How to Trace 2D Drawings to Quickly Create a 3D ARCHICAD Model

By Eric Bobrow | General ARCHICAD Tutorials

Jan 26

Learn how to bring in 2D drawings such as DWG files as a tracing reference to make it easy and fast to create an accurate 3D model. This approach can be used for modeling existing buildings from CAD files, or taking a design from 2D CAD into a 3D model quickly for presentations or model coordination.

Many interesting topics are covered, including the creation of worksheets, importing DWG files, setting up Virtual Trace for the plan and elevations to show the corresponding 2D drawings in proper alignment to the model, and some complex manipulations of ArchiCAD library doors and windows to match the original design drawings.


  • Create a new project
  • Import the DWG files into separate Worksheets and coordinate their origin points
  • Set up the Story Levels to correspond to the project heights
  • Use Virtual Trace to reference the ground floor DWG as a background while working on the ground floor plan
  • Move the original MasterTemplate base slabs, elevation and section markers, and gridlines to the vicinity of the traced DWG
  • Set up the wall tool for the proper thickness and height, then trace the outline of the building
  • Repeat for the upper story
  • Place windows in the walls using the plan DWGs as references for location and width
  • Open each of the Elevation viewpoints and correspond the DWG Worksheets for trace reference
  • Adjust window heights, types and glazing patterns to match the original drawings
  • Repeat for the doors, first on plan, then in elevation
  • Draw the first roof piece on plan by tracing over the roof outline from the original drawing​
  • Coordinate the height and thickness of the roof in each elevation​
  • Use these adjusted settings to create the rest of the roof system on the lower level, then repeat the process for the upper roofs​
  • Trim walls to the roofs to clean up the model​
  • Adjust some of the windows and doors to have arched tops with bricks above​
  • Review the 3D model, elevations and plans, which now correspond beautifully to the original drawings

This entire process was done in 90 minutes! This 44 minute video is condensed from the original recording made in “real time” that shows every step along the way. This excerpted version leaves out some less essential details as well as much of the repetitive drawing and data entry.

To be frank, the first time I did this it took between 3 and 4 hours, because I had to become familiar with the project and how the DWGs were organized. The second time it took about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, and then I started over and recorded the process the third time in 90 minutes from start to finish.


ARCHICAD Video Tutorial Transcript

ARCHICAD Tutorial – How to Trace 2D Drawings to Quickly Create a 3D ARCHICAD Model

Hello, this is Eric Bobrow of Bobrow Consulting Group, creator of the ARCHICAD MasterTemplate, with another ARCHICAD video tip. In today’s tip, we’ll be looking at how to take existing drawings to use them as a reference for tracing and turning the drawings into a 3D model in ARCHICAD very, very quickly and easily.  [0:00:24]

Here, you see a residence designed by our client Farshad Azarnoush of Atelier Architects, based here in Los Angeles.  This residence – you can see the rendering that he’s done, and you can see on the right here a number of .dwg files that he was kind enough to supply to us as the basis for our video tip today.  Here we have a new file, the ARCHICAD MasterTemplate being the basis of the file.  I’m going to select some of the initial elements that are placeholders, and we’re going to delete them and get started bringing in the .dwg files.  [0:01:06]

The basic approach we’re going to take is to create a worksheet for each of the .dwg files.  We’re going to say New Independent Worksheet, and we’ll name this A-3 FIRST FLOOR PLAN.  Now we have a blank worksheet, and I will go ahead and import the external drawing here, from this folder where I’ve got all of them collected.  When I select it, it will say “What is the scale?” This drawing unit, typically for U.S. users will be one inch, and if it was in international usage, it might be a millimeter or a meter, but whatever it is, you will need to pick the proper drawing unit size and then place the drawing.  [0:02:04]

Now, I’m going to use the project origin or the origin of the worksheet as the location for dropping this in.  That will allow us to use the reference for multiple drawings to coordinate easily, and you can see that the drawing is actually located here, but the extent of it is a little bit larger or quite a bit larger, probably because there is some entity origins or just little elements off to the side.  So, I’m going to go and crop this in using the pet palette, and we’ll zoom to Fit in Window, take a look at that, and crop it in a little bit tighter.  [0:02:51]

