Editor's note: John Helm is an Architect trained in California with more than 30 years of experience. He currently works with his partner, and Italian Architect wife, doing projects in Italy and California. Check out their website here. John has been using Vectorworks for over 15 years and writes a yearly review of each new update.
The views, opinions and positions expressed within guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Novedge.
I suppose the most important thing we can say about Vectorworks software is that the developers are not standing still. This year, as every year over the past few, they have made changes and added features that make the product better, easier to use and richer. This year with Vectorworks 2017, they have also included features that in the past were add ons at extra cost. This review is based upon my own experience using Vectorworks for many years as an Architect and having been able to use and test the latest version for several months.
I will start with virtual reality (VR), because my interest in that got the attention of the people at Vectorworks, and so they let me in on the feature as it was being developed. We have come a long way since the days of pencil sketches and watercolor renderings. As a side note I would say that the pencil sketch is still often the easiest and fastest way to convey an idea or develop a concept. Note to young Architects and students, don’t throw away your pencils and think you can do it all with a computer. But with the use of computers we have been able for some time now to design in 3D and make detailed virtual models of our designs. The question is, how do we best show these models to clients and others who have an interest in the project. VR is taking off now and one can basically travel the world and immerse oneself virtually in all sorts of environments. In keeping up with the movement, Vectorworks has now included in all their products a feature they call web view VR. So, what does this thing do? How does it work? Simplicity is the key word. You, the Designer, can take your 3D model, your BIM, of your latest project to the level of detail you want. Then, while being online, click on the new export feature that sends the model to the Vectorworks cloud. You can save it locally. After a bit of a wait your model will pop up in your internet viewer. Now you can explore the model in 3D. You can send the link to a client and, by clicking on it, the client can also view the model in 3D. But here comes the fun part. Copy the link and open it on a smart phone then click on the Virtual Reality icon. Now the image of the model will change to a stereoscopic view. Put the phone in your Google goggles and you are in. That is, inside the model. You can walk around and look around all you want. You can go up and down stairs. Of course there are a few limitations. It’s not going to be high definition and there are some limits on the size of the model. There’s a little bit of a learning curve in order to export the model and get oriented and in the right location when you start viewing. But really the sense of actually being in the space and being able to walk around in it is amazing. I should also mention that this seems to be somewhat of a work in progress, so there are a few issues that need to be resolved in upcoming revisions. Web view: put yourself inside your design and walk around.
Renderworks is the rendering add-on that has been an extra feature sold at extra cost until now. This year they have made it part of the program, in all the various versions. This should have been done a long time ago: Renderworks gets your design closer to photorealism and truly makes using this program worth it. You can still use Vectorworks in 2D only, but that misses the point. When you design in Vectorworks you should be designing in 3D. The model of your design does not come without effort, but the tools in the program make it pretty painless. The thing is that once you have the model, not being able to render it, well, leaves a lot out. With Renderworks being embedded, every user has access to the possibility of making the best showing possible, without having to pay extra. This is what Vectorworks is all about: 2D, 3D, and photorealistic rendering all in one file, using one program. Design your project in 3D then make overall views, elevations, sections, even videos from the model.
File Sharing is a way for more than one team member to work on the same file at the same time. File Sharing is intuitive and does not require much of a learning curve. Team members will just check out a layer to work on and when done up date a master file. Last year I mentioned that objects could not be checked out; well now they can, and you can check out layers too! But it gets even better, the really big news with file sharing is that now it can be done in the cloud, using any one of the popular sites like Dropbox for example. There is no need to set up an office VPN, just share the master file in the cloud and work from home while your fellow workers toil away in the office. You can make last minute changes in the coffee shop before your client meeting, or expand your office staff in minutes by using off-site staff or joint venturing with other Architects that might be in another city or even another country. Users can now share objects as well as layers.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is all the rage these days. BIM can be embraced at different levels, from the small Architect just working on his project in 3D, to the big Architect with the deep-pockets client that will need piping, ducts, wiring, and structural framing in their project. Most Architects don’t get those kind of clients and so, a BIM that includes even the pipes to the drinking fountains, is most of the time just a pipe dream. The real big BIM would include the work of the all the consultants. And this is where it becomes crucial to ask: is Vectorworks really capable of big BIM? The answer depends somewhat on how you look at it. Vectorworks itself is capable of producing an architectural model suitable for the most demanding levels of BIM. But can it integrate the work of all the consultants? The Autodesk approach to BIM for example is to have products they develop and sell for all the consultant fields. That makes for easy compatibility. The Vectorworks approach is different. They leave room in the industry for others to develop the best programs. In the Autodesk case the Architect is more or less forced to use the program their consultants use. But I believe that in any building project the Architect should be the managing partner; he or she should be the one who decides which consultants to use for example, and which tools to use to get the project done. Architects should not be forced to use a tool because the consultants use it. Vectorworks serves a community of Designers who are independent, perhaps more cost conscious, and Mac/PC users, who want to be able to choose the best tools to get their work done. Enhancements to the workflow in BIM include IFC-4 support, a BIMobject plug in and a Revit import tool. They have also incorporated a BCF manager which equips Architects with the resources to share, edit and assign issues or clashes that have been discovered, and export files that can contain revisions, notes and new issues. IFC-v4.
