Architecture software and program guide 2019

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Architecture programmes and software

The output and production of the architecture industry has been revolutionized, and continuously developed through technology and advancements in computer software. The way architect’s produce information has never been faster and more efficient, but this can only be achieved with the correct chose of (and best) software and with the right knowledge of how to use it.

Here we take a deep look into the various types and uses of architecture software, focusing on:

  • What is architecture software?

  • What is it used for?

  • Why is it useful?

  • Advantages and disadvantages of using architecture software

  • How can you learn

  • What types of programs do architects use

  • How to choose the right software

  • The best architecture software

  • Best free CAD and 3D programs

  • Best architectural visualization and rendering software

Scroll straight to the bottom of the page to view our list on the best software and program choices…

What is architecture software?

Before the development of computer-aided design (CAD) and architectural software, architects produced all their drawings, documents and models by hand. The process was slow and painstaking, and making an error would often mean having to start the whole task over again.

Today, technology has made things a lot easier by introducing tools that can be used to produce 2D and 3D drawings to a very high degree of accuracy.

Designing with architectural CAD Software is extremely fast, and even people with no architectural background can understand presentations and renders made using it. This is why architects have fully adopted to this way of working, and today, designing and planning buildings is entirely done on computers.

Architecture software has made the design process faster, where designers can now easily test ideas and form consistent project workflows. CAD has also enabled architects and their clients to visually experience designs before they are materialized.

BIM (Building Information Modelling) is another element of architecture software that acts as a tool through which designers can achieve greater control over design considerations, efficiencies and network collaboration.

What is it used for?

Architectural software and computer-aided drawing can be used for many different things. Other than architecture, CAD can also be applied in several other engineering professions such as civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.

Architectural design software also plays a significant role in game design, the creation of animated films, and also by graphic designers and other visual artists.

CAD comes in a few varied forms that can be applied differently when required within a specific project:

  • 2D CAD is used to create flat one dimensional drawings.

  • 2.5D CAD is CAD that lies somewhere between 2D and 3D. Objects produced here are prismatic or have some depth.

  • 3D CAD is used to create realistic presentations of what the design object will look like.

  • 3D Wireframe and Surface Modeling is used to create a skeleton representation of the design object.

  • Solid Modeling is used to create solid geometric objects. Here the software is able to calculate the exact dimensions of the design object.

CAD jobs/projects

CAD drafter: This is a person tasked with producing plans and technical drawings. The plans are used for architecture and engineering to communicate a finished design.

CAD technician: This is a broader field. It has people that produce architectural, mechanical, civil, electrical, pipeline and aeronautical plans. Here, layout diagrams are more complex. The drawings would include, communication centers, power plants, and even maps. Their work aids in all kinds of utility placements and construction projects.

The below photograph of the National Aquarium Denmark designed by Danish architectural practice 3XN is a perfect example of how technology and advancements in architecture software have provided limitless design approaches.

Designing a building such as this by hand, would be incredibly difficult!

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Why is it useful?

As shown above and by other architects such as Zaha Hadid, architecture software has helped to revolutionize modern day architecture and engineering, and enables architects to easily produce, develop and manage their projects.

In simple terms, CAD is useful because it assists architects in developing better products for their clients, through:

  • Architecture software has increased communication and collaboration among designers in the construction industry.

  • Drawing has become faster and more efficient. CAD is able to generate diagrams in many views such as front, side, back and even isometric. With these views, it is easy to convert 3D models into technical drawings for manufacturing purposes.

  • Presentations have become better. Clients can now get a clear picture of what a project will look and feel like once completed. This way they can make a better judgment of what to invest in.

  • Project management has also become better because of better communication and comprehensive documentation.

Erik from 30x40 Design Workshop describes in the below video the different uses and types of software that he uses, and when to use them:

Advantages and disadvantages of using architecture software

Architecture programs and software come with many advantages. Some of the main ones include:

  1. It creates ease in sharing data and data usage.

  2. It makes data storage and accessibility more efficient.

  3. With CAD software, drawing becomes faster with the ability to make quick modifications, additions or deletions.

  4. Architecture software improves drawing accuracy.

  5. Drawings cannot be damaged, lost, stolen or accidentally destroyed.

  6. Architecture software gives architects the ability to create virtual 3D drawings with ease.

  7. 3D drawings can be replicated almost instantly.

