Introducing Digital Software

Digital software has revolutionised the way architects design, document and communicate their ideas. It is an essential tool in your architecture toolkit.

Your university may provide dedicated communications or software subjects to teach you how to use different software. More likely, you will be given a project and asked to use software to design, document and/ or present your proposal. This is an immersion process that leaves you to “figure it out.”

Either way, the software can be confusing. It is difficult to master every software and certainly not expected. There is a lot of different software out there and It can be hard to know which one to start with and when to use it. Today, I am going to help you decide.

We are going to consider software as either 2D and/ or 3D software and how each software relates to the workflow and intentions of a particular project task. This will help you know which software to start with and focus on, streamline your workflow and save a lot of wasted time and effort.

How To Choose The Right Architectural Software

To help determine which software to use when there are several things to consider. These include:

  • Information and objective – What you are trying to do, the outcome you desire and the most efficient and effective path to get there.
  • Software function and capabilities – What the software is capable of, how it is designed to be used and how appropriate it is for the task at hand,
  • Learning curve – How easy the software is to learn and understand.
  • Ease of use – How easy the software is to use and the time required to set it up and use each project.
  • Price – How much money do you need to outlay, does it fit within your student budget and is there a free student version!!

What Is The Information Required?

An important factor that new students, end even more senior students do not fully understand is the type of information you are being asked to produce, where it sits in the overall project process and the most efficient and effective workflow to produce that information.

Every architectural project moves through 8 phases:

  1. Pre-Design and Establishment
  2. Concept and Schematic Design
  3. Design Development
  4. Planning and Development Approval
  5. Construction Documentation
  6. Contractor Selection
  7. Contract Administration and Construction
  8. Defects and Post-Construction

To learn more, review the article titled “8 Architecture Project Stages From Concept To Construction.”

At university, your design studios will likely focus on the first three phases: Pre-Design and Establishment, Concept and Schematic Design and Design Development.

Construction subjects may quickly take you through a design process but are more likely to focus on Design Development and Construction Documentation.

Within each of these phases, certain types of information are produced. The earlier in the design, the looser and less resolved the project proposal is. It is more about the bigger ideas of what the building could be, The further through the project process, the more resolved, detailed and explicit the information. By the time you get to construction documentation, you need to be telling the builder exactly how to build every little detail.

It is important to understand the level of information and resolution required in each phase of the project and each piece of information you are producing, and then select the appropriate software.

What Is The Software Function?

Once you understand where in the project process you are and the type of information you are producing you can start to consider different types of software and create an appropriate workflow.

There are several terms you need to know to fully understand your software options:

  • Two dimensional (2D) – Working with flat planes (length and width) to determine the position of an element in space. In software, this refers to creating on a digital paper plane.
  • Three dimensional (3D) – Working with solids, volumes and objects (length, width and height) to determine the position of an element in space. In software, this refers to creating an object in digital space.
  • Computer-Aided Design (CAD) – The use of computers to aid the design process of objects and spaces. It is used to create 2D or 3D drawings. The focus of the software is on creating drawings.
  • Building Information Modelling (BIM) – A digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a structure. BIM models integrate all design disciplines in a shared space and can be used during the design, construction and operation of a facility. The focus of the software is on creating a model and extracting drawings from the model.

Digital software can be broken down into 2D and 3D formats. Each software is designed for a specific function and is used predominantly in certain project phases. The following software are some that you will likely encounter in the early years of your study and practice, and are a good place to start.

Let’s understand the function, capability and merits of these software one at a time.

Photoshop (Adobe) – Image Editing

Created

1988

Function and Capability

Photoshop is a pixel-based image and manipulation editor used by a broad range of professions. Editing allows you to correct color balance, crop and straighten images, alter colours, remove blemishes or combine multiple images into one scene. As a raster image editor (rather than a vector editor), this means it will pixelate and distort when zoomed in too close. A vector editor will not distort lines, shapes or colours.

In architecture, you can use Photoshop to edit photographs and images and create collages.

Photoshop should not be used for scale drawing or creating page layouts or documents. Images produced in Photoshop would normally be taken into a program like Illustrator or InDesign as part of a larger page or document layout or presentation.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • Easy to learn and understand.
  • Used across multiple industries.
  • All-purpose image editing and production with broad capabilities.
  • A large range of tutorials is available with good support.
  • Generally industry standard.
  • Once you understand an Adobe product, the interface is similar to other products.

Cons

  • Raster graphics editor with no vector support  (use Illustrator for this). This means images created on Photoshop are not ideal for scaling up or down.
  • Not ideal for creating multi-page documents (use InDesign for this).
  • A large interface that may be overwhelming at first.
  • Pricing can be expensive on a student budget, but you can access the whole adobe suite for one subscription. Cheaper alternatives do exist but do not have the same capacities and interface with other programs.

Price

Illustrator (Adobe) – Image Creation

Created

1987

Function and Capability

Adobe Illustrator is a vector graphics and design program to create artwork. This means that lines and graphics remain whole, regardless of how much they are zoomed into.