OK, so you can see a first-floor plan.  There’s a garage in the back with a couple of cars.  You know, a nice round area for many windows and double-door entrance door here on the left.  I’m going to go and create another worksheet, and this one will be the second-floor plan, and I’ll import the second-floor .dwg and select the drawing, crop it, Fit in Window.  [0:03:50]

You notice that there are some other miscellaneous drawings there.  I’ll just zoom in a little bit so you can see them, but we won’t actually need to look at them in this particular case. He’s placed some stair details and sections that he was working on in this area.  We’ll leave them actually visible, but we’ll be referring, of course, to the second-floor plan here.  [0:04:12]

Now, I’d like to make sure that the second-floor plan in the worksheet lines up cleanly with the first-floor plan so we can use the same reference throughout all of the different stories, so I will use Trace & Reference.  So, I’ll go here to the Trace & Reference palette and bring it up, and then I will go and select the first-floor plan here and say I’d like to show the .dwg as a trace reference underneath.  Now, I’ll change the color so it’s a little bit more visible, and you can see that it is in the same area.  Let’s just double-check that it really is exactly correct or exactly aligned, and it looks pretty darn good.  [0:04:53]

Let’s just use the slider here, and we can see as I move this over that it does match beautifully.  If I take it sideways here, you can see how the corner of this building matches on both sides.  So, we know that these two line up perfectly well.  Now, we’re not actually going to reference the 2 .dwgs to each other to work on it.  We’re going to reference one of them at a time, but we do want to make sure that they are properly aligned.  [0:05:22]

Now, I’m going to go bring in another worksheet, and this one will get the roof plan.  So, here you can see the roof plan.  Now, I’m going to double-check that the roof plan lines up with the second-floor plan, and it did not appear.  What does that mean?  If I zoom out, you’ll see that the roof plan is not in line with the second-floor plan in terms of its relationship to the origin.  [0:05:56]

So, it’s important when we’re going to be referencing it that all of these are in the same place, so first and second work beautifully, but this one I’m going to have to drag.  So, I’m going to literally drag the drawing into approximate position and then zoom in tight enough that I can snap it neatly into place.  Now, you can see they perfectly line up.  I can, again, use the Trace & Reference comparison.  [0:06:23]

We’re not going to create a new worksheet to bring in the .dwg elevations.  This will be one of the elevations we’ll be working on, and this one here will be the other one that we’ll be working on matching.  Now, we’ll create another independent worksheet for the .dwg section drawings.  Now, when we bring in the elevations in sections, we don’t have to worry about lining them up with the floor plan immediately.  What we’ll be doing is when we’re bringing up an elevation to work on it, we will, at that point, coordinate the view of the elevation.  [0:07:13]

We look at a section here.  You can see the drawing and some information about the height that we’re working on, so here’s another section.  OK, so we’re now in a position to start drawing the model.  I’m going to go back to the floor plan.  Let’s take a look at the first-floor plan .dwg file as a trace reference.  When I do that, and I Fit in Window, we’ll see that it’s way over here.  [0:08:00]

Now, in many cases, I would move that Trace & Reference to a convenient location, but if I do that, then I will have to move each of the Trace & References – the first floor, second floor, and roof plan in exactly the same way, and while that’s certainly possible to do, I’m going to use a different approach, which I found works quite effectively.  I’m going to simply select the original massing model base that we’ve got in MasterTemplate, along with the elevation and section markers and grids and just move them into position here.  [0:08:36]

That will work just fine.  We may need to move elevation markers a little bit or the section markers, and of course the grid lines will need to be adjusted, but that’s a good starting point there.  Now, in addition, before I get started, I’m going to go look at the heights of the stories in this model.  The 1385 is going to be our first floor, finish floor, and you can see the top of plate here is 9’-3”, but I’m going to measure using the Measure command here, and I’ll just measure, say, from somewhere along this line to here.  You can see it says 9’-3”, matching the dimension from the .dwg file.  [0:09:20]

