An Experienced CAD Teacher Tests Vectorworks 2015

January 8, 2015 | Comments

By Rande Robinson

Seldom do I get to play around with a new CAD program. In 30 years, I’ve spent time with only seven – IGDS, MicroStation, DualCAD, AutoCAD, TurboCAD, DraftSight and SketchUp – and primarily MicroStation, every day since its introduction 30 years ago. I teach MicroStation and AutoCAD at the local community college.

Vectorworks is a program that I have followed in the media, but never used. When I was asked to review it, I knew it would be a great chance to check out a new CAD program, or as some people seem to consider it, BIM (building information modeling) software. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “BIM program,” I consider BIM to be a process and a workflow, rather than a specific type of software.

In this article, I look at Vectorworks from the perspective of someone who has years of experience with mainstream CAD software like MicroStation and AutoCAD.

Hardware, Software and VM Specs for Vectorworks

Vectorworks is 64-bit program that runs on Windows and Mac OS X. The software has identical functions on both operating systems, something that’s not available with some other CAD systems, like AutoCAD. In addition, it supports older versions of Windows that other CAD vendors abandoned – a benefit to users.

For a modern CAD program, the system recommendations are quite modest, although stronger hardware is always better when working with larger models:

Mac Windows
Operating Systems Mac OS X 10.7.5 or newer Windows XP SP3
Windows Vista SP2
Windows 7 SP1
Windows 8.x
Processor 2GHz Intel Core or better 2GHz Pentium or better
Screen Resolution 1024×768 minimum, 1280×800 recommended
RAM 2 GB minimum, 4GB recommended
8GB – 16GB recommended for large files and complex renderings

For this review, I used a Dell 8700 desktop computer running Windows 8.1 on a 3.4GHz Intel i7 CPU with 8GB RAM. For graphics, the computer has an NVIDIA GeForce GT635 card that outputs to a pair of monitors, one a 23″ Samsung and the other a 19″ HP.

While researching for this review, I came across a note on the Vectorworks Web site regarding remote computing and virtual machines. It read, “We do not consider remote login environments (such as remote desktops, terminal services, or virtual machine environments, such as Parallels and VMware) to be appropriate for regular work, so Vectorworks performance in these situations is not of primary concern to us.”

While Vectorworks works properly in these environments, it’s not optimized for them and so performance suffers, especially when interacting with drawing elements. The Vectorworks software is, fortunately, supported for running on Boot Camp. The usual scenario here is operating the Windows version of Vectorworks and other Windows software on a Mac computer.

I found this disclaimer interesting due to the on-going hype about the “cloud” and virtual computing. Here the company is saying that their product should work fine in such environments but don’t expect it to go like gangbusters. In addition, they are adding their refreshingly honest two cents to the debate of should there be just one workstation per user (as opposed to sharing servers among multiple users).

What’s in the Box

As for the software itself, Nemetschek sent me Vectorworks Designer 2015 with Renderworks. It combines the following into one program:

  • Vectorworks Architect
  • Vectorworks Landmark
  • Vectorworks Spotlight
  • Vectorworks Machine Design

The bundle is meant for multi-disciplinary firms and designers. The price at Nemetschek’s online store is $3,395, which appears to me to be a fantastic value, since programs like AutoCAD or MicroStation alone cost nearly a thousand dollars more. As well, buying the individual pieces would otherwise cost ten thousand dollars:

Vectorworks Fundamentals with Renderworks $ 2,345
Vectorworks Architect $ 2,595
Vectorworks Landmark $ 2,595
Vectorworks Spotlight $ 2,595
Total  $10,130

Here is what I got in the box (see figure 1):

  • Vectorworks 2015 installation DVD
  • Let’s Get Started pamphlet
  • Getting Started DVD


Figure 1: Here’s what’s in the box


Over the years, I have installed a lot of programs, as you might guess, ranging from basic office programs to CAD programs. I would rate Vectorworks 2015 one of the easiest installations I have experienced. It was as simple as selecting “Install Vectorworks,” entering some basic information and the serial number, agreeing to the license agreement, and hit Next a few times. Ten minutes later I had the basic design program installed and ready to go.

