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ArchiCAD V7

PROS: established product, so easy to use

CONS: interface multi-user access small user base in UK (difficult to find experienced users)

PRICE: £4,000 approximately

Ask anybody about architectural 3D CAD modelling and he or she wants to talk about ArchiCAD. Those who have used it love it;

those who have not are curious - so much so that sales in the UK rocketed in 2000, growing by 68 per cent. This year they are on target for further growth figures in the region of 20 per cent.With almost all of the licences being sold replacing AutoCAD seats, ArchiCAD is certainly making an impact on the UK market, so I decided to take a look at its latest offering, version 7.

When you first launch ArchiCAD on a PC, there is no doubting its roots. Originally developed on the Mac, visually, ArchiCAD V7 still bears more than a passing relationship to the earlier version. The majority of tools in the interface take up valuable screen space, masking the drawing windows. On my laptop with its 800 x 600 screen resolution, some of the tools stretched off the screen, so I was forever moving the palettes around to get to the tool I wanted. This was not a great first impression.

I started modelling and my spirits lifted instantly. ArchiCAD made building a model of the Villa Savoye easy (I know I use the same building for everything - continuity of measurement! ). In the space of half an hour I had constructed the grid, columns, walls and window openings. And after just four hours I had completed more than in seven hours with Architectural Desktop 3. No wonder architects are ditching AutoCAD for ArchiCAD.

To manage the data structure, ArchiCAD provides separation through the use of layers and storeys. Layers work in much the same way as other CAD tools, and storeys separate the building vertically. It works nicely, making it easy to switch from one floor plan to another while viewing floors above or below as ghost plans, greyed out.

Objects such as walls, floors, windows and doors have individual defined symbology settings that are applied either at the system level or at user level. For example, a wall will have a section linestyle, section fill, layer, height and width - along with a few more.

Rendering settings are also included in the 'object settings' dialogue, enabling the user to pick different materials for the internal and external faces of a wall. This makes it much easier to have a single piece of geometry, which has a brick pattern on one side and a plaster finish on the other.

And - get this - if you get stuck just move your mouse over any icon and right-click and you get a comprehensive pop-up menu explaining the nature of the tool and what to do next. As context-sensitive help goes, this is cool!

Almost all the working is done in the 2D window and you could be mistaken for thinking that you were drawing instead of modelling. Until, that is, you turn to the 3D window and, appearing 'as if by magic' (like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben), there in front of your eyes is a 3D model. It is also possible to model in the 3D window but it requires more concentration, so I returned to the plan. Unfortunately you cannot create geometry in elevation or section, so I modelled a couple of the more tricky bits in the plan view before rotating them into position.Mmm. . .

Deciding whether ArchiCAD will handle big models is tricky with such a short familiarisation period. The model that I created reached just over 1MB. This is much bigger than the comparable ADT3 or TriForma models, which, I think, weighed in at less than 500k. However, should the going get tough, ArchiCAD has a cunning plan up its sleeve. Just place a marquee around the area of the plan you want to view or manipulate and go to the 3D window, where the entire model is effectively trimmed back to the edge of the marquee. If you want to be even more selective about the elements you see, simply pick them in 2D, move to the 3D view and there they are.

Only the selected elements are displayed.

Naturally, not all big models are worked on by just one individual and ArchiCAD is addressing this issue with the introduction of 'Teamwork'. By separating users into one of four groups for administering, supporting, creating and reviewing, 'Teamwork' applies permissions to each group, enabling them to check data in and out of the model. I did not have a chance to look at this feature on my own, so I cast a few questions around in ArchiCAD offices. The general feeling was that it did not work very well - but then they were only using ArchiCAD for 2D drawing, which led me to believe that they were not really using it as designed.

When I had completed the model, I naturally wanted to extract plans and sections, create a drawing sheet and add some notes and dimensions. ArchiCAD's sectioncutting tools are simple and effective, but I found myself running up against a brick wall (a virtual one) when trying to extract plans. Unfortunately, ArchiCAD will not allow you to print ghost storeys (the ones above or below, which you view at the same time as the active storey). Nor will it display two storeys at one time. How, then (when using storeys correctly) would I get a roofplan of my building, which needs to plot elements on three storeys at the same time?

The chaps from ArchiCAD were adamant that nobody had previously asked for such a feature - perhaps that is why their users are drawing instead of modelling.

After all the hype and positive comments I had heard about ArchiCAD, I was expecting to be blown away. For my liking, the interface is too Mac-like (read outdated) - a style which I outgrew years ago. As an architectural modelling tool it is fantastic - it enables very fast model-creation with cool rendered images and simple drawing capability. But as a single-building model solution, it falls short of the mark when it comes to multi-user access on large projects and extracting drawings. People often ask me which CAD tool they should buy. I generally reply by asking them what they want to do.

