The Phantom of the Opera

In August 1988, Canadian Architect published my review of MiniCAD. The cover story that month was on the Toronto Ballet Opera House competition, and filling the bulk of the issue were Moshe Safdie’s wiggly washes, James Stirling’s chunky axonometrics and Barton Myers’ precise perspectives. Each architect was asked to prepare a sketchbook, so their individual presentation techniques came to the forefront. There wasn’t a CAD drawing to be seen among any of the published entries. Squeezed between the work of these behemoths, my musings on the subjectivity of software reviews, the dearth of CAD software for the Macintosh and my irritation at poorly written manuals seemed like the ramblings of some displaced phantom from an alien culture.

Now, 13 years later, the Ballet Opera House still isn’t built, but it’s almost impossible to imagine completing a similar competition without computers. In fact, A.J. Diamond, Donald Schmitt and Company’s drawings of the current Opera House design exemplify today’s sophisticated computer renderings (see CA, August 1999). Like dog years, CAD years move at an accelerated pace and 1988 seems closer to ancient Egypt than to current modes of architectural presentation. Few CAD packages have survived from that time, and gone are the VersaCads and MacDrafts of yesteryear. Those that have survived look nothing like their former selves. MiniCAD is one of those survivors and has emerged as a radically different package, now produced by a company called Nemetschek NA and re-named VectorWorks (see

This history is important in understanding the product and how it works. MiniCAD was first released in 1985 as a general purpose CAD program for the Macintosh. Over the years it attracted a following in architectural circles, particularly in British Columbia. In 1996 MiniCAD was ported to the Windows operating system and subsequently morphed into VectorWorks, which became Nemetschek’s flagship product. VectorWorks Architect, released in 2000, is a separate software package that is built on (but does not require) VectorWorks. Other industry-specific packages, such as VectorWorks Landmark (for landscape architects) and VectorWorks Spotlight (for lighting designers), are also available.

Make no mistake, this is an extraordinary product–but being extraordinary is not necessarily a good thing. In an approach that will unsettle many architects, it demands that designers know what they are doing and get organized before they start drawing. More specifically, to use VectorWorks Architect to its full potential you must know what drawing sheets you will require and start with an understanding of the overall organization of the building project. While other CAD packages act as 3D modelers, Architect presents itself as a project management tool.

What Architect and all VectorWorks products do is take project information and organize it into what are called sheets, layers and classes. At the start of a new design you use the program’s Setup Assistant to create a new project file. Each project file contains a number of sheets. For a large commercial project, the Setup Assistant suggests a wide range of sheets, from a Foundation Plan to a Roof Plan and all the plans in between. But the Setup Assistant is far more demanding than that. Before you even get near a drawing, it wants to know the project type; how many floors it has; the scales of the various drawings; the heights between floors; the ceiling heights; and, finally, what kind of printer and sheet size you are planning to use. Clearly this is not a package for sketching out a design la Safdie.

Layers and classes add more dimensions of complexity. Don’t think of VectorWorks layers like those in AutoCAD; they’re more like slices through a building. Each floor in the project, for example, may have its own layer, but so might the ceiling grid. Different layers may also be at different scales (to permit detailing) or they may present different three-dimensional views. There are also two different types of layers–Model Layers contain information that is shared among different sheets, while Sheet Layers contain information that is only used by that sheet. Classes are attributes, and complex objects may have more than one class. A wooden railing may be an instance of the wood class and the railing class. It is essential that users grasp these conceptual structures because they are the underpinnings of everything that VectorWorks does.

Information flows through the entire project from bubble diagrams to door schedules. The real strength of the program, however, comes in the development of the schematic design. Slabs are created, walls are drawn and windows and doors inserted, and each is placed in its appropriate layer. This allows for even more powerful tools such as the automatic generation of framing plans and the ability to export building geometries to other programs, such as the American Department of Energy’s energy analysis package.