If I go up here, it’s 10’-9”, so I’m going to remember that it’s 10’-9” from story to story, and then up to here, it’s 19’-9”, so it’s another 9 feet.  On the story settings, we’ll see the first floor is set, obviously, at zero as a generic starting point, but I need to raise it up to the 1385, if I’m going to match these heights.  Now, it turns out that if I try to type this in at 1385, it will not allow me to do it.  It will not allow me to take it higher than the second floor, which is a 10, so it will actually stop it at 10. [0:09:56]

What I can do instead is to say, “Well, the second floor really needs to be way up, up at 1395’-9,” because remember, this was 10’-9” above, so I’m going to type in 1395’-9”, and that raises up the second floor to that height.  Then, I can go and adjust this to 1385, and it will happily allow me to do that, and it will indicate that there’s 10’-9” between it and the next floor, and we do have the 9 feet that we need up to the top plate.  Now, the foundation, of course, should not be anywhere near this.  I’m just going to say, since it’s a slab on grade and does not have a basement, I’m just going to say it’s 4 feet below.  [0:10:43]

This is something that could be adjusted later but is not important at the moment, so I’ll just bring it something in the vicinity.  If I select these elements, you can see this ground plane here is up to 1384’-5”, and this one here?  We’ll just take it up to the 1385 so it’s a nice, even number.  So, let’s go back to the floor plan, and we’ll start to draw on top of this building, so we’re going to now use this as a reference.  [0:11:18]

We can go and select the Wall tool and actually set it up the way we want, but I will take advantage of the interactive legend we have in MasterTemplate as a quick way to get the settings, so I’ll bring up the interactive legend worksheet, which allows us to go, for example, and see a whole lot of different elements here that we can use the eye dropper for.  These are Visual Favorites, part of our MasterTemplate system, and I’ll go and say, “I’d like to look at some simple modeling because right now, I just really want to get a basic shell.”  [0:11:53]

So, in the simple modeling, you can see that we have very plain walls of different thicknesses.  I’ll go and say, “Well, let’s take the exterior wall at 5 ½ feet,” and I’ll go back to my working area, and I’ll zoom in on an area where I’d like to start this.  Now, I’ll zoom in a little bit further because I want to make sure I have the thickness of the wall correct, and perhaps we’ll make this trace just a little bit deeper so it’s a little bit easier to see.  [0:12:29]

Now, when I measure, I can use the Measure tool here and click on this point and go across, and you can see it’s 5 ½ inches, and that happens to be the thickness of the wall that I wanted, and as I recall, we had a 10’-9” from story to story, and I know that we want to have, in this case, 13 inches or 1’-1” for this slab, so I will make the height of the wall, instead of being 9 feet, it will be 9’-8”, and there’s the 5 ½ inches, and I will start drawing a wall, say, at this point.  Actually, I need to zoom in a little bit because there’s more than one snap point there, and click and you can see it’s a nice 180°, so I’m snapping to a very clean point. [0:13:23]

The distances are not necessarily even.  They’re whatever the .dwg file created, but I am wanting to be very careful that I am snapping to the 90° marks because occasionally there are points that are easy to miss, so I’ll just finish this series of walls here.  Now, you notice that when I stop, I’m no longer able to see through the wall to the door behind it.  However, with the Trace & Reference palette, I can go and click on Make Fills and Zones Transparent, which affects only the display. [0:14:00]

In other words, if you printed, it would not affect it.  When I do that, now we can see the door behind it.  Now, I’ll go on, and I know that the next series of walls here are actually thinner, and if I measure from here – if I use the M key to measure, it says it’s at 3 ½ inches.  So, I’ll specify this at 3 ½ inches.  Just to quickly get this thickness of the walls correct, any place where the wall is too thin, I’m going to go along and select it.  [0:14:36]

Here, the wall is actually correctly 3 ½ inch, but this one needs to get wider, so I can go back and very quickly select anything that’s too narrow, and this one looks like it may actually need to be done even thicker, but we’ll check that later, so I’ll go and get anything where I notice that it is too narrow, and I’ll change it from the 3 ½ to the 5 ½, and all of those that I selected will then update. [0:15:12]