ArchiCAD will certainly be a tool I recommend to some in the future, if not to all.

MicroGDS PROS:

Data structure Graphics quality Multi-user access CONS:

Key-ins Small user base in UK (difficult to find experienced users) PRICE: £1,200-£2,500 approximately Have you ever noticed how brand names quickly become synonymous with the object? Think of your vacuum cleaner and you probably refer to it as a 'Hoover' - even though as an architect you almost certainly have a Dyson! In much the same way, many people think of AutoCAD when referring to CAD, making it difficult for the less wellknown tools to break the surface and gain market share.

MicroGDS is the perfect example of a CAD tool which has been around for many years and still encounters the 'micro-what?'

response from many.

Perhaps a little background history would be helpful: MicroGDS is developed by Informatix Software International (ISI) which is also responsible for Piranesi - that mercurial PhotoShop-like tool for rendering 3D models.

The first release of MicroGDS came in the form of V5.1.1 in July 1997. I took a look at it in the summer of '99 and thought that, while it showed many strengths, the interface let it down, involving far too many 'key-ins' and not really embracing the 'heads-up' design of graphical user interfaces (GUIs).

That was version 6.0 and a lot of effort has since gone into improving the interface.

The latest version is 7.0 and my first impression was good. The interface is much simpler and looks as though it has been on the CAD equivalent of a 'Slim Fast' diet. With a traditional layout of main menus along the top of the screen, toolbars docked around the window edges and sides, and the addition of a new document organiser, it is a far nicer place to work than previous versions.

Like AutoCAD's Design Center, the document organiser is an explorer-like interface for managing layers, window styles (like saved views in most CAD applications), fonts and raster and image library files. Supporting drag-and-drop, it is in my view the coolest addition to version 7.0.

While MicroGDS V7 benefits from the friendlier interface, its great strength still lies in its ability to handle huge quantities of data which can be located on a single computer or spread across a wide area network.

This is reinforced by the typical user profile of MicroGDS compared with AutoCAD.

The average AutoCAD site sports between two and five licences, whereas the average MicroGDS site has numbers well into threefigures. This is due in no small part to how it manages the data. Each layer is essentially a different file, which can be saved onto a hard disk on any computer, anywhere in the world. A scary prospect you may think, but the fright-potential is managed cleverly by the application database which presents the data to you in a familiar file/layer format, keeping your blood pressure low.

Another thing that is low is the file size, but the quality is not. MicroGDS is more than a match for Vector Works (once called MiniCAD) in terms of presentation drawing. Capable of using vector and raster (JPEG) fills.MicroGDS is the first CAD tool I have seen which can compete with the 'hand-rendered' look of Vector Works drawings. Having user-definable linestyles makes it easy to draw shapes and hatch them at the same time. For example, you can define a linestyle with a line colour, thickness and style (solid, dashed, dotted etc) for the perimeter, while also defining a linear hatch, crosshatch or raster fill for the inside of the shape. The result is faster creation and editing of graphics. This is very MiniCAD-like, but where MiniCAD falls down - on enabling concurrent multiuser access to the same data - MicroGDS excels (in the two networked versions only).

There are four products which make up the MicroGDS family: Compact (stand-alone 2D); Plus (Networked 2D); Compact3D (stand-alone 3D); and Pro (networked 3D). The prices range from approximately £1,200 to £2,500 (from www.

camdat. co. uk). MicroGDS may not be as cheap as MiniCAD, but it is a lot more useful for anyone who has more than one person working on the same job.

Taking your MicroGDS data into other CAD systems is handled in the usual way, with one exception. DWG and DXF is the established route in and out while the addition of XML last year made MicroGDS hit the headlines as 'the first CAD tool to support XML with 100 per cent accuracy'.

This is no small claim, but I hear that the files are enormous due to the amount of 'stuff ' inside - I think, therefore, that it will be a while before XML becomes an industry-standard geometryexchange format.

MicroGDS V7.0 really has matured. The interface is more graphical, more windows-logical and ultimately easier to use. The data structure continues to handle large quantities of information with ease and it has the ability (in the right hands, of course) to produce fabulous drawings. It sounds like the ideal tool, but with an estimated install base of approximately 2,500-3,000 users in the UK, it will be difficult to resource staff. Naturally, you could train them but, for the time being at least, they would have to learn those damn key-ins.

Joe Croser can be contacted by e-mail at joec@adrem-dcx. com or tel 07973 263360

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