For smaller firms, the biggest hurdle to using building information modeling software has long been the exorbitant cost. BIM programs average around $5,000 for a single software license, and the R&D costs of developing such powerful software will probably always keep BIM from being a bargain. But that doesn't mean BIM's just for the big guys. The major industry software vendors have begun rolling out stripped-down versions of BIM programs, some with a price as low as $995, and are even including some BIM content in their 2D products.
ArchiCAD Start Edition
ArchiCAD Start Edition 2008 is based on the Virtual Building technology of ArchiCAD 11, but with a feature set and price tailored to the needs of small architectural practices, home builders, and contractors. The suggested retail price is $1,995, and it is available to students and recent graduates through a special promotion at $995, making it the first BIM program to break the $1,000 barrier (with the special offer). The full version of ArchiCAD retails for $4,250.
“Start Edition is essentially the same virtual building solution, just positioned for start-up companies,” said Akos Pfemeter, global marketing director of Graphisoft, the maker of ArchiCAD, based in Budapest, Hungary. “It was designed with two types of users in mind: young people that can't afford a full license, or people starting their own company.”
Start Edition provides all the benefits of ArchiCAD except support for collaboration and some of its advanced modeling and visualization features. One of the features it does have is virtual trace, which allows multiple views of a single 3D model in the same window in whatever arrangement the user wants. Gradient fills are also available for Start Edition users. All external links to other applications (including industry foundation classes) are included in Start Edition.
The advanced features of ArchiCAD that are not included in Start Edition are sun study, sketch rendering, and the lightworks rendering engine. The architectural engine of Start Edition still provides basic rendering capabilities and you also have the option of exporting to external rendering applications.
“Large projects require more collaboration and detail,” Pfemeter said. “We believe those features are not necessary for small firms.”
One curious distinction about Start Edition is that, like many Graphisoft programs, it requires a USB dongle that acts as the product key for each license. For a small firm with one or two IT/CAD/BIM managers, keeping track of who has the software key has got to be a real pain. Graphisoft may want to consider changing its security and registration measures for small firms the way they've customized their program for it. ArchiCAD Start Edition produces files that can be opened by the full version of ArchiCAD (11 or 12), enabling architects to upgrade their project files, but the Start Edition cannot open regular ArchiCAD 11 or 12 files.
Although not a BIM program, AutoCAD LT has been making 2D digital design available to small firms for a price ranging from $1,000 to $1,200 since 1994 (regular AutoCAD costs about $4,000). Autodesk has made some significant changes to AutoCAD LT 2009 based on user feedback, one-on-one interviews, and queries from the AutoCAD LT user group. Autodesk discovered from its research that 24% of LT users are construction professionals, 17% are in architecture and design, and 9% are civil engineers; 60% of its users also have less than five licenses in their offices.
“The new features make LT really fit the needs of sole proprietorships and smaller offices,” said Kate Morrical, technical marketing manager for AutoCAD LT.
Many long-time AutoCAD features have made it into LT, such as image attachment, nonrectangular viewports, and True Color. Layer properties are now a palette in LT, and tooltips pop up when users roll over tool icons with a mouse. Plot and Publish commands are available in Quick View layouts.
When a user views the Recent Documents list, a preview pane of each document shows a thumbnail of it and also shows the most recent changes and who made them. Users can also scroll through any open file in Quick View drawings (no more control-tabbing through drawings!). Updatable text, known as fields, allows multiple references to be updated by a change in one field. AutoCAD LT 2009's Data Link Manager gives users the ability to create a link to an Excel file that can be easily updated as users work on a design.
“If you have a small firm that does multidiscipline work, these features are going to be more useful for you,” Morrical said. “You can create a specification spreadsheet at the same time as your design. The tool palettes are another good feature for small offices because a small firm can use them to maintain standards.”
The biggest change in AutoCAD LT 2009 is the new tools “ribbon” above the drawing area where the most common features of AutoCAD LT are accessible. The ribbon is customizable (users can put their most often-used tool icons in it) and is similar to Microsoft Office 2007's workspace ribbons. “You can customize (the Autodesk ribbon) for how you work,” said Morrical. “We think once people give the ribbon a shot, they'll realize it's a better way to work.”
Vectorworks 2009 Nemetschek North America
Columbia, Md.-based Nemetschek NA recently announced that its 2009 product line is powered by Parasolid, the manufacturing industry-leading CAD/CAM/CAE modeling kernel from Siemens PLM Software. Given the large-scale modeling requirements of the AEC industry, Nemetschek NA believes the best way to build a strong modeling platform is to leverage the investment the manufacturing industry has made in decades of software development. Embedding a mature modeling software engine like Parasolid into the Vectorworks products has certainly made them a more potent BIM force, but the Vectorworks family of programs is still the least expensive full BIM program currently available from $1,195 to $2,900, depending on which discipline version a user needs. Vectorworks Architect with Renderworks is available for $2,300, a pittance compared to some other full BIM programs.
“BIM has become a horrible uncertainty and fear for many smaller users,” said Sean Flaherty, CEO of Nemetschek NA. By using Siemens PLM's BIM engine, Flaherty said the Vectorworks product team was able to work entirely on new features for the program.
Some of those features include true round-trip spreadsheets that can be created from a Vectorworks workspace or a workspace model can be created from a spreadsheet. Changes in design layers now automatically update all objects in a design. Vectorworks' classes allow global changes to all layers with similar attributes. A new “re-create similar” option automatically links a new object to its wall, floor, and ceiling relationships. The snapping functions of Vectorworks' lines is also vastly improved from the 2008 version with new quickzoom and snap-loop functions. The new 3D engine allows Vectorworks renderings to be done twice as fast without using your computer's video card.
“What we're trying to do is tell users you don't have to change your work processes to incorporate BIM,” Flaherty said. “Vectorworks is scalable. If your practice is based on 2D we can allow you to work in 3D in an integrated way.”
AutoCAD LT free trial: www.Autodesk.com/LT-Trial 
ArchiCAD Start Editon special offer: www.graphisoftus.com/products_start_edition.php 
Vectorworks 2009 (Flash): www.nemetschek.net/