ArchiCAD 16 – three wishes granted

The latest incarnation of ArchiCAD – version 16 – is an instance of revolution and evolution. Graphisoft have introduced several new and beefed up a few of the old functions. The new features in ArchiCAD 16 may be grouped under three themes: the freeform Morph tool, improved IFC handling skills and EcoDesigner integration. All these are very much cutting-edge stuff. ArchiCAD 16 provides support for ‘wow’ architecture, Open BIM and the crusade against climate change alike.

ArchiCAD is a rather venerable application – not 16 years old as the version number would indicate but 26 years old. It is beginning to show its age in its user interface and the annually introduced new concepts, only some of which have been fully thought out, i.e. developed into tools that work flexibly under all circumstances. Many of the more or less recent additions are half-finished and can only tackle some of the design situations to which they would be applicable if robustly implemented.

The ArchiCAD user interface is sorely in need of remodelling from the ground up. For old users, new features are not a problem: it is easy enough to learn a few new buttons each year, assuming that one needs them all. But for the new user, the ArchiCAD user interface is an intimidating experience –  there is an incredible profusion of buttons, concepts, palettes, menus and functions with no overall uniform operating logic.

The same thing is executed in different ways with different tools; however, something that works with one tool may not work with another. The 3D and 2D views behave differently from each other, as do floor plans and sections. What is more, the user can only view one floor plan at a time but several sections at once. The most inexplicable thing is that only one model may be open at any one time; however, you can get round this by launching several instances of ArchiCAD. Many of these quirks are relics from an age when ArchiCAD used to run on the primeval Macintoshes known in Finland as ‘birdhouses’ with a 512 x 384 pixel black and white display.

Despite these symptoms of its advancing years, ArchiCAD still reigns supreme as the most advanced and sophisticated BIM application for architectural design. The Morph tool is the response of ArchiCAD 16 to the flexibility of SketchUp and the freeform capabilities of Revit. At the same time, ArchiCAD 16 has inched ahead of its competition in improved IFC handling skills, and in ecological calculation it is in a class of its own.

The incredible Morph

16 variations on a rectangular parallelepiped.

Morph is by far the most impressive feature in ArchiCAD 16. It provides endless hours of fun while enabling designers to resolve various modelling situations in many different ways. It is flexible for sketching, second to none for shaping details, convenient for editing objects created with other tools, and exceptionally easy and quick for creating custom objects such as furniture.

The most unusual feature about the Morph tool is that an element created with another tool can be converted into a Morph element. Several elements can be fused into a single Morph element, and these new elements, in turn, can be processed in countless ways, for instance by rounding off the edges and corners.

A step towards 3D

Morph represents a step towards traditional 3D modelling. Its elements consist of points, edges, corners, faces and ‘flesh’. 3D lines and surfaces can be modelled using Morph. An edge may even be curved, although this is ‘approximated’ as a polygon as in all 3D applications.

The novelty of Morph in the ArchiCAD context is that it primarily relies on the 3D window – the 2D window is not really used at all for editing. When editing a Morph element, the content of the context menu largely depends on where the user points and clicks: corners, edges and faces have very different editing properties. Some editing functions move, stretch or shape an existing sub-element while others add more sub-elements.

On floor plans, Morph elements are intelligently shown, such as shells and inclined walls: the structure is shown at the section elevation and the portion above shown as a dotted-line projection. Morph uses the 3D engine to generate a 2D view, which means that if there are many complicated Morph elements in the model, redrawing (the Rebuild command) will slow down.

Basic Morph

Moving, stretching and shaping works much like with 2D polygons, but the possibility of adding new sub-elements introduces new potential. For instance, a flat round plane can be extruded into a 3D shape, and complicated pipe work or railings in 3D space can be created with a few clicks. Caution is advised, however, because it is difficult to visualise a 3D space on a flat screen.

The Morph tool introduces one new keyboard shortcut, Control-Shift-click, which selects sub-elements within a Morph element, for instance an edge that needs to be rounded or faces whose material needs to be replaced. Indeed, Morph is the first ArchiCAD function in whose elements the material may be separately selected for all surfaces. Selected sub-elements in a Morph element may be edited, moved and copied just like any other element. Duplicated sub-elements remain part of their original Morph element. This is where the Morph tool leaves SketchUp far behind in flexibility.

If the user deletes a surface or face in a Morph element, the element becomes hollow. This is a highly useful feature in architectural modelling. For example, it used to be the case that modelling sheet metal 1 mm thick, with actual thickness, took much time and effort. With the Morph tool, however, all kinds of twisted sheet metal are easy to model in 3D – all you have to do is draw a profile and extrude it as required.

