There’s an app for everything these days! Luckily, that includes nearly every aspect of architectural practice. From viewing 3D models to calculating distances, we can make our working lives much easier with the wide range of apps available for our phones and tablets.
In this article, we’ve pulled together a list of tried-and-tested apps for architects in six categories: drafting, sketching, site visits, design, photography and productivity – plus three bonus apps which don’t fit neatly in these categories, but which we love anyway.
Why are apps useful for architects?
There’s no getting away from the fact that the building design process is lengthy and complex. However, technological advances have streamlined the process considerably. Gone are the days of desks cluttered with papers, drawing tools and calculators; today, one or two devices can handle multiple tasks. Apps are saving us time and other resources, too.
As architects, we also work away from our desks more than most. Mobile apps have taken the pain out of site visits, allowing us to scan spaces, generate inspection checklists, share work with clients, and even identify trees and plants on the go.
Another huge advantage of apps is that they are often mobile versions of programs we already own and know well (e.g. iRhino 3D, SketchUp Mobile Viewer). Not only does this mean we don’t have to learn a whole new way of working, but the apps are often given away for free to people who subscribe to the desktop software.
What apps do architects use?
The following is a list of 27 apps that are designed to save architects time, money and stress.
Autodesk A360 – A360 (available for iOS and Android) lets you view CAD files in over 50 formats (e.g. DWG, DWF, RVT) on handheld devices. Both 2D and 3D models can be uploaded from Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud and more. The app allows you to zoom, pan, rotate and orbit, as well as isolate object properties and navigate parts and layers of your model. Distances, angles and areas can be measured from drawings. Users can collaborate on designs by commenting and editing, and images can be captured for later review and markup.
IRhino 3D – iRhino 3D (available for iOS only) is a similar app that lets you view Rhino 3DM models on an iPhone or iPad. Though it has fewer overall features than the A360 app, it does include thumbnail file viewing which is popular with many users.
Autodesk FormIt – Autodesk FormIt (available for iOS, Android, Windows and online) allows you to design on the go and in the context of a specific site. Import satellite images of your site, create and manipulate shapes and forms, and analyze the effects of the sun in different locations. Designs can be saved to the cloud or transferred to desktop applications in RVT or SAT file formats. The iOS and Windows versions allow multiple users to edit a design in real time.
Autodesk Sketchbook – The hugely popular Autodesk Sketchbook app (available for iOS and Android) is now completely free, with features from the desktop version (such as curved rulers) being added all the time. It keeps menus hidden while you work to maximize drawing space on any device. Use the phone camera as a scanner to import a line drawing, or try the ‘predictive stroke’ for perfectly smooth lines.
Morpholio Trace – According to its makers, Morpholio Trace (available for iOS only) ‘combines the beauty and speed of sketching with the intelligence and precision of CAD’. The app contains a wide range of pens, brushes, palettes, stencils and background templates; it is also possible to draw on top of images, photos, maps and PDFs. You can create floor plans, sections and elevations, site plans and landscaping, and ‘walk’ around your drawings with other users. The handy perspective guide will even draw lines to vanishing points automatically. Morpholio Trace is free to download but annual subscriptions range from (approx) £4 to £16.
Paper – Designed for all creatives and not just architects, Paper (available for iOS only) is an app that lets you sketch, paint, draw and create collages. Pages can be organized into journal format and synced across devices, though this app works best on an iPad. As with Morpholio Trace, you can unlock premium features by paying an annual subscription (up to £8.99).
Concepts – Concepts (latest version available for iOS only; older versions available for Android and Windows) promises to work ‘just like paper, only better’. Play with the free version’s five-layer infinite canvas, or pay for individual premium features (e.g. customizable brushes) once you’ve downloaded the app.
MagicPlan – With MagicPlan (available for iOS and Android), you can scan a room to create a floor plan in 30 seconds. You can also draw plans with your finger, or import existing plans. The app allows you to estimate quantities and costs of materials, as well generate 3D models from plans.
RoomScan Pro – RoomScan Pro (available for iOS only) is similar to MagicPlan, but works even in the dark and when you can’t see the floor. It can be deployed in tandem with Leica or Bosch laser tape measures for even more accurate results. Despite the name, you can also use this app to scan building exteriors and outdoor spaces.
Planimeter – Planimeter (available for iOS and Android) lets you drop pins onto a map to calculate distance, perimeter, area, bearing, angle, and GPS coordinates. In essence, it fulfills the function of a manual planimeter – but on a massive scale, and with added functionality.
Scala Architectural Scale – Scala Architectural Scale (available for iOS only) lets you use your phone to measure fixed and variable scale printed drawings, and convert between Metric, Architectural Scale and Engineering Scale. This app is especially useful if you have a plan with no scale, since you can lock and duplicate the scale of one known element on a drawing.
CAD Touch – CAD Touch (available for iOS and Android) is an on-site drawing app that is simple enough to use while standing and walking, but professional enough that you can share what you produce with clients. Draw with a stylus or your fingers, and make use of the customizable objects library. The app includes advanced tools such as adaptive hatches and parallel offset, as well as an integrated file manager to keep track of your projects.