On the flip side, there are also several disadvantages that you need to make your peace with when using your chose program. Some of them include:

  1. Virus attacks that could cause data loss.

  2. Computer crashes and/or breaks.

  3. Computers can also easily be hacked.

  4. Some architecture programs are hard to learn.

  5. The cost of purchasing and maintaining software can be high.

Learning how to use your chosen software/program package

Having a good understanding of architecture software is not easy. It takes time and consistent hard work to understand just one of these programmes, and often you will need knowledge of a few. However, once you know them well, you will find that they can be a great asset to you as an aspiring creator.

Most people in the field of architecture, particularly students, often have very minimal exposure to these architectural programs prior to taking an architecture course. Most architecture schools do not have specific software classes to teach these design tools to their students. Instead, they rely on “total immersion”, where students are given assignments and projects that force them to use one or more of these CAD software programs.

This is arguably the best way to learn the software. By integrating them into your workflow while you are still in school, they become part of your process, where you gradually develop a better understanding of the ins and outs of each one of them.

However, it is very hard to become good at each and every item of architecture software. As you are learning, try to specialize in one or two popular programs and become extremely good at them. The learning curve then becomes smoother when you decide to add more software to your portfolio.

Here are a few more tips to help ease the learning process:

  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the program and use it within your workflow. Programs differ, some have strengths in certain areas that others don’t. When you learn such attributes, it is easier to produce great work.

  • Some terms may sound different but mean the same things. For example, in Cinema 4D ‘edge to spline’ means the same thing and has the same effect as ‘create a shape from selection’ in 3DS Max. If you have any questions, you can easily get answers from many forums and tutorials on the internet.

  • Do a lot of short tutorials that will help you have a clearer understanding of the programs. Just make sure that these tutorials do not eat into your time. For Photoshop learning, we has list of our favourite tutorials here.

  • Push yourself to your limits. Make sure you learn something new every day.

  • Find people to teach and learn from. You will learn a lot more when you share knowledge.

  • Get involved in projects, contribute and focus on new projects. The more you do, the more you learn.

What types of programs do architects use

Architects rely on computer software for practically everything they do. From conceptualization to 3D modelling, and image editing to presentations, specific programs play a major role in the architect’s work process. Very few programs are good at everything, so it is a good idea to have a few of these in your arsenal depending on what you need from each one.

Here are a few examples of programs that architects use:

The programs you use also directly influence how efficient your work is, from the design process itself to making corrections and even redoing entire projects.

Having access to great software favors better collaboration within a design team through the utilization of cloud-based systems. Optimized communication and collaboration will result in higher quality work. Programs that rely on BIM and cloud-based data storage and backup are perfect for this because all the work instantly becomes accessible to everyone in the design team.

The below video from “Show it better” outlines several of the main programmes:

How to choose the right software

There is a lot of chose when it comes architectural software. Choosing the right program to use can be a little daunting, especially if you are not completely sure whether you’ll be getting everything you need from just one software.

For many architects, selecting the software they’ll be using in their work is one of the first major decisions they make in their professional careers. Everything about their work from that moment on will revolve around that one choice, so it needs to be well thought out.

It can be tempting to choose the highest rated or most popular option. However, by doing so, you could end up with a very expensive software choice that you may not be able to afford at that moment.

So which software should you go for? Well, here are a few factors you need to keep in mind when making your decision:

  • Functionality

    • What do you want to get from the software? Are you going to be using it primarily as a design and conceptualization tool? Do you need a presentation tool? Or perhaps a rendering program? These needs will be met differently by different programs, so you need to know what you are looking for before choosing a program that suits you.

  • Learning curve

    • Most architectural programs have very steep learning curves, meaning it may take a while to get completely comfortable with them if you are a complete beginner. However, there are a few programs that are easier to learn, and can act as a launching pad to other more complicated programs. A good example is Google SketchUp, which you can learn and be great at within a week or less.

  • Cost

    • There are free programs and there are paid programs. The free programs are not necessarily bad, and the paid programs are not always good. So do your research, read reviews, and decide to get the type of program you can afford.

