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Home design software.

When it comes to computer software, it's hard to tell the tools from the toys

To hear the reviewers tell it, home design software has come of age. Finally, users--computerspeak for you and me--have at their fingertips a tool powerful enough to transform those who can't draw a straight line, let alone remodel a house, into accomplished draftsmen and women--nay, into designers of sufficient skill as to make architects everywhere wish they'd chosen law school after all.

True, this software category appears to be booming. But are home design programs all they're cracked up to be? Indeed, are they as useful as a pencil, a sheet of grid paper, some stakes, and string? Or are these programs simply toys providing hours of amusement as we noodle away at a design, without getting us any closer to actually building something?

The definitive answer: it depends.

Recently, we ran our house mouse through every home design program we could get our hands on. (While we were doing our research, two new titles and an upgrade came into the office, so it's likely that there will be other products on the shelves in time for December's consumer feeding frenzy.) All of our studying, scrolling, sizing, and swearing led us to some insights about design programs in general, and the ones we fiddled with in particular. Here's what we found out.


Home design programs allow you to draw a straight line (so will a ruler); they'll tell you how long that line is (so will a ruler); they'll draw circles, chairs, and cherry trees (so will templates); and some will even give you a ballpark idea of how much your project will cost (so will the salesperson at your lumberyard). At best, these programs can do all these things at once (well, sort of), along with a host of other semiamazing tricks, all at a cost of $15 to $100. But does any of this necessarily bestow upon you full knowledge of the science of drafting, let alone the art of architecture? In a word, nope.

These products are basically menu-driven, object-oriented drawing programs; you can dump your ill-formed ideas onto the screen and then sort them out with the help of line snappers, shape generators, pattern- and colorfill options, and crude templates. Many programs include on-screen grids and rulers, zoom and adjustable scaling capabilities, automatic on-screen measuring features, architectural and electrical symbols, and some sort of help function for neophytes.

Printing a finished set of plans, though, is ultimately what these programs are about, and this is where the benefit of designing on computer is most evident. Not surprisingly, a printout generated by one of these programs will be infinitely cleaner and much more detailed than the best hand scribbles precisely because the myriad incarnations inherent in the design process are more easily manipulated on a computer than on paper. Want to see all 20 versions of the kitchen or living room of your dreams? Press a button and cross your fingers.

Which, ironically, is not to say that these products are necessarily time-savers. The learning curve on each can be formidable. As a rule, the bigger the project, the more sense it makes to invest the time it will take (and it will take time) to get up to speed on the software. Otherwise, home design by computer is a pretty arcane skill to acquire for rearranging the furniture.


We found certain features particularly useful. Multilayer capability lets you draw an aspect of a plan (a wiring scheme, a sprinkler layout), then mask or unmask it over the main plan as if it were an overlay on a blueprint. Drag-and-drop allows you to view a library of templates, any of which can be dragged onto your drawing and dropped into place. In the best programs, templates scale automatically to your plan and are easy to move, rotate, flip, and measure.

The ability to group and ungroup collections of objects is also helpful; sometimes you'll want to manipulate, say, the entire contents of a living room as opposed to just the sofa, the fireplace, etc. And if you popped for a color printer, be sure to check carefully the palettes and printing capabilities of your program--more choices are always better.

What you don't need are the alleged design tips and electronic galleries or magazines that (we can only guess) are supposed to be inspiring. Often, these sections within a program are little more than a framework for advertisements, and they are never a substitute for the advice of your architect or designer, for any number of free references in the public library, or for us (no false modesty here: we've published 90-plus books on home and garden remodeling).

As for the 3-D function that many of these programs tout as a selling point, it's largely a gimmick. Maybe we're spoiled by the state-of-the-art stuff on MTV, in magazines, and at the movies, but the 3-D views on most of these programs are so crude and take so long to generate as to be virtually useless. Besides, if you need 3-D to help you conceptualize a set of plans, you're probably going to be too frustrated by the programs to learn what you need to know to get to the point where you've put enough on the screen to even generate a 3-D view (in other words, if you have to read this sentence twice, forget it).


We test-drove 16 commonly available programs by eight software manufacturers; here are our impressions. Although we list retail prices, you should be able to find any of these products for less at most computer stores. Also, check the specs of the software carefully to make sure it will run on your machine. Particularly With the 3-D programs, power and speed work in inverse proportion to frustration.

Title: Design Your Own Home (Architecture, Interiors, Landscape)

Manufacturer: Abracadata Box 2440 Eugene, Ore. 97402 (800) 451-4871

Compatibility: Apple, DOS, Macintosh, Windows

Price: $60 to $100 each

The series consists of three programs, one each for architecture, interior design, and landscape design. In all but the architecture program, you can draw a floor plan, then view it in elevation. This isn't particularly helpful or impressive, however, since the drawing loses much in the transformation.

PROS: Tree ages can be edited so that you can watch your yard grow.

CONS: No drag-and-drop. Templates are few, elevations are crudely rendered.

