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Best 3D Software?

Susan Claussen
February 16, 2019
Hi what’s the best 3D software and what’s the difference between 3/4/5 D? Seriously thinking of doing my own design.

Comments (51)

  • Pinebaron

    Design or just develop a concept? We often see that on HGTV and other similar programs. I agree with Virgil. Not to endorse any softwsre, there are numerous affordable packages out there. These forums are full of bulidling and construction blunders commited by folks who thought they knew what they were doing and ended up as potential disasters or compromises.

    Any software is just that. There’s no magic in any sortware, they are just tools which help complete tasks faster and sometimes better. i‘ve been in software development for a lifetime.

    Despite the fact I’m not a qualified residential architect and although I complately designed our latest home from the ground up, down to the nearest eighth of an inch, it is backed by significant precision design engineering education and background and years of experience buliding complex manufacTuring facilities.

  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect

    I use tracing paper and HB 0.09 pentel, you may want to consider an internet search for "local architect". Could save time and money and sanity.

  • Architectrunnerguy

    Software is great for fine tuning a concept but whether software or pencil, all creativity comes from the head. There's no button that says "Make this look good".

    For me, all "big ideas" are developed freehand with a pencil. If I want a "straight" line I just use the edge of my scale. That way it unclutters my mind as to having to plug in distances and dimensions. I'm not worried about a wall being 48' long, I just freehand it out.

    When a client asks about software I usually reply "While a program may show what I know, a sketch will show what I'm thinking". Like Mark said, just get out a pencil and paper. Two of my favorite quotes from this forum are:

    “You might as well save that wasted money and just buy the Pro version of Chief Architect yourself. But, you’ll learn that GIGO remains true. It’s the person of talent wielding the tool that is important. Not the tool itself. Otherwise any tool could design the Taj Mahal.” And......

    “Pencil and graph paper is the cheapest and easiest to master. If you can't do it with that, software just accelerates the end bad result and is a lot more frustrating and expensive.”

    Here's examples of what I'm talking about. Freehanded out at 1/16" =12" I like to do them small so I can keep the "big picture" in mind. Two were done just this last week.

    But the best of luck with your build. Exciting times ahead!

  • BT

    some of us like chiefarchitect https://www.chiefarchitect.com/

  • D E
    SketchUp is very easy to learn. their 3d warehouse has millions of premade furniture items you can place in your graph, the support network is huge, and there is a free version.
  • Michelle misses Sophie

    Just remember that software only does what you tell it to do; it does not prevent you from creating a bad design. It is but one tool in the box and it does not replace knowledge and skill.

  • Matt M

    I am designing/building my own home, GCing the project, etc.
    I've spent near 1,000 counted in-software hours with Chief Architect.

    My house is framed and well under way.
    Now that I have all this experience under my belt, I can safely say:
    Don't do it.

    I will be building more houses after my own, so the experience will be useful later, but just learning the software is a full time job. Then learning how to actually design a sensibly buildable house, with considerations for plumbing, hvac, electrical, lighting, it's impossible to do it all well without experience.

    SketchUp is a good starting point for rough ideas. It's easy to make things look decent in it to get ideas. This is where I started.
    Then I moved on to Chief Architect. It takes a lot of know-how to get chief to do what you need.
    I think if you draw up a floor plan in SketchUp that you think you like, I'd bring it to a draftsman and have them do the actual plans.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    I believe SketchUp is the best option because its fun to use and there are many Youtube tutorials. The Free version (SketchUp Free) is an online app and fine but you cannot export plans and elevations in a drawing scale so they're not very useful to the person you choose to create scaled drawings. In other words the designer or draftsman would need to start again using your drawing with all important dimensions shown on the SketchUp drawing. SketchUp Shop is an online version that costs $119/year and allows you to export PDF and CAD files. SketchUp Pro is what professional designers use and costs $299/year.

    You will not need 4D or 5D software for residential design and visualization. The former uses colors to help identify line orientation in technical drawings and the latter is connected to a BIM database that links cost and other information to elements in the drawing.

    Try Free but if you like it, buy Shop

    I don't like Free and Shop because the tools are nested, an apparent attempt to frustrate users who are not willing or able to pay of the Pro version. If you work with SketchUp often and for multiple years you will upgrade to Pro pretty soon.

    There is also a free desktop (not online) version that is still available called SketchUp Make 2017.

    You can see sample models if you click on my name.

  • Buehl - We Want SW Back Unconditionally

    Your own design for what? You're posting in both Building a Home and Kitchens (along with Other), so no one knows what you're designing.

    • If a home, I agree with the others above who are telling you to get a pro (preferably an architect).
    • If just one room -- maybe a Kitchen?, then you could use the software to think about what you want. But, ultimately, you will need a pro here as well when you think you're ready to catch the things you didn't think about or know about (e.g,, clearances, functionality, overhangs, etc.)

    I have Chief Architect (ChA), but I still find doing things in PowerPoint much faster overall when I work on Kitchen designs for others. It may be b/c I haven't had/taken the time to learn ChA thoroughly to the point where I know all the package's ins and outs, but since I only spend short spurts here lately, PowerPoint suffices for me. No 3D.

