If you are just joining us, this is the fifth post in my Pen Sets series. Posts one through three are from Shoegnome and reference mostly ArchiCAD 11. Post Four was recently published on BIM Engine and updates my theories for ArchiCAD 17 (and everything else I’ve learned since 2011).

In Pen Sets Part Four, I talked about how our Pen Set strategy should be based on graphic requirements only. I now want to talk how that can be expanded to highlight various aspects of digital approximations. Based on all the great comments I’m getting from my previous post, clearly I’m not the only one thinking about this need!

I’ve showed this detail before

ArchiCADIt’s now time to come clean about it. It’s faked. I’ve never used that colorized version of the detail in a drawing set, but I could. I could assign a rainbow of colored pens to all my Building Materials so that everything showed up in color. This actually wouldn’t be too hard as all the color information would be stored in the BMats and we’d never have to tweak an individual element. At the bottom of my Pen chart I could have say Pens 200-255 be a rainbow ladder from Red to Orange to Yellow all the way to Indigo and Violet. And then add a few grays (if one doesn’t use the grayscale ladder at Pens 91 to 100, then one can add some slight blues or browns or whatever to the grays). This would work with pure 2D data (details, cheats, etc.) as well if the Fills are linked to Building Materials (more on Fills soon, I promise).

If you did this, those colors wouldn’t be attached to any specific Building Material (or element type), but just all used together to create all the color needed. So five BMats might use the same pink or gray or blue. That is a lot of work. If you are going to that trouble, you might as well start looking at Sections, Elevations, and 3D Document Axon views that use the Building Material’s Surface color. That way you’re managing only one set of colors (Surfaces). How to handle colored details does become a question mark in this scenario, but there are a few solutions—use the section or elevation tool to make your details, only use 3D documents for details, etc. etc. Basically if you’re going to break the rules and go full color, don’t stop there. Really push the concept to simplify your life and lean on the BIM functionality of ArchiCAD (i.e., push Building Materials as far as you can).

Fill Cut Surfaces in SectionThere is another route to go with adding color to drawings and connecting that color to digital approximations: highlighting only what’s critical. In BIM circles there is often talk of one day doing away with drawings. I’m not sure what I think of that. On one hand, I’d be happy to see them go (architects fuss, fret, and focus WAY too much on the quality of drawings, me included), but on the other hand drawings do have huge value. Drawings not only provide clarity to specific conditions, they also allow the designer to highlight what is important. If someone looks at a plan and there are only two dimensions shown, it should be pretty obvious that those two dimensions are more important than all the missing dimensions. I think there are strategies to incorporate analogous highlighting techniques into drawing-less data sets, but that’s for another post. Today I want to just focus on highlighting within drawings.

Babysteps to energy analysis: colorizing a few simple aspects of your model

Back in Minnesota, I got to know an ArchiCAD user—Tim Eian—who is also a Certified Passivhaus Consultant (it seems like those two interests often go together). We’ve actually highlighted his firm on the blog before. As a Passivhaus guy, Tim really cares about things like insulation, vapor barriers, and air barriers. Not that the regular architect or designer doesn’t, but Tim like all CPHCs, REALLY cares. And his drawings show that. If you look at one of his details, it’s obvious where the air barrier, vapor barrier, and insulation is, even before you read the notes.

te Studio Colorized Detail

In our conversation about this detail, Tim had this to say about the benefits of working the way his firm does:

“One thing that I dig about this system is that we can tell from a mile away how stuff works. Looking at preview icons in the Finder for instance tells me a lot about the detail (in a PDF). Also, building envelope imperfections show up really well in this system. It therefore reinforces continuity of the important systems.”


Highlighting the continuity of the air or vapor barrier—a continuity that is probably created by non-modeled elements like building paper, caulk, tape, etc.—can be done with a combination of two things: pens and layers. If you designate (for instance) pen 253 to be the air barrier and 254 to be the vapor barrier, then you can have those pens always show up in color (red and blue for instance). Then just like the plan with only the critical dimensions shown, a detail with only a blue line and a red line designating the air and vapor barrier (and thus also the hot and cool side of the wall assembly), clearly shows what the people reading the drawings need to care about. Admittedly this isn’t unique to BIM; this could easily be done with CAD or some colored pencils. But it gets more and more BIMish as we connect and extend this concept of colored lines deeper into the core of ArchiCAD.

Customized Pen Set for highlighted information


Colored highlights of critical information can also be incorporated into 3D elements. Once again Building Materials offer a compelling solution. If you recall in Pen Sets, Part Four, I have a unique pen for all Fill backgrounds. You could take this a step further and create a unique pen for all Fill backgrounds of insulation Building Materials. Typically this pen number would be white or gray, but it could be changed to be say pink or yellow. Then in a plan or section or detail it would become extremely obvious where the insulated envelope is. You can see this concept in the 3D section cuts I reference here (I’ve implemented this concept in the Surface color of my Building Materials, though not yet in their cut fills), in Tim’s detail above, or my vapor barrier/air barrier image.

