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 f├╝ssball 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.