Home design software can help, but it’s not enough…

Go into any large bookstore or computer store, and you’ll see an astounding number of computer software programs for home remodelers. And I know that people are buying these programs to help themselves design their own remodeling project. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more clients coming to me with computer-drafted sketches, rather than the crude pencil sketches I’m used to seeing.

Are these software programs valuable? Do they really allow you easily draft your own design?

Well, yes and no.

There are some benefits to having clients use this type of software. First, it gets them started thinking about their project from a planning perspective. It’s a great training exercise for floor plan visualization.

Second, I think it gives people an appreciation for what an architect really does. And the plans that get generated are great tools for discussion between a client and a designer.

My big concern, though, is that this type of software can make a naive remodeler overconfident. It’s very easy to become seduced by nicely drafted plans (especially when you’ve done them yourself), and emotionally buy into ideas that aren’t really all that good. It’s very hard to talk clients out of a mediocre floor plan that they’ve been fine-tuning over the past year or two.

A homeowner can suddenly draw better and faster than she’s ever drawn before, and she can also make mistakes much faster.

The software won’t tell you which of your designs make sense structurally, which ones are more energy efficient, which ones are more compatible with the existing architecture, or which ones are more cost-effective. The software merely draws lines. It still takes an experienced and knowledgeable brain to know which of the lines are good ones and which aren’t.

I think the best approach to using this type of software is to use it to help you understand and evaluate designs that have been proposed by a professional. The software is also great for trying out different furniture arrangements in a room.

I was chatting socially with a physician the other day. When he found out I was an architect, he started gushing about how wonderful the remodeling software was that he’d just found, how easily it let him plan his own home remodeling, and he ended with “Why, you hardly even need an architect!” I said, “What an amazing coincidence! I’ve just found this ‘Home Doctor’ program that asks you about your symptoms, and then tells you possible causes. Why, you hardly even need a doctor!” He suddenly got very quiet and smiled. He understood.

So take the software developer’s claims that you can easily design your own project with a grain of salt. Owning the software won’t make you any more of an architect than owning a scalpel will make you a surgeon. But you can start participating in your project’s design more actively. And that’s a good thing, from my point of view.

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