ArchiCAD Layer Theory Part 5: Attribute Names and the Tyranny of Alphabetical Order

ArchiCAD Layer Theory Part 5

Before we get to the official naming conventions article I’ve been teasing, I need to return to Layers. My post Pen Sets, Part Eight: Thoughts on Naming and a coincidental encounter made me realize that I was doing Layer names wrong, at least for how I use Layers. Below are the links to the first four posts on Layers (don’t forget to read the comments). These posts will catch you up on how I and others view Layers. You don’t need to read them all to understand this one, but together they are building an overarching concept of how to view Layers.

A Fortunate Presentation

We had a user group at the end of February. Geoff Briggs presented. I know Geoff well. We’ve communicated for years online. We’ve both been beta testers. We first officially met in person at the first Graphisoft North America BIM Conference in San Diego back in 2013. Now that we both live in Seattle, we meet monthly to talk about ArchiCAD and drink beer. Some months its continuing the user group at a nearby bar. Other months it’s just a bunch of ArchiCAD nerds getting together on a Friday night. I think we even live close enough that I could walk to his house. Needless to say, I’ve heard and read Geoff’s thoughts on ArchiCAD, a lot.

At our most recent ArchiCAD user group, Geoff graciously volunteered to present. As with any ArchiCAD guru, his conversation kept returning to his thoughts on templates and project set up. I love hearing Geoff talk because he knows a ton about ArchiCAD, and has been using ArchiCAD for years and years. He’s one of three highly regarded gurus in the Seattle area (the others being myself and Thomas Bormann). But I also REALLY like hearing Geoff talk and show off all the wild and wonderful things he can make ArchiCAD do because we disagree about almost everything. Or I should say we have extremely opposing views about how to get to a similar end result. He models footings with slabs; I do it with beams. He models certain changes in wall materiality with a zero depth niche; I do it with beams.  He breaks a wall into multiple elements to make it stepped; I do it with beams. Jeez. I use beams for a lot of things! That’s not the point. Geoff and I both have great solutions for all sorts of things in ArchiCAD, and we’re both correct in our logic. This is one of the things I really love about ArchiCAD. There are many, many, many great ways to model, embed data, etc. There’s rarely one ultimate solution. Everything involves trade-offs, even if it’s something minor like the number of clicks or the ease of explaining a workflow to coworkers; or something bigger like how a technique affects model size or the ability to export the geometry properly to IFC.

Every time I get to hear Geoff talk about ArchiCAD, it’s a treat. His logic is so different from my own that it really helps me see ArchiCAD in new ways. The result is that it sometimes leads me to random ideas (like putting big red spheres in the middle of rooms that you don’t want your clients to look at in a BIMx model—which I think would work better than my other tricks—but I’ll talk about that more later). Other times I listen to him and think, ‘No Geoff. You are crazy. You’re just helping me understand why my ideas are so much better than yours. In fact, your solution has shown me all these other reasons why my answers are so fantastically great and wonderful.’ And sometimes Geoff shows me how I need to steal his ideas and start using them, because my ideas are garbage compared to his. I know Geoff’s responses to my opinions run the same gambit.

The Tyranny of Alphabetical Order

The big revelation Geoff shared during our ArchiCAD user group in Seattle was that he misuses Layer names to add a more complex and functional ordering system for Layers. This solution is so much better than simple alphabetical order. I’d already implemented a similar system for Pen Sets (see Part 8), Layer Combinations, and Renovation Filters, but for some reason I was too timid to apply this logic to Layers themselves.

I  want to point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this layering concept. Eduardo Rolón showed me a similar solution many years ago (but I wasn’t ready for it). And Geoff also said he got the idea from another user he knows. Which is why I think it’s so important to share these ideas. None of these ideas our any one individual’s; they are collectively OUR ideas.

So what’s Geoff’s Layer naming methodology? First he adds a number before each Layer, so that instead of being locked into the random first letter of the Layer, he can group them in a more logical order. Being able to group Layers in a manner that isn’t limited by the arbitrary tyranny of alphabetical order is liberating. With this system all your annotation Layers can be together, all your MEP Layers can be together, all your utility Layers are grouped, etc. And second, Geoff adds dummy layers that are used to separate the groups and act as a title for each section. Geoff’s exact groupings are a bit different than mine (because of course we disagree about what Layers a file needs) and I’ve made some other minor tweaks, but the overarching concept is the same. Here’s my new Layer list:

Shoegnome Open Template Layering System

This reworking of Layer names is fantastic.