So, let’s take a look, then, at this.  What I’ve drawn here, if I were to take the reference off – you can see that I’ve drawn the shell of the building, and if I take a 3D view, you’ll see the shell as being very easily built up.  Let’s go up to the second floor, so I’m going to just navigate up one story to the second floor.  Now, I’m on the second floor.  I’m not seeing any walls.  You can see when I turn off the reference.  However, I don’t want to be looking at the first-floor plan .dwg as a reference. I would like to reference the second-floor plan. [0:16:00]

So, I’ll say show this one as a trace reference, and you can see, now, how it appears in view, and I’ll zoom in on the main area that’s built up because there is a lot of this covered by the roof for the floor below, but I’ll go to the Wall tool, and in this case, I remember that my wall only needs to be 9 feet high instead of the 9’-8”, and we’ll set it for the thicker component and see how that works.  If it actually is too thick, then we’ll change that and just set it for a chain of walls.  [0:16:44]

OK, so we’ve now got a shell for the second floor, and if I go to 3D, we’ll see them hanging above the first floor.  So, I’ll go ahead and put a little bit of a roof on this. There is a back terrace, and so I’ll go and use the Slab tool, and I know that this slab needs to be, in general terms, 1’-1” thick, and I’ll tell it to use a very simple top color in its initial massing, and I’ll just draw this down here and then take this and also extend it, say, across here, and just for this series of editing operations, very quickly bring this up to the size and shape it needs to be.  [0:18:12]

Here, I’ll say that I’m going to add, but I will use a polygon shape and trace that.  So, now if I go to 3D, I’ve got a base for the second floor and a roof over one part of the first floor, and I’m going to change the edge material to match the wall exterior color so that it actually will blend in in sections and in elevations.  [0:18:54]

So, at this point, in just a few minutes, we’ve been able to create a building shell, and let’s take a look at how this relates to the sections in elevations.  I’m going to actually go ahead and put in some windows before I do that because it will make it a little easier to see the correspondence.  So, I will go back to the first floor and switch our reference to the first floor .dwg, and then we’ll start putting in some windows and doors.  [0:19:32]

It’s very, very similar to what Farshad did in his original drawing.  Now, having made those changes, those slight changes, I’ll use the eye dropper to say, “Now, the next window will be like that.”  I’ll go and pop this one in. I’m not going to worry about moving the marker into position precisely.  I’ll just go ahead and put in each of these windows.  [0:20:00]

Now, you notice this window is the wrong size, so I’ll select it, and I’ll use the option to move this end, and I’ll snap it directly to the trace below so now it’s exactly the same size as was on the plan, and I’ll go around now and very quickly put in some other windows.  OK, so now we have most of the windows for the second floor and the first floor, and if I go to 3D, we’ll see at least a basic idea of the fenestration. [0:20:35]

So, now let’s take a look at an elevation.  So, I can go and look at the elevations from the .dwg file, and there were 5 of them, but what I would really like to do is generate an elevation from the current model, so I’m going to open up our clone folder where the elevations have automatically been assembled based on the original elevation markers that were drawn in the template, and I’ll take the south elevation.  [0:21:04]

When the south elevation comes up, we see the beginnings of the building shell, along with pieces of the interactive legend.  You can see that they are some components that we can eye drop, so if I wanted to, I could go and, say, use and pick up this female figure and drop her into the view to give some scale.  So, I’ve got the beginning of this elevation.  Now, I want to compare it with Trace & Reference to the elevation here that is drawn in the .dwg file.  So, I’ll right-click on this and say Show as Trace Reference.  [0:21:42]

When I do that, and I say Fit in Window, well, remember that there were several of these.  Well, in this case, I know that the one that I care about is this one here, and I’ll bring it approximately into position and then zoom, and you can see that it will get a little tighter and move these windows down, sort of in the general area, and now you can start seeing the relationship where we have three windows here and three windows there, and these actually should match.  [0:22:20]

Now, I need to find a reference point to line this up precisely, so I’ll snap, say, this corner of the building right here to my corner of my model right there, and you can see now that these two windows precisely line up, and other points will precisely work, but you can see the line of the wall matches.  Let me use the slider to be able to show how the wall line is perfectly lined up there, and if I move over, the height of the finish floor is specified as 1385, and it’s precisely lining up. [0:23:05]

