This Architectural Software Easily Adjusts to the Complexities of the Design Process

San Francisco firm Hamilton + Aitken Architects use Vectorworks for their 3D and BIM workflow and to solve challenging design problems.

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“Working in 3D makes you a better designer,” says Chad Hamilton, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal Architect of Hamilton + Aitken Architects as he explains his firm’s design workflow. Based in San Francisco, Hamilton + Aitken has been using Vectorworks  and its predecessor software MiniCAD since they started out in 1992. In over 25 years, the firm has grown, and the software has come a long way as well with countless new features and refinements. However, some things like data integration and 3D designing have been cornerstones of the program from the very beginning.

Hamilton + Aitken have been working in a full 3D workflow using Vectorworks for more than a decade now. Prior to this, they used a different program for early-phase designs before transitioning the design to Vectorworks for its BIM capabilities, but maintaining two models was onerous and there was always the risk of the two models falling out of sync. Vectorworks makes it easy to go through the whole design process in 3D, because unlike other BIM programs that can feel like they require one to have the design already figured out, in Vectorworks it’s easy to start with abstract massing and explore one’s design concept in 3D without having to enter a lot of technical information upfront. This allows one to develop a realistic, technical design along the way.

Vectorworks is Hamilton + Aitken Architects’ design and BIM software of choice.

Now, with just one Vectorworks model for both BIM and presentation purposes, Hamilton thinks his firm gets more, higher quality work done in the same amount of time. “You get the feedback from the 3D program, you can see what it’s going to look like in real time. It’s a real benefit to clients and designers,” he says, “because you can show your clients and get them to really understand what they’re getting. If there is something that doesn’t work for them, they can see it really early in the process.”

Thinking in 3D is especially helpful for solving complex design problems like the ones Hamilton + Aitken encountered at the Burlingame Intermediate School, a campus located about 15 miles south of San Francisco in the hilly terrain of San Mateo County. The existing plan was split between a ridgeline and the flat land below. The brief was to design a large classroom building to connect the upper and lower levels. “To try to do it as a two-dimensional solution would have been very difficult,” says Hamilton, reflecting on the unique challenge of bridging the vertical gap.

This 3D design created in Vectorworks conveys the hilly terrain of Burlingame Intermediate School.

The North entry of the Burlingame Intermediate School.

Designing schools and classrooms is a passion of Hamilton’s, and the work requires that they pay extra attention to details like lighting and accessibility. “With educational projects there’s a lot of synchronicity between sustainability and high performing learning environments,” he says. “For example, we know that children learn better with natural daylighting, and designing for that you really need tools early in the process.” He was able to use Vectorwork’s sunlight modeling tools to optimize Burlingame Intermediate’s shading devices and roof overhangs to make sure that each classroom was getting optimum daylight while minimizing glare and solar gain.

In designing school campuses, Hamilton also finds Vectorworks’ suite of landscaping tools to be highly useful for modeling topography and virtually bulldozing the earth to make large scale and technical adjustments for accessibility, drainage, and siting, and see it all in 3D. “Every place has hills,” says Hamilton, “but we seem to put a lot of buildings on hills. And making sure that paths across the landscape are accessible is really a lot of work, but the ability to parametrically define that path so it’s within the right slope configurations is really helpful.” He explains. The fact that Vectorworks’ landscape and architecture software are fully integrated, as modules called Vectorworks Landmark  and Vectorworks Architect that can be purchased independently or as part of a package, is a bonus for workflow efficiency.

An exterior view of Burlingame Intermediate School.

But for Hamilton and his team the best thing about working in Vectorworks goes beyond the ability to model daylight, define paths parametrically, or show clients 3D models. It’s being able to pick up the phone and call a Vectorworks representative if they have a question, a problem, or even a suggestion for a new feature. “It’s the next best thing to custom software,” he says.

Here is Vectorworks in conversation with Hamilton+Aitken Architects on “Sustainable Design in Educational Spaces”:

*All images courtesy of Hamilton + Aitken Architects.

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