This is an important addition this year, because Vectorworks has suffered until now from a bit of a lack of attention from manufacturers. That is, when they create BIMs of their products, Vectorworks has sometimes been left out. Now with the BIMobject app this will not be a problem. A quote from Vectorworks: “ The App manages and downloads native Vectorworks content and easily converts DWG, SKP, and 3DS content into information-rich Vectorworks content. This is done entirely in the background and delivers the same user experience no matter the source data format. Additionally, the app includes over 4,600 objects from more than 260 brands, an unprecedented amount of content for a newly-introduced App.” BIMObject: lots of new resources.
New Resource Manager
Here is a tool that is saving me a lot of time. The new or revised Resource Manager is a complete makeover of the old one. Resources are all those things we use while designing and drafting; some for example are line types, hatches, wall types, plugin objects, symbols and textures. Graphically, the Resource Manager takes up a lot of monitor space because it consists of three columns. That is not a problem as it can easily be minimized when not needed. The first column is a list of files, favorites and libraries; the second is a graphic list of all the items in the currently selected library or search results; the third is a graphic of the currently selected item and some data about it. The coolest part of the whole thing is the search option. Type in what you need, and up pops a list of available items. It takes a bit of study to understand how all the features work and the search feature, though great, still needs some improvement. Select symbols and plug ins and then search for tables, for example. If you type table you get one group; type tables you get another, or sometimes you get nothing but change the word slightly and get some results. If you are working away and need some bathtubs for your drawing and don’t want to lose time going through a bunch of lists, just search bathtubs and whoops you get nothing, but search for bathtub and you get a bunch of them along with fixtures. It’s time saved. Resource manager: this is an exploded view.
Here is one more thing to like about the Vectorworks approach. They add new tools that were once third party add-ons and don’t charge extra for them. Camera Match is a nice little program that allows you to place a picture of an actual site into your model.The program is now included in Vectorworks at no extra charge. I have used the program in the past and as you can imagine it is a good tool for showing the client and others how your design will look with elements from its actual setting. It’s also another reason Vectorworks can be the only program you need in the office, because in the past one might need to go to Photoshop to accomplish this. My only complaint is that it is not that easy to use until you learn how to use it. There needs to be a real step-by-step in the help files. Camera Match: put your design in its real world setting.
Help Files and Ease of Learning
I must say something about the help files, because they are one of the things that make the program user friendly. I have been referring to them a lot lately and in doing so found them to be quite useful. There is not much more to be said, if you are in the middle of working and get stuck, need to refresh your memory about a tool or feature you haven’t used for a while or need to know how to use a new feature, just click on help. Then search for what you need and once you find it there will generally be an explanation of the feature and then a step-by-step guide on how to use it. That’s it; no need to go searching through manuals. Probably the best thing about Vectorworks is how easy it is to learn and start using. You don’t need to spend six months in a CAD drafting class to start using it. Watch a few YouTube videos or pick up a book from Jonathan Pickup, and you will be off and running in a matter of days. You can easily start just doing 2D, but draw a wall with the Wall tool, rather than draw it using lines, and you are on your way to 3D modeling and BIM learning and improve as you go.
