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Roughly 25 years ago, I saw my first CAD/CAM system outside of Chicago at what was then the largest U.S. manufacturer of Web offset printing presses for the country's biggest newspapers. It was a relatively rudimentary system by today's standards, but there were engineers designing on dedicated workstations, which were linked to a mainframe computer, which was itself linked to machines that made many of the millions of metal parts that went into these behemoth presses.

Bill Gloede

Back then, architects were still sitting behind drafting tables with pencils, squares, rulers, and, of course, erasers.

Between then and now, those massive mainframes I saw outside Chicago have been reduced down to the laptop on which I'm writing this column. Visit an architect's studio today, and you'd be hard pressed to find a drafting table–or an eraser. The systems now in use have made designing homes a much more streamlined process, from the drawings themselves down to the reproduction of blueprints. Changes can be made relatively easily without literally going back to the drawing board.

Still, one of the drawbacks of most design systems is that they are great for design, but then those designs have to be translated into budgets, schedules, materials orders, and the like. Of course, there is no machine–at least not yet–that can build a house. But just the information exchange between the designing and building processes remains separated by a technology gulf.

Graphisoft N.A. (www.graphisoft.com), based in Boston, claims to have spanned this gulf with its ArchiCAD software package and a cooperative relationship with its former subsidiary, Salem, Mass.-based Vico Software (www.vicosoftware.com). Graphisoft's ArchiCAD communicates directly with Vico's suite of applications that handle coordination, cost estimating, project scheduling, and project control.

"It's all off-the-shelf software," says Patrick Mays, Graphisoft vice president. That means it is far cheaper than a custom system and does not require an on-staff army of information technology experts to maintain it.

What makes the system different is its ability to communicate directly down from the 3-D modeling of the design system into the very 2-D world of spreadsheets and schedules. In the parlance of people such as Mays, that is marrying up object-based design with building information modeling.

Companies such as Skansa and the Palmberg Group have used the software package widely overseas, mostly in commercial construction. ArchiCAD is being used to design a high-end community in Sarasota, Fla., called the Houses of Indian Beach. The community will incorporate 23 homes on 8.4-acre plots, with each home featuring a different design inspired by Sarasota School of Architecture's modernism, a movement of the 1940s and 1950s.

The builder, Rick Carlisle of Sarasota-based Carlisle & Co., could not be reached for comment. However, the ArchiCAD system is handling the development as a single integrated virtual environment with all buildings, materials, characteristics, and landscape contained in a 3-D building information model. From that model, Guy Peterson Architects of Sarasota was able to extract complete plans; sections and elevations; architectural and construction details; bills of materials; window, door, and finish schedules; renderings; animations; and virtual reality scenes.

When the Vico software is added, according to Mays, "If you make a change to the model, you can see an immediate impact in scheduling and cost. They are all live–tied together–so you can make these decisions all together."

Another point Mays makes is that the software links the work of generally younger and less experienced design professionals with that of the senior estimators and schedulers, people, he says, "who actually know how to put buildings together."

The ArchiCAD software costs under $5,000. The Vico Constructor Pro bundle runs $10,500, plus an annual subscription fee of $1,903.