7 open source software options for architects

Software is increasingly a major expense for architecture and design firms. With many software applications and file formats becoming de facto industry standards, companies are increasingly tied to commercial software vendors. Many players in the software industry have moved from selling software as a one-time purchase – which would still be usable once fully paid – to a recurring monthly subscription model – in which the tool loses its functionality if it loses its functionality. user stops paying. As a result, businesses across all industries have seen their monthly software spend increase. One way for architecture and design firms to ease this financial burden and still have access to the software and technology needed to run their businesses is to explore open source alternatives, the number of which has grown in recent years. years.

Open source software is released under a specific license which gives users the right to download, use, or modify the software and its source code. Unlike commercial software, which typically has copyrighted source code and proprietary file formats, open source software projects are not focused on profit and encourage users to modify and share their code with the wider community. Often the goal of these projects is to develop applications that can adapt to multiple points of view and working methods. Some well-known open source projects include the Linux operating system, the WordPress web publishing platform, and the Audacity audio editing app.

Open Source Options

The promise of free open source software may sound like a great one, and most importantly, there are many open source applications that are suitable for the design workflow, especially when architects take on more digital tasks. Below, I list seven options to consider, ranging from 3D modeling tools to energy analysis applications.

Blender
Blender is a free and open source suite of 3D modeling tools that provides modeling, rendering, animation, and simulation capabilities. While the sequel is geared more towards visual effects and character animation than architectural applications, there is a user community offering tutorials and resources for AEC professionals through websites such as Blender3DArchitect. Blender does not directly import proprietary file formats such as DWG or RVT from Autodesk, but it can import open formats such as DXF. blender3d.com

GIMP
The GNU Image Manipulation Platform is an open source alternative to Adobe Photoshop for creating and editing digital images. Originally released in 1996, GIMP version 2.10 does not offer as many features as Photoshop and is known to be a bit more difficult to use. However, it has developed a strong community of users. GIMP is cross-platform, which means it works on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. gimp.org

Inkscape
What GIMP does for raster graphics, Inkscape does for vector graphics. This free and open source software allows users to create scalable graphic images using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format. Similar to Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape provides flexible 2D drawing and text manipulation tools. inkscape.org

LibreCAD
The interface and concepts of this open source 2D CAD application are similar to AutoCAD, which facilitates the transfer of skills. Unlike AutoCAD, LibreCAD only works in 2D, so you cannot create or edit 3D models, and it can only import DXF files. However, files can be exported in several formats. LibreCAD is available in over 30 languages ​​and, like GIMP, is cross-platform. librecad.org

LibreOffice
Users of the Microsoft Office suite will be familiar with many of the tools included in LibreOffice. This comprehensive set of office tools includes applications for performing standard office tasks such as word processing, PDF editing, presentation design, and spreadsheet creation. LibreOffice uses the OpenDocument file format, a non-proprietary document format that is also open source. Unlike Google Workspace, LibreOffice is not hosted in the cloud, which can be an advantage or a barrier depending on your workflow. libreoffice.org

Free CAD
FreeCAD provides a robust set of 3D modeling capabilities in an open source application. It is also a parametric modeling tool allowing users to make changes by directly editing the model history. FreeCAD contains an Arch Workbench which provides specific BIM workflows in software. It also integrates drawing tools into a 2D workshop to create traditional 2D documentation and drawings. FreeCAD supports a variety of file formats including DXF, OBJ, STEP, and IFC. freecadweb.org

OpenStudio
Built on the EnergyPlus simulation engine, this open source energy modeling solution was initially developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. One of the main advantages of OpenStudio is its SketchUp plug-in, which allows users to create models in Trimble SketchUp and then analyze them in OpenStudio. The resulting analysis can then be viewed directly in SketchUp. openstudio.net

screenshot courtesy of Michael Kilkelly
PyRevit add-in for Autodesk Revit

Open-Source for Commercial Software

In addition to the standalone applications listed above, other open source projects have been built on commercial software. This approach combines the community and transparency of open source projects with the ubiquity of industry standard tools and file formats. For example, PyRevit, developed by architect and programmer Ehsan Iran-Nejad, is a popular open source add-on for Autodesk Revit. Although Revit is not free, the Iran-Nejad add-on is available for free. Users can download the compiled add-in or its source code and modify it as they see fit.

Likewise, Ladybug Tools is a collection of open source tools that support environmental design. The Ladybug Tools suite works with commercial applications, like Rhino, as well as open source software like OpenStudio.

Some commercial software companies, such as Autodesk, have also released software under open source licenses. Dynamo, a visual programming application created by Ian Keough and acquired by Autodesk in 2016, is available for free as an open source project. While a version of Dynamo ships with Alias, Civil3D and Revit applications from Autodesk, the software developer stopped offering it for purchase in June. Additionally, Autodesk plans to discontinue and remove Dynamo Studio from its AEC collection effective January 31, 2022. However, users will still be able to download a standalone, open source version of the software, Dynamo sandbox. Although this version does not include all of the features available in the one provided with Autodesk’s paid software, users are free to modify the source code as they see fit.

Open source in practice

Despite the predominance of commercial software in AEC workflows, some companies have found a place for open source solutions in their digital tool stack. Dan Stine, AIA, director of design technology at Lake | Flato Architects in San Antonio, Texas, says his company uses Blender as a way to reduce the amount of post-processing required when rendering 3D, especially when working with rendering content and entourage. . “Blender is the connector for all of this other available content,” says Stine. “It saves us a lot of extra post-processing after rendering the images. ”

Likewise, the free nature of open source software makes it a low barrier to entry of sophisticated tools that might otherwise be difficult to justify within a project’s budget. Lake | Flato, for example, does not often complete wind studies for its projects. However, when necessary, he often uses Eddy 3D, a free airflow and microclimate app that works with Rhino. While it does not provide a result as refined as other business options, it allows the company to incorporate the results into their design process.

There are drawbacks to using open source applications. As Stine describes, open source software “often requires additional skills to use, compared to commercial tools with more robust user interfaces.” Training can also be a problem, as open source projects often lack the budget or incentive to create well-researched tutorials and resources.

However, for the enterprising architecture and design firm, having free access to such tools makes the learning curve worthwhile.

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