Soft technology

ArchiCAD has traditionally been a ‘hard’, very ‘blocky’ piece of equipment. Everything was clunky and rotations were limited or required GDL programming. With the introduction of the Morph tool, rounding edges and corners has become as easy as riding a bike. But even beyond that, some whiz kid programmer has come up with the idea of adding a command named ‘Smooth and Merge’, which can melt any shape into a soft lump. Of course, the expert user will not smooth down an entire element but will select a few strategic sub-elements and smooth them. The results are so beautiful that I heartily recommend that the company give the whiz kid a raise.

So what do we need this smoothing technology for? Well, for mainly for ‘wow’ architecture, of course, but I believe that some 99% of architects will also use it to model furniture and other small objects. Sofas, beds, pillows, taps, office chairs, dishes, plants and hundreds of other things that used to be impossible to model in ArchiCAD without serious GDL expertise can now be created at the drop of a hat and after only a few hours of practice. Not only that, all of the elements created can be saved as objects to be reused. Golf course designers will also find the Morph tool more convenient than the Surface tool thanks to its bulge operations, flexibility of materials and Boolean operations.

An interesting feature in the Morph tool is its ability to create a surface between 3D lines. If a group of straight and curved 3D lines form a closed shape, they can be converted into a surface with the Add Surface command. This is an excellent way of modelling features such as ramps and spirals.

The ‘front wall’ of the Morph element on the right has been removed, making the element hollow. The copies have been smoothed using two different settings. In the one in the middle, the borders (i.e. the aperture) are original, while in the one on the left everything has been smoothed.

Extrusion, textures and flexibility

In many cases, the easy way to produce a shape is to create a profile and extrude it. Creating profiles for walls, pillars and beams was already possible in earlier versions of ArchiCAD. The Morph tool, however, allows extrusion in any direction or combination in 3D space, including along curves, allowing incredible flexibility. And because Morph elements can be merged, a conglomerate consisting of several extruded Morph elements can be managed as a single element.

The Morph tool allows better control of materials than ever before. Each face of a Morph element may have a different material and the texture may be mapped in two different ways, using the box or the planar method, depending on what it will be used for. The start point and direction of the texture can also be set.

Perhaps the quickest way of putting together a sofa or other soft object is to first use the old clunky tools such as slabs, roofs and walls. Once the pieces of the sofa are in place, they can be converted into Morph elements, separately or together. If the intention is to merge them, they should be merged at the same time. Then it is only a matter of rounding the edges and smoothing out the cushions for your perfectly modelled sofa which has taken only a few minutes to complete – even a beginner can do it in under half an hour.

A texture may be assigned to a Morph element or its surface in two ways. It can be projected from one direction as in the smoothed rectangular parallelepiped in the foreground (box method); or projected from six different directions as in the one on the right (planar method). On the left, the tiled texture was slightly shifted and tilted.

The infinite potential of Morph

GDL objects can also be converted into Morph elements, after which they can be stretched and smoothed in every possible way. When windows and doors are converted, the wall aperture is always converted into a rectangle. This must count as a flaw, as it is a technically simple function and unnecessarily restricts the use of the Morph tool.

The Morph tool will become very popular – too popular, I fear. But maybe it will point the way for ArchiCAD to associate tools more with forms and ways of shaping a form than with the function of a form, i.e. whether a particular shape is a wall or a ceiling. The Morph tool liberates design – it can easily produce nooks and crannies, bumps and protrusions, and there is a strong incentive for converting old elements into Morph elements whenever an ‘exception’ is required. But this involves the loss of structural type, so I will be waiting for the Morph tool’s properties to become applicable to older ArchiCAD elements, too.

Did I mention that the Morph tool can also generate revolved shapes? There is just so much that the Morph tool has brought to ArchiCAD…

EcoDesigner integrated

Graphisoft has made a commendable decision in integrating EcoDesigner into ArchiCAD. There are now two versions of EcoDesigner: basic and Star. Unfortunately, only the basic version is bundled with the package, so those requiring more precise energy calculations will have to shell out for EcoDesigner Star, or perhaps even for VIP Energy, which is what EcoDesigner is based on. There are considerable differences between the basic version and Star – in the basic version, for example, the entire building is considered a single space while in Star each room is handled separately.

Despite the simplified calculation process of the basic version, however, ArchiCAD is still the only architectural design software on the market to incorporate energy calculations. Having the feature integrated in the application means that ArchiCAD can take into account shell structures, Morph elements and other structures that need to be simplified for calculation purposes in other applications.

Weather information, such as temperatures related to the building site, may be viewed in the Environment window.

The input values for EcoDesigner are determined by the fill assignments. Fills have thermal conductivity, density and specific heat capacity properties. These values may also be retrieved from a materials catalogue. Similarly, a U value may be determined for an entire structure.

More smart IFC

BIM modelling and the related IFC conversions are routine work, just like making fair copies of drawings used to be in the past – there is no room for error as the end result is the final product delivered to other designers and the customer, in other words the plans used to actually construct the building. ArchiCAD 16 cuts out a huge swath of this slogging, as IFC data are now even more closely integrated with ArchiCAD’s own parameters.

