Software for do-it-your-self architects
Software tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, allowing homeowners to tackle bigger projects.
The New York Times
Undertaking a major renovation or new construction without an architect would seem to be the realm of either the foolish or the very handy. Even the most gung-ho DIYers have reason to fear blowing out a load-bearing wall.
But in recent years, a spate of software programs has made it possible for homeowners to skip the architect altogether and do the design work themselves. And while they have mainly been used to design interiors, these tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, allowing homeowners to tackle bigger projects.
Consider the Designed Exterior Studio, a new online tool by Ply Gem, a company in North Carolina that makes things like siding and stone veneer for the exterior of homes. Users can choose a virtual home that resembles their own from an image bank of nearly two dozen styles, then alter the color, siding, windows and roof, and make structural changes like adding a porch or a dormer.
"We're taking architectural skill, color choices and design, and putting it in the hands of someone who would not otherwise be able to afford an architect," said John Stephenson, senior vice president for marketing at Ply Gem.
For novices who want to spruce up a home's exterior, Stephenson said, the Web tool "helps them get there."
Other computer tools that help homeowners get there, so to speak, include Chief Architect, Floorplanner.com, Google SketchUp and Sweet Home 3D.
Jeroen Bekkers, the Dutch architect who created Floorplanner, which allows users to make detailed plans of rooms or entire houses, complete with furniture and landscaping, said he wanted to "involve people in the design process." The site has 5 million registered users, with close to a million new floor plans added to its database each month, he said, and he also has an iPad app.
Bekkers believes the necessity of his profession is overstated, and to prove the point, he cited the ad hoc design of a Greek village: "It's charming, with nice spaces, and there's been no architect ever. It's just people building their own houses."
He added: "Everyone has ideas about their space. I think people are very capable."
While some people use software like Floorplanner to create a plan they can take to an architect or builder, others are using it to be their own architect.
Sherry Petersik, 30, and her husband, John, 30, used a combination of Floorplanner and SketchUp to do a major kitchen renovation at their 1960s ranch in Richmond, Va. It's the second time the couple have employed design software rather than a professional to carry out a home overhaul.
"We're extreme DIYers," said Petersik, who chronicled the project on their blog, Young House Love.
They wanted "a completely unique floor plan for a completely unique space," she said, and SketchUp's movable, 3D renderings "really helped us visualize the kitchen renovation."
As for the decision to forgo an architect, she said, if you don't need someone to "tell you onyx is in" and "define what you like because you don't know," a program like SketchUp, which is used by many architects, is useful and cost-saving.
Petersik estimated the new kitchen cost around $7,000, far less than the $30,000 to $40,000 it would have if they had needed a professional's opinions on onyx.
Philippe Jeanty was interested in saving money but also time when he decided to design a house using SketchUp. Jeanty, a 58-year-old doctor with no architecture or engineering training, spent several months coming up with a plan for a one-story, three-bedroom house in Fairview, Tenn., with thick, insulated walls and numerous windows.
Using SketchUp, he was able to keep tweaking the design until he was satisfied. "If we had to discuss the plans with an architect and said, 'We want to change this, change that,' it would be an endless number of meetings," Jeanty said.
As it was, he just hired a draftsman and a builder to carry out his plan, and his lack of design knowledge, he said, wasn't an issue: "The only thing we really regret is putting marble in too many places. It's a pain to maintain."
In an age when it's possible to do nearly everything online, including legal work, it's tempting to think that with a few clicks of a mouse anyone could become Frank Lloyd Wright. But most design programs, and their users, have limitations.
"Even though you can draw a pretty picture with the software," said Pamela Rodriguez, a veteran kitchen designer, "you have to ask, 'Can it be built?' And 'Should it be built?' "
Rodriguez, 55, learned that the hard way when she used Chief Architect to draft plans for a kitchen remodel in her home in Santa Maria, Calif. Even with years of professional experience, she ran into trouble when she took the renderings to the city's planning department.
Her plans, she discovered, called for the removal of a shear wall that helped support the impact of earthquake loads and kept the roof attached.
"Those things were never evident in my beautiful renderings," she said, adding that to make the design doable a new shear wall had to be built at a cost of $5,000.
Despite her experience with Chief Architect — or perhaps because of it — Rodriguez said she and many other design professionals dread having a client come to them with a self-generated plan. "They've drawn a picture and think, 'Oh, this is going to work,"' she said. "But they've got a dishwasher door that opens into the stove door."
John Isch, a principal of RWA Architects in Cincinnati, said he has met with a few clients who have created plans using design software. "The problem is when they put it down and can't imagine it any other way," Isch said. "Getting them to see other options could be difficult."
People tend to think of architects as simply providing the drawings, he added, without realizing how many other issues they deal with, like creating a design that's in harmony with the site and the climate, following local building codes and coordinating with vendors and tradesmen. "That's a lot for the lay person to take on," Isch said.
Even Petersik, the extreme DIYer, said she and her husband would think twice before tackling a bigger project like designing a house using Floorplanner or SketchUp. "I could see us feeling empowered by the program, but I could also see the program giving us false confidence," she said. "It feels like an awfully big gamble."
Owen Kennerly, a San Francisco architect, said he doesn't think design programs can replace an architect, but he has found them "useful in conveying a client's intent," he said. "And also giving them an appreciation for the challenges of space planning, thereby aiding their design savviness."
Ply Gem's Designed Exterior program, which was created with the input of BSB Design, an architecture firm in Des Moines, Iowa, offers a hybrid model. It allows people to choose from a range of options (windows, brick and stone veneer, siding, trim colors) selected by architects — in other words, architecture with training wheels. (Toll Brothers, the custom homebuilder, has a similar online tool called Design Your Own Home.)
As Deryl Patterson, a partner at BSB Design, said, "We can't possibly teach people to be architects online. But we can give them the confidence to say, 'Think what someone with imagination, creativity and confidence can do with my house.' "
When it comes to employing computer-designed plans to build real projects, though, Petersik and her husband have established what may be the golden rule. "We always ask ourselves, what's the worst that could happen?" she said. "If it's structural or electrical, that's when we go to the pros."