So, I’ve got my vertical and horizontal dimensions working and on the other side as well.  You can see this line right here is working, so I’m snapped into position.  Now, I’m going to go and make these windows look like they should or closer, at least in terms of size, but I will point out here, and when I talk to the architect, he immediately looked at this and said, “Oh my, our drawings aren’t coordinated.”  So, obviously the building model, which is showing the windows from the floor plan, matches for these two but does not for this one or the other three, and that is something that needs to be reconciled. [0:23:49]

In the meantime, what I’ll do is I’ll take these three windows and move them up into position so that they have the right header height, which is actually 8 feet.  You can see relative to the wall base.  Then, I’ll measure the height from here to here.  It’s 3 feet, so I’ll select these two windows and tell them to be 3’x3’ instead of 3’x5’, and you’ll see they will now match the size there.  This other window here actually is the right size.  It’s 3’x5’, but we do have an offset.  [0:24:36]

Now, if I moved it to match it in the elevation, it would be in a different place on the floor plan, so at this point I’ll make a note, as I said, to discuss this with the architect and mention that there is a difference that needs to be reconciled.  Repeat the process of switching it to the feature window using the syringe, Ctrl+Alt- or Command+Option-click, and in this case, the elevation here is a little different value, but still, the grid – 1×3 top and bottom and 1×2 in the middle. [0:25:25]

So, at this point, I can compare the original drawing with my elevation that I’m creating, and you can see how closely this is starting to match.  That’s probably all we need to set right now, so I’ll go in and put this door in matching the corner and make sure that it’s the right size.  So, I’ll stretch it back to match the .dwg and then use the editable hot spot to change the opening to be the right size. [0:26:39]

So, now I can go in and put in the double door, and it’s almost perfect right away, but I will go and stretch it to match the .dwg and use the editable hot spot to open it to the same width, and this time, I’ll use the eye dropper and put in another door here, which does, of course, match symmetrically.  So, if I now go to the 3D view, we’ll see that we have some doors as well as windows, and the building is starting to take shape. [0:27:33]

So, I’m prepared now to do the roof system, which is, of course, somewhat complex.  I’ll jump up to the second floor using the keyboard shortcut for that, and now I’m looking at the second floor, and I will switch my reference. Actually, I’ll use the .dwg file now for the roof plan.  You can see the roof plan.  If I hold down my mouse, it’s going to show just the main lines and turn off the hatch lines, so you can see the system of the roof on the second floor and also the roof below on the first floor, and I’m going to be following those lines as I work with this.  [0:28:30]

So, I’m drawing this on the second floor.  There are different ways to approach creating the roofs.  I’m going to create these roofs on the second floor at a certain height, and I’m not going to worry about the height right now.  I’m going to adjust that in the elevation and section views to match, but I will, of course, set up the slope, and there is notification in a few different places.  It says the slope is 6 in 12, so I’ll go into here and change the slope to 6 in 12 and change the top of the roof here to a simple color, and we’ll change the height of the roof.  [0:29:14]

I believe 10 inches is probably a better size for the fascia, and as I said, I’m not going to worry about the height of the roof because we’ll be adjusting it, but actually, I will set it down to be low on this story because it’s actually going to be creating the roof that covers the first floor right now.  This is the roof lower level.  [0:29:42]

So, I will go and create this, tracing this, so I’ll say that it’s resting on this edge with a pivot line and going up, and we’ll do a rectangle initially, say up to here.  Then, I’ll select that roof, and I’ll go and add some more to it and add, but this time in a triangle.  Now, I have to actually subtract out a couple of spaces here, so I’ll say subtract. [0:30:48]

Then, I’ll just simplify the edge outline a little bit to here, and I think this point.  So, now we have a roof.  We’ll take a look at the south elevation and see where this roof is.  So, if I look at this, you can see that it’s matching the general shape that was in the original drawing, but it’s a little too high, so I’ll go ahead and set it carefully down, dragging it into position there.  So, now you can see the bottom and the edge are precisely correct, and it’s very closely lining up with the original drawing.  Whether the original drawing is correct or not, I’m not sure, but our model is certainly close and representing that. [0:32:15]

