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Open source software for architects

By Chen Nan Yang on September 21, 2007 (9:00:00 AM)

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When I began my career as an assistant architect 12 years ago, I used AutoCAD R12, 3D Studio, CorelDraw 6.0, and Photoshop 4.0 for architectural drawing and 3-D modeling. Today, many architects still use their later versions, but those bulky packages provide many functions an architect will never use. Luckily, there are several open source alternatives that are well-suited for architects -- QCad in place of AutoCAD, Blender instead of 3DMax, Inkscape in place of CorelDraw, and the GIMP as a substitute for Photoshop.

CAD is the weakest link in the open source chain for architecture. AutoCAD provides architects with efficient solutions: you can, for instance, put hundreds of doors, windows, or pillars in your plan within seconds. By contrast, in open source CAD, you have to do most of the works from zero. Current open source CAD applications are still not good at handling a mass of standardizing drawings. But if you do unique designs, or would like to develop a custom CAD solution that fits your need, open source is a good choice.

QCad community edition is a simple open source 2-D CAD application that works well for architectural plans. It is very successful in countries and areas such as Taiwan; some Taiwanese companies have taken it as a standard solution for their architectural plans.

The release of the QCad community edition follows a few months behind the professional edition. For example, the latest version of the community edition is 2.0.5.0, while the professional edition is at 2.1.3.2. The latter charges $33 for a single user. You can also download the demo version of the professional edition and use it for 100 hours with no function limits, though it shuts down once every 10 minutes.

QCad has strong tools for point, line, arc, circle, ellipse, polyline, NURBS, text, dimensioning, hatches and solid fills, and measuring. It can also use raster images, and has many other edit tools. The command line is under the main window, and you can accurately control your drawing here. In a word, an experienced architect can find all he needs for architectural plans.

On the down side, QCad doesn't support AutoCAD's DWG files.

Another open source CAD application is BRL-CAD. It handles 3-D CAD for constructive solid geometry (CSG) modeling. Or you can choose Open CASCADE as your platform if you want to develop your own CAD.

3-D modeling and rendering

For 3-D modeling you can choose Blender or the less powerful Wings 3D.

Blender is a small but powerful 3-D modeling, rendering, and animation application. It can import files in DXF, OBJ, and 3-DS formats. You can also put the left view, front view, and planform of your architectural plans in the background of the software to begin your modeling. You can choose elements such as mesh, curve, surface, or meta to do your 3-D modeling in different ways. A new feature in the latest version, Blender 2.44, called Subsurface Scattering (SSS) can help you to work out a perfect virtual reality for "participating media" such as glaze tile and crystal.

You can download some tutorials on Blender.org. If you're used to 3-DMax, you may feel frustrated when you use Blender for the first time, but if you keep trying, you'll find it's simple when you get used to it.

A good companion to Blender for the architect or interior decorator is YafRay (Yet Another Free Raytracer). The latest version, 0.09, contains global illumination (which can make architectural scenes look realistic), skydome illumination, caustics (to deal with light emitted from a point and reflected or refracted from a curved surface), and depth of field and blurry reflections. With YafRay you can render your 3-D model to look a like a real photo in Blender.

Vector and bitmap drawing programs

After finishing your works in Blender or QCad, you may need to polish your graphics using a vector or bitmap drawing programs. Vector programs include Inkscape, Xara LX, and Skencil. Bitmap alternatives include the GIMP, Paint.net, CinePaint, Gimpshop, and Krita.

Inkscape is an open source vector graphics editor that supports most of the standard drawing features you can find in CorelDraw or Illustrator. You can even create some simple architectural plans using only Inkscape.

The GIMP may be the most well-known open source drawing program. It has powerful painting tools and more than 100 plugins and scripts. You can use it to perfect your 3-D rendering graphics just the way you did in Photoshop.

Angel and devil

You will gain several advantages if you choose open source software for your architectural drawing:

You'll save money. You may spend zero on your software, not the $10,000 you had to pay before.

The programs will go like the wind on your old computer, so you can save both time and money.