BIMx – BIMx (available for iOS and Android) is a viewing app that produces a so-called ‘Hyper-model’ of a site, integrating 3D ARCHICAD models and 2D documentation. Upgrades are available within the app for (approx) £40 which allow you to view Hyper-models outside of the BIMx app and to share them with clients.
Tree ID – Since the withdrawal of Leafsnap from the UK app store, Tree ID (developed by the Woodland Trust, available for iOS and Android) has stepped up to become the leading app for tree identification. Take a photo of leaves, bark, flowers and so on for a quick analysis of what you’re looking it.
SketchUp Mobile Viewer – SketchUp Mobile Viewer (available for iOS and Android) lets you store and share models created in SketchUp. If you have an active subscription to SketchUp, you can also benefit from the Mobile Viewer’s augmented reality feature which overlays models on existing space. Non-subscribers can pay for this feature separately and a free trial is available.
Homestyler Mobile – Homestyler Mobile (available for iOS and Android) is the mobile version of the popular interior design app. Take a photo of your room and add realistic 3D elements, including furniture from real brands, to see how they would look – then walk around a 720° panorama of the space.
Shapr3D – As the name suggests, Shapr3D (available on iOS for iPad only) is a 3D design app. A favorite of industrial designers, Shapr3D allows users to generate quick and intuitive models with Apple Pencil before exporting them to a more powerful desktop CAD. The Shapr3D website (click link above) allows customers to book a 30-minute live demonstration of the app’s capabilities.
Photoshop Express – Photoshop is of course the granddaddy of photography editors, and Photoshop Express (available for iOS, Android and Windows) is its mobile offshoot. In addition to performing all the basic editing processes you would expect, the app will correct distortion, remove noise, add blur, and even out skin tone.
Pixlr – As an alternative to Photoshop Express, Pixlr (available for iOS, Android, Windows, Mac and online) is a comprehensive package that lets you edit and enhance your images, as well as offering a huge range of filters, effects, borders and fonts. All platforms have a collage creation tool. The desktop and online app now comes in two levels: Pixlr X for beginners and Pixlr E for more advanced users.
Archisnapper – ArchiSnapper (available for iOS and Android) might best be described as a collaborative to-do list for architects, engineers and contractors. The app makes walkthroughs and inspections more efficient by generating checklists, and allowing users to take photos annotated with text or voice notes. It also creates professional field reports and punch lists which can be automatically exported to Dropbox, Google Drive and others in PDF format.
Harvest – Harvest (available for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac) is an app that helps you keep track of the time and money that’s being spent on a project. It will update offline, so as long as you’ve started the timer, you can keep tracking in the air or underground.
Google Drive – The familiar Google Drive (available for iOS and Android) allows you to store and access up to 15GB of files. On the mobile version, you can invite other users to view, edit and comment on them as well as setting new permissions. You can also opt to receive notifications on new activity. However, to make changes to your files, you will probably prefer to move back to your desktop. The desktop app formerly known as Google Drive has now been split into two: Backup and Sync, and Drive File Stream.
Evernote – Evernote (available for iOS, Android, Windows, Mac and online) aims to organize your lists and notes into a manageable form. It can handle text and voice notes, images and files, and has a feature that lets you clip content from the web for later use, even offline. If you use Siri or Google’s digital assistant you can use them to search Evernote. You can also send Evernote content to anyone online, whether or not they have the app.
Asana – Asana (available for iOS and Android) helps you set up a project, keep it running, and meet deadlines. Details of your project can be shared with and updated by multiple users. More than just a to-do list, Asana lets you create easy-to-understand visual representations of your project.
Construction Master Pro – If you’re a bit uncertain of your math skills, Construction Master Pro (available for iOS and Android) is a calculator specifically designed to meet the needs of architects and others working in the construction industry.
Sun Seeker – Sun Seeker (available for iOS and Android) is a solar tracker and compass that can be particularly useful for architects, providing information on sunlight direction and on solar angles at different times of the year.
Pevsners Architectural Glossary – Rare is the architect without a copy of Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary on their shelves, but today the ‘book’ is just as likely to be downloaded to their iPhone or iPad (available for iOS only). The electronic version of this classic architectural dictionary contains more than a thousand terms (including the correct pronunciation of each), is searchable alphabetically and by category, and features instructive diagrams and photos.
Whether it’s walking round a virtual site with a contractor or identifying the angle of the sun, these days there’s an app that’s got you covered. While big hitters like A360 and Photoshop are likely to remain firm favorites, it’s also worth keeping up to date with new app releases – especially from smaller developers – that fill niches you didn’t even know needed filling.
And the future of apps for architects? Some experts suggest the number of apps used by each individual is going down, as each adds more and more functions in an attempt to become the definitive app. This trend seems likely to continue, so who knows? Perhaps in five years’ time we really will rely on just one super-application to meet all our professional needs.