09 August, 2016

A Box of Tools

A recent post by Jared Banks over at Shoegnome.com got me thinking. That's the thing about Jared -- even if you don't agree wholesale with some of his ideas, he will make you think and reassess your current methods.

The post in question was on Work Environments and Jared has, over the last few months, been making attempts to maximise his screen real estate. One of the things he's done in v20 is to remove the toolbox altogether and replace it with a drop-down toolbar.

Now, if you have a large-enough monitor, you might find the extra click too high a price to pay for a few extra pixels. Of course you could learn a bunch of keyboard shortcuts or, (drumroll) you could do this.

Some time ago, over at Instructables, I'd read a post on making a programmable keypad from a simple numeric one.

It was a geeky weekend project to take onwho can resist those? On one of my swings through Lamington Road, I picked up a a cheap ₹350 (about US$ 5) number pad. These are usually needed by laptop users because their keyboards don't have numbers on the right side. The cable was barely 1m long so I had to get a USB extension as well because my CPU sits quite a distance from where I need the keys. As this was going to be an experiment, I wasn't about to waste money on a wireless pad although those are available too.

The key (no pun intended) is to use a software like HID-Macros which reads each keyboard individually. Without it, the system would see the extra pad as a clone of the number keypad you might already have as part of your main keyboard.  HID-Macros is no longer developed but it serves our purpose very well. On recent versions of Windows, you'll have to run it in compatibility mode (XP). Also, if you get a UAC prompt every time you run it, here is how to eliminate that irritation.

Mac users can try using USB Overdrive -- and please let me know in the comments if it works!

I'm not going into details about how to modify the keypad because that would be duplicating the well-written instructions already available at Instructables, but you will need to make some changes in ARCHICAD too. For one thing, you'll have to assign keyboard shortcuts for all the tools you want to use with the keypad. Here's how I set mine up.

The NumLock toggle allows me to give some of the keys dual function. Essentially, I've managed to get most of my heavily-used tools in here.  Overall, the process was easy -- in fact the most time-consuming part was deciding which tools to include and how to group them.

Now, if this works as well as I expect it to, maybe I'll think of something more advanced like those programmable control pads from Genovation or the keypads and sticks from X-Keys. These are a lot more expensive, but the key definitions are stored onboard so you don't need software like HID-Macro or USB Overdrive to interpret the strokes.  I'm also guessing they are far better quality than the cheap pad I bought.

A couple of other things: The icons were traced from the new v.20 toolbox using Inkscape. I printed them on matt photo paper -- the kind you get in stationery stores -- and then "laminated" (before cutting) with Scotch Magic Tape. The blue NumLock LED on the pad is so bright that it is clearly visible even through the thick photo paper.  It's now a pleasant glow instead of the blinding stab in the eye that it was earlier.

So, that's it for now. Tell me, if you'd like to make a board like this.


03 May, 2016

My Top 3+1 Features of ARCHICAD 20

It's been announced! A bit earlier than expected, maybe, but the latest version, ARCHICAD 20 is coming soon and these are my top three new features:

1. Graphical Favourites 

2. The Latest CineRender Engine and 2-Point Perspective

3. A Refreshed User Interface that Supports 4k & Retina Displays

Have a  look at the new website for more details and go through the entire playlist on YouTube

What are your favourite features? Hit the comments and let everybody know!

EDIT: Make it 4 features. In my excitement, I missed what may be the most important one. Properties import/export from Excel.  It's huge!

Note to self: Next time, try and join the beta test. :D

20 March, 2016

Preparing for Windows 10

As the July 29th deadline approaches, Windows7/8.x users who have been waiting and watching will have to take a decision on whether to accept the free upgrade to 10 or stick with the current operating system for the time being. Meanwhile there are numerous reports of upgrades being forced onto users and there is a sense of inevitability that, at some point in the near future, even the most vigilant of us will succumb to Microsoft's relentless drive. Short of switching to Linux or Mac, it looks like they're going to get us by hook or by crook, so I've decided to be prepared. Before some Mac fan decides to give me good advice let me just say this: Forget it. Apple hardware support in India sucks.

Over the last decade, I've done a fair number of projects in various versions of ARCHICAD and I want to be able to access them in future if ever the need arises. With Windows 7, I was able to install ARCHICAD-9 (my earliest version) although the procedure needed some jumping through hoops. With Win10, only ARCHICAD-13 and newer are listed as compatible and Graphisoft has only been fixing things for v18 and 19 on this operating system. If you still want to run old versions of ARCHICAD on Windows,  you'll have to install WindowsXP in a virtual machine.

