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Piranesi 3.0

PROS:Photoshop tools for 3D models

CONS: lt does not work on Apple Macs

The Apple Macintosh was for many years the architect's favourite hardware platform, because of its superior graphics-handling ability compared with the IBM-compatible PC. Ask any architect why they used Macs and they would tell you that design involves more than just technical drawing, and that the Mac with Freehand, Photoshop and Quark gave them the tools they needed to complete their presentations.

With a simple and intuitive interface, and a plethora of sketching, painting, layout and pre-press software available, the Mac reigned for many years in design studios.

During hardware selection, the humble and comparatively clunky PC was passed over regularly. But then the Mac started to lose ground as Windows improved. Many CAD vendors ceased developing for the Mac Operating System (OS) and graphics-software companies started to develop for the Windows-based PC. These changes enabled many practices to upgrade their ageing Apples to faster PCs without the loss of the graphics dexterity they had previously enjoyed.

One such developer, Informatix, was quick to recognise that the computer-literate architect does not just use a single piece of software for creating high-quality presentations; indeed, in many cases a presentation would only be deemed complete after it had passed through a series of different filters.

For example, a CAD drawing could be used to create a 3D CAD model, which would then be rendered and an image saved for inclusion in a brochure or wall presentation.

However, prior to laying out the presentation in Quark, the architect will often 'massage' an image in Photoshop to enhance certain aspects of the view. Following some in-depth research and development, Informatix released the first version of Piranesi in late 1997.

Designed to bridge the gap between the three-dimensional world of computer models and the static environment of Photoshop, Piranesi is a unique concept in computer rendering. Imagine using Photoshop to add textures to an individual image and you have the concept. However, with Piranesi, when you add a texture, it is applied to the whole model so that when you change your view all your previous efforts are still included in the image.

Supplied with a comprehensive library of more than 2,000 textures and cut-outs (we will come to those later), you are well equipped to start work straight away.

Installing and starting up for the first time is as easy as you would expect, and the user interface combines the graphical simplicity of Windows' own Paint application with similar geometrical locks or switches found in Autodesk's Architectural Studio or Last Software's SketchUp; both very competent modelling tools.

Getting started is easy too. If you are coming from another CAD application, a tool called Vedute delivered with Piranesi will open and convert your 3D model data to Piranesi's own file format. The file formats supported by Vedute include DXF, 3DS, MAN and THF. Once the model has been opened in Piranesi, you are ready to start painting and applying textures to transform what could in the first instance be a very simple block model into a competent visualisation.

The process of applying textures could not be easier. Using similar application techniques to those used by 3D Max, textures can be dropped onto the whole scene or onto individual faces of geometric shapes with switches to affect the scale, transparency and orientation. Furthermore, textures can be reapplied again and again to the same place to build up intensity.Another neat feature is the switch for 'Grain' which will 'fuzz' the background portions of the texture, leaving the foreground pin sharp. This increases the perspective effect and the overall legibility of the image.

As is often the case, a computer-rendered view can often appear false when no elements of scale are included in the scene.

Piranesi's solution for placing people, street furniture, cars and landscaping elements such as trees and bushes comes in the form of 'cut-outs'. Essentially the cut-outs are static images with invisible backgrounds on the alpha channel. As with textures, placing cutouts of people and landscape is straightforward. Using the same style browser that you used to select textures, you can select a person by double-clicking on the image and placing it in the view. Since the Piranesi scene is a 3D model, the cut-outs are scaled as they are moved around the scene to comply with the perspective. And it is possible to place them with or without shadows for greater reality. The only downside appears to be the way the cut-outs are lit; sometimes they look about as convincing as the NASA moon-landing photos where the shadows project towards you, while the objects are lit from the front. It is of course possible that I failed to change the setting for the direction of the shadows!

One of the new features in Piranesi 3.0 is the ability to create Quicktime 3D panorama movie files that can then be viewed and downloaded from the Internet. Again, this is easy to do and makes the package even more attractive.

