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Choosing a CAD Package

It's really obvious when you think about it: a carpenter would never try to cut a piece of 2x4 with a hammer or make hole in wall with a screwdriver. There is a suitable tool for the carpenters every task, just like there is suitable tool for tasks architects have to do in daily lives. But while a carpenters tools are fairly simple to understand and learn (even though just learning how to use a hammer does not make you a good carpenter), tools for architects tend to be more complex and therefore require a longer learning process. But wether or not it takes longer to learn does not make it more or less suitable for a task - trying to hammer your way through a 2x4 is just as silly regardless how long you have to use to learn how to use the hammer.

This brings us to one of the fundamental considerations of what CAD package to use (and please note that I am only talking about CAD packages here, but additional methods such as drawing and model-making can also be included in this line of thought). There are 3 major considerations: What program is able to do what needs to be done in a good way, how proficient are you in each program and lastly, how does that program connect to the programs others are using around you? Let's go through the list again, in reverse order this time.

Collaboration is key

During studies, you might design an individual project of a single family dwelling, resting nicely on top of a hill full of daisies. You can leisurely design, layout and present your project on 3 A2 sheets to convince everyone around you that this project is indeed magnificent architecture. And most likely, you could do this using pretty much any technique you master, from hand sketching to technical drawing extravaganza.

This, however, stops the day you need to collaborate. An A2 sheet full of perspectives and pictograms is not suitable when you need to convey the necessary information for manufacturing the roof trusses needed for your building. Most likely, drawings in themselves are not suitable - you will need a 3D model with specific information in a specific format that can be used when calculating and processing the necessary information for the roof trusses. This aspect is key - all the programs used in a building process need to talk together, and they need to do so with a minimum amount of manual work or inconsistency with each exchange. This is the reason why a lot of effort is put into initiatives such as Building Information Modeling and the IFC-format, why most building projects clearly state the expectations regarding information exchange.

More specifically, there is money to be saved here. Each architectural office has to invest in a main CAD package which costs a significant amount of money and requires backup routines, a collaboration server, image setups and so forth. It is simply unwise to introduce a myriad of programs into a single project or within an office without good reasons. And the bottom line is that it is a great deal cheaper to train a person in a new software package or simply not hire that person at all, than to allow for personal preferences for software come in the way of running the office.

Collaboration is why you are most likely not going to choose the program you use when working professionally, it will most likely get chosen for you, something you can witness easily by looking at the ads for junior positionsat architectural offices - pretty much everyone states which programs the office uses and expects you to use.

The CAD-monkey and the crayon-complex

Some people easily learn to make beautiful sketches in seconds, others are natural born model-builders and some are innately good with computers. These things do not matter. A carpenter can not refuse to learn how to use a saw just because he likes hammers better. You will need to learn how to use and participate in teams that use all the techniques available to architects.

This consideration gives us the most vital aspect of choosing a CAD package or any other software package for that matter: you need to know what they do, what you can expect to make with them and how. The only way you can evaluate wether or not a CAD package is suitable for a project, is to learn at least the rudimentary basics of each program that you are likely to encounter. You do not need to become a guru in every single program, but you need to understand what they are used for so that when the need arises, you can examine them more closely and see if you should learn how to use them to do the task at hand.

There is also another aspect to consider: if you only know the rudimentary use of a few programs, not understanding the limits and possibilities of software might hinder you in your understanding how and what can be made with the aid of these programs - how new software will enable new types of construction and new architecture to emerge - not necessarily because we cant think of it otherwise, but because we need software to structure the information. Even the simplest building projects today rely heavily on software and a lot of architecture made today would be unthinkable to achieve without a cutting edge use and understanding of software. For this very reason, you should pick out a few programs that seems to help you in working at the type of architecture you want to be working with and become really good in using them. This will give more chances in actually working on that type of projects in the future, as you have both the interest in it, some experience and also know the tools and processes involved.

Finally, don't expect an architectural client to pay you for learning software. The time you have to learn both the rudimentary understanding of available CAD-packages and to become proficient in a few programs, is while studying. Believe it or not, you actually have quite a lot of time on your hands and you can freely explore software while studying, without the requirements of a real-life building project hanging over your head. If your first 3D model is slightly lacking, the consequences are very different in a study project and a office building under construction.

The tools of the trade

To help you get started, here is an overview of the programs used in the studies, as well as a short description what they can be used for and where their limits are. Theres also links to the program pages in the Wiki as well as some discussion around some available alternatives. Just keep in mind that software changes fast, and these type of texts tend to get outdated faster than you can write last sentence. So do your own research and don't trust this blindly.

InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop as graphical aids

Adobe is a graphical giant, making software for everyone who works with photography, illustration, books, video, or pretty much anything graphical. They do not, however, make software for architectural development. Yes, you can draw a plan drawing in illustrator, or fix a perspective in photoshop, but that is not their intended purpose. While some of the programs can be used as a (fairly poor) replacement for pen and paper, using Adobes offerings in project development has clear limitations, and apart from very simple sketching is not suitable for project development.

That does not, however, mean they are worthless. When it comes to presentations and communicating your projects, Adobe makes your life a lot easier. Sections from programs like ArchiCAD lean towards technical drawings, but if your goal is to sell a project, participate in a competition or just convince someone that what you are doing is a good idea, doing some graphical work on that section first might make your idea shine a lot brighter.