The Search and Select operation can now be used for IFC parameters, making it easy to locate all the fire doors in a building, for instance. IFC parameters are now available in interactive tables, which begs the question: Why on earth were they not available before?

There are now XML-based conversion settings for IFC data transfer, so IFC conversions for various purposes can be determined and saved for reuse as with DXF/DWG. The application comes with preset conversion settings for a number of software packages, including the Finnish Tekla and CADS. There are so many options for IFC data transfer that space does not permit listing them all.

ArchiCAD 16 can also read the geometry of an IFC plot and create a Morph element from it. Small tweaks have also been made to DXF/DWG data transfers, some so substantial that they could be described as fixes.

BIM Components – objects from the cloud

Just over a year ago at the Maxon birthday party, I suggested to Viktor Varkonyj that objects could be sold online like music tracks from the iTunes Store. This would create a marketplace for object developers and a source for tens of thousands of new objects for ArchiCAD users. Of course, these objects would have to be directly accessible from within ArchiCAD as needed.

I do not know whether my suggestion had an impact or whether someone else came up with the same idea independently – it was not a new idea for me – but now there is just such a marketplace – well kind of! BIMcomponents.com is a website where an ArchiCAD user can download GDL objects as needed. Objects may also be uploaded to the website, and it is hoped that manufacturers of building parts realise the potential of this service. BIM Components is also a worldwide showcase for items such as designer chairs.

BIM Components is not a fully-fledged marketplace yet, so there is no point in searching for the best generic objects, i.e. objects without a manufacturer’s logo. This is a pity, because there are many objects in the Finnish basic object library for which there would surely be international demand – of course, we would not want to part with them without a small fee! A smoothly functioning marketplace would encourage coders to create more intelligent and innovative objects, and provide users with heavy-duty productivity tools.

The BIM Components website can be opened in the object browser window. Users must register, but using the service is free of charge. The website is not the clearest I have seen, and being a beta version it is also slow enough to make using it a somewhat uncertain experience. But who cares – there are thousands of objects for any number of uses, even (one hopes) objects modelling actual products. For manufacturers of furniture and building parts, this is a brilliant potential free international marketing channel!

But wait, there’s more…

Operations in the 3D window and element editing have been hugely improved. The editing plane introduced in the previous version is now controllable and even useful. Cutaway now works in 3D, meaning an element can be cut with a plane. This works particularly well with Morph elements, as there are no restrictions on their shape. A Morph element may be cut even in a section window.

Element rotation in 3D has been improved. Unfortunately, only shells, curtain walls and Morph elements can be rotated, so if the user wants to tilt a car, for instance, it must first be converted into a Morph element. This is clumsy and contrary to the BIM philosophy; also, the conversion involves loss of parameters and the special properties of other element types.

The software designers seem to have been particularly unsure about which way is north, as there are now at least three different ways of determining its direction. This seems an excessive increase in buttons, especially since there are several different ways to access the Sun windows.

New objects have again been added to the ArchiCAD Library and the folder structure has been tweaked. In a small but important improvement, the preview screen of the Object window now stretches as the window is resized. If only a zoom function were added to the preview screen…

Still the best

Once again, ArchiCAD 16 is the best ArchiCAD ever. It has more features and buttons than anyone will ever need, but at the same time it fulfils a wide range of diverse BIM requirements from modelling to energy simulation, and from IFC compatibility to quantity surveying.

ArchiCAD’s weaknesses are, paradoxically, its original strengths: visualisation and ease of use. There are no fewer than five ways of colouring a 3D model in ArchiCAD, but even the most advanced of these, LightWorks, has fallen behind the times and has been overtaken by its competitors. Indeed, these days the best renderings are not done in ArchiCAD at all; instead, models are exported to other programs such as Cinema4D or Artlantis for rendering.

Ease of use seems somewhat of a bizarre description when a novice user is confronted with the plethora of features in ArchiCAD. This was what they thought at Nokia until the engineers at Apple demonstrated that it is possible to package even more functions with such simplicity that even my 71-year-old mother can use them with ease. Some 50% of the features in the ArchiCAD user interface could be removed without sacrificing any of its functions. This in itself would be enough; however, if the operating of the tools were made consistent at the same time, ArchiCAD would become very easy to use.

Nevertheless, for all its weaknesses, ArchiCAD remains the unchallenged king of BIM applications. Diversity, the number of users and excellent IFC compatibility make ArchiCAD the obvious first choice when selecting architectural design software.

Objects can be browsed in a browser and their parameters edited. The 3D model rotates in the window. To bring an object into ArchiCAD, the user simply needs to drag the arrow in the square into the ArchiCAD window. It is handy, but there are no instructions on how to do this.

writtenbySeveriThis article was published in the 3/2012 issue of ArchiMAG in October 2012. Get your copy of ArchiMAG from App Store!

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