  • Compatibility

    • As an architect, you will be working in collaboration with many other fellow architects and professionals. The programs you use need to be compatible with the programs they use. Using a program that only works for you and no one else will only end up slowing the rest of the team down.

  • Industry norms

    • You should also consider what is being used by other industry professionals. Are there specific software types that your architecture school or firm specifically requires you to learn? What are some of the most popular programs in your country, city or locale? What are the big firms using? Which programs are in high demand? Finding all this out will also help drive your choice of software.

  • The type of computer you have

    • The more powerful your computer is, the more options you have in terms of software choices. Most architecture programs require powerful computer specifications and graphics in order to run. If your system cannot support them, there is no need to get them.

    • For an in-depth look into computer specifications, we have a guide here

  • Your own personal preference

    • What are you comfortable with? What programs have you used before? Would you prefer something that was specifically designed for beginners? Knowing what you want personally and simply just going for something you are comfortable with will make the process of choosing a program go a lot faster.

The best architecture software and programs…

Following on from the above, here we have listed what we consider to be the most popular and highly regarded architecture drawing, 3D, and information software and programs currently available:

Autodesk CAD

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This is a 2D and 3D CAD program, that has for a long time been an industry standard where it is used by many architecture firms throughout the world. There are several different versions available, where even the LT version will cater for most architectural requirements.

SketchUp

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SketchUp is one of the best 3D architecture software programs available simply due to its incredibly intuitive and simple to use interface. It’s capable of producing simple and quick concept and design development models, through to complex and detailed buildings suitable for architectural visualizations and presentations.

The application allows surface rendering, layout functionality, and supports 3rd party plugins which are all freely available from the SketchUp Extension Warehouse.

There is also a free 3D model warehouse that promotes the sharing and downloading of 3D models to populate your designs.

Rhino

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Rhino 3D, also known as ‘Rhinoceros 3D’, is a CAD software best known for its ability to create organic and fluid forms, and for this reason it is both popular in architecture and product design.

Rhinio’s ability to create curved forms means it provides a very specific tool set that most other 3D applications cannot provide. It is however also very specific to certain architectural styles and if you’re not an aspiring Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava, then there are simpler and more diverse programs to use.

Revit

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This is a robust architectural documentation/design software created by Autodesk for architects and building professionals. Its tools are specially designed to accommodate BIM workflows.

Revit is able to create intelligent models that represent entire virtual buildings and structures, from wall and floor build ups, through to service integration and specifications.

These models are stored in a single file database which allows changes made in one section of the model to be updated or propagated in other parts of the same model. This makes it one of the best architectural programs for collaborative work.

ArchiCAD

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Produced by Graphisoft, Archicad is another BIM originated program that provides an all in one package from 2D and 3D drawing through to window schedules and specifications.

When compared to AutoCAD and/or SketchUp, the ability to work simultaneously in both 2D and 3D at the same time, is very powerful …which is something neither the other two can provide.

It is available in 27 languages and versions optimized specifically for individual local markets, so they are all different. Each software is a stand-alone software, meaning it can be used independently.

ArchiCAD is tightly integrated into Graphisoft’s ecosystem, you can find more solutions such as BIMx and BIMcloud on the ecosystem. Because of these, work becomes enjoyable, efficient and there’s smooth collaboration in an open BIM workflow.

Vectorworks

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Vectorworks is similar to Revit and ArchiCAD in that it is built for BIM, however out of the three tends to be the most cost efficient.

It has excellent 2D and 3D drafting capabilities, and beats most programmers in terms graphical output, and like the above two programs, provides an all in one package for information output and presentation.

Photoshop

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Although not specifically designed for architects, knowing how to use Photoshop is a vital skill for any architect or student, it used on a daily basis by most if not all architectural firms.  

We have a full Photoshop guide for architects here

Photoshop is used for image processing and editing, architectural visualizations, and to edit and fix scanned information …to name a few

InDesign

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This is a great layout program for creating items such as booklets and large presentations sheets. Here, objects can easily be arranged into presentable forms like shapes, texts, and images. The program is also good at document creation for documents such as portfolios and resumes.