    Regarding 3/4/5D -- are you talking about physics (scientists theorize 10 dimensions)?

    How Many Dimensions Does The Universe Have? - YouTube


    Sorry, had to get a plug in for Physics - I was a Math major / Physics minor in college! (And I ended up in IT!)

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    The best answer on how to design a custom house is often to proceed in the following order:

    --Buy a dozen 4B pencils;

    --Buy a couple of rolls of white or yellow tracing paper, 25" high (known as bumwad in the trade);

    --Find an experienced and talented architect who knows how to operate this equipment.

    Or, tell the architect you'd like to buy 8-10 hours of her/his time.

  • Architectrunnerguy

    Ok, I'm back from my run and thought about this a little during it......

    Sketch Up was mentioned above and it's probably the best tool out there. But in understanding the PROCESS, starting with getting what's in your mind on paper, a pencil and paper is still the best.

    I'm not nearly as good as RES at SU and my models are certainly not as polished as his (as well as the probable fact that I likely take four times as long as he...LOL) but it's easy to explore 2D ideas with it. Here's an progression of a recent project to illustrate:

    Freehand concept drawing:

    To hardline concept (complete with a phone note relating something long forgotten that cost $225.31....LOL).....And always the diligent checking and rechecking of house size along the way.....:

    And then sometimes an SU model:

    (Garage is planned for later but designed for now, hence the unrendering of it).

    That's the best way to go about this wacky thing we call "Residential Design"

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    That's exactly how SketchUp should be used. Its a design tool first and a presentation tool second.

    Nice work. I tried to rotate it.

  • D E

    sketchup can also be used with other software to create almost photorealistic renderings


    Susan Claussen thanked D E
  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect

    The snowman is a nice touch.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    The purpose of photo realistic rendering is to add light and materials in order to promote a design to a client or the public. SketchUp is all you need in order to try out ideas and see if they work. Learning it will keep you occupied enough you won't be looking for pug-ins and extensions.

  • Architectrunnerguy

    ^^^^ yes. When designing I'm worried about form and light, not about books on a shelf, globe placement, red pillows or pretty yellow flowers in a white vase. That stuff "sells" it of course but has little bearing on a decision making design process.

  • live_wire_oak

    NO one lacks that much imagination as to need that level of detail in order to see a bigger picture. I hope. But I guess they must as there appears to be a giant off shore industry for 3D renderings. $700 a pop and you too can try to try to see yellow flowers where your imagination falls short in your brain.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    For a design visualization tool to be effective, it must allow you to quickly try ideas accurately in scale, search for opportunities and save copies for later until something works, then to be able to quickly add windows and possibly materials and then meet with a client and rotate it or fly around it on an iPad or email the model to the client so they can view it interactively in a free Viewer app. The sketches are for developing ideas and sharing them with your client; photorealistic renderings take much more time and show too much detail, other 3D programs are too difficult to edit although not as difficult as modifying a chipboard model.

    IMO Sketchup is not only the best visualization tool and it can import CAD drawings and photos and assemble drawings on a sheet for a formal presentation. Choose the section tool and place it horizontally or vertically on the model and you have an interactive 3D model with part of it removed and the cut plans and be cut plane can be dragged until you like what you see.

    From the beginning of CAD I've searched for a 3D design tool and 18 years ago I found a beta version of SketchUp at a computer show. It has come a long way since then but its still easy and fun to use.

    Here is a simple demonstration of how SketchUp could be used to help design a house.

    Draw the footprint to scale... lines will snap to and adopt the color of one of the 3 axes, then enter dimension

    Use the push/pull tool to drag the walls up and enter the correct height

    draw a gable... cursor finds the midpoint of a line automatically

    use the push/pull tool to drag the gable across the house, then add the profile of a bump out... when the cursor aligns with another point a dotted line appears ... when drawing an angled line, pass the cursor over another angled line and the new line will turn pink when its at the same angle. Hold the shift key down to retain the new line at the correct angle

    Drag out the bump-out and drag the back roof until it intersects the front roof

    add some windows from the window library and change the wall and roof colors

    play with the materials

    look at a true elevation and take a quick screen shot

    play with the roof, take more screen shots

    add more detail and people to make a presentation drawing.

    The people are 2D but turn to face you as you change the view

    The most difficult part of using SketchUp is stopping.

  • simmtalker

    I did my own layout (draftsman converted to plans) with paper and pen. I didn't have fancy pencils or tracing paper as the pros have, but used lined paper, ruler, and pen. I played around with a couple programs, but it is MUCH faster and easier, for me, to use paper!!!

  • Architectrunnerguy

    I guess Susan Claussen has left the building.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    The Section Plane tool

    Its an old model and some elements are missing. They could be repaired in this view.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    There is nothing fancy about tracing paper. It is used to draw variations of a design drawing without damaging the original drawing or repeatedly drawing it again. There is no more indispensable design tool. It also allows the use of a pen since its not necessary to erase pencil lines. I buy pens by the dozen andI keep one pencil on my desk but rarely use it.

    But I have learned that there is always someone who will proudly take the longest and hardest path to an objective.