The programs are simple and easy to use. They don't have too many showy functions, and their interfaces are so simple that you can get used to them within a few hours.

You can download lots of plugins or scripts from open source communities. You can also add functions you need to the software, either by yourself or by picking someone who can offer the service; that's the benefit of open source.

If you happen to be using a pirated copy of AutoCAD or 3-DMax, you will never worry about that again. This will be very good for your mental health.

But before you move to open source you should prepare yourself:

You should stop thinking about the commercial software you used before. You may think "it's crazy" when you try these open source applications for the first time and want to turn back to your old software. Be patient and keep trying. You will soon learn their merits and get used to them.

You should also ask yourself if these can meet your need when you have heavy standardizing works to do. If the answer is no, you'd better not change.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that open source software such as Blender, QCad, Inkscape, and the GIMP can do just about any architectural drawing that commercial software can do, though sometimes they are less efficient and not compatible to your previous work (as in QCad's lack of support for DWG files).

Chen Nan Yang is a freelance journalist and former IT director in Chinese government. He has a bachelor's degree of architecture and worked as an assistant architect a decade ago.

Chen Nan Yang is a Chinese freelance journalist and former IT director in the Chinese government.

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on Open source software for architects

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.3.165.102] on September 21, 2007 10:41 AM
CYCAS is not open source but it's a great architectural software. You can get a free licence for non-commercial use only. Cycas use povray for the 3D rendering.

http://www.cycas.de/

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.81.157.116] on September 21, 2007 10:44 AM

Re: Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 142.68.222.23] on September 21, 2007 12:50 PM
I'll second Archimedes, it's a promising project that is already good for many Architectural plans and will only get better with work.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.161.206.194] on September 21, 2007 01:23 PM
Too bad I can't get 16bpp in Gimp.

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Re: Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 205.208.133.53] on September 21, 2007 05:12 PM
Yeah, wouldn't it be nice if GEGL would move beyond the "hello world" stage? At least 2.4 will support color profiling.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 205.208.133.53] on September 21, 2007 05:18 PM
For 3-D modeling you can choose Blender

Blender's use of RAM in high-poly models leaves a lot to be desired. If you are looking for a free replacement, it is probably the best, but it is not an equal to the proprietary alternatives.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: ezra on September 21, 2007 05:27 PM
not bad taking into account, it is free software, huh? ;)

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This says it all.

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: unknown] on September 21, 2007 05:51 PM
"though sometimes they are less efficient and not compatible to your previous work (as in QCad's lack of support for DWG files)."
Now much is your time worth?
I love FOSS software but FOSS Cad just isn't good enough to challenge Programs like Autocad and Solidworks.
I have yet to see any that can challenge TurboCad!

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Re: This says it all.

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 139.169.176.32] on September 21, 2007 07:47 PM
Folks, go check out BRLCAD:

http://brlcad.org

It's "all that and a bag of chips". Really.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 209.104.55.5] on September 21, 2007 08:56 PM
BRLCAD was used by the US Department Of Defense to design the Ahbrams tank if that says anything at all.

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Re: Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 207.12.214.231] on September 23, 2007 03:59 AM
Wrong on three counts. The Abrams was designed by Chrysler Corp, not the Department of Defense. Chrysler used a mix of a commercial cad system (Computer Visions??) and paper. It's spelled Abrams, not Ahbrams.

A bit of history. BRL cad was originally designed to do 3d modeling of target vehicles for purposes of ballistic modeling, not for design. I haven't used it for 10 years so have lost touch with what it can do now.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.14.200.49] on September 21, 2007 10:20 PM
There are a number of professions in life that pay well. Architects tend to be one of them so why is there an issue about them purchasing proprietary software. Lets face it they earn enough. Now if they were to take those savings and pass them on to their consumers fair enough. But call me a cynic but I dont think that is going to happen. It would just be a simple way of increasing their profit margin.

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Re: Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.58.136.95] on September 22, 2007 02:17 AM
Agreed!

I hope nobody really thinks that when a corporation, or even a small shop, of any type switches to OSS that there will be price reductions in there products.

