Architecture programs and design 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 choice of (and the best) software, and with the right knowledge of how to use it.
That’s not to say that this software is limited to just architects, as for example interior designers, landscape architects, architectural visualizers and engineers also all use these programs.
For those in a hurry and for quick reference, are top recommendations are as follows:
Best For 2D Drafting – Autodesk CAD
Best For 3D Modeling – SketchUp
Best For 2D and 3D Integration – ArchiCAD
Best For BIM and Team Working – Revit
Best For 3D Architectural Animation – Lumion
Best For Architectural Rendering – Corona Render
Best For Image Editing – Adobe Photoshop
Best For Text and Image Organization and Presentation – InDesign
In this guide we take a deep look into the various types, uses and outputs of architecture software, aiming to highlight the importance of selecting the right software that best benefits you and and workflow, discussing;
- What is architecture software?
- What is it used for?
- Why is it useful?
- Advantages and disadvantages of using it
- How can you learn and improve your skills?
- What types of programs do architects use?
- How to choose the right software
- What are the best architecture software options?
- The best free CAD and 3D modeling programs
- The best architectural visualization and rendering programs
- How to choose the right computer for your choices
Scroll straight to the bottom of the page to view our list and review of the best architecture software and program choices…
What is architecture software?
Before the development of computer-aided design software (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 the presentations and renders made using it.
This has lead to architects fully adopting 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 Modeling) is another element of architecture software that provides a tool through which designers can achieve greater control over architectural design considerations, efficiencies and network collaboration.
What is architecture software 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 software 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 that are typically floor plans, elevations and sections.
- 2.5D CAD is CAD that lies somewhere between 2D drafting and 3D modeling. 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 software jobs/projects
CAD draftsman: This is a person tasked with producing floor 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 architectural design approaches.
Designing a building such as this by hand, would be incredibly difficult!
Why is architecture software 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 software 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 30×40 architectural Design Workshop describes in the video below the different uses and types of software that he uses, and when to use them:
Advantages and disadvantages of using architecture software
The best architecture software and programs come with many advantages. Some of the main ones include:
- It creates ease in sharing data and data usage.
- It makes data storage and accessibility more efficient.
- With CAD software, drawing becomes faster with the ability to make quick modifications, additions or deletions.
- Architecture software improves drawing accuracy.
- Drawings cannot be damaged, lost, stolen or accidentally destroyed.
- Architecture software gives architects the ability to create virtual 3D drawings with ease.
- 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 chosen program. Some of which include:
- Virus attacks that could cause data loss.
- Computer crashes and/or breaks.
- Computers can also easily be hacked.
- Some architecture programs are hard to learn.
- 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 programs, 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 have a list of our favorite 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 software/programs do architects use?
As architects we rely on computer software for the vast majority of what we do.
From conceptualization to 3D modeling, 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:
- AutoCAD Architecture
- AutoCAD Civil 3D
- Chief Architect
- 3D Studio Max
- Adobe Photoshop
The programs you use also directly influence how efficient your work is, from the architectural 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 programs:
What is architectural design software
Not all the programs and software architects use are design software, and in fact this actually plays a relatively small part in the market.
For us, specific design software is a tool that aids in a projects development and communication, which for example, SketchUp is very good at.
SketchUp has the ability and allows architects to produce quick developments and concepts, through to detailed final models that are ready for rendering, all at the same time as providing a platform that a complete novice can learn to navigate within minutes.
Paired with its free online version, this makes it one of the ultimate 3D design software packages available.
However, whether you use SketchUp or not, good design software must improve and aid your process. Programs such as Revit and ArchiCAD are production and building information tools, not design tools.
How to choose the right architecture software package
There is a lot of choice when it comes to 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 and end up regretting.
So which software should you go for? Well, here are a few factors you need to keep in mind when making your decision:
- What do you want to get from the software? Are you going to be using it primarily as an architectural 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 of this is SketchUp, which you can learn and be relatively efficient at within a week or less.
- 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.
- 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 design software and programs currently available:
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.
Used predominantly to create floor plans, elevations and sections, there are several different versions available, where even the LT licence will cater for most architectural requirements.
- Easy to learn interface
- Highly regarded across multiple industries
- Efficient keyboard shortcuts
- Autodesk integration
- For some, specific training may be required
- Not BIM or Revit integration
- 3D functions cumbersome
SketchUp is one of the best 3D modeling and design software/programs available for architecture, simply due to its incredibly intuitive and easy 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 architectural designs.
- Free online version available to all
- Very easy to learn
- Intuitive user interface
- Commonly used across multiple industries
- Free 3D model warehouse
- Various plugins and extra available to download
- No built-in rendering software
- Not a collaborative tool
- Visual graphics could be improved
Rhino 3D, also known as ‘Rhinoceros 3D’, is a CAD based design 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 modeling applications cannot provide.
- Very powerful 3D modeler
- Various plugins and scripting
- Specializes in organic modeling
- BIM functionality is an add-on
- Not as widely used as other industry tools
This is a robust architectural documentation, building information and design software created by Autodesk for architects and building professionals. Its tools are specially designed to accommodate BIM (building information modeling) 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.
- Highly efficient tool
- Smart object connectivity
- Fully BIM optimized
- Fill team collaboration available
- Can produce specifications and schedules in tandem to drawings
- A slight and confusing overlap in AutoCAD commands
- Lacks an intuitive interface
- Many require professional learning and course attendance
- Not a design tool
- Not suitable full small projects
Produced by Graphisoft, Archicad is another BIM (building information) originated program that provides an all in one package from 2D drafting and 3D modeling 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.