Next thing, however, I needed to register the software, and then download and numerous content libraries for the version of Vectorworks for which I was licensed. In my case, I needed to download and install the following products…

Vectorworks Renderworks 0.8 GB
Vectorworks Architect 0.5 GB
Vectorworks Landmark 3.6 GB
Vectorworks Spotlight 1.0 GB
Total 5.9 GB

…which took quite a lot of time. After about an hour, I went to bed and left it running overnight. I’m not sure how long it took, but by morning everything had downloaded and was installed. Needless to say, you will need a solid Internet connection for accessing the complete program, along with something else to do while the full installation is running.

The User Interface

With the software installed, I started Vectorworks with simple click on the icon, and here is what I saw first (see figure 2).


Figure 2: The Interface of Vectorworks 2005 running on Windows 8

Vectorworks 2015 has what I consider a traditional CAD interface. To my eyes, it appeared to be a combination of MicroStation and SketchUp, with Photoshop thrown in for good measure. This meant that the interface looked familiar and confusing at the same time. I think its look is due to Vectorworks originally being an Apple (and then Macintosh) program, rather than starting as a Windows one.

After starting the software, the next thing I would do with any new program is open the manual. I know. This seems old school to most of you, and is rather dated. But Vectorworks (like most programs these days) doesn’t have a manual, and because long time CAD users shouldn’t need a manual, I decided to jump right in to see what I could do (see figure 3).


Figure 3: Drawing a variety of 2D objects in Vectorworks

I found it easy to draw all of the basic elements, such as lines, circles, ovals, polylines, and rectangles. Next, I tried changing the attributes (properties) of these elements, and found it straight forward. The mouse interfaced with the program exactly as I expected: the left button selects and places things; the right button brings up context menus; the wheel zooms in an out of the drawing area.

It was easy to change the appearance of the Basic and Tool Sets palettes: just select the triangular icon at the bottom of the palette and then select the appropriate setting (see figure 4).


Figure 4: Changing the appearance of the menus

I found it easy to switch between standard views in Vectorworks, such as switching from the standard top view to a right isometric view (see figure 5).


Figure 5: Changing the viewpoint

All in all, I found basic drawing operations were straight forward. This validates my opinion that if we can draw basic elements in one CAD program, then we can draw them in another.

One unexpected thing did occur. After I spent 15 minutes playing around with Vectorworks, it prompted me to save my work. This was an annoying but nice feature (see figure 6). Unlike the CAD programs I use daily, Vectorworks does not save our work automatically, hence the reminder. I found I could change the setting (duration or dismiss entirely) through a user configurable setting found under the Vectorworks Preferences pulldown.


Figure 6: Handy reminder for saving drawings

Moving on to 3D objects, I created them by simply placing them (as in the case of a sphere or cone) or to by extruding 2D shapes into slabs (see figure 7). Vectorworks uses the Parasolid kernel for 3D operations.


Figure 7: Creating simple 3D objects directly and through extrusions

It is once I got past the basics that I began to have problems. And this is when I turned to the Getting Started DVD included with Vectorworks (see figure 8). The guides are a set of HTML pages that provide access to videos, files, and links that introduce new users to Vectorworks Designer.


Figure 8: Getting Started page of the tutorial DVD

The guide consists of six sections dealing with specific aspects of Vectorworks Designer:

  1. Vectorworks core concepts – four videos covering the most basic concepts of Vectorworks
  2. Vectorworks Fundamentals – 13 videos on fundamental concepts, such as initial setup, stairs, and curved rails
  3. Vectorworks Architect – 12 videos on designing buildings with tools like walls, roofs, and annotations
  4. Vectorworks Landmark – 14 videos on site design through importing DWG files, adding trees, setting the position of the sun, and so on
  5. Vectorworks Spotlight – 10 videos for understanding design lighting, scenery, sets, events, theatrical productions, and exhibits
  6. Vectorworks Renderworks – 10 videos on using cameras, textures, lighting, and more

I’m not a big fan of videos as I prefer printed manuals, but as videos go, these aren’t bad. Instead of printed manuals, they do PDFs of training guides and allow us to print them out in conjunction with the videos. By far the best video was the one for Vectorworks Landmark. Created by UK landscape architect Tamsin Slatter, this is the video I recommend you starting with, as Ms. Slatter does an excellent job in going over most of the basic operations of Vectorworks.

I did wish the instructor in the Fundamentals and Architect guides could go slower, and be more precise in his explanations. The skate park example in the Fundamental videos was a bit out there, and not the best choice for a beginner. Yet overall, they get the job of introducing users to the product.

