3 D Home Design: Keep It Simple

Two modest software programs work well, but blueprints still may be the best bet

Mies van der Rohe hadn't heard of software when he laid down his great architectural dictum. But when it comes to the use of 3-D in home-design software, less most definitely is more.

Powerful home computers have made it simple to handle 3-D virtual-reality displays that were once the province of engineering workstations and $10,000 computer-assisted design (CAD) software. But this new power is a mixed blessing. Making sense of a 3-D object projected onto a two-dimensional surface is no easier with a computer than it was in high school solid geometry.

WINDOWS. That's what I took away from hours spent with four Windows products (table) among many that let you design decks, kitchens--even whole houses. I found the virtual-reality features of Complete Home Designer from Alpha Software and Custom Home from Sierra On Line hard to use. Picture This Home! Kitchen from Autodesk and 3D Deck 3.0 from Books That Work have more modest ambitions, yet are far more successful.

All of the programs start with a blank drawing board or a predrawn floor-plan template. You drag-and-drop to add such objects as walls, doors, and windows. When the shell is finished, you add furniture and other accessories. It's all simple, and you can keep rough track of your design's cost.

The problems start when you click the button that changes your plan into a 3-D rendering that you can "walk" through. Custom Home has decent tools to control your point of view, but I kept getting lost as I tried to make my way through a drawing.

Complete Home Designer is even more vexing. This program lets you manipulate objects in 3-D, but it is so hard to judge depth that I found it all but impossible to pick anything up. And on the rare occasions when I succeeded, I could never tell where an object would land when I set it down. Poor navigation tools make the walk-through even harder than with Custom Home.

A SNAP. That's why Autodesk's Kitchen program was so welcome. This first consumer product from the maker of the professional AutoCAD program is easy to use. Unlike either of the house-design programs, Kitchen's drawings look like real blueprints, with proper side views as well as floor plans. For greater accuracy, its furnishings are real appliances from companies such as General Electric and KitchenAid. The 3-D is limited to a look around your one-room handiwork.

Neither the home nor the kitchen programs do more than produce drawings that you could use as a starting point when talking to a designer or an architect. 3D Deck, however, helps you build your masterpiece. It generates a bill of materials and a lumber-cutting plan, and it includes extensive instructions, including many animations. Like Kitchen, its 3-D component consists primarily of a panoramic view of your creation.

Just because something is possible doesn't mean it's a good idea, and 3-D design seems to fit that category. While virtual reality can be powerful, the limitations of today's products mean you'll do better sticking to two dimensions when you plan that dream home.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.