John Helm Reviews Vectorworks 2010

November 24, 2009 12 min read

Vectorworks 2010 Review

I'm proud to host on the Novedge blog a product review of Vectorworks 2010 written by John Helm of Helm & Melacini Architects. John is an architect who splits his professional time between the warm beaches of Southern California and the beautiful mountains of Northern Italy. John does a great job  going through the new features and describing his user experience. If you are interested in or simply curious about Vectorworks and you want to meet other Vectorworks enthusiasts, my personal recommendation is to join the newVectorWorkingonline community dedicated to everything related to Vectorworks.

Franco Folini

Choosing a CAD Program

My first thought on writing a review of an update to an existing CAD program is that the readers of the review won’t just be those already dedicated to the program and wanting to know if the upgrade is worth the expense and time to learn new features, but they might also be those looking to change programs or even those architects and others just starting out in their use of CAD. So I’ll first address some issues regarding the choice of which program or programs one might use. I’m also limiting most of my comments to the use of a program by an architect because that’s what I am and it’s what I know.

My approach to the use of the computer is that it should be a tool that makes ones work easier and allows one to be more productive and more creative. An Architect should be able to focus his or her attention on the business of being an architect and as not have to spend months or even weeks to learn to use a new tool. I also believe that in an office there should not be a huge separation between those who know how to use the most important tools in the office, for example the CAD program, and those who don’t.

This brings me to what I consider the most important factors in choosing a CAD program. That is that the program should be easy to learn, intuitive, and available to everyone working on any particular project. It should be available and easy enough to use that the principals, who don’t have a lot of time to spend getting competent on a CAD program, as well as the drafters are able to learn it and use it. And in short it brings me to why I selected a program like Vectorworks some 15 years ago. I can’t really comment on other programs which may or may not do the same things as Vectorworks because I only have second hand information on them and only a limited use of the most popular program Autocad. I should also mention that in order to fit the above criteria one should not have to use several programs to accomplish the goal of producing a drawing or drawing set containing 2D, 3D, text and pictures. That increases the time to learn, adds too many layers of complexity and creates inefficiency in the office.

Here is where we get to my choice of Vectorworks (VW). From the standpoint of graphics it can be a one stop shop, for an architectural office. It’s a design tool, a production tool and a rendering tool that can also be used for most of the graphic layouts an architect might need. The learning curve is short and the way of working with it is from my experience the way architects work.

VW is a complex program and to take advantage of its many features does take some time. But if one is at all competent in using a computer, familiar with Mac or PC graphics programs, word processing, etc. one will find many of the same commands, and procedures. So it presents a familiar face in a way. Starting out just using the basics is simple enough and gives one a feeling of confidence that moving beyond the basics can’t be that hard.

Rendered Site Plans
Rendered Site Plans

Design can be done all in 3D and those 3D drawings will be or can be the same drawings that become the 2D drawings making up the production drawing set. Client presentations can be rendered printouts, animations, walk throughs, or even real time views of a 3D model taken on one’s laptop to a client meeting. And if one needs to do a graphic presentation, a competition board for example, pictures, text, 2D and 3D drawings can all composed and printed right in the program.

Create almost anythingCreate almost anything

In other words, why burden yourself and your office with half a dozen programs when one will do it all. Yes there are other programs that will do some of the individual parts as well or better, but VW can compete with most of them and the results are more than adequate for the majority of what we do as architects.

Complex ModelsComplex Models

I’ll talk for a minute about how VW works. Initially we set up a project file entering basic information about floor heights, wall heights, roof etc. Then we set up basic project parameters, dimension style, meters or feet, things like that and then from a drop menu we select the various sheets of drawings needed. That would be for example floor plans, site plans, elevations and so on. We don’t have to do this in any order and they can be changed later. But by doing this the program does a lot of the work of preparing the drawing set for us. We draw on design layers, we put things like electrical outlets, and windows in classes that can be turned on or off as needed. We use the layers as overlays to create various drawings. Drawings are then transferred though viewports to sheets for the final composition of sheets of drawings to be printed. All of this is done in one file which saves a lot of confusion and makes things simpler. If more than one person needs to work on a drawing set, this can be done through the use of references to other drawings called referenced viewports. When drawing a building plan we draw walls, not just lines, that have characteristics such as height, thickness, and finishes, which means that as we draw the 2D plan we are at the same time creating a 3D model. I can go on here but this isn’t an instruction manual it’s just a brief idea of how the program works.

