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Monday, November 26, 2012


By John Helm, Architect
Vectorworks (VW) is a wonderful program and every year it gets even better.  What makes it great is its ease of learning, its flexibility and its wide range of dedicated fields.   It is truly a designers program that can be used to design just about anything, from stage sets, to buildings, furniture, landscapes, theatre lighting, and even industrial products.  A preliminary design can be taken without using any other programs all way to construction drawings, and a detailed BIM model that can be exported to most other programs using IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) and several other export options. 
The first thing I want to mention is an area that does not depend so much on the program itself. 
Customer Service
Let’s talk about customer service.  CAD programs are complicated and no matter how much time we have used a program or how much study we do questions and issues still come up.  VW has made it easy to resolve issues, with a good amount of phone up customer service.  But what I am most impressed with is their continuing support of the online user technical forums and the one that I have used for many years now the Vectorworks User Discussion List.  I subscribe to the digest which arrives in my email nearly every day and includes questions asked by users and user responses.  What is so impressive is that these lists and forums are actually read by the technical staff and managers of the company.  Sometimes when they see a need they reply. For example I recently posted a message about importing dwg files and got a response from the person directly responsible for that part of the programing.
80 New Features
There are 80 new features or improvements this year.  That’s what they say, I haven’t actually counted them. The best way to find out about them is to visit the VW website.  There you will find videos and lists pointing them all out.  I will just write about a few that impressed me the most.  And towards the end of this review I will mention a few of the things they didn’t fix or do yet.
Just Call me Frank
Gehry that is, here is my favorite new feature.  You know all those nice buildings he does with the warped surfaces requiring the use of a super high end computer and CAD program.  Well now you can come pretty close to doing the same thing or even do the same thing, with little ol VW.  Yes really, the new surface array feature lets one put windows, structural elements, surface treatments or even pictures of your kids on just about any surface shape you can come up with.  Create a surface using, an arc, circle, oval, polygon, polyline, rectangle, rounded rectangle or nurbs surface, then create a second object to be placed across the surface make a few decisions and clicks of the mouse and instantly the design is distributed across the surface.  One can then still make various changes and the array changes accordingly.  Once done the original surface can be left in place or turned off to create a transparent affect.   This really opens up some possibilities not just in creating exciting new designs for buildings, but in many other areas like furniture design, interior design and product design.
Surface array, one with the surface on and the other off
Auto Hybrid
This a great tool for anyone doing complex objects, walls, etc. and drawing them in 3D. The normal plan view would cover up too much of the ground plane.  The Auto Hybrid tool lets you cut the object at any level you chose and only show what is below the cut line.  And if you make the hybrid view into a symbol only the hybrid view shows up in plan view, but the whole object shows up in 3D.  I wish one could take an existing symbol and turn it into a hybrid symbol.  I tried it and it seems it can’t be done, but one can always edit the 2D component of a normal symbol.  It just takes longer.
Two plan views of the surface array objects show above.  The one on the left is how it would show up normally and on the right the Hybrid view with a cut line at 2’ above the ground line.
Non-blocking RenderingThis is a feature that lets you keep on working while your view ports are rendering.  It has potential, but you can imagine that with a weak computer everything is going to slow down.  Anyway it’s high on the list of time savers given the proper computer. 
If you use the internet, who doesn’t, you are familiar with hyperlinks.  This feature has the potential for really changing the way we produce drawings.  Of course they don’t work on paper prints.  I don’t really need to point that out except that it is the reason we would have to use an electronic means of distributing plans.  In the hands of the construction supervisor, for example , one can imagine the usefulness.  Click on a detail call out and you are taken directly to the detail, or click on a plumbing fixture and you are taken by the web (if connected) to the manufacturers site for installation instructions, or even a Youtube video.  Only the links calling out web pages or sheet layers can be exported in PDF files.  So there are some limits, but I suppose anyone with the VW viewer would have full use of them.  Next step -  those augmented reality glasses.  The carpenter wears them and the plans just pop up in front of him.  The architect doesn’t even need to include details for say a window installation, just refer to a detail on the manufactures web site.  A bit of dreaming, but I think this might be the most revolutionary and important thing they have going.  It seems one of those why didn’t we think of this sooner ideas.
The Clip Cube
Here is a tool that is truly amazing for any designer who regularly makes 3D models of his or her project.   For the designer it allows one to zoom in on an area and get rid of all the other parts of a building outside the boundaries of the cube.  This lets us work on an isolated area without the confusion of the rest of the building being in the way or a distraction.  For client presentations it can really be cool.  You can put the cube around the whole building for example and then move the boundaries in real time to expose various parts of the building – clip off the front to see inside, or the roof to look down to the upper floor and then clip more to see the lower floor in 3D.  Your clients will love this and you will be thrilled to do all the extra work it takes to make the inside of your model look as good as the outside – right?
Here are a couple clipped views of the house shown below.  Note that once you make the clip you can also move around the model to change the view. 
