Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 1 (January 2001)

DataCAD Plus Drawing Board Edition

By Jerry Laiserin, FAIA

Some market-driven software vendors give their products grand-sounding but uninformative names. Others with a more straightforward style adopt nom enclature that actually describes what the product is and what it does.

An example of the latter is DataCAD's new DataCAD Plus Drawing Board Edition. Parsing the name, "DataCAD" identifies one of the widely used stalwarts of the architectural CAD industry. "Plus" denotes significant additional functionality grafted onto the DataCAD core. And "Drawing Board Edition" announces a new CAD input/output alternative to the ordinary keyboard/mouse/monitor interface.

DataCAD was one of the first architecture-specific CAD packages to come to market, harking back to the early 1980s. Although updated from its DOS ancestry to full Windows functionality, the Data CAD bloodline was getting a bit thin. So, through a corporate marriage to its distant cousin, Spirit (sold in Germany by Soft ware GmbH), DataCAD has spawned Data CAD "Plus."

This addition to the family integrates DataCAD's traditional ease of use and 2D drafting productivity with an intelligent 3D modeling system called ZAC, for Zone-based Architectural Construction. ZAC provides an abstract mode that underlies both the 2D and 3D representations of a building, organized by zones (which loosely correspond to stories). Because ZAC provides automatic links between 3D architectural models and corresponding plan, section, and elevation orthogonal drawings-and vice versa-architects using DataCAD Plus will be able to focus more on "drawing" their buildings than on drafting their "drawings."
Zone-based Architectural Construction (ZAC) in DataCAD Plus supports sophisticated 3D modeling.

Consistent with its name, DataCAD Plus manages the properties of all ZAC elements in a database, which supports external links to cost-estimating services, building product catalogs, and so forth. Beyond its integrated 2D, 3D, and database capabilities, Plus adds significant new visualization and rendering tools, including extensive libraries of drag-and-drop textures and entourage elements (trees, cars, street furniture, people, and so on). Also, paths through or around rendered models can be saved as animated "walk" files.

Among the other plusses of "Plus" are large collections of predefined building components, such as Andersen windows, comprehensive stair-building and roof-creation modules, and up-to-date import/ export compatibility with AutoCAD's DWG file format (via the industry-standard Open DWG translation utilities). The Plus version also enables users to merge and manage raster image data, such as aerial photos, in the same drawing with architectural CAD vector images.

These highlights, from a long list of new features, make DataCAD Plus a serious contender for any architect's software toolkit. However, the Drawing Board Edition takes the product a giant step further.

Users of early CAD systems "drew" directly on vectorscope displays with light-pen input devices; however, subsequent evolution toward today's keyboard/mouse/monitor interfaces disrupted this natural hand-eye coordination. Texts about perception, such as R.L. Gregory's classic, Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, lend support to the importance of hand-eye coordination feedback. In fact, an entire generation of architects trained to "think by drawing," attributed much of their frustration with CAD to the "unnaturalness" of the keyboard/mouse/monitor interface.

Recent price-performance advances in touchscreen technology have sparked renewed interest in "paper-like" interfaces in which the input and display surfaces are one. For instance, Wacom, a leading manufacturer of pressure-sensitive digitizer tab lets, recently has begun offering a line of pressure-sensitive LCD tablets, the PL400 and PL500. These have proven popular in Germany, where that country's leading CAD vendor, Nemetschek AG, acquired distribution rights and re-branded the tablet as the DBoard.

However, merely porting a program's keyboard/mouse/monitor graphical interface to a touchscreen input/display device defeats much of the intended benefit. If anything, the remaining need for keyboard input seems even more intrusive on the drawing process. The Drawing Board Edition of DataCAD Plus squarely addresses this issue. This edition incorporates a character recognition module for the Wacom tablet that replaces keyboard input of text. Architects, traditionally schooled in a highly stylized form of hand lettering for manual drafting, generally have little difficulty in achieving significant speed and accuracy with such character recognition tools. Furthermore, users can toggle the DataCAD Plus screen interface into a Drawing Board Edition mode that displays several add-in toolbars with a full array of commands to effectively eliminate the keyboard-driven command line.
DataCAD's ZAC 3D modeling system provides automatic links between 3D architectural models and corresponding plan, section, and elevation orthogonal drawings

A side effect of DataCAD Plus's ZAC intelligence, and similar approaches from such competitors as Archi CAD, Revit, and Vector Works, is that the requirement for keyboard input is considerably reduced, compared to "traditional" CAD software such as Autodesk's AutoCAD (to be fair, Autodesk has its own "intelligent architecture" offering, Architectural Desktop). However, combining the intelligent CAD interface's lessened reliance on the keyboard with the Drawing Board Edition's character recognition module and additional add-in toolbars yields an ability to "draw" directly on the tabletop screen and to have the resulting lines (or ZAC walls, floors, and roofs) seemingly flow from the stylus the way ink flows from a technical pen on Mylar or vellum. This is truly liberating. With all commands just a flick of the wrist away from the drawing area, overall productivity seems at least equal to that of the keyboard/mouse/monitor interface.

As with most software programs, DataCAD Plus Drawing Board Edition has a few limitations. For instance, gesture recognition of frequently used commands (as in Sigma Design's Arris CAD) would be a worthwhile addition to the program, as would freehand sketch recognition/vectorization (as in Nemetschek's AllPlan). Also, it's important to note that any sluggishness in the PC driving the Wacom tablet will cause a perceptible lag and jerkiness between the stylus input and the tablet's display feedback.

But after trying DataCAD Plus Drawing Board Edition, I have found that it is almost painful to go back to a conventional keyboard/mouse/monitor setup, regardless of the underlying software. I believe that other CAD vendors surely will follow the path DataCAD has taken with this software, and that the cost (about $3000) of pressure-sensitive LCD tablets likely will decline as demand for such programs ramps up.

In short, DataCAD Plus Drawing Board Edition sets the architectural CAD interface standard. The Drawing Board functionality-combined with the new features incorporated into DataCAD Plus-make Data CAD Plus Drawing Board Edition a winner in this market and a must-have tool for today's architects.

Architect Jerry Laiserin, FAIA, provides strategic consulting services to architects and their technology providers. He can be reached at

Price: $2495 for the software; $2995 for the Wacom PL500 LCD tablet
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 98/NT/2000; 300MHz Pentium II CPU; 128MB of RAM