Finally one thing I always hear is, well we had to choose the program our consultants use or that everyone else uses. To this I say who’s in charge here, the architect or the consultants. And do you really want to burden yourself with an inefficient program just because most everyone else is using it. Why not get a step ahead and increase your bottom line with greater efficiency. And of course you can also convert your VW drawings to a format useable by your consultants so it’s not such a big issue anyway.

Paste up GraphicsPaste up Graphics

Construction documents with plans, elevations and renderingsConstruction docs with plans, elevations and renderings

Note that the renderings and plans show above were all done in our office using various previous versions of VW.

Vectorworks 2010, the Latest Version

Before moving on to the details of the latest version we might discuss the reasons why one would want to upgrade from previous versions. I’ve already recommended VW as a good choice or even the best choice, so if you are not already into CAD the choice is easy; buy the latest version. But if you’ve been using the program for a while then of course there ought to be good reasons to spend the money to upgrade. From a purely economic standpoint I think there are two factors to consider. Will the new version save you time, meaning money, and do you have enough cash flow during the current slow down to justify the extra expense. Only you can answer the later question except that you may justify the expense by considering the time to learn new features and the fact that if work is slow you have the time to do it. For the first factor I will discuss some features that are in the new version that I believe will more than justify the purchase by time saved. It’s interesting to note that some of the most significant time savers are perhaps the least note worthy in terms of technical development or progress.

As an example of what may be a simple change (not being a programmer I admit I don’t know how simple this was technically) is the ability to change the origin, the rotation and scale of a hatch. On a recent plaza project in Italy we had a variety of hatches all at various angles and scales. We also needed to use the hatches in the detail drawings. And the project underwent numerous changes in the pattern layouts. As a result hatches were not associated; every hatch had to be redone for each area and each change which was a several step process requiring significant time. Most of this time will be saved in the new version. But I am disappointed that they haven’t made a way to make hatches three dimensional. This would be very useful since as it is now one must copy the area hatched and then add a texture to make it show up in a 3D rendering.

Once you get used to using the dimension constraint manager it can save time and also potential mistakes. Walls can be moved and their dimensions update automatically. You can also change the dimension and the wall itself moves, while at the same time the other dimensions in a string of dimensions also changes, as does the overall dimension. One overall dimension changed and not forgotten as often happens when doing it manually might be worth the cost of the upgrade by itself. You can also lock a dimension and its associated walls so that it can not be easily changed. This would be very useful for those areas like hallways where minimum dimensions must be maintained. Also one can save time in layout and design when starting a new project. Walls can be placed in their approximate location and easily adjusted later, with adjacent walls updating automatically.

I think another big time saver will be the unified view tool which replaces the old stacked layers tool. If you do a lot of 3D modeling then this is big. Basically a unified view can be a model of the complete project. From this view one can access any layer, and modify objects while in a 3D view. There is no need to constantly switch back and forth from a model view to a design layer to elevations views etc. It can all be done within a single unified view just switching between 3D, plan and elevations views.

In place reference editing can be a time saver but it depends a lot on how one uses the program. It does not allow one to change referenced drawing files it only works on referenced resources. I think this might be a big help in coordinating drawings on a large project and also on say an apartment project one might turn individual apartment plans into symbols which could be referenced from a master file and changed as needed.

There are several other features which when added together will allow additional time savings. In viewport crops one can now see the entire drawing so there is no more guessing about where to put the crop lines. I like the find resource capability, as I seem to spend lots of time finding symbols and other resources that seem to get placed most anywhere. There is a new connect combine tool for multiple objects. The automatic coordination of sheet numbers seems pretty cool. Sheet numbers are coordinated with drawing numbers and updated automatically if changed in one instance.

So my answer to the first question of economics is a pretty strong, it’s worth it. Now what about some of the other changes and new or revised features?

