A Look Back at Home-Design Software in the 1990s

Home-design computer software has finally graduated from gimmick to tool.

| April/May 1999

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    There is no shortage of home-design software available to the DIYer.
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    Sierra's combination 2-D and 3-D design screen.
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    Left: A walking tour of your kitchen using Sierra's CompleteHome. Right: A hovering 3-D view, using Bob Vila's Home Design.
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    All three programs allow the user to conduct detailed floor plans.
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    An unexpected bonus in all these programs is the ability to design a deck, including cost estimates, for your home. Above is Sierra's 3D Deck; at left is Planix's Deck 3D.

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Several weeks ago, I was wandering the aisles of CompUSA, checking out the new computer gaming titles, when a curious thought struck me:

What are in all those other aisles? Feeling adventuresome, I headed over to the productivity software section, where I was immediately taken aback by the myriad of do-it-yourself programs available to the average consumer. I discovered software for preparing taxes and writing musical compositions, auto repair and diagnosing your own health ailments. It was interesting to think that the solutions to most everyday problems are, apparently, no more than a few mouse clicks away. One particular group of products that caught my immediate attention was the home-design packages. Why these products, you ask? Well, you should know that I am, by trade, an architect. Imagine my surprise as I perused one of the box covers and noticed drawings of detailed floor plans and interior room furniture layouts and 3-D renderings and backyard decks and landscaped yards and ...wow, what an amazing package! I must admit, however, that my initial reaction was one of skepticism. As an architect, I know how difficult and time-consuming it can be to design anything, even someone's residence. It requires thorough planning and meticulous attention to detail. Could these home-design packages stand up to the test? I decided to find out.

I started by gathering several of what seemed to be the most popular homedesign titles. This included Sierra's CompleteHome, Autodesk's Planix Home Designer 3D Deluxe, and Compton's Bob Vila's Home Design.  

As I began my investigation, one of my first questions was: Just how user-friendly are these products? Would it take an architect to run them or could anybody use these programs? I work daily with a computer-aided design package known as AutoCAD, a high-end, accurate drafting and design tool that requires months to learn and years to master. To the professional, it is the perfect design tool. But in terms of both capability and complexity, it's probably a bit more program than the average consumer needs or is willing to learn. For most amateur designers, simplicity and ease of use are key.

That said, no program, even the do-it-yourself variety, is going to be a complete no-brainer. With this in mind, the first thing you should do before purchasing a package is determine what your exact design intentions are, as well as what you will expect the software to do. This is important because, while these products might appear alike, their individual approaches to design are somewhat different. Your ability to use these design tools successfully will, to some extent, depend on your computer expertise and patience at learning a new skill. Probably the best way to get information on the particulars of any one of these products is by searching out its Web page on the Internet. The vast amount of information available to you online will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration.

Digital Drawing

I decided to take each product through the typical design process, starting with the drawing of floor plans, then adding doors, windows, furniture, staircases, decks, and roofs, and finishing with a 3-D walk-around of the final design.

Right out of the gate, the product I found to be the easiest and most fun to use was Sierra's CompleteHome. The major difference between this product and the others has to do with what I would call its "drawing tool." It's the virtual implement you use to actually draw walls and rooms on the screen and, though every design program's got one, each handles it a bit differently. For example, when drawing walls in a product like AutoCAD, it is necessary to draw every single line—inside, outside, and each end of the wall are all drawn individually. With CompleteHome, on the other hand, you simply type in the desired room sizes when prompted and the program draws the room's walls for you. It will then place your various rooms on a layout toolbar so that you can drag and drop them onto the drawing field. If you want to change the size of any of these rooms, you can either click on that particular room and stretch it, or use the edit dialog box to pick individual walls, access their spec sheet, and type in new sizes. This method allows the user to make design decisions quickly and easily, without having to do a lot of work.

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