Software companies have always offered attractively priced, entry-level versions of their graphics programs for smaller firms that want access to at least some features of the software. Over time, some of these smaller siblings emulate the full-blown versions of just a few years earlier. (The Photoshop Elements program your family uses at home is probably as powerful a photo editor as anything you used at the office a decade ago.)

Autodesk saw the potential for tiered features when it introduced AutoCAD LT, which offers the 2-D capabilities of the industry-leading drafting program at a fraction of the price. Cost-conscious small firms began purchasing only a handful of full licenses for their most graphics-savvy employees while outfitting the rest of their staff with these more basic computer drafting tools.

This past January, Graphisoft—producer of the venerable ArchiCAD—released its Start Edition at a price of $1,995, a significant savings on version 11 of the program, which runs $4,250. The program is based on ArchiCAD 11 technology and what the software maker refers to as a “feature set and price tailored to the needs of small architectural practices, home builders, and contractors.” (In June, Graphisoft announced the launch of ArchiCAD 12, which was expected to start shipping in July and also costs $4,250.)

A primary selling point of Start Edition is the inclusion of BIM (building information modeling) capabilities—an evolving sector of technology that is still much more expensive than other platforms. ARCHITECT asked two architects at firms that regularly use ArchiCAD to test-drive the junior version and share their thoughts with us.

THE REVIEWERS

David Scheer is the design principal at Salt Lake City–based Scheer & Scheer. The three-person shop has been using ArchiCAD for 10 years. "The idea of designing in 3-D appealed to me," says Scheer of the firm's initial choice. "It made sense." Today, Scheer & Scheer continues to use the program for all of its drafting needs, utilizing Photoshop and other programs solely as rendering tools to enhance their ArchiCAD models for selected presentations.

Laura Yanoviak is an associate and project architect at klipp, in Denver. She serves as the de facto BIM manager for the firm and on a daily basis addresses the computer issues of the 45-person staff. Klipp is relatively new to ArchiCAD, having started implementation in 2005, with full staff training completed just two years ago, but Yanoviak used the program earlier in her career.

THE MISSING FEATURES

Graphisoft characterizes the ArchiCAD 11 components that are missing from Start as "the group collaboration features required by large firms." For Scheer, the biggest of these missing features are hotlinked modules. "We rely on those very heavily," he says. In Scheer & Scheer's multifamily residential projects, the firm develops individual modules for bathrooms and kitchens, which are placed inside apartment modules. The apartment modules are then placed within the building model, allowing for a high degree of efficiency and specificity that Start's feature set won't support. Klipp's Yanoviak offers a slightly different perspective. "These things are nice to have, but you don't really need them," she says. "With hotlinks and xrefs [another feature not available in Start], you can always merge information into a file and trace it. I can see working with that in a smaller firm."

A more startling omission on the design front is a lack of support for slanted walls, columns, and beams—anything that's profiled. Yanoviak imported and exported files in various editions of ArchiCAD and was able to read (although not edit) information from hotlinks and xrefs. But Start converts profiled walls, columns, and beams to generic blocks. "If you're using any sort of complex profile, you don't see it," she says. At klipp, this design limitation could be debilitating. "I'd say about half of our walls are complex profiles," says Yanoviak. Scheer agrees: "I would find that terrible," he says. "It wasn't that long ago that they didn't have that in the standard ArchiCAD—and it was a headache not having it."

Other missing features aren't nearly as hard to work around. The missing Interior Elevation Tool would be useful, but you can get the basic information using a Section Tool. Scheer likes the missing Lightworks Rendering Engine, but he suggests that a lot of people won't care about its omission in Start. "I use it a lot for certain kinds of projects," he says, "but for high-end renderings, ArchiCAD is not the answer."

ArchiCAD Start's graphical user interface will look familiar to users of any previous ArchiCAD version. The program offers 3-D and BIM functionality in a package that's less than $2,000, but the absence of certain features-including the ability to open ArchiCAD 11 files-could limit its appeal.

ArchiCAD Start's graphical user interface will look familiar to users of any previous ArchiCAD version. The program offers 3-D and BIM functionality in a package that's less than $2,000, but the absence of certain features-including the ability to open ArchiCAD 11 files-could limit its appeal.

Credit: Graphisoft