Guest Blogger James Badcock: ArchiCAD and Urban Design

As I sit here, working on some upcoming features for an upcoming version of ArchiCAD, I’d like to reflect on my time before working here at Graphisoft HQ as a Product Designer, when I was a user of ArchiCAD.

My fanboy status for the program started back in the late 90’s at the University of Tasmania where ArchiCAD, version 5.1 at the time, was the only architectural software we were taught. Our university had won an ArchiCAD student competition a few years running—to model a concept based on a famous novel, but I forget the details. I didn’t compete at the time, but I wish I had, to really explore some of the more advanced features and GDL side of the program. But I digress.

Between those university days and here, working at Graphisoft, there were around 12 years of ArchiCAD use, though only a year or so specifically in architecture. The majority of the time was spent working on urban design developments from new city concepts to residential subdivisions. ArchiCAD scaled well and was flexible enough for any of those challenges  – except maybe for the limit of not having kilometers as a unit or having a scale limit of 1:30,000 which I had to solve by placing the plan on a Layout and then scaling the Layout when printing (but I think few users will generally encounter these barriers). A few times I looked at other solutions, perhaps a more 3D orientated product or GIS even, but I had a methodology that worked well within ArchiCAD and couldn’t find enough advantages in changing. On a side note, I’ve heard of one person using ArchiCAD to model boats and another using it to model guitars!

In the urban design models, I had to think of the tool set as just shapes with different abilities. Slabs were used to represent entire floors for building massing, with a slight gap between each to avoid surfaces merging in 3D and to help provide a shadow line that was visible. I sometimes used Walls with the log wall feature enabled to model slats on a façade or a fence rather than relying on profiles. Later I started learning some basic GDL to create these features. Walls were also used as roads, as they joined well at intersections and had a consistent thickness. However, before the 3D modelling started, the design (at least partly) would often come to me as a 2D DWG file where the Magic Wand made the job effortless. In the few times I had to edit the CAD file, I was completely lost in 2D with the command line; it seemed generally tedious to trim/extend/break then repeat. I am a little biased perhaps, and I admit I was a noob with that particular software.

But back to the ArchiCAD modelling. By using Slabs for separate floors, it allowed me to output approximate land use quantities. Applying surfaces with the specific land use names like Retail, Commercial, Low/Medium/High Density Residential etc, also allowed the model to be colour coded. A simple schedule could be created with surface name and surface area with totals to see if the urban form met the client’s requirements. I refined this further by using the Slab’s ID as the plot or building number. This allowed a plot-by-plot analysis of land use areas per building, including the number of floors – I often didn’t need to create storeys for each level as it was usually more flexible for the design to have everything on 1 storey and design more in 3D than in Floor Plan, or I would separate the ground and landscaping elements to a storey and all the buildings to another. It depended on what was more efficient at the time, and I was working in ‘lonely BIM’ anyway (if this could be called BIM, UDIM perhaps?).

To assist with the urban design guidelines as part of the deliverable, the 3D Document feature was used to describe the 3D envelope of typical plots with text notes, dimensions and the colored building mass—sometimes using wireframe elements to indicate the built form envelope (via Layer Settings, and before the Morph tool). These views were exported as PDFs and placed into an InDesign document. The Floor Plan wasn’t to the level of quality we needed for documentation, and there wasn’t a way I could do this inside ArchiCAD, but it had all the ingredients. I found that having two aerial versions of the model from the 3D Document was the easiest to work with—one black and white with shadows, the other without shadows but colored. These would be combined in Illustrator where I could tweak the line weights, colors and overall appearance of the graphic to best communicate the proposal. This plan was also the backdrop for all our diagrams to explain the concepts of the design. It was also used to help our graphic artist produce the rendered master plan. This was pretty easy to update when the design changed… like when the client decided to change the mix of residential types or plot sizes, twice. The 3D model would either be exported to Cinema4D for abstract renderings or sent to our rendering guy for more detailed visualization.

Now that I look back, I am sure I would have done some things differently and I have since evolved my methods—especially considering some of the recent new features. It’s always an evolution, and rarely do any two designs use the same techniques, as the designs usually require different visual solutions.

As I sit here over looking the Danube, I now get to live every fanboy’s dream—shaping the future of ArchiCAD (adding some of the features I wish I had as an urban designer, but now with the focus back on architecture). I hope to share more on a few of the features I’ve helped with over the last two ArchiCAD releases, like why some of the features are the way they are, so stay tuned.


For another way to build background cities, check out the Random City Object by manuBIM. Want more ArchiCAD inspiration and help? Follow Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube for more…

Leave a Reply