A Look at Home Designer Software by Chief Architect

Product Review of Home Designer Chief Architect Software

Rendering of House on the Cover of Home Designer Suite 2015
Rendering of House on the Cover of Home Designer Suite 2015. Media illustration courtesy Chief Architect Software, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Home Designer® by Chief Architect is a line of software programs for non-professionals. Intended to help the Do-It-Yourselfer (DIYer) create workable home and garden plans, these applications cost less than professional-grade software. Not simplified or simple-minded, Chief Architect products can teach you more about construction and design than a semester course at the local community college. And they are fun to use.

Advertisements promise that this software will "save you from napkin sketching," thanks to an integrated mobile Room Planner app which lets you measure and plan rooms on the go and then import the file into Home Designer.

Now, I love napkin sketching. Still, I wanted to test out the next step in home design. I decided to try the middle-of-the line product, Home Designer® Suite 2015. I hit some bumps along the way, and also found some happy surprises. Here's the scoop.

Using Home Designer® Suite

Download a file from homedesignersoftware.com or purchase the DVD. Installation is the straightforward 10-15 minute process. Then jump right in.

Create New Plan makes you choose a House Style before anything else. This gets you thinking about what "look" you want for your new construction or what style your built house might be. Of course, the problem with "style" is that very few house styles are pure "Colonial" or "Country Cottage" or "Arts & Crafts." Click on one of the style choices, however, and you get a simple illustration along with written content that defines what they mean by the style.

For example, Urban Chic/Contemporary is described as "clean and spare."

When you first begin, the software prompts you to make decisions—for example, you need to choose a core catalog for your library, framing defaults, exterior siding, and the like. Construction pros understand the need to know wall height and thickness before building.

However, if you are impatient, you might feel frustrated by the need to choose style details before getting started.

The house style you have chosen loads default style choices. These defaults can be changed at any time. Still, the creative side of you may begin wishing for the "napkin"—a distraction-free work area to sketch out your inspirations.

Cursor at the cross hairs:
The default work area in Home Designer looks like a piece of graph paper, although this "Reference Grid" can be turned off. The unsaved file is called "Untitled 1: Floor Plan," so you may want to get into the habit of saving your electronic work often, just as you would in any software program.

The cursor begins at the 0,0 point of an x-y axis. It's all movable, so the new user may reasonably decide to draw a floor plan with a drag-and-drop motion. But Home Designer®  doesn't work like that.

Building, Not Drawing:
The user of Home Designer® software does not really draw or sketch a design, but builds and constructs a home. If you begin with the Build drop-down menu, you will see Wall at the top of the list. Each wall section is considered an "Object," so once each object is placed, you can select and move it around.

The program functions like a builder—it progresses one wall at a time, one room at a time.

An architect often thinks more abstractly and conceptually at first—a sketch on a napkin. In contrast, Home Designer® functions more like a builder. Using this software you may feel more like Bob the Builder than Frank Gehry.

If you don't read instructions first, remember:

  • Use Build >>
  • Then Select objects to move and modify

The "Wow" Factor:
The very impressive 3D renderings will amaze you. The floor plan that you build can be viewed in multiple ways—overhead like a dollhouse, different camera views, and even a virtual "walkthrough" along a path you define.

I Wish I Read the Directions First

In addition to the Build >> and Select method mentioned above, Home Designer® Suite has two more ways to get your project going:

  1. Tools >> Space Planning
    Create "Room Boxes" to rearrange, then select "Build House" from the drop-down menu and poof—the walls and rooms are all there.
  1. Go to the Home Designer Samples Gallery and download a zip file of sample plans and renderings. One look at the floor plans and 3D views, and you'll say, "Yeah, I want to do THAT!" The very cool aspect of these sample plans is that they are not static or "read only"—you can take designs that someone else drew and modify them to your own specs. Of course, you can't USE them in any official way, because that would be stealing, but you can get a jump start on the learning curve.

Home Designer's Approach
If I had read the Reference Manual first, I would have better understood the focus on objects instead of concepts in the software environment created by Chief Architect:

  • Object-Based Design: "object-based design technology means you place and edit objects, rather than work with the many individual lines or surfaces used to represent them"
  • Three-dimensional Drafting: "a three dimensional coordinate system...using the X, Y, and Z axes. The current position of your mouse pointer displays in the Status Bar at the bottom of the program window. Architectural objects take up space in all three dimensions and their height, width and depth can be specified...."