- Fully BIM optimized
- Full drawing and documentation production system
- Free form modeling available
- A much more intuitive interface than its competitors
- Ability to create 2D and 3D views simultaneously
- Affordable pricing when compared to competitors
- Internal rendering available
- In constant development with regular updates
- Some may experience hardware issue if PC is not powerful enough
- Geared towards mainly architects
- There is an initial learning curve
Vectorworks is similar to Revit and ArchiCAD in that its a cad program built for BIM, however out of the three tends to be the most cost efficient.
It has excellent 2D drafting and 3D modeling 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. Free trial available at here
- Creates renderings, layouts, modeling and site designs
- Offers a high level of customization
- Able to work in 2D and 3D in tandem to one another
- Easy to learn
- Capable of producing detailed specifications,drawing schedules, floor plans, and 3D models
- Offers collaboration with other CAD software, with full BIM optimization
- Some will require specific training
- Some will find it a little expensive, however compared to others it is quite economical
- A good level of RAM is required to handle complex tasks
- The 3D modeling element could be improved
Although not specifically designed for any one profession, knowing how to use Photoshop is a vital skill for any architect and/or student, as it is used on a daily basis by most, if not all architectural firms.
Photoshop is used for image processing and editing, architectural visualizations, and to edit and fix scanned information …to just name a few. Combined with a drawing tablet (preferably with a screen), its an unstoppable tool.
For a longtime however it has been out of many peoples reach, due to the high price tag of the full licence costing several thousands.
Fortunately now this has all changed, and the full Adobe suite of programs are individually and collectively all available via a monthly subscription plan starting at as little as $9.99 a month.
More info on this can be found via the below links, and for further information on how to improve your skills in photoshop, we have a full Photoshop guide here
- A huge array of design tools
- An all-purpose image editing and production software
- Full online support network
- Easily the industry standard for its field
- There’s little it can’t do when its comes image creation
- Monthly subscriptions available
- An abundance of tutorials available
- Some will be overwhelmed with the interface
- Poor vector support – use Illustrator for this
- Demands for good graphics hardware – although most will be fine
InDesign is a fantastic layout program for creating and arranging items such as booklets and presentations sheets.
Here, images and text can easily be arranged into presentable formats via a an aligning and snap grip tool.
It pairs well with other apps such as Adobe 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.
- The aligning and combining of text and graphics is simple and effective
- Simple learning curve
- Many tutorials available
- Too many features to list!
- This is not a tool for creating graphics
- Nor a tool for image adjustments
Best free architecture software and programs
In truth, when it comes to finding the best free architectural design software and building information programs, 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 role in the schemes communication.
With this in mind, the list below provides some of the best 3D modeling and rendering software packages available on the market today, for both architects, interior designers and 3D artists.
The Host Software
When it comes to the best architectural rendering software, there are firstly two key 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 the rendering software, and the second is the rendering software itself (commonly categorized as a plugin).
3ds Max and Cinema 4D (below) are the two most popular 3D modeling software/programs that architecture visualizers and 3D artists use, with 3ds max being the industry’s favourite, but also the most expensive.
Autodesk 3ds Max, is a professional 3D modeling software and computer graphics program that has the ability to produce incredibly highly detailed 3D models and animations.
Frequently used by game developers, TV commercial studios, and architectural visualization studios, it has become the go to tool for the majority of the 3D industry …and for good reason.
Its modeling and animation tools, feature a huge array of modifiers, shaders, dynamic simulations, lighting scenarios, and rendering settings, all through a highly customizable user interface, that can be added to via additional plugins.
- Endless capabilities for 3D modelling and animation
- Full network of support and tutorials
- Industry standard
- Steep learning curve
- Some will be overwhelmed with the amount of options and tools it provides
Cinema 4D is a great 3D modeling software 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 newcomers 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.
- Solid 3D modeling and animation software
- An abundance of online tutorials
- Good material library
- Cheaper than 3ds max
- Not developed as well 3ds max
- Platform can be cumbersome
- Not industry leader
Now that you have one of the above two modeling software packages, it’s time to choose to render engine:
Vray is famous for its ability to create photoreal visualizations. It 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.
- Huge set of options to work and play with
- Unlimited sources of information and strong community
- large material libraries as standard and available online
- Most archVIZ models come V-Ray ready
- A wide host of settings and variables
- Steep learning curve, needs a high level of operational expertise
- Expensive when compared to Corona render
- Requires a high spec’d PC to not run into difficulties
- Some users will find it too advanced and with too many options for what they need
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.
It 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.
- Quick render times
- No need to outsource to render farm
- Full library of drag and drop 3D plants, trees, people etc
- Trees and people are animated in real time
- Very simple to pick up
- Growing and developing software – gets better year upon year
- Excellent for animations
- Cost of full version is expensive
- Some will find it very basic and lacking core render elements and optimization
- The output of still images does not match or even currently come close to other renders
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.
- Produces photo realistic and high quality renders
- Easy configuration and fast performance out of the box
- Deep integration with 3DS Max, Cinema 4D and SketchUP
- Easy migration from other renderers
- CPU-based, no headaches due to GPU limitations
- Full online community
- Not overly complicated, simply click and render
- Monthly and flexible subscription
- Real-time postproduction
- For large scenes, users will need a high spec’d machine with good RAM
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.
- Limited material map types and displacement modifiers
- Not widely used
- Fast GPU rendering
- Integrated and online material library
- Real-time tone mapping and postproduction
Choosing the right computer for your software choices
It’s all well and good finding and deciding what software to use, but if your PC and/or Mac doesnt have the right specifications, you unfortunately are not going to get very far.
…We have a full guide on how to select the right machine along with several recommendations, here in our “guide to the best computers for architects and students”.
Which although is aimed specifically at architects and architectural students, can also be used in tandem for other professionals such as landscape architects, interior designers and architecture visualizers.