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Autodesk Architectural Studio

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PROS: lt is easy and fun to use

CONS: Not many, I could nitpick but I think I will let this one pass In the autumn of 1998, a man at Autodesk had a dream, to create a CAD-friendly drawing tool that would be as easy to use as a fibre-tipped pen and a pad of layout paper.

That man, Larry Felser, hired two design professionals and in less than a year of working together, they drafted the initial look and feel of Studiodesk, which has since been superceded by Architectural Studio. It is launching in the UK this summer and I expect it to be a huge hit.

People who have read my comments about Architectural Desktop may think I am not a fan of Autodesk, but they would be wrong. I try to evaluate software from a practical perspective of 'how easy is it to use and how well does it perform?' ADT performs reasonably well but it is certainly not easy to use, due to its inherent depth of functionality. So when I heard that Autodesk Architectural Studio (AAS) was so easy to use that a non-computer-literate designer could use it (never mind CAD literate), I could not believe my ears.

AAS has been developed to reflect accurately the needs and process of the architect throughout the concept-design stage of a project. It combines the principles of sketching on numerous sheets of layout paper, overlaid to enable iterative development of a scheme or individual details, with the power to explore the same ideas using simple cardlike 3D models.

After just 10 minutes of using AAS, I was amazed and found it an absolute joy. I tried to work out what makes it so cool. To start with, you get to play with a new toy, the incredible Cintiq touch screen by Wacom.

Second, AAS fills a gap that has existed in the architectural technology market since drawing boards became little more than a useful space to pile more filing close to your desk.

This is the requirement to be able to sketch in a traditional way and to reuse those sketches in the ordinary CAD environment.

The Cintiq is a 15-inch LCD touch screen that plugs into any computer with a monitor port and enables you to draw on the screen with a pen-shaped stylus.

Combine this 'sketch as you would normally' approach on a computer with the simple tools available in AAS for drawing and modelling, and you have a sure-fire winner. Getting started could not be easier. Open up AAS and you are greeted with the familiar 'graph paper' background. Do not be fooled though, this is not for drawing on - you need paper for that.

I can still hear my teacher: 'Croser! Would you draw on the table at home?' 'No sir!'

From the Drawing Tools (one of only three toolboxes, the others being 3D Tools and Templates), you select a piece of layout paper and place it over the graph-paper tabletop ready to draw. The paper can be as transparent as you like, from completely clear to fully opaque. From the same tool palette you can select various drawing tools including pencils, fibre-tip pens and fill tones. Each one again can be amended for colour, thickness and transparency, and the results can be saved to the toolbar for reuse.

For those of you who are sceptical about drawing on a computer, it is possible to vary the amount of pressure you use to draw. And if you press too hard, you will not break your pencil, nor do you have to rotate it in your fingers as you draw to maintain the line width.

There are similar benefits with the fibretipped pens. They will over-paint themselves, making the colour denser with each crossing stroke - just like the real thing.

The colour fills work just like Photoshop, where you can throw a bucket of paint over the enclosed area to be filled. Again the colours darken each time you apply them, and in this way mixing them up on screen can create different colours.

There is an eraser for taking out those few mistakes or simply for exploring new ideas on an existing sketch. There is also a powerful snapshot utility for taking pictures of your work on screen or capturing an image of another application on your computer.

Importing images or .DWFs from AutoCAD drawings makes sketching over existing surveys a breeze and increases the collaborative aspects of AAS within the office. And it does not stop there. There is an add-on module to AAS that facilitates on-line real-time collaboration across the Internet. Several designers, in different locations, can look at and sketch on the same file at the same time, making conflict resolution much speedier. The same tool can be used to compile sketches, notes and digital photos from site to highlight areas for discussion/amendment prior to being posted via email or the Internet.

I have barely touched on the 3D capabilities of AAS, which are still quite elementary even though you can sculpt shapes and cut holes in them with gay abandon. Perhaps on the next release, I will focus a little more on the 3D. The price has yet to be set in the UK but I believe it will be just under £1,000 (excluding the £1,100 Wacom).

AAS gets a thumbs up for achieving the impossible within Autodesk of being both easy to use and a great performer.

Joe Croser is a freelance consultant who can be contacted at joe@croser. net

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