Software Roundup

Never again will I trust a software review. I’ve written dozens of them over the last decade and it is only now that I realize that a few hundred words can never provide the kind of in-depth information that is necessary for architects to make informed decisions about purchases that will cost them thousands of dollars and have a dramatic impact on their practices.

I’ve come to this revelation after a few months of intensive work with a number of venerable packages such as ArchiCAD 7.0, formZ 3.9.5, Viz 4.0 and more recently with newer additions such as SketchUp and Architectural Studio. While an article like this one can point you in the right direction, the only way to tell if a piece of software is right for you is to try it yourself–not just in a 10-minute in-store demo but in your office, on a real project, for a number of days. The intention of this column is not to tell you what software to buy, but rather to paint in broad strokes the current CAD landscape and help you find your way through it.

The sad truth is that most software (not just CAD packages) is not very good and so caveat emptor must be heeded now more than ever. In the July/August issue of MIT’s Technology Review, in an article entitled “Why Software is so Bad,” Charles C. Mann writes, “all too often, software engineers say, code is bloated, ugly, inefficient and poorly designed; even when programs do function correctly, users find them too hard to understand.” Nor is the situation getting better. In the rush to bring new versions to the marketplace, software is in general less reliable than it used to be. Even as I write this, Microsoft Word, one of the longest lived packages on the planet, has just crashed for no apparent reason.

But all those new features keep enticing us back for more and more punishment. Few architectural design packages are as comprehensive as ArchiCAD 7.0. Not only can you assemble a complete virtual building in three dimensions from a wide assortment of windows, doors, stairs and roofs; not only can you modify those parts ad infinitum by changing their parametric capabilities; not only can you use the spline tool to contour a site; not only can you use your model to create a fully-rendered animation or an interactive QuickTimeVR virtual reality model; but with their Teamwork add-on you can do all of this over the Internet in collaboration with other members of your design team.

Or consider my favorite modeler, formZ, which has the best set of features for creating intricate shapes such as spirals, helixes and Boolean forms. Creating three dimensional objects is what this package does best and the current release (3.9.5), for example, will allow you to create complex curved surfaces by defining two, three or four boundary lines and do so with a greater degree of control than ever before. This package has also been extending its reach through the capability to export files in LightWave and Piranesi formats for further rendering.

Rendering is one of the key strengths of Autodesk Viz 4. Creating the look of realistic materials is simple with its Material Editor. Its photometric lights work with its radiosity rendering engine to produce very, very realistic results. Translated into English this means that Viz gives you the capability to place lights with the properties of real lights into a scene or interior and see what their effect would actually be. And its animation tools provide all the functionality that an architect is likely to need.

Ideally I would combine the architectural design capabilities of ArchiCAD with the modeling features of formZ, then add in the rendering and animation strengths of Viz. Thus, for a mere $10,000 I would have a fully functional CAD package. This is the sad truth of CAD software–no one package does it all. I was disappointed at how difficult it was to model any object out of the ordinary in ArchiCAD–someone, for example, let me know that the best way to model a railing was with the roof tool–and I don’t like the quality of its renderings; I’m constantly frustrated at how difficult it is to texture map an object in formZ and how it crashes when the models become too large; and I would hate to model a building from scratch in Viz.

Architects, no matter how painful it is to their pocketbooks, must think in terms of using a software pipeline where the design flows through a sequence of software packages–moving from conceptual design models to finished models to construction details to renderings, animations, videos and even websites. No matter which package I use to create a rendering, for example, it usually ends up being retouched in Photoshop. More recently I have been taking animations created in ArchiCAD and Viz and editing them in Adobe Premiere. The drawing included with this article is an attempt to illustrate this pipeline. Some common packages have been charted according to cost and functionality. The thin line indicates one path a design might take through these packages. The rectangular bars indicate what each package is good for and a discontinuous bar indicates where the package has a more limited degree of functionality. (I should emphasize that this illustration represents my opinion only and does not include other popular packages such as MicroStation. The genesis for this idea was an earlier illustration prepared by Barry Pendergast that can be found at his website; see

I’ve also been working with two new packages that may radically shake up this pipeline–although I must be quick to point out that I haven’t used them as extensively as the other packages described above. Nonetheless SketchUp from @LastSoftware and Architectural Studio from Autodesk are worth noting since both are predicated on the idea of a more natural interface for architects. SketchUp has developed an elegant and innovative interface for working completely in three dimensions. Inference points guide you as you slide your mouse through 3D space showing you the midpoints of walls or letting you know when you are parallel or perpendicular to a particular surface, axis or point. Or you can draw on a surface and then push it in to form an opening. It really does feel natural and intuitive. While it’s really only for conceptual design and modeling, for only $475US you can download a full copy from their website (see url below). For a more in-depth look at this software see CA, November 2002.