Upgrades and Service Select
With the Service Select program you pay a yearly fee to get the latest version upgrades automatically before anyone else gets them (and it is all included in this one fee). Vectorworks Service Select also includes some other downloads that aren’t generally available. It’s a good deal for those who want to keep up to date with the latest version. But then there are those who continue to use older—sometimes much older—versions and are happy as clams. They are happy because the software does what they need it to do so why spend the money. I’m writing this using Word 2010 and don’t feel the need for any new features, for example. Vectorworks has been a great tool for Architects for many years now, and those older versions are still all some may need. Should you upgrade this year? Yes if you want the best version of the software you already use. The addition of Renderworks in all versions, along with other presentation enhancements, like web view and Camera Match, are getting close to the cost of the upgrade. File sharing, introduced last year, has put Vectorworks into the big league, allowing multiple team members to work on the same project and then this year they added the ability to file share in the cloud. That is a heavenly improvement, allowing offices to expand their workspace at no cost and to collaborate across the planet.
The benefits of Service Select:
• Best Possible Price and Value. Guaranteed
• Automatic and Hassle Free Software Upgrades
• Exclusive On-Demand Learning
• VIP Access to New Libraries, Textures, Plug-ins, and Templates
• Discounts on Training and Services offered by Partners
• Priority Technical Support
• Easy Account Management
By the way, I should mention that I have opened up and imported several files from previous versions, some from years ago, without any issues. You can also export back to up to version 2012. Upgrading shouldn’t create any costs, other than time to learn how to use new features.
Trees and People
Image props are a feature of Vectorworks that has been around for a long time, and is still a great tool for rendering without increasing file size. Props are symbols made in such a way that in 3D views always face the viewer. This is useful for making and placing objects in rendered views. Since they are 2D, they add very little to the file size. They are basically like props in a stage setting. There are many landscape props and I have created several using pictures of real people. They are for sale here. Props of People add scale and realism to a rendering at little cost in file size
Viewports, Elevations and Layers
Viewports are part of a basic feature that has been available for a few years. They are used to create views of any part of a drawing, but also to create sections, elevations, details and combinations of layers that can be incorporated into other drawings. For example, a viewport of the building floor plan, can be placed onto the site plan then moved around as desired. Also printable sheets that might make up the final set of construction documents are generally made by placing viewports onto sheet layers. This is a tremendously powerful feature that is also very intuitive. Final job sheets are composed as one might do a paste up for artwork. Place the viewports on the sheet adjust scale, turn on and off layers and move them around for best composition. Viewports are also great working with BIM, because you can turn layers on and off to create various versions of the model. Or create different models using different parts that are on different layers. They can also be used to create a complex building using viewports of various pieces of the building, apartment units for example. There are a few issues though. They can be used to make elevations and sections, but the process for making elevations is a bit confusing. There is no tool that says “ make exterior elevations” which seems so basic. You have to learn the tricks. The section tool is great and one trick is to use it to make elevations (we should not need tricks for this). Viewports can be copied and pasted within the drawing file, which is great, but they cannot be copied to other drawing files.
A few other new features
Interior Elevation Tool: click on the plan to create an elevation
Slab Drainage: create slopes in a slab based upon drain location
New Door and Window styles.
Alpha Transparency controls.
An overall View
There are many other new features and improvements and the best way to find out about them is to just visit the Vectorworks website. I have touched on a few of my favorites and could go on, but I’m not writing a book. Perhaps the most important thing to realize about Vectorworks is that for Architects and Designers in several fields, it is the only program you need to get your work done. Learn it and use it and you don’t need anything else for design, presentation and construction drawings.
Easy to learn, efficient to use
It’s a one stop shopping program for anyone in the design business
No need to learn and purchase two or three programs to get your work done
Renderworks, web view, Camera Match included free
Viewports provide tremendous flexibility and ease of sheet layouts
File sharing is easy to use and learn
Offsite file sharing and team work is possible using the cloud
Energy analysis included in Vectorworks Architect
The price is reasonable
It allows cross over work from architecture to design, lighting, stage design, site design and landscape design
Numerous import export options.
BIM at any level
Web view brings virtual reality to every office
No multi-view screens
Webview is new and somewhat of a work in progress
Requires a capable computer to realize the full potential
No clear tools for exterior elevations
Elevations and sections cannot be changed interactively, do not update plans
Viewports cannot be copied between files
On my blog you can find past reviews of Vectorworks. If you have not upgraded for some time or are thinking of purchasing Vectorworks for the first time you can read about previously added features there.
I like and have used Vectorworks for years in my architectural practice.
To find out more about John Helm check out his website and his blog and like his Facebook page. For everything VECTORWORKS check out Novedge. And to learn how to use Vectorworks Camera Match once and for all, join our next Novedge Webinar with trainer extraordinaire Jacob Dale from Tangably.
Also check out our Novedge Webinar Playlist for great Vectorworks tips and tricks.