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Growing old gracefully

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The latest incarnation of CAD grandpa ArchiCAD is great, but competitors such as Autodesk's Revit may have the edge

Graphisoft's ArchiCAD is not exactly new. It is nine versions old, making it the grandfather of building information modelling (BIM) applications.

So is this relic still worth a look? Can it still be cool? Absolutely. Just take one look at an Aston Martin DB4 and you will know that some things from yesteryear are still worth looking at.

ArchiCAD is not, of course, an automotive work of art. It is a real-world business tool designed for architects to link the sometimes parallel and often serial processes of 3D conceptual design and 2D drawing production (including quantity take-off) through the creation and development of a fully integrated CAD model.

This gap-narrowing approach to design development does come at a price. A graph of activity versus time recently produced by Graphisoft suggests that using something like ArchiCAD requires much effort at the design stage in order to reap rewards at the documentation-development stage.

But as we know, many design projects never make it beyond the initial phases.

Investing a lot of time at design stage is a risky business for designers.

With this in mind, ArchiCAD v9 has been developed to be easier to use than earlier versions and it has been made more powerful. At first glance, v9 certainly appears to be easier to work with. I have previously criticised ArchiCAD for looking too obviously as if it originated on the Apple Mac (which of course it did), sporting disorganised non-dockable menus and toolbars which stole screen real estate from the users' view of the model. Version 9 does away with all the clutter of previous versions, making functions easier to find and use.

Version 9 also takes its modelling and editing tools to a new level.

Improved element representations for sections and elevations result in improved drawing extraction and better coordination with AutoCAD's ubiquitous DWG file format.

Furthermore, the increased ability to customise the interface for different levels of users, combined with the improved text-editing and formatting tools, and a performance hike which sees ArchiCAD v9 perform 20 per cent faster than version 7 (version 8 was about as fast as a cart horse), collectively underpin the claims from Graphisoft of increased power.

Also, the inclusion for the first time of the Lightworks rendering engine now sees ArchiCAD creating soft shadows, more realistic materials and true reflections. As a result, the quality of images produced from an ArchiCAD model can compete with some of the very best computer modelling tools.

I have always believed that ArchiCAD's greatest strength is also one of its oldest: GDL, its geometric description language. GDL, which is ArchiCAD's programming environment, makes the application one of the only CAD modelling tools I have come across that enables the user to create a piece of geometry graphically on screen before applying rules and constraints to it numerically. This makes the geometric form an editable quasiparametric object. The interface for editing the object remains a bit techie but its power is quite something in comparison to other similar systems.

Another great strength in ArchiCAD's arsenal is Plot Maker, its plot-composition and management tool. As a stand-alone application, Plot Maker empowers non-CAD users to assemble, plot and re-plot ArchiCAD drawing sets and translate the same sets to other file formats including PDF, DWF, DGN and DWG.

ArchiCAD v9 has certainly been improved. But, like James Bond's Aston Martin, its old power and new beauty do not necessarily combine to make it the architect's essential tool of choice.

While ArchiCAD may now appear to be one of the sweetest looking architectural CAD tools, even with its GDL capacity it is becoming a little stiff in the architectural modelling joints when compared to some of the competition.

Take, for example, a look at the new version of Autodesk's Revit, which now allows its users to import any geometrical form before turning it into smart parametric elements.

You may be forgiven for thinking wizardry is at work. Revit's geometric advances may or may not signal the end of the road for this architectural grandfather which has come so far and improved so much - and costs as little as £2,200. It needs to be seen in that price context because ArchiCAD remains an economical and real competitor in an expensive world.

Further information can be found at www.Graphisoft. com Joe Croser can be contacted at joe@croser. net

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