Architectural Studio combines a similar, natural approach to manipulating three dimensional models with a series of two dimensional drawing tools from virtual felt pens to pencils. The two dimensional tools can be used to sketch over photographs and provide the foundation for extruding a design into the third dimension. Virtual handles on the three dimensional shapes allow you pull, push and manipulate any primitive into a more complex form. But what interests me most about this product is that it works with tablet computers.

A tablet computer most closely resembles a flat panel display that you can draw on. Squeezed beneath its surface however, is a fully functional computer. I tested Studio on a Fujitsu Stylistic 3500 that weighs in at 3.2 pounds and is powered by a 500 Mhz, Intel Celeron CPU with 256 MB of RAM and a 15 GB hard drive. It has an 800 by 600 resolution, 10.4 inch display, wireless connectivity, a pen-based interface and a $5000 CDN price tag. While the quality of the display wasn’t superb and while the pen interface still felt like dragging plastic across plastic, the potential impact of these devices may well be enormous. Combined with new capabilities such as the ability to share files over the Internet what does this mean to the studio model of architectural education and practice when your studio can be anywhere–at the job site, in the client’s office, at home, on the plane or at the beach? How will you choose your consultants when your consultants can be anywhere in the world?

These new tools and packages emphasize that the design professions are being dragged into the Informa
tion Revolution where nothing is constant except change. Even as this column is being written, ArchiCAD is announcing training and demonstration sessions for version 8.0 and autodessys is preparing to release version 4.0 of formZ. According to Graphisoft, the manufacturer of ArchiCAD, the new version will feature improved tools for polylines, sections and cutting intersections through shapes; more efficient handling of documents including the ability to generate a .pdf; and bi-directional updates between schedules and models. I am particularly interested in the promise of this last feature since you will be able to change a door on the door schedule and have it automatically updated on the model itself.

Not to be outdone, formZ will offer such new capabilities as sketch rendering (which will give a more natural, hand-drawn feel to your images); network rendering which will allow you to render images on multiple machines over the Internet; and the ability to generate solid models from the “clouds” of points generated by 3D scanners.

Even though I admire both these packages, I know that their initial releases will contain frustrating and irritating bugs; I know that with increased complexity their learning curves will become steeper; and, just like Microsoft Word, most users will only ever use a fraction of their copious functions.

I also know that I’ve harped constantly on this theme for over a decade, but my message remains the same–any architectural firm that hopes to achieve any productivity gains with any of these products must have a carefully developed strategy for using them effectively. Despite these technological marvels it still comes down to people. No software package or tablet computer can ever justify its price tag unless it is carefully implemented and supported. Productivity gains will only come when your staff is properly trained and enthusiastic about the introduction of new tools. While I rail against the high price of many of these packages, it must be realized that you will incur far greater costs in training your people to use these new pieces of software than you will in buying them. But train them and support them you must. Every office should have a long-term technology plan.

There is no doubt that even with badly designed software, the practice of architecture is facing transformational changes. Anywhere, anytime design is the norm; design concepts and changes can be viewed instantly in glorious three-dimensional colour, and global communities of designers are constantly being formed. Computer-based design, however, will remain a frustrating proposition and never fulfill its true potential unless we take steps to confront its limitations.


Note: When buying software always check that you have the appropriate version of the operating systems mentioned below.

ArchiCAD Version 8.0

Single Seat Price: $6350 CDN

Operating Systems: Windows and Mac

Contact: GSCNE Inc.

Telephone: (905) 274-5534


Architectural Studio R3

Single Seat Price: $1750 CDN

Operating Systems: Windows only

Contact: Autodesk

Telephone: (905) 946-0928


formZ Version 3.9.5

Single Seat Price: $2995 CDN

Operating Systems: Windows and Mac

Contact: Zolos

Telephone: (416) 693-7382 or toll free (888) 838-7382


SketchUp Version 8.0

Single Seat Price: $785 CDN

Operating Systems: Windows and Mac

Contact: @Last Software

Telephone: (303)245-0086


Viz R4.0

Single Seat Price: $3,113 CDN

Operating Systems: Windows only

Contact: Autodesk

Telephone: (905) 946-0928


Douglas MacLeod is a contributing editor to Canadian Architect and director of projects for the Netera Alliance for advanced computing and networking in Alberta.