Press Release

Sunday, April 10, 1994 < Prev Next >

Virtual Home

OVER THE PAST TWO months, I have completed an attic studio, created a new home office, built a two-room vacation cabin and even drafted plans for the first floor of a house. My industriousness might raise eyebrows, considering that I can't draw and don't have an architecture degree. But the big catch is that none of the projects are real -- well, they're virtually real. They are the fruits of a foray into the world of CAD (short for Computer-Aided Design, though to me it sometimes stood for Crazy, Absurd Data). In the process, I have often felt like Alice falling down the tunnel to Wonderland, except that I haven't been following a rabbit, but a mouse.

CAD, which over the past 15 years has allowed many architects to replace their drafting tables with computers, is now moving steadily from the professional office into the home. A host of software packages with names like "My House," "Design & Build Your Deck" and "Visio Home" offer nonprofessionals the means to design everything from furniture layouts to new kitchens to entire houses; some even calculate all the costs entailed. Many of the software packages now come with three-dimensional capability, so that with a click of the mouse, you can see your design from a variety of angles. It's a little bit like entering a cartoon you've drawn yourself, as in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

And this is only the beginning. "You're apt to see the software becoming more sophisticated because it lends itself to the multimedia features of the new computers," says Chris O'Malley, a contributing editor who coordinates computer and software coverage for Popular Science magazine. "A full-motion video of your future home is what the next generation of computer software will do."

Surprisingly, the current CAD packages are quite affordable, with most listing for under $150 and some for as little as $14.95. What is needed is a personal computer powerful enough to run them. Most of the programs require, at a minimum, a 386 I.B.M. processor or an SE-level Macintosh with a hard drive. Some ask for as much as four megabytes of RAM. All assume high-level graphics capabilities. (The most elegant programs come in Microsoft Windows or Macintosh versions, though MS-DOS home-design software also exists.)

With these packages, your computer screen is essentially your blank sheet of paper; the mouse functions as your pencil. You can create floor plans by moving the mouse and pulling down menus filled with various options. (You might be asked, for example, to choose from a variety of wall thicknesses or window heights, or to type in your own specifications.) But the most fun, I found, was to fill these hypothetical rooms with fixtures and furnishings selected from the software's "libraries" of symbols -- mini-renderings of everything from sofas and vanity tables to kitchen cabinets and bathtubs. Windows and Mac software allow you to "drag and drop" these items into your drawings by clicking on them with the mouse, then pulling them into the floor plan and putting them in place. (The key is having software that allows you to easily align the furnishings and the walls.) The manufacturers claim that when you're finished, you can export the plans to an architect's professional-level program, or print them out and hand them over to your contractor as is. But will you be greeted with a pat on the back or just a laugh? (In my own case, I already knew the answer.) According to O'Malley, it depends.

"With the predrawn symbols and drawing tools, there's no doubt this software allows average homeowners to do things they would not ordinarily be able to do," he says. Still, it's unlikely that home-computer-generated blueprints would be your finished plans. "There are a host of problems these programs can't assess," O'Malley explains, "such as building codes and certain cost factors. The best scenario is to take these plans as a good starting point."

I began at the very beginning, attempting one basic plan or tutorial for each of five software packages. My assessments follow. (All prices listed are suggested retail; actual store prices are usually lower.)

3D Home Architect, from Broderbund Software, (800) 521-6263. Format: Windows. $59.95.

This new software package, released last October, was my favorite. Like most of the packages operating on Windows, it offers a "tool bar": a strip of icons that appear on the computer screen, with each symbol representing a particular command. Whereas some tool bars look like Egyptian hieroglyphics, the symbols on this one actually bear some relationship to their functions, such as a miniature door for the command to install a door. And when you point the mouse at an icon, a message flashes above it telling you its purpose.

Drawing walls is also easy -- the sine qua non for success with any of these programs. You click on the wall-mode tool, then draw a line with the mouse; the length of the wall is registered as you draw it, much as a car's speedometer indicates your speed as you press the accelerator. The software assumes that most homeowners are going to be dealing with walls of standard type and thickness, and automatically inputs them this way (though you can choose other specifications if you wish).

What I found best about the program was what is known in the business as "smart technology" (which may be a nice way of saying "dumb operator," but I appreciate politeness). You don't have to make walls fit exactly: When you begin drawing one near another, the software automatically clicks them together at a perfect right angle. Similarly, if you want to put a window in the wall, the program places it where a window would logically go, not two feet out into the garden or three inches inside the kitchen.

This smart technology also extends to furnishings. When I was choosing bathroom fixtures for a two-room cabin in the tutorial, I attempted to drop in a corner shower stall; the screen flashed me a message telling me the space I'd allotted was too small. It was also pleasant to have large libraries of furnishings (over 200 symbols, plus color palettes), with a little 3-D view of each object provided on screen as I selected it. There's even a function called "PlanCheck," which will review your final design for errors.

Overall, 3D Home Architect lives up to its name: You can view your design three-dimensionally from any point you choose and select an "Overview" perspective that allows you to look down on it as if you were hovering overhead in a helicopter.

Floorplan Plus 3D, from Computer Easy, (800) 522-3219. Format: Windows. $149.95.