Instead, I decided to open up and save all my old projects in the current version of ARCHICAD. That means migrating all the files and libraries. This is something I've almost never done on a live project but feel comfortable enough doing it on completed ones. While going through this exercise, I came across a few things that I thought might be useful to someone in the same boat as myself.

Migration Libraries

ARCHICAD does a pretty decent job as long as the project files are v13 or newer but won't automatically load migration libraries from 10, 11 and 12. At first I thought they didn't exist but a search on archicad-talk revealed that they do!

That still doesn't solve the problem of v.9 so you'll either have to use the file converter or load the original library. In fact, it might be a good practice to keep copies of the libraries of previously installed versions in case the process fails or you only want to use the original objects.

In the past, I've never saved my old projects as .pla files and not sure whether I should have or not. After migration, the old objects would simply get embedded.


The one place where you are likely to face more trouble than object libraries is with surfaces (formerly materials). Despite migrating objects successfully, there is a good chance that the library loading report will complain about a bunch of missing attributes. With the switch from Lightworks to CineRender, a lot of things changed so it is worthwhile removing unnecessary parameters.

Go to:   Options > Element Attributes > Check Surfaces

Sometimes this fixes the problem and sometimes it doesn't.

Sun Object

For some reason many of my saved 3D views in the old files showed up as blank. I found that removing the sun object sorted out the problem. With CineRender, I don't feel the need for the sun object any more so it was a quick and effective fix. I haven't yet figured out what exactly caused the problem. Let me clarify, though, that it wasn't the sun object itself but certain settings of the sun object that led to a (seemingly?) empty 3D view.

Now that I've migrated all the important projects from older versions I feel a lot more confident about facing the inevitable. Of course, the bigger question of whether or not to move to Windows 10 in the near future still remains; and while you're reading this, Microsoft is thinking up all sorts of ways to take that decision out of your hands.

26 January, 2016

Improvements in Visualisation since ARCHICAD 9

My first ARCHICAD project was back in 2006 when I began using version 9. At the time, not only was I a complete novice in it (with nobody to take any training from) but the navigation in 3D was also extremely clunky — especially compared to what it is today. Rendering too was, well, nothing to write home about.

My first rendering in 2006 was really very amateurish
As you can see in this first image, I was actually working in parallel view! Maybe this wasn't exactly my first ever ARCHICAD rendering but it is certainly the oldest one that survives on my hard drive. Creation date: 29th May 2006 — just one day before I joined Archicad-Talk. The image you see here bears little resemblance to the completed house because, after it was created, the design went through multiple changes. At that point, I was still making the mistake of relying on flatland for my construction drawings — my understanding of how to use ARCHICAD was practically nil and, as always, there was a deadline to keep.

Over time, by constantly trawling the forum, the wiki (now replaced by the help-centre) and a handful of websites that carried articles and tutorials, things started to improve. Of course, there was a whole lot of trial and error but it finally became possible to get the output I needed without resorting to 2D drafting. Simultaneously, ARCHICAD's toolset improved and expanded, allowing us all to model more accurately and to minimise line-work.

Interior remodel from 2011
Around 2010-2011, I had a very demanding client for an interior remodel, and that forced me to delve further into Lightworks than I might otherwise have done. The results (second image) were very obviously CGI but they did get the design across to the client's satisfaction. With few exceptions, clients are unable to relate to a plan or elevation, and seeing a 3D view — not even necessarily photo-realistic — is usually enough to make them understand what the architect has in mind.

It was around this time that I also formed a habit of making at least one GDL object per project. For this remodel, it was the variegated tile object which was very useful in visualising how the bathrooms would look.

By 2013 things had become somewhat better
Fast forward a couple of years and we come to another house that was built just 100m away from the one in the first image. Designing began in v.13 but was quickly moved over to v.16. This was around the time that Graphisoft was re-entering the Indian market after a couple of lapsed years. The images (not to mention the construction drawings) for this project, were a whole lot better than before and practically everything was done in ARCHICAD. I think the only exception was a brick lattice wall for which I first tried alternatives in Sketchup.

Remember, the rendering engine was still Lightworks, so it took a fair bit of effort to even get half-decent results. My clients were happy enough with it, so no complaints there. Coincidentally, the tile object from two years earlier came in use again here (this time for the kitchen), so all the time spent making it in the first place, was more than justified.

For this project, I made two GDL objects — a füssball table and the roll-up bamboo blinds you see in the third image. The pool surface is a slightly undulating mesh, by the way. I dislike the repeating pattern of the default fieldstone surface but for some reason didn't do anything about it then. Apart from some paint colours — which changed at a late stage — this model is very close to what was actually built.

