The range of the software's applications does not make an architect feel like a significant client, which may be reflected in a lack of personal contact from the sales service.

It is a drafting tool, and 3D is not its strongest point.

COST AutoCAD2000 Architectural Desktop costs £3,600. 3D Studio Max will be £1,495, but it should be considered as necessary to top up AutoCAD with a rendering software. LightScape is £550, delivering lighting simulations and effects that take images a step further.

TO SUM UP. . .

The software is an obvious and safe choice, but it is relatively pricey if one assumes that a rendering package will also be bought. Not so much a jobwinning tool but definitely the ultimate 2D bulldozer. For offices that work a lot with engineers and buildings that are based on plans, elevations and sections, rather than detailed perspectives, 3D views and materiality.The equivalent of a Volvo: never fails and never dazzles, 'driving' well and safely.A choice for those who put reliability, accuracy, software adaptability and construction drawings above all.

Vectorworks Architect 8.5

Vectorworks represents a budget sector of the architectural market. Its former name, MiniCad, suggested that the software was merely a miniversion of a CAD package, which is untrue.

Vectorworks is an almost complete proposal for an office including fast 3D modelling of basic shapes, a good standard of 2D drafting (in terms of time and facility), cost-calculation worksheets and a clever system of working layers. It trails in functions related to complex and organic 3D shapes and surfaces, rendering and textures, with the result that it is not the most popular software among students. However, Vectorworks has enjoyed popularity as an efficient and pragmatic solution, and is an attractive starter suggestion for the CAD-illiterate architect who does not want to spend a fortune without knowing whether and to what extent the office's output will be based on computer presentations.

PROS: Fast and easy to use for simple-shaped buildings including brick construction.

Does not require high hardware specifications.

Practical with dimensions, symbols, stamps and 2D features.

Has functions for landscaping and mechanical design.

An interesting and intelligent concept of arranging layers (or levels) in terms of height.

CONS: 3Dsolids and surfaces of medium- to highcomplexity are difficult or impossible to create, which restricts the daring designer.

Some features, like reference files, are used in the latest version for the first time and are slightly more difficult to use than the equivalent features in competitive software products.

Limited rendering and texturing capabilities.

COST £299 will buy you the software and £114 RenderWorks, giving you a CAD solution at the price of a budget desktop and at a fraction of the cost of other solutions.

TO SUM UP. . .

Surprisingly effective in some cases, but tedious in demanding 3D.Very good value for money, but you must ask yourself if it does everything you want and what the trade-off will be. It is software for the pragmatic architect who needs good 2D and reasonably decent 3D presentations.Vectorworks is a tempting solution and no matter what software you would opt for from the previous three, you may be also considering this one. If you are a fan of brick, if you don't like curves, if your cash is tight and you are not getting jobs through competitions, you should consider it even more seriously. This Mini Cooper may do the job of a Chrysler Jeep, but on the one occasion when you want to cruise at more than 100mph, you will feel let down.But how often will that happen?

Microstation-J Triforma

Microstation is a software platform which is suitable not only for architects but also for product and component designers. It is a very flexible modelling tool, capable of producing complex 3D shapes, solids and surfaces, at excellent speed. It is software with immense 'personality', producing results full of originality of forms, giving unlimited possibilities for innovative design. Yet it caters for the everyday practicalities of the architect's office with relatively limited resources.

Microstation-J includes effective rendering and fly-through production features, limiting the need to export 3D files to separate software.

PROS: Speed of modelling 3D complex shapes and 3D building models, particularly at stages before practicalities such as window frames and sinks are considered.

A group of tools, introduced in the J version, allows easy modification of 3D shapes that boosts the designer's imagination and enables fast production of 3D model options.

A wonderful group of toolboxes for drafting curves and producing curved shapes.

User-friendliness from 10-15 tools which allow the designer to produce almost everything in 3D.

Popularity with students and young designers due to its geometrical capabilities and 3D speed, providing the market with a portion of very talented users.

A file and image referencing system which is easy to get used to (placing files and images as background to a drawing file).

CONS: Time inefficiency in 2D line drawings, due to a low level of standardisation of elements and symbols that are commonly employed in other 2D-based packages.

Comparative weakness in project management, cost calculation.

Complicated and unfriendly solar study tools, which do not offer the flexibility of rendering software.