Customized Building Materials for highlighted information

If your sections and plans are all black and white (or grayscale) with just the insulation in color, that will convey a particular message. To take this a step further you could integrate the air and vapor barrier colors into your 3D elements as well. In composites, we can change the color of (or hide) the separator lines. Since your composites should already be created to have a definite outside and inside, you could change the color of the separator lines that correspond with the air and vapor barriers to your unique pens for that information. And just like with the insulation (and everything else we’ve discussed), depending on the Pen Set, you could turn the color on or off.

Customized Composites for highlighted information

Adding this color data into your current files is actually very easy. Updating your Building Materials and Composites will have global changes that should make about 99% of the change automated. These changes can even propagate into your 2D details if you are using Fills that link to Building Materials (which you should and which we will talk about more in the coming weeks).

This sort of visual data to our ArchiCAD models interests me for more than just advancing our printed documentation. These techniques are also great tools for client communication and design. Clients might not get all the intricacies of building science, but when they are looking at a drawing and see a discontinuous line or swath of color, that can be easily discussed. Imagine merging these concepts with Intelligent Dumbing. Picture the way you can steer a conversation if some information is purposefully hidden while some is intentionally highlighted.

Beyond simple communication, the design aspect of these techniques really fascinates me. We all want to do BEM (Building Energy Models) and design using bigger and more robust criteria. We all are fascinated with EcoDesigner Star. But those are big mountains to climb. Highlighting insulation, vapor, and air barriers are a good first step. When you look at your models, you can start designing to improve the continuity and quality of those critical aspects. And once you can visually see that completeness of insulation, then you can be confident that ArchiCAD will also be (more or less) ready to also understand that completeness—and thus be (more or less) ready for energy analysis.

Bonus Thoughts

Geoff Briggs, a fellow ArchiCAD user in Seattle made a very astute comment to Pen Sets, Part Four. He pointed out that a minimalistic Pen Set strategy like I use has drawbacks, that there are advantages to say making all the plumbing fixtures a separate pen number from all the windows or doors (or other variations of diversification). This provides the opportunity to help the modeler visualize different data on screen and also allows for more differentiation in printed documents, if it’s required. Read Geoff’s comment and my response. Then add your two cents as well.

I think there is a ton of merit in Geoff’s views. I know it was just one random example he gave, but I’m about 70% convinced I need to update my Pen Sets to separate out plumbing elements. Almost. I’m just not sure how I’ll take advantage of that differentiation other than to be able to look at my drawings and go “yup there’s the locations that require water.” While I ponder that, I also want to highlight two questions for us all to think about:

  1. How many line weights do we really need in a set of drawings? (I just read on LinkedIn about someone who uses only three).
  2. At what point do multiple unique identifiers (whether Pens, Layers, Building Materials, Line Types, etc.) overload the system and start having a negative effect?

We can have as many dashed Line Types as we want in ArchiCAD, but is more than two or three self-defeating? When does adding more and more color to a drawing start decreasing the value of each pen? Finally, with the understanding that we have to prioritize the development of our systems and templates, what matters most to you? Are you more interested in giving plumbing objects their own pen number or are you more fascinated with highlighting building science data via pen colors? Both routes have huge potential and in the end probably lead to the same point. Leave a comment.


  1. Pamela Goode

    I love this post about using colors for the air barrier and vapor barrier. John Straube, one of the smartest and funniest building scientists around, makes a point that architects need to learn how to use highlighters. They need one color to highlight the water resistant membrane, another for the air barrier and one for the thermal barrier. These lines must be continuous (air and thermal, WR can be lapped). The colored lines show where the gaps are located, but also show the contractor what material is used for what. His point is that the contractor needs to know that the drywall (when used as an air barrier) is functioning as more than a surface for the paint and it needs to be tight and continuous. If there was a colored line that signified that the surface of the d.w. was the air barrier than the builder would know and put the effort to make it air tight.

    Great post.

  2. Duncan

    Hi Jared,

    I’m slowly adapting to your new pensets.
    I’ve had to change the line weights to suit, but I like it.
    I like the idea of the fills starting at 181, Cut Contours 11 and 12 for the finer separater in composites.
    I’m guessing the 1 to 4 are for anything ? 21 to 24 are for annotations, labels, markers, levels, Dims etc..
    I’m trying to setup all my favourites, but its pretty time consuming, so I slowly add them as I go. It is getting faster to adjust them on fly since I know which pens they are meant to be.
    I’ve also stopped using a penset for model view and a separate one for layout, they all use the same one now. It is so much easier back to WYSIWYG. Coming from Revi,t Archicad Pensets have been a bane of my existence 🙂

    Anyway just wanted to say thanks for the Template.

    • Jared Banks

      Glad you enjoy the template and that my pen set logic makes sense. The beauty of pen sets is that if you follow the logic, it doesn’t matter how many pen sets you use. The day you need another one (whether going from 1 to 2 or 100 to 101), everything shifts/updates/works.


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