Current project: 2015-16
Finally, we come to a current project for which construction has yet to begin. This is in v.18 so the visualisation engine is CineRender. It would have been nice to have some better red silk-cotton trees but these cutouts do the job and they're not the focus of the design, so I'll live with that. The fieldstone texture, on the other hand, is much better than what came out of the box and actually looks like the kind of stonework that is common in these parts.

The construction drawings are complete now but I had really wanted to do them in v.19 so as to use the new labels. That didn't happen though. Because of a mix-up, I still haven't got a replacement for my old green WIBU key which is not supported in v.19. I'm told it's coming though.

Current project: 2015-16
Not only are the exterior renderings hugely better in CineRender but even the stock settings for interiors are really so good that you might only need to make a few minor tweaks. I particularly like the soft, natural, summer evening light in this image which would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with Lightworks — unless you were named Dwight Atkinson.

The GDL object for this project is an underground water storage tank for harvesting rainwater. Why would I "spend" polygons on something underground? Well, the land slopes steeply and I need to see the tanks in my sections to ensure that they have been placed correctly. Happily, the object allows me to choose whether to cast shadows only for the part above ground (or not at all) so the extra polygons don't affect rendering time as far as I can tell.

Lightworks v/s CineRender
Finally, I opened an old file in versions 13 as well as 18 and rendered the same scene in both without making any changes. As you can see in the composite image above, they came out looking very different. Lightworks needed a lot of fiddling with the settings but, for CineRender, I just picked a preset scene; then, one click to turn on lights was all that was required.

We can expect CineRender to be around for quite a while, so expanding and improving our surface/texture libraries should be well worth the effort. So far, given the kind of work I do, I haven't felt the need to use an external rendering engine. Now, thanks to Lightworks being dropped in favour of CineRender, I have even less reason to consider one.

19 January, 2016

Baby Steps in BIM

Some months ago when a representative from Graphisoft was visiting Bombay, he told me they were planning on releasing the ARCHICAD STAR(T) Edition in India. I thought it was a great idea and told him so. A couple of days ago, I got news that the first licences had already been sold.

Image credit: WikiMedia

If you ask me to use STAR(T) today, I'll laugh heartily in your face. Why, then, do I think of it as a product worth pushing? It's simply this: after having used the full version, it is almost impossible to go backward but — and here's the thing — if you had asked me this question ten years ago when I was still working in 2D flatland, the answer might well have been very different.

To begin with, STAR(T) is a lot more affordable, so it is a much smaller risk for someone contemplating — but still unsure of — moving up from flatland. Further, although the feature set is (relatively) limited, it is still a very capable software. The simplicity may actually be an advantage to new users who are still taking their first baby steps in BIM. To put it another way, you might want to try your hand at Karting before you venture into Formula One.

Recently, I've been receiving brochures in my mailbox telling me that STAR(T) is available in India. The mails concentrate on listing, not its features, but all its limitations in comparison to ARCHICAD 19. It is refreshing to see the candour here but I do wish there had been more emphasis on its many strengths instead. Maybe the distributors prefer that architects purchase the full version but they have to realise how important STAR(T) is as an entry point — not just for numerous small and solo practices but for themselves as well.

After using STAR(T) Edition for a year (or three) architects are more than likely to outgrow its limitations and will naturally look to upgrade to the current full version of ARCHICAD. By then, they will be aware of its value, confident about the workflow, and ready to invest time and money in further exploring BIM. The good thing is, when they do make this transition, they'll be able to open all their existing STAR(T) project files natively in the full version.

The latest version of STAR(T) is about to be released here, so I'll write a separate post on its features (and ways to deal with a couple of its limitations). Meanwhile, I'm delighted to see that quite a lot of the great new stuff from ARCHICAD 19 has already found its way into STAR(T) 2016.

10 September, 2015

Google Earth Pro: Gratis but not so Free

Some months ago, Google Earth Pro went from a significant $399 per year to exactly zero. For architects like us, the enhanced measuring tools and the significantly higher resolution compared to the (already free) standard version can be invaluable.

Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts over several days in February, the installer failed and there was no useful error message of any kind. I didn't have time to pursue it back then, so I just continued using the already installed standard version of GE. Still, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what was wrong.

For the last year and a half, I've been using a 120GB SSD for my C: drive where Windows and my Program Files are located. Of late, though, I found myself hesitating to install new software because I was running out of space; it was time for a bigger one.

Anyone who has used SSDs will tell you how blazingly fast they are compared to the old spinning hard disks. ARCHICAD starts up in a fraction of the time, as does Windows itself. But SSDs are still a lot more expensive which is why people like myself continue to archive data on the cheaper (and much larger capacity) traditional HDDs.

