On Land

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At Rill Architects we run ArchiCAD on Mac OS X. If you work at Rill, this is your stuff. If you don't, but you work in ArchiCAD, you may find something interesting. Anybody else, I don't know.
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These are the primary functions of layering, in order of importance:

1. Control of display for output. The finished output has to show and hide the right elements.

2. Control of display for working on the project. Showing and hiding elements depending on the work you are doing at the moment.

3. Promotion of logical thinking about the project as a building rather than as a bunch of drawings.

4. Protection of elements used for reference. For example, the walls are locked when working on the structure plans.

Layers exist so elements can be shown, hidden, and locked as needed. Beyond that, layering helps keep the project straight in our minds as we work on it. To this end, layers should be:

Sensible. An architect using an architecture-oriented CAD program should expect to find a layer for "Walls". They would also expect a layer for fireplaces, even though walls and fireplaces display together and don't technically need separate layers. "Put the fireplace on the wall layer" doesn't sound right. In keeping with Virtual Building principles, our layers relate to building parts first, and annotations or drawing types second.

Truthful. I recently added a layer, S Deck, for floor-structure slabs. Previously, we used S Slab. I decided it was poor thinking to call joist decks and concrete slabs by the same name. Layers should encourage clear thinking about the building itself.

Logically Consistent. A stair will be made of elements which display in plan and elements which are 3D-only. So we have two layers, A Stair2 and A Stair3. This arrangement should apply to all assemblies which are split between plan and 3D, such as soffits.

Here's another way of looking at it:

In the design of Archicad, the floor plan is the "main" window. Close it and you close the file. Every element must be on a story, and therefore visible in the plan window at some point. (Even though you can place elements in 3D.)

The first function of layering is to separate the Plan- and 3D-only elements. If we only did architectural drawings, we could get by with just those two layers, Plan and 3D. We would have two layer combinations, Plan, showing only the plan layer, and 3D, showing both layers. This setup meets the minimal display requirement above.

But it would be very difficult to work with. Productivity would suffer as the user went insane. So within the architectural, we have lots of plan layers and lots of 3D layers, which correspond to building parts. In the plan we have walls, cabinets, fixtures, etc. In 3D we have floors, structure, trim, etc. The addition of these layers doesn't advance the display requirement at all, it just helps us stay sane.

It helps our work to have layout and guide elements. Those need layers, since they have to be hidden for output. It's convenient to be able to "permanently" hide elements without deleting them, trashcan-style. It's handy to keep area-measurement fills in the project, but we don't look at them very often. So there are several kinds of administrative layers that don't directly represent the project or the output.

Then there's the invisible modeling tools, cutting roofs and SEO operators.

Once we get into other drawing types, structure plans, etc., those drawings have their own annotations, and require different architectural elements to be shown and hidden. The structure plans require that the landscape walls (hide) be separated from the architectural walls (show). The reflected ceiling plan requires that the crown moulding (show) be separated from the other high trim (hide). If you have two site plans, you need layers for each of their annotations, and for the annotations they share.

The layer setup we have is the product of a years of refinement along these principles. When we add a layer, it should be in order to improve the logic of the system or to facilitate a new/better mode of work. For example, to model wall sections, the crown needs to be positioned taking the ceiling finish into account, and the ceiling finish itself needs to be modeled. But since the ceiling finish is only useful for wall sections, we don't take the time to build it everywhere. Since it stops and starts, it needs to be hidden in building sections so we don't have jaggy ceiling lines. Therefore we need the layer F Clg Fin, as well as layer combinations for wall sections separate from building sections.

I hope this helps answer the question, "Why are there so many layers?"