Create Detail Viewport
This is a nifty little time saver.  Zoom into an area of your drawing, the kitchen for example then create a viewport that is automatically referenced to the viewports drawing and sheet numbers.  Now you can annotate the viewport with callouts for the appliances, finish materials and even hyperlinks to manufacturers of the appliances, tile, etc.
 Architectural Elevations and Sections
This feature kind of snuck up on me.  I don’t see it in my version of VW 2012 and I don’t see it on the list of important new features. Turns out it was hidden away in the mechanical section and now they just added it to the View menu.  Anyway, it is the create multiple viewports command.  Quoting from the help menu, 
The Create Multiple Viewports command generates 2D drawings from a 3D model and creates up to seven viewports configured with several orthographic views and one isometric view of the model.If the command is run while on a sheet layer, the viewports are added to that sheet layer. If the command is run while on a design layer, the viewports are added to an automatically created sheet layer.
So with all the possibilities of turning on and off layers and classes and various rendering modes this makes the creation of elevations very quick. 
3D of a simple house, made in an older version of VW
Front hidden line elevation captured with the create multiple viewports command.  It is workable and with some adjustments in how I set it up it would probably be better.
If I don’t mention this I suppose the reader will wonder why.  I won’t get into it too much because there is a lot to read on the VW website.  I have been doing most of my design in 3D for some years now.  And I use the models as much as possible to create those paper drawings.  But I couldn’t say that my models are really qualified to be called true BIMs.   VW is committed to this, but I can’t say which program on the market today is the best.  At least I can say that the VW user will not be left out in the cold in this area and just may be at the leading edge.  Others more expert can make the argument.  
So these are the features that most impressed me so far, and really make this issue worth buying. 
Now what are some of the things they didn’t do.
Work Groups
VW is still a program best suited for the small office.  Even though there are many large firms using it, the program still requires a lot of planning and organization in order to have more than one person working on a project at a time. 
DWG/DWF Import Export
Improvements have been made in this area and depending upon the complexity of the project it is possible to pass files back and forth.  But doing much more than a one way pass to say a consulting engineer is still bound to be frustrating.  You can’t really blame all of this on VW as Autodesk is continually updating their products and always trying to make it difficult for competitors.   It is a major handicap considering the fact that the majority of architects and their consultants use AutoCAD and now Revit.  The VW people tell us that they have made big improvements, but some recent work on a very small residential project has shown me that there is still a long way to go, and if there are problems with such a small project one can imagine what would happen with a large complex one.
No more Manuals
I know it has been a while since the last one, but I wish they would bring them back.  Writing this article I opened up mine from 2008 to review some things I had forgotten how to do.  Sure I could use the help file, it is very good.  But it is just more comfortable to have a book in front of me.  And besides I don’t really like taking the laptop with me in the bathroom or to bed at night when I need something boring to help me fall asleep.  A book is still really the best way to study especially for someone just learning the program.  Digital help files are best suited for those already familiar with the program who want to learn something new or refresh their memory.  The lesson files provided must be good, I haven’t really looked at them, for students taking classes; however, I really wonder how many working users would take the time to go through a lesson.  It just seems much faster to read through something you want to learn and then just try it yourself.
VW continues to be what it has always been, a versatile program that can be the one program a designer needs.  It is probably the most flexible CAD program available.  Some who prefer a completely dedicated program might consider that a handicap; and for those who work in a very limited range of design options it might be true.   But for others who are into creative design and want a program that does it all it may just be the best one available.  It can be used to create everything a project needs from site plans with contour maps, pad elevations and 3D site models, to Sketchup like preliminary designs to complete construction documents and it even works well for paste up sheets of photos and scanned documents.  A landscape architect can do everything including plant lists and a stage set designer can produce his entire production with it including the lighting design.
As an architect who began his career with pencil, paper and parallel bars, I have always felt comfortable with the intuitiveness of the VW process.  I especially like the what you see is what you get aspect as well as the fact that most architectural projects end up as one file with numbered sets of sheets that become and look just like the printed sets.   One can easily scroll through the finished sheets before printing and export to PDF for client review, before issuing final drawings.  Most of these aspects of the program have been around for years.  I also appreciate the fact that VW does not force you to always design in 3D.  You can take 3D as far as it makes sense economically and then switch to 2D, or not do 3D at all.  It lets you work the way you want and the way you find most efficient; it is a bit like the fact that when we design we usually start with pen or pencil and paper, because that is often the most efficient way to get started. There are also the cloud computing services and the annual subscription services that are worth checking into.  I haven’t tried the cloud service as one has to subscribe to the annual update to be able to use it.
All the little improvements have only made the old features better  And along the way the program has grown up a lot with all the features of BIM and industry interoperability.   
As always I remind the reader that VW has furnished me with a copy of the program in order to be able to write this review.
Some Links
http://www.vectorworks.net/ Main site for VW
http://helpudesign.blogspot.it/ My architecture blog
www.hm-architects.com  Helm & Melacini Architects website
http://www.archoncad.co.nz/ Jonathan Pickup’s site for manuals and videos








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