I picked up the best-selling Samsung 850 EVO which has an excellent 4.7 star rating on Amazon and a pretty good price too. And now that I have two SSDs, I'm using the smaller one for my current project files as well as office library so that opening a .pln in AC is even quicker than it was earlier. I toyed briefly with the idea of going for the Samsung 850 Pro which has a 10-year warranty but wasn't interested in paying almost double. Besides even if the drives do last the full ten years, their capacity will seem really puny long before that. My first hard disk was barely 40MB and that was just over 25 years ago. The rate of increase has -- and always will be -- exponential. Okay, so now you know I'm an old goat. Back to the subject...

After duly loading Windows, it was time to reinstall all the software as well and here's where I come back to the recalcitrant Google Earth Pro. I downloaded the installer all over again (incorrectly assuming that the previous one was buggy) but faced the same problem as before. It would neither work nor tell me why it wasn't working! $#@%!!

Searching for a solution led to suggestions about using the "offline installer" but the download link on that page gave a 404 error, indicating a file not found. Even then the penny didn't drop. Then I noticed a mention of someone in Vietnam having the same problem; and that's when I got my first glimmer of what was wrong. I tried the same offline installer link using a free VPN plugin for my browser and bingo!

Long story short: the Google Earth Pro download seems to have been blocked in some countries including India. I don't know if the blocking is being done by ISPs in the countries themselves or whether they've got Google to do the dirty work for them (I suspect the latter) but either way it's stupid and short-sighted.

Once you've downloaded and installed GE-Pro, it should run normally and I'm happy to finally have it working. One last thing: the software itself is legally free but it still asks for a license key at first start, so use GEPFREE along with your email ID.

I hope this article helps some people.  Thanks for reading.

Hit the comments:
  • Is Google Earth Pro blocked in your country?
  • Do you have an SSD and if not, why not?
  • What was the capacity of your first HDD?

25 July, 2015

Sintex Underground Tank -- GDL Object

Sintex Plastics is probably the largest manufacturer of tanks in the country and certainly one of the oldest. Here's one of their products that is not really seen much on a site--not because it's never used but because almost the entire thing is buried.

For a couple of projects I simply used two primitives--a octagonal block and a flat cylinder to show the part above ground--but that wasn't really ideal and there was always the question on a steeply sloping site of whether some part of the body would stick out.

As you can see in the image below, there are very few parameters so I've not wasted time making an interface. If you choose any of the six standard sizes from the list, you won't have to touch anything else except the elevation. In fact, all the dimensions will be locked to prevent error.

If you want to change the dimensions, though, there is a "custom" option. Note that I've not restricted any of the parameters so if, for example, you make the manhole wider than the tank itself you'll get errors in 3d view.

Incidentally, I recently discovered that one series of Sintex septic tanks have the same outer shell as these underground tanks so this object actually represents both products. I've never used the latter, though. Not yet, at any rate.

Ah, yes, one interesting thing is that you can choose to cast a shadow with the entire object (unnecessary in almost all cases), only the part that sticks out of the ground, or not at all.

Finally, a disclaimer:
Apart from basic sizes, no dimensions or drawings are provided on the Sintex website so please do not expect this object to be a perfect representation of the actual product.

Download it here | ARCHICAD 18+

13 May, 2015

Need a füssball object in your ArchiCAD project?

Füssball & TT Tables at the [ShKo] bungalow
A couple of years ago, I needed a füssball (called foosball in some places) GDL object for a project. The clients wanted me to put it alongside a full-sized table-tennis table at their bungalow, which I was designing at the time.

The TT table object has long been part of the built-in library but, of Füssball, there was no sign. It's possible the German library has one but I'm unaware either way. Rather than import a static object from Sketchup, I decided to write the code over a weekend because I wanted better control over the materials (surfaces) used.

Füssball Table Settings
At the time, BIMcomponents had just been launched alongside, so, just to see how it worked, I shared the object there and promptly forgot about it.

Recently I happened to visit the page and found that a number of people had downloaded it--although there were only three comments. Two people complained that they couldn't download the object. I have no idea why--and can do nothing about it--but the comment by Kosuke Masuda from Japan embarrassed me. He'd noticed that one of the teams had 12 players in 2D.

Umm... ahh... oops!

The extra player has been red-carded and will take no further part in any games.  In other words, the object has now been corrected.

It is available at this link.

06 May, 2015

ArchiCAD 19 has been released

ArchiCAD 19
Image © Graphisoft
ArchiCAD 19 was released yesterday and I can't write anything original about it because I wasn't part of the beta program (hint, hint). Instead, I'm going to point you to a bunch of links that you must visit if you haven't already.