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Re: Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.161.206.194] on September 24, 2007 11:12 AM
In what world do architects get paid well? Take a look at architect salaries. After paying for 5 years of school, interning for a number of years, taking all the exams, the average salary is $45,000 (salary.com, Architect Level III).

Not that it matters anyway, because the architects themselves don't buy software; their firm does.

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Re(1): Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 134.100.6.5] on September 28, 2007 03:33 PM
Not all architects are employees, I know several ones who are "one-man-companies". They are not building huge cities, but renovating grandma's houses... and they are happy to save some of the big licence costs, some even appreciate the free software principle. Unfortunately, they also have to stay compatible on the file level when exchanging work with others...

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Re: Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 60.242.222.210] on October 22, 2007 08:37 AM
1 ethical architect willing to use an old version of a proprietary CAD suite for an extra year or two without upgrading could save $1000-2000/year. 20 such architects could, instead of wasting money on bloatware, sink $20-40k into bounty for a decent CAD program. Perhaps a fork from blender, or Qcad community, or similar.



Sound like a plan? I'm poor, but I'd consider sinking a bit of cash into it... and advocating others to do the same....

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Open source software for architects - CYCAS

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.208.83.248] on September 22, 2007 11:46 AM
For who really works in the architectural design, everyday, software must be effective, CYCAS (www.cycas.de) is a good choice compared with the low cost and the high architectural specific framework.
No matter if it is not open source, it works well, keeps mind free for design, has great integration with 2d architectural representation needs and 3d construction. It is a well suited working instrument, you'll never go back to other generic cad, simply doesn't have sense, even if they have fantastic functions.
About OSS the right choice is a mix of open and proprietary software, in mixed enviroinment as well, linux is perfect for a CAD workstation but sometimes win is better for some software.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.57.112.136] on September 22, 2007 06:58 PM
For a Linux program with AutoCAD capabilities, try Bricscad, proprietary software but much less than half the cost of AutoCAD. This is based on IntelliCAD, developed by a consortium, using OpenDesign specifications for the .dwg format. I use it on my Fedora laptop (I'm a engineer in the Fire Protection, Plumbing, and HVAC side of construction) and it's pretty good at AutoCAD compatibility.

AutoCAD originally worked on Unix, but it dropped that support when MS invested in them. AutoCAD is the worst company I've dealt with in regards to file format lock-in, including not allowing you to save as an earlier version, breaeking compatibility using extensions like Architectural Desktop and Building Systems, and suing people for reverse engineering their file formats. Unfortunately, in the USA, they have a virtual monopoly in the Architectural field.

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.3.81.156] on September 22, 2007 10:43 PM
ProgeCAD 2006 LT Open source free

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Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.3.81.156] on September 22, 2007 11:06 PM
BricsCAD for Linux https://www.bricscad.com/

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Bricscad for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.3.81.156] on September 22, 2007 11:09 PM

Open source software for architects

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 195.117.227.66] on September 24, 2007 03:05 PM
Hmmm, could you actually point to any buildings that were built using Open Source software?

Piotr

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AutoCAD is a tougher monopoly than MS

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.111.191.124] on September 24, 2007 09:04 PM
AutoCAD has a virtual lock on the CAD market. If you work with other engineers and architects, need to exchange and collaborate on drawings, work for a big firm, do big projects, et al., it's pretty much required. It's amazing to me that an industry filled with otherwise brilliant people allow a single company to own their design formats and IT. You are beholden to another company for access to your own designs forever, all because they wrote a clever bit of software. Nuts.

Unseating AutoCAD from this monopoly will be harder than unseating MS from theirs. QCad has a long ways to go, and until engineers and architects wake up and start understanding the principles and necessity and of open source and the ridiculous nature of the situation they're in, not much progress is going to be made.

If a group of enlightened design firms got together and hired some programmers to start improving and contributing to open source CAD projects, they could advance the state of the art rapidly and design their own CAD systems to their liking rather than waiting for AutoCAD to hopefully get around to it someday. It would end up being cheaper than ACAD licenses, and eventually nearly free. Works for Google, IBM, Sun, etc, etc.

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