Illustrator includes shapes and basic drawing tools to create logos, icons, images and other single illustrations and can incorporate typography. As a vector-based program, it is much clearer than Photoshop, which will pixelate text and images. Illustrator can be used for artworks including typography, infographics and one-page layouts like a form or a flyer.

In architecture, you can import 2D scale drawings from a CAD program and add colour, texture and type. You may create a simple layout, diagram or orthographic plan, section, elevation or 3D presentation drawing. These can then be imported into a bigger presentation and layout in InDesign.

Illustrator is an essential tool. It should not be used for image editing or scale drawing.

One of the biggest mistakes early students make is to use Illustrator or even In Design to create scale drawings. CAD programs should create a scale drawing, save it as a PDF or EPS file and import or link it as a line drawing into Illustrator. Any changes to the line drawing should be made in CAD, re-linked and updated in Illustrator.

Understanding and using software for what it is designed for is an essential part of creating a good workflow.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • A large range of tutorials is available with good support.
  • Graphics can be scaled without loss of resolution.
  • Generally industry standard.
  • Once you understand an Adobe product, the interface is similar to other products.

Cons

  • Modifying existing images is difficult (use Photoshop for this).
  • Not ideal for creating multi-page documents (use InDesign for this).
  • Pricing can be expensive on a student budget, but you can access the whole adobe suite for one subscription. Cheaper alternatives do exist but do not have the same capacities and interface with other programs.

Price

InDesign (Adobe) – Page Layout and Publishing

Created

1999

Function and Capability

InDesign is an essential page layout and publishing software for creating presentation sheets and booklets. Images can be easily created in Photoshop and Illustrator and assembled and arranged with text and shapes as a layout in InDesign. Use grids, guides, templates and styles as well as typesetting features to create pages, chapters and books.

Like Illustrator and Photoshop, InDesign is an essential tool. It is not used for photo editing or drawing.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • Easily combined images and texts into layouts.
  • Utilises templates, styles, pages, chapters and sections for easy collation, branding and styling.
  • A large range of tutorials is available with good support.
  • Generally industry standard.
  • Once you understand an Adobe product, the interface is similar to other products.

Cons

  • Limited capability to create vector graphics (use Illustrator for this).
  • Unable to edit raster-based images (use Photoshop for this).
  • No spell or grammar check.
  • Pricing can be expensive on a student budget, but you can access the whole adobe suite for one subscription. Cheaper alternatives do exist but do not have the same capacities and interface with other programs.

Price

Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign come together to make up a powerful graphic design suite. It is important to understand they are just that – graphic design and presentation tools. They are not architectural design and documentation tools. Let’s have a look at a few of those.

AutoCAD (AutoDesk) – CAD, 2D Documentation And Drafting

Created

1982

Function and Capability

AutoCAD is one of the oldest and most developed 2D documentation and drafting software. It was the first software to replace hand-drafting and is a digital interpretation of analogue drawing processes.

AutoCAD is used as a 2D drawing tool for design development and documentation. It is used to create traditional orthographic drawings – planes, elevations and sections. AutoCAD can be used for concept development or to produce quick drawings, as well as more detailed documentation.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • Easy to learn and understand.
  • Used across multiple industries.
  • A good starting place for 2D drawing and documentation.
  • Can interface with other Autodesk 3D software and some other basic modelling software such as Rhino.
  • Free student version available.

Cons

  • Limited 3D function.
  • No BIM or Revit integrations.

Price

Sketchup (Google) – 3D Massing And Modelling

Created

2000

Function and Capability

Sketchup is a simple 3D software that should be used at the start of the design process and the conceptual phase of design. Sketchup allows the user to quickly create 3D massing models and test ideas about form and volumes through to complex architectural visualisations and presentations. It is the equivalent of making quick, 3D cardboard models before the software was introduced.

Sketchup is an easy modelling tool but is not a replacement for CAD or BIM software. It should not be used for design development and documentation or to produce final 2D orthographic scale drawings.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • An easy program to learn, understand and create with
  • Good user interface.
  • A good 3D software to begin on.
  • Offers a large 3D component library where every object, surface and material can be given a unique texture.
  • Can be downloaded for free with basic capabilities.
  • Free version available, suitable for students.

Cons

  • Not a Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) program and does not have the capability required to adequately document a building and produce high quality orthographic and other drawings.
  • Limited rendering capabilities.
  • Basic visual graphics.
  • Not collaborative.

Price

  • Free version – Suitable for students.
  • Annual subscriptions for SketchUp Pro and SketchUp Studio.
  • Education version – Not applicable/ not required.

ArchiCAD (Gaphisoft) – CAD, BIM, 2D and 3D Integration

Created

1982. Released in 1987.

Function and Capability

ArchiCAD was the first software to produce 2D and 3D geometry on a personal computer as well as the first BIM product. It is designed specifically for architects, interior designers, designers and urban planners.

Like Rhino, it is an all-in-one 2D and 3D software package. Compared to AutoCAD and Sketchup, which both have either 2D or 3D  this has both and allows you to work between the two formats.