Your starting point should be the actual announcement.

Next up, the ArchiCAD channel on YouTube. A number of clips have been uploaded already and they'll give you a very good idea of what's new. Check back for more videos in the coming days. Better still, subscribe to the channel.

If you're interested in seeing how ArchiCAD has progressed over the last few years, this chart has a matrix of features from v.14 to v19.

Finally, here's the story behind the ArchiCAD 19 signature building by Bond Bryan Architects.

From what I can see, there are no template-shattering features this time, which is a bit of a relief actually. Instead, we see a number of useful enhancements across the board. Enjoy.

30 April, 2015

BIMcloud over Dubai

Two days ago, I was part of a BIMcloud event held at the Canadian University of Dubai. BIMcloud was launched by Graphisoft just over a year back in Japan. Why Japan and not in the US, Europe or even down under? Lachmi Khemlani explains in this blog post from April last year.

The process began a few weeks back when Djordje Grujic contacted a bunch of us on email and asked us if we would be willing to take part in this event. I think every single one of us jumped at the opportunity and, for me, it was not simply a learning experience but a very enjoyable one as well. I was being given a chance to, literally, plug into a small part of the global ArchiCAD community and interact with them in real-time.

Initially, all our discussion was carried out via email but as the date got nearer, we moved over to Skype. This proved useful in the end because Teamwork messaging was iffy an my end at least -- any message I sent from within ArchiCAD took about twenty minutes or more to reach the intended recipients although I could receive messages instantaneously. Gábor Kovács-Palkó and Márton Kiss over at Graphisoft were discussing something about a local proxy so I cursed my internet service provider (wrongly, as it turned out) and we used only Skype to communicate during the event.

Graphisoft was hosting the file on their BIMcloud server in Hungary so, essentially, the data sent from my computer was bouncing across the internet from Mumbai to Budapest to Dubai - a total distance of about 10,000km. It was similar for Shivang Rajvir in Ahmedabad. In comparison Victor Arcos in Bogotá, Columbia, was sending his data around 14,000km. Marin Račić and Gordana Radonic in Croatia and Serbia respectively had relatively shorter hops for the first leg but must still have been closing in on 5,000km each. The guys in Dubai and Egypt (we didn't interact with the latter) must have been clocking about 8000km with the data going to Budapest and back.  These are straight-line distances of course. If you try to calculate the undersea cable routing and the satellites out in space, the distances would be many orders of magnitude greater.

The file we were working on was large. My project files never cross 100MB so this one, which weighed in at a whopping 1.2GB was many times larger. Shivang couldn't load it on the first PC he tried but, on the second one with twice as much memory, it did open.  On my own system, I found that I was consuming about 65% of available RAM. Of course, there were a bunch of other programs running at the same time.

Before we began the exercise, we downloaded and installed the BIMcloud Proxy to our machines. What this does, essentially, is cache the project data so that after the initial download, subsequent data transferred over the net is limited only to the changes being made. At first, I thought this would only be needed in an office where multiple computers were accessing the same project but I learned that it was necessary even for my single machine.

Mohannad Altabbal of BIMES
A couple of days before the event we had a discussion so that we all knew what was expected of us and there was a dry run as well. As a solo practitioner who has never even used Teamwork before--never mind BIMcloud--it went surprisingly smoothly and the process was intuitive. Yes, the teamwork palette does take up screen space if you keep it open but that's what my second monitor is for!

On Tuesday, we gathered online before the event and first Abdullah Shanmugam and then Djordje walked us through it, giving us Skype updates on what was happening at the venue even as he did his part of the project and found time to post the photos he was taking, to Facebook. That, girls and boys, is known as multi-tasking.

There were about fifty people in the auditorium but given its massive size, it looked somewhat sparsely populated. When the event was done--or at least when our part was done--we disbanded; and heard the next day that it had gone on for three hours in all.

But it wasn't all over for me. The guys over at Graphisoft spent yesterday figuring out why the messaging was so tardy from my computer (they'd asked for certain log files). This afternoon, I had a Skype session with Márton where he asked me to first, change a registry value, then revert back to default value and finally he asked me to replace a dll file on in my program folder with one that he sent. Messages were sent each time and, finally, it worked! What had been so utterly unreliable earlier was suddenly purring along like a Rolls Royce. I am told, this new dll will be part of the next program hotfix. No software is ever completely free of bugs but it's the commitment of the developers in squashing those bugs which makes all the difference. For my part, I'm extremely pleased to have played a small role in it.

Oh, and I've made a few new friends along the way. Thanks, each and every one of you.