This Windows program is a newly released top-of-the-line version of the manufacturer's less expensive Floorplan Plus software for DOS and Macintosh. It incorporates some of the same principles as 3D Home Architect, with a tool bar and pull-down menus. It does not have smart technology, a lack that Computer Easy actually makes a selling point, alluding darkly in its promotional material to " 'built-in intelligence' that sometimes may insult your own." (Personally, when it comes to computer software, I like having my intelligence insulted.) The advantage is that you have complete liberty to design freehand: to draw at odd angles, create curved walls and sketch furniture you hope may end up in the Museum of Modern Art. The disadvantage is that you need the basic skills to attempt these things in the first place. I was totally inept at making the bar stool described in the tutorial.

Otherwise, I found the tutorial relatively simple: adding an attic studio to an existing blueprint. But I missed smart technology when I tried to draw floor plans on my own; it was much harder to get a perfect rectangle on the first try. And while Floorplan Plus 3D comes with a prodigious array of furniture and fixture symbols (which you can also modify), I found it annoying that it took two steps rather than one to drop a furniture or fixture symbol into the plan -- usually in the wrong place, since nothing here aligns itself automatically and must be rotated, flipped or otherwise manipulated to get it right. As for the 3-D capacity, although the program comes with a lot of bells and whistles -- such as the ability to adjust the lighting and angle of viewing -- the objects appear as three-dimensional line drawings that look solid only when you click on the "Shade" icon.

Home Series, from Autodesk, (800) 228-3601. Format: DOS. $69.95 each.

Manufactured by one of the largest CAD software companies in the United States, the Home Series is one of the oldest and most widely available consumer packages. Still, I did not find it easy.

Comprising four separate software packages -- Home, Kitchen & Bath, Deck and Landscape -- the Home Series also allows you to draw at odd angles and create your own basic geometric symbols. There are three methods of inputting walls, although I still found the basic "pull the cursor and click" mode the simplest. In the absence of smart technology, you have to use a separate command to make sure that corners are clean and lines are perpendicular.

Because this software runs on DOS, the graphics aspects are less than glittering. There is no tool bar, which makes executing the menu commands more time-consuming, and the symbols available in the fixture and furnishings libraries are sketchy. The software does offer 3-D views, though in the program I sampled -- Kitchen & Bath -- the results were less punchy and took longer to generate than those of Windows- and MAC-based software.

My worst difficulty was in placing objects on the floor plan. I would have appreciated clearer guidance from the manual. On the plus side, the software makes it easy to undo errors. The "Oops" option will erase your work step by step every time you click on it, as opposed to similar functions in other programs that undo only your latest error.

Expert Home Design Gold, from Expert Software, (800) 759-2562. Format: DOS, Windows or CD-ROM. $49.95.

Expert's Gold edition is the more advanced version of its basic Home Design program, which, at $14.95, is the best-selling home-improvement software in the United States. The Gold edition -- also among the top 10 sellers -- offers commands that seem beautifully simple until you actually start to draw. In the tutorial, you create an entire rectangle at once, rather than four separate walls. As you move the mouse, a measurement bar on the screen registers the length and width: What this means is that you're trying to fix the X and Y coordinates of an area simultaneously with one movement of the hand -- no problem if you have a microsurgeon's manual dexterity. I don't. After several attempts at drawing a 30-foot-by-50-foot box -- and ending up with odd measurements like 29.72 feet by 48.11 feet -- I was ready to throw the mouse across the room. (Later, the manual explains that it is possible to draw walls separately, which would seem a much better method for a beginner.) It was no easier to draw interior walls -- one tiny shift in pressure and my straight line became jagged. As for the standard operation of placing a window, I really wished the program had done it automatically. Positioning the cursor exactly "in the middle of the exterior wall line," as the manual advised, was like trying to hit a tiny bull's-eye with a dart.

To its credit, the software does offer a series of menus for choosing color palettes, wall thicknesses and the like, as well as a library of some 125 furniture and fixture symbols (you can also customize them or draw your own) to be dragged and dropped into the floor plan. Somewhat puzzling was the inability to view the overall design in 3-D, especially since this option is available in the $14.95 version. The Gold edition also comes with 25 ready-made home plans on disk that you can edit, revise or simply order if you decide that you're not cut out to do this kind of thing yourself.

Macinteriors, from Microspot, (800) 622-7568. Format: Macintosh. $129.

This software is geared to designing rooms rather than entire houses. (Others of this ilk include Expert's Home Design for Macintosh and Abracadata's Design Your Own Home: Interiors for Windows.) Capable of running on any Mac with a minimum of 2 MB RAM, it provides a basic tutorial that helps you design a sample home office with all the appropriate furnishings, from desks, files and a computer monitor, down to a potted plant and a picture. With clear instructions and wide-ranging 3-D views, it was another favorite of mine.

Especially helpful are the drawing sequences, which allow you to type in exact measurements on the keyboard. If you click on the fixtures icon, for instance, and then draw a line, the software will ask you if your intent is to install a door or a window and will then provide spaces for you to fill in the dimensions. This relieves some of the usual dependence on the mouse; in fact, the entire program is notable for providing so many keyboard alternatives to mouse commands. The furniture and fixture library is large (over 100 items) and gives you the option of modifying the choices or drawing new ones. If you do decide to change your cabinet from a standard to a custom size, the price difference will be reflected in the cost listing the program generates for your design. There is also a hint of smart technology -- bookcases automatically snap against the walls -- though you will not be prevented from making mistakes like putting a swivel chair on top of a desk. (When I made this error, I then had to rotate and move the object with the mouse.) But the result was a nifty office, in full color with the floor and ceiling of my choice. Too bad I don't have one at home.

The New York Times

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