There is however a caveat: Adobe knows their price. This software is fairly expensive and if an office mainly produces drawings for building sites, they might not consider photoshop or illustrator a worthwhile investment. In this case (and if you consider your own student budget) it is good to know there are free alternatives, like GIMP, Inkscape and Scribus.

SketchUp and simple geometric modeling

There are several programs that are well suitable for simple geometric modeling, but not all give you the precision needed in architectural modeling. One good exception is SketchUp, which has a free basic version to boot. The clear advantage of these modelers are that they can make simple geometry and do it really fast. But unfortunately, that is also their limitation. When you add complexity to a SketchUp model, at some point it gets too complex and all of that complexity needs to handled by they user, not by the program. While not a problem for a small outhouse, even a simple dwelling will require elaborate layer-structures, extremely good modeling practice and most likely will break down if more than one people try to make both their personal systems work in one file. In the end, the sheer polygon-count (amount of geometry) will make the model unstable and slow to work with.

But as long as your project is very simple, or at least at a stage where it can be represented by simple means (such as during concept development), the speed at which you can look into new ideas easily triumphs over the limits that might become evident later in the process. Just understand that you might need to change software when you start adding detail and complexity into your project.

Furthermore, SketchUp is really nice when working at 90-degree angles, but when you start using different angles, a lot of the functionality decreases and rounded shapes simply make the whole process of designing rather error-prone and dependent on modeling order. Bonzai 3D is a slightly more advanced alternative that you might want to look into.

ArchiCAD, Revit and project development

Every office has their main project development tool. In Norway, the 2 main tools are Graphisoft ArchiCAD and Autodesk Revit, which pretty much divide the market. In some offices, and more abroad, you can find Vectorworks or Microstation as a package, but unless you are specifically looking into working with these offices, learning ArchiCAD and Revit is a pretty safe bet.

The huge question students end up with during studies is which they should learn. The short answer is both. You really do not want to limit your work options by just ignoring one or the other, so you should at least try out both programs, and after that you are more qualified to decide which one you want to learn to be proficient at. Regarding this, the second most important questions becomes easy to answer: which one should you learn first: doesn't matter. Just pick one. As long as you are leaning towards learning both, there is really not that much difference in your studies in which one you choose unless you move towards very specific aspects of project design. To put it simply: both are good enough to be used in architectural offices in Norway and are most likely not going to limit your studies in any way.

There is also an extra treat. Both programs are similar in function, if not in user interface. This means that with your understanding of one of the programs, as well as your architectural understanding, learning the other one is not going to be very hard. They simply fill the same gap, so even though tasks are done slightly different, they are mostly the same tasks.

That said, there are some differences that might sway you in the beginning:

  • ArchiCAD runs on both mac and PC, while Revit is Windows only.
  • Revit has good connections to the rest of the Autodesk product family
  • ArchiCAD updates or introduces a single feature a year, while revit makes smaller tweaks to everything
  • Revit has a visual programming interface (Dynamo) and scripting (Python) while ArchiCAD has only scripting (GDL)
  • The learning materials are better and more readily available for Revit
  • ArchiCAD has good collaboration possibilities
Cinema 4D, 3DS max and other movie industry modelers

There is some temptation to use modelers made for animation and rendering, such as Cinema 4D, 3DS Max, Maya or Modo, to do architectural development. While these programs can do magnificent things, and fast, they usually become very cumbersome or impossible to use when needing to work at the accuracy required for architectural modeling. If you are going to model a butterfly that is going to fly through a scene in an animation movie, it hardly matters if the wing radius is 32 or 31 millimeters, but when it comes to architectural work, everything needs to be manufactured at some point and inaccuracy in modeling can become a huge problem later in the process.

But these programs excel at what they were meant to do: making stunning graphics, still or animated, and they are therefore worth learning if you wish to portray your project in the best possible light. While architects rarely reach the limits of what you can do with these programs, learning basic setup and rendering can give you some valuable tools when presenting your projects, and while usually you have to model everything, importing your finished project is simple. Cinema 4D has an ArchiCAD plugin available for importing your project, while Revit has 3DS Max' MentalRay Rendering engine embedded and you can also export a 3DS file easily.

Rhino and advanced geometry

Rhino is somewhat an oddball in architectural work. It is a 3D surface modeler with a huge amount of plugins, making it something of a swiss army knife of geometry. If you can not make it in Rhino, you are most likely not good enough in Rhino. But in itself, it is not a an architectural modeler, even though if you include a plugin like VisualARQ, you can get both BIM compatibility and the most common tools used in Revit and ArchiCAD. However, if you are interested in designs that require some advanced geometry or advanced workflows, Rhino can most likely be just what you are looking for. The real strength of Rhino, in addition to the many plugins, is Grasshopper, a visual programming plugin that enables you to easily set up relations between elements in your design, making complex parametric models. While not as powerful as scripting (which of course is also possible in Rhino), it gives you the possibility to quickly test ideas and iterate designs.

These possibilities are why Rhino is used at the faculty to be the interface towards all fabrication, 3D scanning, and other advanced workflows.

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14 24.02.2014 10:41 CET Pasi Aalto Migrated to Confluence 5.3

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