How Easy is Home Designer® Suite to Use?

When the video says, "It's that easy," well, it's not that easy. For the uninitiated DIYer, a half-day's worth of fiddling and training is recommended to become even semi-productive.

The online Support Center and drop-down Help menu are phenomenal. Help documents are constantly being updated, including:

  • Solution Finder and Knowledge Base, a database of FAQs and solutions to specific questions
  • Home Designer Getting Started Resources, including a PDF User Manual and PDF Reference Manual
  • Classroom Training, Webinars, Online and Mobile Training Videos
  • Contact Support
  • Home Talk forum and discussion group specifically for Home Designer® software users

I recommend a quick tutorial and then reference the online User's Manual and the Reference Manual.

5 Reasons to Use Home Designer® Software

  1. It makes you think about design, how elements/objects fit together, and how standard sizes and shapes of appliances can dictate interior design.
  1. It may save you money when you use an architect that charges by the hour. If you can conceptualize your ideas using the language of the architect, communication will be faster and your expectations can be better thought through.
  2. The many standard features will keep you busy for weeks. The uninitiated will not outgrow this software anytime soon.
  3. Not only does the software integrate with the Room Planner app, but users can import photos of their own homes for landscaping and remodeling projects.
  4. Great support. Affordable price.

Other Considerations

  • 1. Once you get the knack of it, it's just too easy to make complicated designs. Walls and juts are easy to add, but there's no on-screen calculator to show you the immediate construction costs of what you are doing. Beware of sticker shock!
  • 2. Three-dimensional renderings include a snazzy ability to record a virtual walk-through. However, you will not be able create the simple yet elegant line drawings found in the work of professional architects. For that type of elevation drawing, you'd need to move up to the Chief Architect® product line created for professionals at chiefarchitect.com.
  • 3. Too many options can be paralyzing. Take your time and build your knowledge.
  • 4. Green initiatives and Green Building Software Tips are available online for the Chief Architect professional software. I'd like to see these tips directed to the everyday consumer, too.

Take Note

Chief Architect, Inc. offers two lines of software products:

  • Home Designer® for the Do-It-Yourselfer consumer
  • Chief Architect® for the professional

Both product lines are by Chief Architect, and both are described as Home Design Software. Which program to purchase could be confusing,

Chief Architect has been making professional architectural software since the 1980s. The Home Designer line builds on years of experience with a complex interface. The heftiness of the manuals and the need for so much support suggests the possible need for a more intuitive user experience. Fortunately, the documentation is excellent. After a day of tinkering and discovering what is possible, anyone's imagination should soar. Home Designer® can be challenging to master, but well worth the effort.

Cost

The Home Designer® 2015 family includes five products that range in price from $59 to $495. Trial downloads are available, and Chief Architect backs all products with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

The software reviewed here, Home Designer® Suite 2015, sells for $99 (DVD or download; backup DVD extra with download). Students can purchase a one year license to use the more professional Chief Architect for only $95.

If your home projects focus on remodeling or interior design, Home Designer Interiors 2015 might be a better purchase at $79.

PC Minimum System Requirements for This Version:

  • Windows 8 / 7 / Vista
  • 2.4 GHz processor or Multi-core processor
  • 2 GB of Memory (32 bit) 4 GB of Memory (64 bit)
  • Video Card:
    1. Dedicated Graphics with 512 MB memory e.g., NVIDIA or ATI, OR
    2. Integrated Graphics e.g., Intel HD graphics (driver from 2012 or newer)
  • 5 GB of available hard disk space
  • Internet access*

Mac Minimum System Requirements:

  • Home Designer 2015 or newer
  • Mac OS X v10.8 (Mountain Lion) or newer
  • 2.4 GHz processor or multi-core processor
  • 4 GB of memory
  • 5 GB of available hard disk space
  • Internet access*

*Internet access is required for installation, license authentication, deactivation, video, and library catalog access. Internet access for license validation is required once every 30 days; for Home Designer Pro, license validation is required once every 14 days.
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Home Designer® Suite 2015 Manuals:

  • User Guide (PDF)
  • Reference Guide (PDF)

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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