VectorWorks

Desktop CAD for architects and design professionals has always seemed a two-horse race (Autodesk and Intergraph being the two pervasive names in the industry) and all to frequently, elegant and powerful alternative solutions struggle to gain a foothold in the monotypic CAD marketplace that architects have so unwittingly created for themselves. Fortunately, things are changing and new developments in the underlying operating environments and programming techniques, are presenting developers with business opportunities and allowing users more choice in the tools they use. A not-so-small and not-so-new CAD company, Diehl Graphsoft, first introduced its own particular brand of technology and customer support to the CAD market as far back as 1985. Its product MiniCAD started life as the first 3D program for the Macintosh. In 1986 Graphsoft added a 2D drafting component, which has now matured to become one of the industry’s most effective and easily-learned drawing tools. Two years later, Graphsoft added an integrated database/spreadsheet and a macro language, and during the last ten years the product has gained high-end features such as automatic wall, roof and floor tools and a modular design (necessary for the cross-platform versions of MiniCAD). With the latest release, this giant of a product is dropping its ‘mini’ suffix, which was perhaps selling it a little short, and changing its name to VectorWorks. VectorWorks now stands as a highly-evolved, fully-comprehensive design presentation, drafting and management tool, offering a broad-based 2D/3D CAD package with integrated database, spreadsheet and a powerful programming environment called VectorScript. Diehl Graphsoft has actually used the new VectorScript to create many of the new tools available, and users requiring a more sophisticated and powerful approach to designing their own tools will revel in this new found customizability. VectorWorks’ fully-functional 2D drafting environment is amazingly easy to learn and offers a high degree of control that other systems simply can’t match. Although easy to learn, the range of features are sophisticated and the program is accurate enough for any design/build task. A drafting dream
While in use, VectorWorks provides constant on-screen feedback relating to co-ordinates, object attributes, and selection modes. This feedback comes mostly from the ‘Smart Cursor’. This feature automatically finds key points near the cursor, and snaps to geometry and useful targets. While doing so, it provides feedback, using cursor shapes, extension lines, text messages near the cursor (tool tips). The Smart Cursor also offers a slightly irritating audio feedback. Long overdue, VectorWorks now offers multiple undo/redo. There’s nothing worse than undoing an undo only to find that you have lost some of the things you wanted to do! Well, it’s sorted now. MiniCAD has always had a hybrid wall tool for creating floor plans that simultaneously generated 3D views of schemes along with 2D output of elevations from the 3D model. VectorWorks now includes better support for ‘Round Walls’, including the ability to join them cleanly and automatically to other wall types. The insertion of hybrid 2D/3D window and door symbols into walls, is astoundingly easy to master, shockingly fast, and although lacking the modelling capabilities of packages costing many times more, nothing comes close to the speed of VectorWorks when knocking out 3D models and 2D documents including sophisticated symbol elements and linked graphics and data. New roof modelling tools in this version now make it possible to knock out complex roofing structures simply by selecting bearing walls, and running one button commands. Once created, roofs can be reshaped, dormers added and holes cut for skylights. VectorWorks provides very powerful new collaboration and team-based support through new ‘Workgroup Referencing’ abilities. This lets different team members work on separate drawing components, which can be linked to a master document containing style guides and critical shared project data. Designed with bigger projects and larger design practices in mind, this level of team support – if used carefully – will allow small groups to tackle much larger jobs in a more efficient manner. Navigation in 3D is limited, and only responsive if the model is not over-worked. However, I can’t remember the last time I came across an architectural model that wasn’t overflowing with superfluous data and redundant structures. This being the norm, most CAD users will export 3D models to more capable animation tools for the creation of fly-overs and walkthroughs, and yes, the DXF/DWG import/export feature works first time, every time. Compatibility
If you’re running VectorWorks and someone is sending you DXF/DWG files that aren’t translating correctly, or, conversely, they can’t read your files, you can bet your bottom dollar the problem isn’t at your end. The ability to send files back and forth effortlessly between VectorWorks and AutoCAD 14 cannot be understated. Compatibility with the industry-standard AutoCAD is considered mandatory – although why anyone would want to buy a product that was as much as five times the price of VectorWorks, needs more hardware and has a steeper learning curve is hard to figure. This isn’t simply partisan Macintosh talk, nor is it favouritism for GraphSoft. In response, Autodesk will release a new version to stay one step ahead as it’s simply not in its interest to have strong applications like VectorWorks displaying high levels of compatibility with its products. It’s nice to know what really drives the development efforts of bigger CAD vendors. Rendering options
Diehl Graphsoft offers an optional rendering module called RenderWorks, to be had for £220 ex VAT. It's the company’s first stab at presentation rendering straight from VectorWorks. Unfortunately, it’s nothing to write home about – in fact it’s actually quite weak. If you want to produce stunning or even passable presentation material – I wouldn't be surprised if Graphsoft itself was to suggest there are better products out there. That said the lack of a top rendering option doesn't in anyway detract from the power, ease of use and value offered by VectorWorks.

OUR VERDICT

To be blunt as a big soft pencil, VectorWorks is the best value CAD package out there. The returns for very minimal learning curves are extraordinary. Design groups will save huge amounts of money on the very special multi-user deals. What never fails to impress is the ample amount of high-end functionality to be had for so little cost and effort. If you use CAD and you haven’t seriously considered MiniCAD VectorWorks, then it’s time the penny dropped.

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