Generation of sections, which is rather tedious.

COST The licence costs £4,250, but additional rendering software may not be required. The student version is low-priced and has few limitations in comparison to the professional release.There are special prices for offices with a student version.

TO SUM UP. . .

Microstation is a dynamic weapon for winning competitions and jobs. Images may look like nothing you have ever seen before. Drawings with vision, conceptual background and organic or curved shapes are ideally suited to this software.

Changes in 3D are fast and easy, and therefore it functions as a designing process package as well as a tool for final presentations. Good in 2D and everyday drawings, but its ID in the CAD software world is equivalent to a VW Beetle or a Porsche Carrera: fancy and stylish. It deserves its price if used by the right office. Not for brick houses with sloping roofs.

ArchiCAD 6.5

The package has been designed specifically for architects and professionals in the built environment, in contrast to other popular systems which also cater for engineers, product designers and manufacturers.This results in a series of features that cover the majority of an architect's needs, though leaving it with some deficiencies which will only be spotted during unusual projects.

Efficiency, practicality, commercial effectiveness and performance have to be set against some sacrifice of the organic 3D shape.

PROS: Outstanding modelling speed of traditional building forms.

Suitability for both 2D and 3D representation, although in most cases 2D drawings are not generated from the 3D model.

Combined capabilities in various fields including architectural design, interior design, landscaping and project management.

Cost calculation tools, based on prestructured, user-friendly templates.

A good library of 3D components, including 1,000 elements (100 doors, 100 windows, furniture, trees, people) most of them parametric (changeable characteristics).

A good proportion of UK architecture schools using the software, which provides the market with a strong base of young users and therefore reduced investment in training time.

Good compatibility with Apple Macs (the software was initially developed for Macs), being a choice for a significant proportion of offices which have not opted for PCs.

Easy orientation of the building or object (through an orientation compass) for solar studies and renderings.

Teamworking facilities, allowing the design file to be split and worked on separately, saving time and organising co-ordination. 'Reference' files were also introduced in the latest version, which give the user the opportunity to use a design file common for numerous design files (eg a grid pattern or the site plan) as background to a current design file (eg a floor plan).

Very rigid organising of project drawings, their filing and storage.

CONS: Design deficiencies in achieving organic forms and curve-based shapes, especially in 3D. This is tackled with the introduction of a library of 3D primitives which can be modified by the user so that the final 3D shape is achieved. But this still leaves some limitations to the forms it is possible to model, mainly due to time-inefficiency in modelling of certain solids and surfaces.

Not the best quality of rendering in terms of materiality, texture and reflections.Typically the 3D model is exported to a rendering package (ArchiCAD recommends Artlantis, which has a variety of tools aiming at photo-realistic rendering results).

Modelling is based on 'carving' solids rather than extruding or revolving profiles. ArchiCAD is used by a significant proportion of the largest 100 practices.

For users accustomed to AutoCAD or Microstation, training time may be extended because the principles on which the software operates are different from most other CAD solutions. But for 'fresh' users, training time seems to be extremely low. The distributors of the product in the UK comprise an extremely helpful sales team, with a lot of ambition, practical information and a realistic attitude towards the problems of the architectural office.

COST If bought individually the first licence costs £3,995, with licences two to five costing £2,995 each and the sixth licence plus costing £2,395 each. Five licences purchased at once cost £2,500 each. Ten cost £1,600 each. The add-ons (extra bits of software for specialised jobs) are relatively inexpensive. There is a special offer for AutoCAD users and a reasonably-priced student version. ArtLantis rendering software costs £545.

TO SUM UP. . .

ArchiCAD is an excellent job-winning tool due to its speed of modelling which produces impressive results allowing the office to respond to deadlines. 3D models of 'down-to- earth' (right angles, no curves) buildings that do not require complicated customized components. Design can probably be put together faster than using any other competitive software. It is not the cheapest solution but many claim that the software is worthy of its price tag.

Maybe the most 'architectural' of all contenders, but not very flexible and not a tool for innovative and groundbreaking design. Something of a Saab: drives well everywhere and ages nicely, but is perfect for nothing.

Mimis Koumantanos has trained as an architect and is co-founder of Net Petal Solutions.E-mail: mk@CADstreet. com

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