Open Source House Design: Just for Starters

Looking to remodel your own little castle in Spain? Perhaps just design a modest little country cottage or addition to your current abode? As in many areas, software tools and expertise up until relatively recently accessible only to professionals are now available to just about anyone that cares to invest a little time and money acquiring and learning how to use them.

Architectural design and building construction — for good reason — remains a highly specialized field of endeavor that holds on tightly to traditional and time-tested methods of acquiring the knowledge necessary to be considered a professional. But designing and building a home is also a highly personal and significant event in the lives of homeowners, and many people devote significant amounts of their spare time and effort to participate in the design and building of their own homes.

The ongoing evolution of graphic design applications, coupled with broadband connectivity, means that laypersons, hobbyists and those aspiring to design and build their own dream home now have a growing range of specialized software applications that they can use to do so.

The Allure of Building Your Own Home

Incorporating all the elements required to design a home in a software application isn’t easy; making it easy to use is even harder. That, along with professional pride and tradition, has been one of the big reasons why architectural CAD (computer-aided design) software remains primarily in the realm of professionals.

The availability of good graphic and visualization software packages for home and architectural design has reached the point where for little or even no expense, people can obtain a useful software package and learn it on their own in a short space of time, Fred A. Stitt, architect and professor of architecture at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, told LinuxInsider.

A Growing Range of Software Options

One of the most useful programs for 3-D visualization is Google’s SketchUp — it takes only a few days to master, Stitt said. For drafting, he recommends VectorWorks as the cheapest and easiest to learn.

“There are some very simple programs for home design that are quite adequate for small-scale work,” he said.

The open source development model is driving some radical restructuring in a wide variety of fields, not only software development. Yet though object-oriented programming, rich Internet applications and the open source model are bringing increasingly sophisticated and powerful home and architectural design and visualization software to a much wider lay audience — helping aspiring homeowners and autodidacts acquire the skills to develop near professional quality home designs — the open source model hasn’t yet cracked the professional market.

“Sharing expertise and resources — it’s a great idea [but] open source doesn’t lend itself well [to the architectural design process] — at least not yet. Everybody has to learn and use the computer, and CAD of course, to draft and do the modeling required by the profession, though most of the design work is still done by hand,” Stitt commented.

TurboCAD Possibilities

Web and graphics designer Mauricio Duque provides a useful point of reference for those interested in finding shareware that can be used for home and architectural design as well as the inroads being made by open source software designers in this field on his Snap2Objects blog post, “40 Best Open Source Graphic Programs.”

There are also architectural design software packages developed and put out by companies that have dedicated resources developing and supporting them. Though they may or may not make use of or contribute to open source software developments, chances are they have benefited from the ongoing development of standardized libraries for graphic objects.

IMSI/Design has two architectural design product lines that appeal to non-architects, according to TurboCAD product manager Dave Taylor: TurboFloorplan, a 3-D home design product that enables users to quickly design and help visualize what their home will look like “much better than a 2-D blueprint ever can,” and TurboCAD, a generic 2-D/3-D CAD application which has tools that support both architectural and mechanical design.

Getting Up the Learning Curve

“The learning curve for TFP is minimal, so good results can be achieved very quickly. It’s a scaled-down version of CADSoft’s Envisoneer product, which sells for (US)$1,295 and is a product geared entirely for Home Build/Design industry.” TurboCAD is better when it comes to producing dimensioned drawings and the two can be used together very effectively, making use of common DXF and 3-D file formats, he added.

IMSI/Design hasn’t seen anything in the way of open source or freeware specifically targeting the home design market, Taylor commented. “But we are aware of some applications that are used for game design and creating virtual worlds. Others like SketchUp are great for conceptual design but traditionally haven’t been considered a home design-centric or a precision CAD application.”

That said, IMSI is releasing a photorealistic rendering plug-in for SketchUp, IDX Renditioner, “so we have figured a way to capitalize on this market by optimizing one of the technologies we’ve been incorporating into TurboCAD and creating a separate application,” Taylor pointed out.

Inside SmartDraw

San Diego’s SmartDraw, developers of one of the most widely used all-purpose graphic object design software packages, also offers application software specifically geared for amateur home designers. The company’s software — installed and used by more than 2 million people a year — incorporates more than 60,000 symbols and 1,200 templates designed to help end users realize their plans.

“Every day, thousands of people search the Internet for a way to create a business graphic such as a floor plan with their computers. Most everyday consumers aren’t well-versed in so-called graphics software or technical design software such as CAD/CAM, etc. Instead, they need to create a floor plan quickly and easily, often under deadline,” SmartDraw’s Christine Van Tuyl commented.

Among other features, SmartDraw enables users to automate the process of creating floor plans, layouts and elevation views. “It contains hundreds of templates for design work, and includes symbols for everything from furniture and fixtures to tile, flooring, and various textures such as marble, granite and wood. In addition, the program allows users to create and save their own custom symbols,” Van Tuyl told LinuxInsider.


  • In further review of the suggestions, the whole article just misses completely. The IMSI Turbo Floor Plan is Windows only. They do have a general purpose CAD application which runs on MacOS which is junk when it comes to architecture and junk when it comes to anything else. The other recommendations are just as if not more useless.

    Sketchup (basic) is about the only suggestion in the whole lot which is of any utility for the presumed target audience. It is useful and it is fun to use. But it’s a concept application, not a drafting or blueprint application.

    HighDesign is an excellent new general purpose drafting application.

    Live Interior 3D is most likely the closest to the target audience available.

    MacDraft is an excellent drafting cad design application which has a consumer and pro version.

    Lastly, Cheetah3D is one of the best bargains out there for a general purpose 3D cad.

    There is a huge gap in price / performance and learning curve between any of these and Vectorworks.

    There used to be one in the middle which ran on Classic, now gone.


  • I am a little surprised with the reference to IMSI/TurboCAD in an article on O/S and Linux. TC is not, never has been and probably never will be O/S and the only version of TC that can be made to run on Linux is the ancient Turbocad LE (learning edition) which is no longer supported by Turbocad and must be obtained from an independent source. That said, it will run under wine and, even though it is more than 10 years old, it is vastly superior to the open source alternative QCad and is IMHO the best choice for a Linux CAD user.

  • quote: "One of the most useful programs for 3-D visualization is Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) Latest News about Google SketchUp — it takes only a few days to master, Stitt said. For drafting, he recommends VectorWorks as the cheapest and easiest to learn.

    "There are some very simple programs for home design that are quite adequate for small-scale work," he said."

    I have and use both. At 500 + and 1600+ neither are cheap. Far from it. While Sketchup Pro is a bang to use and learn, it’s really not for the casual user. Vectorworks is FAR FAR away from anything a casual user would want to get involved in. While it may be slicker and easier to use than AutoCAD, that is due to AC clunkiness, not VW’s simplicity. VW is just as much as a professional level application.

    There is a basic level version of Sketchup, but no such equivalent for VW. I suggest and ask you edit your story a bit for clarity lest someone get in over their head.

    There are several 3D and 2D CAD applications geared to drafting and the more casual user far more suitable than either.

    There is a pretty comprehensive list here:

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