It goes well with other apps like Photoshop and Illustrator which are part of Adobe Creative Cloud. Illustrations and images are usually built in secondary apps then assembled into a layout in InDesign.

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Best free architecture software and programs

In truth, when it comes to finding the best free architectural software, other than the free version of SketchUp (which does have limitations), there isn’t one. At least not one that is suitable for the architecture profession.

There are however many student and trial versions available.

These can be useful for many reasons, for example, you may want to experiment with the architecture software to get a feel for what it is like before committing to something more robust. Or you may be a student looking for a type of software that is easy and convenient for learning.

Whichever the case, having free trial versions available can be really useful, and fortunately most of the programs listed here provide that service.

Best 3D architectural visualization and rendering software

It’s very rare and uncommon for a finished design to not be accompanied by an architectural visualization, as CGI’s (computer generated imagery) now play a huge role in the communication and presentation of architecture.

If you want the best work, you have to be using the best rendering software. At the end of it all, besides having created great drawings, the renders play a key roll in the schemes communication.

With this in mind, the below list provides some of the best 3D and rendering software for designers/architects on the market today:

Autodesk 3ds Max

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When it comes to the best architectural rendering software, there are firstly two programs required no matter what renderer you choose to use.

The first is a designated 3D and animation program that has the ability to support other rendering software (plugins), and the second is the rendering software itself.

3ds Max and Cinema 4D (below) are the two most popular 3D modeling programs that architecture visualizers use, with 3ds max being the most popular, but also the most expensive

Cinema 4D

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Cinema 4D is a great product from maxon designed to suit the needs of professional 3D artists. This software helps artists create advanced graphics in 3D, quickly and easily. Apart from being powerful, the software is also easy to learn. Artists can achieve jaw-dropping results within a very short time.

Its reliability makes it great for demanding, fast-paced production. It comes with attractively priced packages that are ideal for any artist’s demands. Its interface is logically arranged and makes it easy for new comers to get right in and take control. There are countless tutorials and a highly skilled community that play a huge role in nurturing beginners to a professional level.

It is easy to stay flexible from the beginning to the end of projects when using Cinema 4D. this software offers textures, procedural shaders, parametric modeling and more for working non-destructively. It also allows users to manage and save multiple versions of a scene in one file.

V-ray

This software is great for photoreal visualization. V-ray is a plug-in that can transform your ArchiCAD and SketchUp models into nice renderings. Its features allow it to recreate very accurate representations and great depth quality of real-world conditions for your project.

V-ray has a vast material library and extensive resources that provide designers with a great selection of options in surfaces, realistic textures, and lights - it simply takes architecture and design to the next level. It is the perfect way to impress your tutors and clients by literary putting them in the virtual spaces you are designing.

Lumion

Lumion is a powerful intuitive software with plenty of tools that allow designers to build beautiful 3D imagery, live walkthroughs, and impressive video presentations. Lumion provides one of the fastest ways for architects and designers to take their 3D models and transform them into rendered scenes in a matter of minutes. Apart from being powerful, this software is also easy and fun to use.

Lumion is fast at rendering high-quality videos and still images, and you can import 3D models from several other 3D modeling software like SketchUp, AutoCAD, Revit, ArchiCAD, 3ds Max and many more. Lumion also enables you to show how the surroundings of the project will look like at different times of the day and even seasons. With this software, you will significantly reduce rendering times from many days to a few hours.

Corona renderer

Corona renderer is a relatively new software, but has quickly established itself as one of the leading tools in arch viz, with plugins available in both 3ds max and Cinema 4D.

Its comes with its own lighting system and material library, and unlike Vray is incredibly easy to use out of the box, with its accompanying YouTube channel that is full with useful tutorials.

Corona’s philosophy is to remove the requirement to learn the mechanics of the programme, so the artist can concentrate solely on the composition, lighting and atmosphere of the image …which it does very well.

Octane Render

Octane render is a very fast GPU-accelerated renderer. The software supports 25+ content creation tools from Cinema 4D, Houdini to Maya. Its Creator for Unity and Studio both come with a variety of plugins which you can rotate monthly. Octane also broadens Unity’s rendering capabilities by introducing physics-based rendering.