There is also an impressive array of additional modules and add-ons that are all supplied with the basic product. There are some 60 object libraries provided (including 26 window libraries from Andersen and Marvin). There are modules for creating theatre seating layouts and site contours; there are tools to automatically generate stacking diagrams, adjacency maps and room schedules; and there is a whole suite of features devoted to mechanical, electrical and plumbing design.

This is a full-featured package which, in some cases, surpasses the functionality of AutoCAD and ArchiCAD, but the most extraordinary thing about VectorWorks Architect is its price, which at $1895 is a fraction of the cost of these other two. In a perfect world, its affordability would shame other manufacturers into lowering their prices.

Yet the program is still haunted by some of the phantoms of 1988. Back then I was livid about MiniCAD’s incomprehensible 3D interface and its terrible manual. In its new incarnation, it is still a very frustrating and unforgiving program that can do bewildering things. When I tested it, walls disappeared for no apparent reason, or the program would seize up because I hadn’t run the Setup Assistant properly. Moreover, while the pathetic documentation of 1988 has evolved into a thick, glossy book, it is still uninformative and badly written. For example, while the manual suggests that “line and text attributes can be applied directly to the graphic with the Attributes palette,” in fact text is changed by using the pull-down Font menu. This is a program that cries out for a full and comprehensive tutorial, and its low price could easily be negated by the need for extensive training.

Nonetheless it is impressive and its only real competition is a program like Revit (see “Transcending into Architecture,” CA, August 2000). Both products offer an automated approach to generating drawings and schedules but while Architect has better object libraries and framing modules and is much less expensive, Revit is far easier to use. Like Revit, however, Architect also suffers from poor rendering and modeling modules. Neither product can match the three dimensional virtuosity of formZ and neither produces high-quality renderings. In the case of Architect this can be remedied with the purchase of RenderWorks (another Nemetschek product). This software allows you to map the classes created in your Architect project file to shaders in RenderWorks so that, for example, the class of wooden railings is rendered using an oak shader.

But VectorWorks Architect really isn’t about modeling and rendering. The VectorWorks people have carefully considered how data moves through a building project, and this is its key strength. The software is based on workflow, not three-dimensional models. This makes it very powerful but it also makes it complicated and it demands that you understand how a building project is organized from the outset.

Unfortunately, architecture can’t be reduced to such a rational process. In this sense this product–as is true of all CAD packages-
-is haunted by the ghosts of the Opera House. Had the VectorWorks Architect of today been available in 1988, would it have been a “secret weapon” that would have tipped the scales in favour of one of the competitors? Probably not. The winner, Safdie, eschewed the hard-edged, almost CAD-like precision of the Myers submission in favour of his trademark sketches, which reviewer Mark Franklin described as “sympathetic, clear, understandable.” He added, “Even more importantly, the text is studded with good ideas, some elaborated in the scheme, others just enticingly suggested” (italics mine). Ultimately, architecture isn’t about crisp organization of workflow. While it is realistic to hope that CAD drawings will be clear and understandable, it is hard to imagine that they will ever win competitions by being enticingly suggestive or sympathetic.

Douglas MacLeod is Director of Projects for NetEra Alliance for advanced computing and networking in Alberta, and a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.

System Requirements


Operating System: Windows 95, Windows NT 4.0 or later

Processor: Pentium II or greater; 96 MB RAM; 200 MB hard-drive space (full install); 150 MB hard-drive space (basic install)

Monitor: SVGA Monitor with 256 or more colours

CD-ROM Drive


Operating System: Mac OS 8.6 or greater

Processor: Power Macintosh or greater; 96 MB RAM; 200 MB hard-drive space (full install); 150 MB hard-drive space (basic install)

CD-ROM Drive


VectorWorks Architect: first seat: $1895; additional seats: $1278

VectorWorks: first seat: $1299; additional seats: $994

RenderWorks: first seat: $476; additional seats: $335; when purchased with VectorWorks: $427

For additional pricing information call 1-800-260-0905