Costing approximately £450 for a single licence, Piranesi is great value, and there are incredible deals available for students and educational establishments.

So the message for all the architects who once selected Apple Macintosh computers over IBM-compatible PCs on the grounds of the amount of graphics work they did, is that they should take Piranesi 3.0 for a test drive.

As for those architects who still use Apple Macs, I recommend that you join the 21st century and get a PC. Without it you will be missing out on the very thing you think the Mac once gave you; the ability to use the best graphics software on the market.

PRIME

PROS: Opens up each daybook to the entire practice

CONS: lt is only as reliable as the users' input

It is funny how some totally disconnected situations often come together as a result of alcohol-induced discussions.

A few weeks ago, I looked at a piece of software called PRIME , which was designed by a chartered surveyor and developed on its behalf by Prime Computer Consulting for client-services management. At first glance it appeared quite a useful tool, and I resolved to take a closer look when afforded a little more time.

Then out of the blue, while sharing a beer, my architect friend Andy began bemoaning the fact that in the past six months, he has filled four hard-backed A4 daybooks with notes from every telephone conversation and meeting he has been involved in. He finds that it now takes him far too long to retrieve his comments from any particular conversation, and his problem gets worse with every day that passes as he fills in more pages in his fifth book.

'Is there any software that can make this process easier?' he asked. In response, I tried to describe PRIME , its functionality and the benefits of databases. This made me realise I needed a closer look at the software.

The interface is robust if a little inelegant; some might say that it is typical of something designed by surveyors rather than architects. But as it moves into the architectural market, Prime wants to partner with architectural practices to develop the tool further in terms of functionality and aesthetics, so you can expect improvement.

But what is it? PRIME is a Windowsbased application consisting of a simple and intuitive front-end to the labyrinth of structured information storage space that is a database. Being fully customisable, PRIME enables any user to access a familiar environment tailored to the specific needs of their own practice.Out of the box it is subdivided into three key sections, which consist of:

Customer relationship management (CRM) This is the bit that could easily solve some of Andy's woes. Linked to a client journal, the CRM section enables users and the practice as a whole to track and manage all relevant correspondence with other team members and the client. Producing a complete audit trail, it can highlight areas of importance quickly to more than one party within the same team and automatically flag up predefined reminders for various project activities. Furthermore, it interfaces directly with popular e-mail and word-processing packages to create mail-merge and e-mail documents for individuals or client groups.

This means there is no need to bin existing applications in order to make full use of PRIME

Jobs

As it stands, the 'Jobs' section enables users to create, manage and measure all job information about their clients, which is then available to the practice as a whole. With a few tweaks, it could be modified to also facilitate internal project team analysis and resource/cost management. For example, it could provide a one-stop shop to find out which employee worked on the cladding package of a recent project with a particular cladding supplier. That way it could serve as a valuable resource to another team when confronted with similar design issues.

Events/campaigns

This section has been designed to enable the marketing team to manage client hospitality and events better. However, I am not sure quite how relevant it would be to the average architectural practice.

While it is easy to get carried away with the possible benefits on offer by implementing computerised client management, it is not a panacea. And, as is always the case, it is only as good as the people using it. Technology should never be viewed as the solution; it is never the end in itself. Projects of this nature involve three inter-dependent and key components: people, who drive the process which, in turn, should be assisted by the technology.

One should remember that the knowledge held by the team belongs to the practice and not to the practice employees. Capture it and you may make your combined practice knowledge greater than the sum of its parts.

The real beauty of this tool is the flexibility afforded to the architect. Andy will be able to find the tit-bit of information he requires from a database with far greater speed than he would by leafing through the pages of his daybook. Furthermore, any one of his colleagues could perform the same search on the database and be party to the same information without even having to converse with Andy. Now that will please his team!

Joe Croser can be contacted at joe@croser. net

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