While all these videos are freely available through the Vectorworks Web site, I glad Nemetschek put them on a DVD. This allowed me to view them at my own pace and not have to worry about Internet connections and bandwidth.


Is Vectorworks a CAD program or a BIM program? As I noted earlier, I don’t think there is such a thing as a BIM program. So, I describe Vectorworks as is an advanced object-oriented CAD environment. It does everything that standard 2D/3D CAD programs do, but then adds enhancements and data collection tools that make implementing a BIM workflow easier. Unlike CAD programs like AutoCAD that create elements made of entities like lines and circles, Vectorworks considers everything it creates as an object. While this difference may be subtle to average users, in Vectorworks it is an important distinction. Here’s why.

In traditional CAD program, we draw walls as a series of lines in a specific 2D line style. Vectorworks, in contrast, provides customizable wall objects. A wall object in Vectorworks is a hybrid that contains both the 2D plan and 3D volume representations. Not only do objects display both 2D and 3D, but a great deal of descriptive data to them (see figure 9).

Figure 9: Settings dialog boxes for wall objects

The same applies to doors, windows, roofs, and so on. After we place objects in drawings, we can render them with Renderworks to give them realistic displays (see figure 10).

Figure 10: Basic rendering performed by Renderworks

While Vectorworks provides an impressive collection of objects and symbols, I suspect we still need to set up Vectorworks to work well in our design environment. The ability to edit and save objects makes this easier than starting from scratch.

There are a couple of other things to consider when using Vectorworks for BIM. Now, BIM is all about collaboration, which means being able to work and share the project model with others. Vectorworks has an easy way to do this: share the same model with multiple users. Other programs like MicroStation and AutoCAD handle this through reference files (xrefs), and so does Vectorworks: it uses a layer viewport that references external files. This is something to keep in mind with working with outside organizations.

Another issue is support for file formats (see figure 11). Vectorworks has its own native file format, called .VWX, which few (if any) other programs support. Fortunately, Vectorworks support common file formats like PDF, DWG, and DXF, which makes this less of an issue – except that I’m always leery of converted data. Any time someone converts data between formats, the receiving user must first make sure it is correct before beginning to work with it. On the plus side, I like the way Vectorworks imports PDF and DWG files, and so moving data into Vectorworks works well. It is the exporting of data that concerns me with any design program.

Figure 11: File types available for importing and exporting

Reporting, Printing, and Plotting

Vectorworks has good tools with which to create reports. Theses allow me to query objects and create reports and schedules as simple as a list of trees, or as complex as detailed bills of materials for entire buildings. Reports can be place in drawings, or else exported to spreadsheets (see figure 12).

Figure 12: Report schedule placed in a drawing

Vectorworks’ printing and plotting capabilities are standard, in my opinion. Like most products today Vectorworks uses viewports to lay out and create plan sheets for printing. I think anyone who is familiar with this method can create and plot anything they design (see figure 13).

Figure 13: Plot sheet view generated by Vectorworks

I can print to just about any printing device that can be attached to PCs. Or think of: Vectorworks allowed me to output my design to PDF and AutoCAD DWG files, as well as STL files for sending to 3D printers.


Vectorworks is a true 64-bit program that runs on Windows and Mac OS. This provides the flexibility to use the hardware environment you are comfortable with. Cost-wise, Vectorworks Designer is competitive with other major CAD programs; indeed, you can purchase the program on-line with minimal hassle. The included sets of objects and symbols lets you hit the ground running. You get the ability to produce standard 2D black and white plan sheets, as well as professional quality renderings within a single program. What’s not to like?

As with any CAD program, to take full advantage of it you need to spend the time learning, configuring, and customizing it. Remember this is not something that happens overnight to achieve a solid return on your investment takes time and effort. I do think with a bit of training and practice Vectorworks is an excellent program with which to start and then grow into.

After working with it, I found that I liked Vectorworks. Some of its concepts, like classes and the ordering of levels, took some getting used to. It has all the 2D and 3D tools needed by any designer. As for BIM, the built-in features provide a solid introduction to it, making it easier for you to create a BIM workflow and environment that you can use.

If I was an architect looking to get started with a CAD/BIM product I would give it a serious look, particularly if I was a sole proprietor or in small firm.


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