  1. The titles of each group are dummy Layers. There should NEVER be any elements on these Layers. Ever. They are for organization only. They are always locked and turned off. This means when you are scrolling through Layers in the Info Box, these title Layers are grayed out and jumped over. This reinforces the grouping of Layers and makes it so easy to see the Layers as part of distinct groups rather than random items in a list.
  2. The “|” after the group number makes reading the Layer name much easier, especially in the Info Box, where the Layer Intersection Group already shows up with a vertical line after the number. As an example, in the Info Box you’ll see 1 | 5 | Footing.Structural for a Layer with Intersection Group 1, the name “5 | Footing” and the extension “Structural”. Not having the “|” in the dummy title Layers, also helps those stand out even more.
  3. As was already discussed, the ability to group Layers more naturally, rather than just by alphabetical order is amazing. No longer are Wall Layers relegated to the bottom of an ever expanding list. They can be at the top, right where I want them.
  4. I use Layer Extensions, though I know many people don’t. I find that, within this system, Layer Extensions adds another level of hierarchy, which I really like.
  5. Layers that don’t follow this numbered ordering system will automatically be filtered and appear below the 9 ●●●●● Trash Layers ●●●●● 9 Layer. Some random Layer that doesn’t belong (because it was copied in, created by a lazy coworker, merged from a DWG, etc.) will alphabetically show up below that title Layer—assuming it doesn’t start with a number. But even if it does, the odds of it starting with “Number” then “|” are pretty small. So non-standard Layers should be obvious.
  6. This layering system also helps teach users what to focus on. For instance, if you are starting a new model, you should focus on the “1” Layers first, then the “2” Layers, then the “3” Layers, etc. This isn’t perfectly true, as I might do foundations before stairs, or some site work before trim. But in general this segmentation is a good starting point.
  7. Not only do the Layers organize by where to start working, they are also set up hierarchically by what you need most often: when working in ArchiCAD, you need the primary and secondary modeling Layers more than you need mechanical and electrical Layers or misc. Layers. The Layers you need more often are higher on the list, and therefore more often visible. You might think you need Documentation regularly, but most of the elements on those Layers should be started from Favorites, so the actual frequency of needing to change documentation element Layers should be fairly minimal.
  8. If you need to add Layers to your template or project, it should be obvious both what kind of Layers you need and where they should go based on the numbering system. Is it a model Layer or a documentation Layer or a consultant Layer? If the Layer you think you need doesn’t fit into any of the categories, maybe it doesn’t belong in your file. This partitioning of Layers helps you understand why you are using the layers you have. Remember from Part 4: Diffrent Types of Models, your layering system might be about energy or cost or something else. In that case your groupings wouldn’t be Model, Primary; Model, Secondary; etc… They might be $50 sq. ft.; $100 sq. ft.; Documentation; Owner Supplied; Free

Layers from Info Box

Naming brings order out of Chaos

Without a doubt it’d be great if we could do this layering system in ArchiCAD without a work around. I’d love to have Layer Folders, or IDs rather than this kludged solution. IDs would be great, because then we wouldn’t be ruining the purity of the Layer name. But since Layers typically don’t show up on any documentation, this corruption of the name isn’t a big concern for me. It should actually help someone who receives a DWG from me, or takes over the file, because the Layer name has extra data which helps explain what’s going on. If I went down the route of Layer as IFC data, this numbering system would clearly pose an issue. But I’m not there yet, so that’s a non-issue too. Of course, I am curious: because of the way IFC is set up, would it naturally create similar categories—categories that could be further enhanced with the locked, hidden Layer as title/header concept?

Who sees your Layers?

Unless your Layers are about IFC or some other external issue, they should be about the ArchiCAD user. So let’s make them better. Don’t avoid this concept because it feels like a misappropriation and a work around. Embrace it because it adds more logic, order, and data to your file. Co-opt this because it is a better BIM solution than just doing it the old way (if people don’t believe me, I’ll write another article about why that is 100% true).

