Architectural Software - What Are My Options?

Architectural software comes in many different types, prices, features, and quality. I won't talk about all of your options here, as there are literally dozens of different small, inexpensive programs available at your local software depot.

Instead, I will focus on the major players in the architectural software market for design professionals. This will also be useful for beginner designers...especially those who may want to share (or pass-on) their files to an architect or engineer without having compatibility issues.

Here are some of the most popular architectural software programs available, along with my comments, based on my 13 years of experience working with some of them. These programs are widely used in design firms all over the nation, but can also be used by everyday consumers, as well.

  • Microstation
  • Archicad
  • Chief Architect
  • SketchUp
  • AutoDesk Products, such as AutoCad, AutoCAD LT, Revit, VIZ, 3ds Max, AutoSketch, Maya, and other plugins and add-ons.
Below are some descriptions and comments about the list above...

Microstation

Many who are die-hard microstation users will quickly point out that it is a much more stable platform to work with, as opposed to the industry standard AutoCad. Many suggest that it is much easier to deal with, and that the programmers did many things much more intelligently in their architectural software design, as it relates to user experience.

One glaring problem is this...
Even IF microstation is a better program than AutoCAD, it's still got some major flaws for the end user. The first and most critical flaw, is the fact that it only comprises about 5-10% of the architectural software market. Therefore, if the software is not COMPLETELY compatible in BOTH DIRECTIONS, this poses workflow problems for our design team...and yes, it has some serious compatibility issues with AutoCAD.

No matter how much Microstation users want to deny it, there ARE compatibility issus, especially if you use x-refs and images/OLE objects in your AutoCAD drawings. When someone opens your AutoCAD files in Microstation, often the x-ref's become unviewable, and the user will then need to contact the architect to either "bind" his drawings into one drawing, or other similar method. OR, they will have to convert the drawings themselves. As an architect, this is not practical.

You can find more information about Bentley's Microstation on their website at http://www.bentley.com.

Archicad

Archicad is more of an all-around 2d/3d application that is intended to provide a total project output, including modeling & rendering, as well as 2 dimensional construction documents. Changes made to the model are updated in all views, such as plans, elevations, 3d model, etc.

Archicad stores all the information about the building in a central database; changes made in one view are updated in all others, including floor plans, sections/elevations, 3D models and bills of material.

Although I do not personally have experience with Archicad, they are definitely making an impact in the architectural software industry, however still only occupying a very small percentage of the market. One thing I am not so sure about, is the single database file structure.

My concern is that I need to be able to delegate different responsibilities to different team members, and if only one person can be working on the file at a time, then this poses a major workflow problem. It is possible that Graphisoft (the makers of Archicad) has addressed this, you can find out more information about their product on their website at http://www.graphisoft.com.

Chief Architect

Chief Architect is one of the leading software products for residential design. Since my business is 99.9% commercial, I cannot speak to it's effectiveness, but I do know they have marketed the product well. The graphics are limited, with respect to the more expensive competition, but it seems to provide a very acceptable output from that perspective.

I tried a demo about 12 years ago, and quickly realized it's limitations in architectural software design for commercial projects, so I have not pursued it for our design purposes.

You can find more information here at their website... http://www.chiefarchitect.com.

SketchUp

SketchUp is becoming extremely popular and more well-known, especially now that Google has purchased the software rights. We use SketchUp often to convey design ideas to our clients, as well as within our design team.

It's ease of use, and ability to quickly generate 3-dimensional representations of building design, make it a very useful piece of architectural software. It's rendering capabilities are limited, compared to 3ds Max, but the price tag is proportional. SketchUp will not break your bank account, whereas 3ds Max is only affordable if you are really making some good money from your 3d modeling efforts

I highly recommend this product. You can get more information at http://www.sketchup.com.

AutoCAD

AutoCad, by AutoDesk, is the standard by which all CAD software programs are compared...not because it's necessarily a better program, but because it occupies, by far, the greatest market-share for professionals than any other CAD software program available.

In fact, for the 13+ years that I've been using AutoCad (since version 10), only about 5% of our consultants or other design professionals have used anything other than AutoCad, or other AutoDesk products. You can find a link to a large selection of AutoDesk products at http://architecturalsoftware.jdlarchitects.com.

Now, of course, AutoDesk will tell you that this IS because their program is superior to the others. This may be the case, but you will get differing opinions from all sorts of designers, architects, and engineers. Many of the complaints, including my own, are that AutoCad is not very user-friendly. This is definitely the case.

The program is so powerful, that it could take someone decades to master it's features. Often, it is so much easier to just use the features you know, than to keep digging into it's vast feature sets...you could literally spend all of your time trying to learn all of the programs features, but you would never get any real work done.

That being said, I have used AutoCad for 13+ years now, and if it is used correctly, with the proper sheet setups and reference files, your workflow can be as efficient as with any architectural software product.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, even if there are debatable issues about architectural software quality and user-friendliness, it just doesn't make sense to me, to use anything other than AutoDesk's products. I may not be enthused about it, but I have to ensure that my workflow is efficient. The unnecessary hoops to jump through when using CAD software that only 5% of the world is utilizing, is not practical.

I want my file structure to be maintained on my consultant's end, and since the design process requires back-and-forth transferring of files throughout the process (sometimes dozens or even hundreds of times on large projects), it is obviously an unacceptable solution if you have compatibility issues to deal with.

Yes, there are plenty of design teams fighting their way through this process, but the problem is that their upper management, on the average, are not savvy enough to current software applications to care about "how" their production happens...they just care that it gets done. What they don't realize, is that if they implemented proper workflow usage of architectural software, they could save literally hundreds of man-hours on each job.

Jud Leonard, AIA, is the President and CEO of Jud Leonard Architects, Inc., located in Dallas, TX. Mr. Leonard has over 13 years of experience using architectural software for commercial projects. You can view this article and more about his firm at http://architecturalsoftware.jdlarchitects.com