ArchiCAD is used to varying degrees in different countries, so it is important to see whether a broad range of local employers and practices have a demand for this software.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • Integrates BIM technology.
  • Full 2D drawing and documentation.
  • Full 3D modelling.
  • Able to produce 23D and 3D views at the same time.
  • Rendering available.
  • Free student version available.

Cons

  • A larger learning curve than other software.
  • Requires a powerful computer.
  • Mainly aimed towards architects.

Price

  • Free trial – Full version, 30 days.
  • Monthly, annual or 3-year subscription.
  • Education version – Available free for 1 year, renewable annually while eligible – https://myarchicad.graphisoft.com/

Rhino (Robert McNeel & Associates) – CAD, 2D and Complex 3D Integration

Created

1998

Function and Capability

Rhino or Rhinoceros is CAD-based design software. It differs from other 3D software in that it can create more complex organic and curved forms that are not straight and that many other 3D modelling tools cannot.

Rhino has both 3D modelling and 2D drafting and documentation capabilities which means that both modelling and documentation can be done in one program.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • 2D drawing and documentation.
  • Powerful, complex 3D modelling.
  • Compatible with a range of plugins and scripting including Grasshopper (parametric modelling) and V-Ray (rendering).
  • Compatible with a lot of other software.
  • Specialises in curved and organic modelling.
  • Free trial available, affordable pricing.

Cons

  • BIM function is an add-on.
  • Limited for rendering.
  • Not as widely used as other industry tools.
  • 2D capabilities are not as developed as AutoCAD – however, 2D  work can be exported to AutoCAD and developed as 2D drawings.
  • Mac version does not have the same capability as Windows.

Price

Revit (AutoDesk) – CAD, BIM And Team Working

Created

Started in 1997. Version 1.0 was released in 2000.

Function and Capability

Revit is documentation, building information and design software for architects, engineers, designers, contractors and other building professionals. It is designed specifically to accommodate Building Information Modelling (BIM) workflows and information.

Revit can create complex models that represent all the architectural and engineering systems of a building which make it great for collaborative design and documentation across disciplines.

One of the big mistakes students make is using Revit as a design tool, especially during the early phases of concept and schematic design. It is not a design tool and because of the complex processes involved in setting it up, it is difficult to make changes and quickly test ideas. It should only be used in the later stages of a project for construction documentation.

Pros

  • Available on Windows and Mac computers.
  • An AutoDesk software and compatible with AutoCAD and other products.
  • Strong work-sharing capabilities for large teams to integrate and co-ordinate.
  • Free trial available, affordable pricing.

Cons

  • Complex to learn and often requires face-to-face teaching.
  • Complex to set up for individual projects.
  • Lacks an intuitive interface.
  • Not a design tool.
  • Too complex for small, individual projects.

Price

Which Software Should You Start With?

There is a lot of different software to use, and you are not going to be able to use it all at once. As a new student, this is how you might approach learning new software.

Step 1 Graphics – You are going to need to know the 3 Adobe software. Depending on the requirements for your first assignments, you could pick one of them to learn, and then follow it up with a second and then third program. The beauty of Adobe is that once you know one program, the others have a similar interface. There are many tutorials on the Adobe website to help you through the process. You could:

  • Photoshop – Start to edit simple images and photographs and maybe create some kind of collage or manipulated image for a concept or design idea.
  • Illustrator – Create a simple page layout.
  • InDesign – Create a final folio or book layout.

Step 2 CAD – In the early stages of your studies you are most likely going to be hand drawing or creating work that can be developed in the Adobe Suite. At some point, you will need to start modelling and drawing on a CAD program. Depending on the project, you could start as follows:

  • Sketchup – Develop simple 3D massing models.
  • Rhino or ArchiCAD – Import the Sketchup model into ArchiCAD or Rhino and develop 2D drawings and layouts.

If you choose a CAD program with both 2D and 23D capabilities, then you have everything you need within it to learn to create 3D models, 2D drawings and layouts.

Step 3 Renders – Initially, you could import your AutoCAD and Rhino drawings into Illustrator to add a basic render. Over time, you could add on more complex programs including Grasshopper (parametric modelling) and V-Ray (rendering).

Step 4 Documentation and BIM – These programs are great for university projects. However, much of the workplace, especially in Australia, is looking for Revit users as part of the project documentation process. Before you graduate, it is important to learn Revit or whatever your local industry uses for documentation.

  • Revit – Develop preliminary design in Sketchup or Rhino and import into Revit as part of design development or construction documentation process.

Conclusion

In the early stages of your architectural design studies, start somewhere. Pick a software that is appropriate to the task or project and is affordable and learn and master it over 1 or 2 semesters.

Once you are confident with one software, add another. They are all tools in your toolkit.

As you enter the final few years of your degree, do some research into what the majority of practices are using. Search the job ads, ask your tutors and student who are working. If you feel the learning curve is too great over a semester, get ahead. Over the holidays, take one of your developed design projects and start to build and document it in a new program so you can apply this knowledge from the start of the new semester.

Remember, as a student you are just at the start of your career, and you have a lifetime to learn.

Liz at ArchiMash

PS…If you have any questions or thoughts about architectural software, let me know at archimash.com/askliz.


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