Try it

To explore these Layers yourself, download my template and poke around. Hopefully this concept is something you can directly import into your company template,  adapt for your current layering system, or otherwise use as inspiration. It’s worth noting that if you rename all your Layers, it won’t negatively affect your template/project. I reworked my Layer names without ill effect and also updated one of my current projects with no complications. If you choose to replace Layers in an existing project with your new layering system from your template, make sure that:

  1. Your project follows your current template’s previous layering system (otherwise problems will ensue).
  2. When you open the Attribute Manager to replace the Layers, make sure you choose “by index” number. For more on using the Attribute Manager, start here.by index

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11 Comments

  1. Nathan Hildebrandt

    Jared,

    You are one step closer to using a classification system for your layers. 🙂

    I have really enjoyed the journey you have created with the layer naming and approaches. I look forward to seeing a post on the same topic in say 12 months time to see how much further you have come.

    Lots of fun ahead.

    Nathan.

    Reply
    • Jared Banks

      The odds of me writing more about Layers in the future is near 100%. So yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m writing a formal Layers as Classification System article by this time in 2016! So much of my writing is about discovery and I love when I get to print retractions.

      Yes in 2013 or 2015 idea A was great, but now that it’s 2016 or 2018, idea B is even better!

      Over on Shoegnome, I have a number of posts tagged as “Endless Path of Improvement“. I’m always happy to be better than my previous self. 🙂 In fact, when I’m not, I get a little bummed.

      Reply
  2. Damian

    I have one question, and maybe it is a silly one but this layer combination and naming techniques seems super good to modelling and selection in Archicad, but how it works with the AIA Layer standards or any other layering standard and how you communicate with other disciplines that may use the AIA?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Jared Banks

      That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. I detest the traditional national CAD standards and similar systems. Anytime I’ve worked with them, they’ve always either been bulky, modified, or not properly followed. They are so much a one-size fits all system, and so ugly. Which is to say, I completely ignore their existence because they are a poor system that is never implemented properly and therefor any attempt to twist good workflows to placate them is a waste of our efforts. I learned this years ago when I tried building company templates around “current best practices”. Turns out the current best practices where neither current, the best, nor actually universally used…took me years to untangle that mess!

      THAT all said, if it were important, one could create a translator that converts our good layering system to their bad layers via the dwg translators. But what is nice is that all the anno-blah, A-whatevers, and S-notusedcorrectly layers will automatically show up below the 9 ●●●●● Trash Layers ●●●●● 9 layer. TAny of those cad standard layers would just show up nicely below our better layers. And that means it should mesh quite well since we are ordering by numbers and typical CAD standards are ordering by A, S, E, M, Anno, etc. letter prefixes.

      So I guess I do know the answer! This concept will work great as it is separate. It should also mean our layers don’t get mixed up with consultant’s layers when they are working in their program. I think.

      Reply
  3. Tom Lodge

    Jared

    Nice article (must admit mostly skim read to this point). We’ve been using a similar technique for about 18months. We use a prefix of *2 for elements to be shown on 2D drawings, *3 for elements for 3Dor sectional view only, *T for text/annontation and *D for dimension. Ancillery layers like Grids, draughting layers and section lines just get a * as they sit at the top. FYI Punctuation always sits above a number.

    The header layers are a good idea. Look forward to layers solution C!

    Reply
    • Jared Banks

      I saw a sneak peak at Layer solution C today. It’s a hefty system, probably more than I need for my own work, but for those that need to deal with IFC, COBie, etc. it’s probably going to be the best.

      Reply
  4. Joachim Suehlo

    Hi Jared,

    I use a similar kind of layering system, which you can see at my website. You are absolety right, that a numbering system has big advantages in workflow, everything is much easier to find. Similar “spacers” I use in the Layer Combination.
    I went so far, that I use a similar numbering system in nearly any kind of attributes (see surfaces ), that gives much more overview of surfaces, fills, composites, building materials etc. It is possible to build groups, regarding to the pririty of your modelling process.

    Joachim

    Reply
    • Jared Banks

      Very nice. I like the use of dummy Layer Combinations. I might have to add those.

      Reply
  5. Poppy

    I love the idea of this layering system! It’s very intuitive and very neat and tidy. Looking forward to trying it out this week.

    Reply
    • Jared Banks

      It is very neat and tidy! It makes me smile every time I see my layers now. So much better than how I used to work.

      Reply
  6. Ron Sipe

    Its a pity that there isn’t a separate field for sequence that can be changed at will and used in the lookup screens.
    I cant understand why system builders don’t do this more often.

    cheers

    Reply

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