Title: The Home Series Release 2 (Deck, Home, Kitchen & Bath, Landscape)

Manufacturer: Autodesk 11911 North Creek Pkwy S. Bothell, Wash. 98011 (800) 228-3601

Compatibility: DOS

Price: $70 each (upgrades are $25)

The newly upgraded Home Series is the best DOS product on the market--which isn't saying much. Its 3-D graphics are pretty good, as is its selection of 550 templates (although these are spread over four programs--no small investment). The programs are compatible not only with each other but with several professional drawing programs, including AutoCAD, Autodesk's to-the-trade supersoftware.

PROS: Good graphics. Plenty of templates (except in landscape program).

CONS: It's difficult to change template size. There are too many menus.

Title: Design & Build Your Deck

Manufacturer: Books That Work Sunset Books 80 Willow Rd. Menlo Park, Calif. 94025 (800) 321-0372 in California, 227-7346 elsewhere

Compatibility: Windows

Price: $80

This program covers everything you need to know to build a simple deck--from design to budgeting to construction techniques to tricks of the trade. For what it does, it's the most complete program on the market, although it is not without its limitations. Still, if you are building a rectangular or L-shaped single-level deck between 2 and 10 feet off the ground on a flat lot, this is the program for you.

PROS: 3-D effects are actually useful. Draw the deck in plan, and it shows you in 3-D how to frame it.

Program generates materials and expense list, even board-cutting diagrams, all of which change as you change your design.

CONS: The program can't accommodate multilevel decks, sloping lots, cutouts for trees, or angles other than 45 |degrees~ or 90 |degrees~.

Title: Floorplan Plus Family

Manufacturer: ComputerEasy 414 E. Southern Ave. Tempe, Ariz. 85282 (800) 522-3279

Compatibility: Macintosh, Windows

Price: $70 to $100

This basic, 2-D floor-planning program should be easy to use and fun to look at given its friendly Windows format. Inexplicably, though, the background on the Windows program defaults to a somber black, although you can change the color to suit your taste. Both programs offer limited palettes, and the furniture in both--consisting solely of line drawings--is also rather DOS-esque.

PROS: Onscreen help functions are thorough.

CONS: Difficult to manipulate templates.

Title: Complete House

Manufacturer: Deep River Publishing Box 9715-975 Portland, Maine 04104 (800) 643-5630

Compatibility: Windows

Price: $40

This was the only design program we tested on CD-ROM. With its segments on kitchen, bath, and house design, this program is organized more like a computerized decorating magazine than other programs.

PROS: Design segment is easy to use.

CONS: Choice of houses used to provide an instructive overview of current and historical architectural styles is puzzling.

Design segment has limited features and templates.

Title: myHouse 1.2

Manufacturer: DesignWare 17 Main St. Watertown, Mass. 02172 (800) 536-2596

Compatibility: DOS

Price: $85 (Deluxe Kitchen & Bathroom libraries add-on costs $20)

This all-in-one design program--you can design a house, the interiors, the roof, and even the landscaping--hangs its hat on its 3-D capabilities. While it is an undoubtedly sophisticated program, it's also difficult to learn and to use.

PROS: All elements (interiors, landscape, kitchen, and bath) come in one package.

CONS: 3-D mode is slow, inconvenient, and dreary in appearance.

Title: Expert Home Design Gold Edition

Manufacturer: Expert Software 800 Douglas Rd. Coral Gables, Fla. 33134 (800) 759-2562

Compatibility: DOS, Windows

Price: $50

Title: Expert Home Design

Compatibility: Macintosh

Price: $50

Title: Expert Landscape Design 1.0

Compatibility: Macintosh

Price: $50

Title: Expert Landscape

Compatibility: DOS

Price: $15

This comprehensive series of design programs runs the gamut from a sophisticated drag-and-drop floor planner at the high end to a basic but serviceable landscape planner at the bottom. The Macintosh versions are generally easier to use and more complete than their DOS or Windows counterparts. The Gold Edition's Design and Decorating Guide--which includes tips on choosing curtains and carpets--illustrates 25 sample houses for which you can actually order blueprints, which sort of defeats the purpose of the program.

PROS: The Gold Edition's graphics and its wall, window, rotation, and measuring tools were especially helpful.

CONS: Templates in DOS and Windows versions must be placed blindly, and then rearranged.

Title: Visio Home

Manufacturer: Shapeware Corporation 1601 Fifth Ave., Suite 800 Seattle 98101 (800) 446-3335

Compatibility: Windows

Price: $100

This fine drag-and-drop design program doesn't bother with 3-D gimmickry, concentrating instead only on floor plans. But its excellent graphics, sophisticated drawing tools, and user-friendly features make it the ideal program for the amateur designer. Visio Home will help you plan your new house, landscape the yard, remodel the kitchen, or just rearrange the furniture--and you'll have fun doing it.

PROS: Extensive library of templates includes French doors, a microwave, and a badminton court.

CONS: Range of colors and patterns isn't quite as extensive as some others.

Our parting advice: stay tuned; in a year, the software landscape will doubtedly be different.
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Title Annotation:includes shopping guide
Author:Crosby, Bill; Chrisman, Kimberly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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