Here I see a lot of good stuff. And I don’t see anything changed for the worse, (a very important feature) but I do find some of the changes or new features somewhat of a work in progress. For example file referencing has been updated. From my testing of this feature, I see that it works pretty well in 2D but in 3D it seems unpredictable. I tried to reference a floor plan onto a site plan in one case in the same file so it could be rotated. It showed up fine in a 2D view but when I switched to a 3D view the referenced floor plan disappeared. Another interesting thing is that when I referenced the same floor plan to the site plan in another file the same thing happened but also curiously when I turned off unified view and set it to active layer only, then changed to an isometric view, the dimension text showed up on the 3D view. That is a good feature but one that is not supposed to happen. I suspect that part of the problems I’ve had here are due to a lack of computing power, graphic card issues or not enough ram to handle larger complex models. I have seen it work fine on a much simpler model than the one I made. I see the new planar graphics feature as a work in progress as well. It would be much more useful if one could also project text and dimension callouts in 3D. But the ability to see a 2D site plan for example with a 3D model placed on it is very useful. The active layer plane and screen plane views will take some getting used to and I’m guessing a bit of swearing. The good news is that items made in one can be changed to the other with one mouse click. This is one place where the new “magic wand” or select similar tool can be very useful. You select the parameters from a list then click on one instance and all similar items are automatically selected. The problem I have had with this is that I could not get it to select dimensions. I had to revert to the old custom selection tool. It may just be that I don’t know how to use it properly or that it’s not intuitive enough – isn’t that a great excuse for not knowing how to do something.

The wall sculpting tool is useful. I was more excited about it before I tried it. But I still like it. I thought one could stretch the sides of a wall to, for example, fit it to some of the old odd shaped walls one finds in remodels. That can be done but one has to build a 3D object and then combine it with the wall rather than change the wall itself. The result is the same. So far the new stair tool seems great. One has many more options as to how the stair will be constructed. But on my first try, making a spiral stair it placed the railing across the upper end of the stair. I haven’t yet figured out how to remove it, but there must be a way. Corner windows are a nice little feature that I have wanted many times. Cutting holes in walls has gotten much easier.

One thing that I think we worry about is how well our old drawing files will convert when opened in the latest version. So far I can see no problem here. I have opened up some fairly complicated version 2008 files without any problems. In fact I was pleased to see some tree symbols updated and looking much more photo like. There also seems to be a decent increase in rendering speed.

Renderworks is one of the most important aspects of the program at least in the way I use it. There have not been a lot of changes but the ones that have been made are important. They have improved texture mapping and one can put one or more textures on top of each other to create labeling, signage and layered material effects.

Finally I think it’s important to address the issue of being able to transfer files to consultants and clients who need them in a format usable by Autocad. So the question is does this upgrade make that easier. The answer is a qualified yes. One can batch export several sheet layers as individual files which when viewed in Autocad present themselves as formatted sheets that I believe could be printed easily. The problem is that all the VW layers are stacked on top of each other so sorting them out for the Autocad drafter could be difficult. The other option is to export VW saved views. This seems to be a practical option if one needs to send say a floor plan to a consultant. The resulting dwg file looks pretty clean.

There are many other changes and additions that can best be reviewed by looking at the list on the VW website. For example working planes are much easier to access, 3D snapping is improved and so it’s easier to select, modify and align objects in 3D.

Overall this is very much a useful and worthwhile upgrade. There are enough time saving features to justify the cost. And the other improvements will just make one’s working life more pleasant. That is of course after one learns to use them and gets over habits and work around’s used in past versions.

If you are considering updating or purchasing Vectorworks I would suggest having a look at the videos on the Vectorworks website, Jonathan Pickup’s website and his videos on YouTube and you can have a look at many 3D models I’ve created on my website

Finally here is a bit of a disclaimer. I have tried to write an honest appraisal, but I will admit to wishing there were more users of the program I use in my practice because that would make it easier to work with consultants and to find employees who are already trained in using it.

If you have any questions please leave a comment below and I will be glad to answer.

John Helm

Franco Folini
Franco Folini

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