Now, this one looks like a bigger difference, and maybe there is a discrepancy in the drawing since everything else is matching up pretty well, within an inch or two.  I will go ahead and create the rest of the roof system.  Actually, I’ll go ahead and look at the west elevation and make sure that this really is precisely fitting in.  You can see that my roof is matching pretty closely, but perhaps I should set the height just a little bit better here where I can see it, so I’ll just move this up, and now it’s really cleanly matching the top of that drawing. It’s very beautifully matching that. [0:33:09]

If I go back to the south elevation, we’ll just see how that adjustment makes it just work a little better along this whole face, but it’s a little bit high compared to this, so this may relate to the fascia board dropping down a little bit, and so I won’t worry about that.  In fact, this now looks so clean that I will say that we’re right on the money.  However, this part looks like it’s a little bit in need of revision in the drawing, not in the model. [0:33:47]

I’m going to go and create the rest of the roof system by actually mirroring copies of this around and then taking this and breaking off pieces.  So, if I look at this now, you can see the roof system is starting to take shape.  I’ll do some quick roof editing.  Now, I have a few more of the roof pieces working.  [0:35:15]

So, we now have the shell of a building with all the roof systems working except for this one.  I’ll clean up a little bit.  We’ll go in and select some elements we’d like to trim, and I’ll use the Solid-Element Operations palette here to make these the target, select this roof to make it the operator, tell it to subtract with upward extrusion.  That will take off the top of the wall, and as we rotate this around, I’ll take this wall as the target and these three roofs as operators and make them relate, and then I can select this wall and stretch this up, and it will neatly fit underneath there.  [0:37:00]

So, now everything in terms of the shell is there except for the curved roofs, the conical roof segment.  So, I’ll go in and create the first one of these, and we’ll take a look at the west elevation here and set the elevation of this little piece to be the correct height and then take this and multiply it, and from previous testing, I figured out that it was 9 degrees that this was drawn.  There were 40 copies, and so I could make 39 new ones after the original one and create this around like that and go back to 3D.  [0:38:49]

We now have a pretty nice-looking shell of the building, and when I go to the west elevation, we’ll see that what I’ve got is now really starting to match the original drawing, and I can even get a little bit finer with some of the modeling.  So, for example, take this door height up to here, and then switch it  to an archtop door, keeping the same size using this parameter transfer- Alt+Ctrl or Option+Command, and then go to the elevation here and say, actually, that we want to take it up by, I believe, 8’-6”, or 8’-8” will work, and then I can take this up to 8 feet.  [0:40:16]

Now, you notice that it’s looking rather segmented.  I can change the curve resolution here to a much larger number.  I’ll say 100, or maybe that’s too much.  I’ll say 72, say OK, and you can see now that that’s matching pretty nicely.  This actually is probably 8’-6”.  That’s better, and 8’-6”, and we’ll make this shoulder height just a plain 8 feet, and then we’ll go to the masonry arch and choose something to put the brick work on top. [0:41:02]

I know that the bricks are a little wide, and we’ll just make the masonry – the mortar just as thin as possible to not emphasize it in the elevation and make the height of the brick, say, 6 inches, and make the brick a little bit deeper so it shows through the wall properly.  We now have the brick arch looking very similar to the original drawing, and we can take this door up to a reasonable height and finally make this window also be an arch top. [0:41:58]

That now matches really quite closely.  So, here we have the model that was created in literally just over 90 minutes while recording this demonstration.  It shows the building basic shell with most of the doors and windows in their proper position, and I’m able to generate, at the same time, elevations here that very closely match the original drawings.  [0:42:42]

You can see the original drawings and the work that was done here, and of course, the floor plan is starting to take shape as well.  Here’s the original one, and here is what has been created for the shell of the building and the second floor here. In just over 90 minutes, using the 2D .dwg files as a trace reference, the modeling becomes very, very simple and quick and is accurate – at least as accurate as the original drawings are.  [0:43:57]

Thank you for watching.  This is Eric Bobrow of Bobrow Consulting Group, creator of the ARCHICAD MasterTemplate, with your ARCHICAD video tip. [0:44:06]

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