  • simmtalker

    There is nothing fancy about tracing paper.

    It was a joke.

  • BT

    Gees I hate to break a love fest, but ...

    25 years ago I used paper and pencil to design all engineering parts. Today if I break paper and pencil ppl will look at me like someone insane. Industry moved on.


    We do NOT design anything engineering with paper and pencils today. Full CAD or bust. We do NOT design flat gears, cars or 2D bridges, we do not design roller coasters on paper.


    How can someone accept a house without 3D, without ability to examine the rooms, without ability to place a furniture, get a feeling for the flow, to check the stairs is beyond me.


    I personally can create full 3D models in CA faster than you draw them with the pencil. I can move and update walls nearly instantaneously, change pitch, add a dormer or derive the foundation. So here.

    Susan Claussen thanked BT
  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Architectural design, unlike engineering design, is a lot more than just adding a component here and removing another componet there. It's why architectural schools spend 5 years in undergraduate design studios, while undergraduate engineering schools don't have a design studio until their senior year.

    Initially, architectural design is conceptual, in several different environments--site, interior, exterior massing, and roof plan--simultaneously. It's much quicker and easier to study these concepts with tracing paper and soft pencil.

    Once a concept is firmed up, loading it up in a CAD program for further development is easy and makes sense.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    I agree to a point. The focus of creative design should always be on ideas rather than the method used to express and record them. That's easier to say than do and some methods can be more helpful than others especially at different stages of the work.

    I sketch plans in 2D and add color to the floor and rotate the sketch on my desk. I will usually sketch the elevation over or near the plan to see what opportunities are developing and might make a small perspective sketch, a skill learned the hard way in the 60's. When I think I have some good ideas or I'm not sure how a configuration will fit together I start a SketchUp model. When I'm sure of the major ideas I will start a 2D cad drawing. But everyone will work differently depending on their skills and experience and how they think about design.

  • Phaedra Dowell
    de, what other software do you add to sketchup to create photorealistic renderings?
  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    SketchUp is a modeler using lines for edges. Realistic rendering relies on light on surfaces more like what we see. Edges can be turned off in SketchUp by editing the “style” but for photo realism you will need additional rendering software. There are free add-ons in the SketchUp Warehouse or you can buy subscription software like V-Ray which costs $60/m or $350/yr.

    Kerkythea is free

  • D E

    I agree that for design you dont need a renderer. sketchup provides great visualization tools. but it has available rendering capabilities for those who want such a tool.

    sketchup visualization pretty great.

    used a free render extension(kerkythea) using low quality settings.

    Susan Claussen thanked D E
  • D E
    you are welcome!
  • Pinebaron

    Where design meets reality. Design and renderings were done long before we applied for permit. Love it now that it's built and we are living in the house.

    Renderings followed by actuals

    Susan Claussen thanked Pinebaron
  • PRO
    Charles Ross Homes

    Architectural design, unlike engineering design, is a lot more than just adding a component here and removing another componet (sic) there. It's why architectural schools spend 5 years in undergraduate design studios, while undergraduate engineering schools don't have a design studio until their senior year.

    @Virgil, that's one plausible explanation. Another is that architects are "slower" than engineers...

  • Lars

    We use Rhino at work for 3-D modeling, but I work for a furniture company, and so we mainly just do renderings of new furniture designs. I don't use it, but my co-workers do - I still draw using 2D AutoCAD. I think there is a big learning curve to 3D software - at least for me because I have not yet learned it.

  • Susan Claussen

    Hi everyone. Sorry for the delay in responding as I've ben busy painting this week and dealing with snow removal from our house and the neighbors! I totally get it that it's best to hire someone to do the modeling and saves time and energy. We are redoing the kitchen and may do a bump out kitchen/sunroom and wanted to see a realistic rendering of the expanded kitchen so I can determine appropriate look/feel/colors of kitchen appliances, cabinets, flooring. etc. We are also in the process of remodeling the basement. I think it's unacceptable in this day and age NOT to offer 3D design. One of the parties we are working for the basement remodel has 3D but no realistic rendering and the other party for the kitchen doesn't offer 3d design but are good.

    @Pinebaron. Yours is exactly what I'm looking for. How much was it and what software and add-ons was that using?

  • D E

    sketchup with a free renderer would be great for your goals.

    kitchen render with free kerkythea. you can change reflections, and textures etc. 90 pct of the furniture in this model was simply downloaded for free from the sketchup 3d ware house. im limited to low quality settings as high quality realistic settings crash my old computer

  • D E

    twilight render is based off kerkythea and has a fully free version as well. I downloaded it last night and played with it. it intergrates even better with sketchup and i can render at a higher quality than with kerkythea without crashing my pc. but its a lot slower. this render took 20 minutes and was only like 5% of the way there

  • Pinebaron

    Below is a rendering I did of a view from the corner of our family room. The only thing left to do (in the real home) is marble tiling on bar wall and purchase couple of accent chairs displayed in the foyer, table lamps etc. and cushions on the sofa.

    I created dozens of symbols (objects) from scratch and not downloaded from any library. Our front entry door and all the doors in this house, exterior wall lights etc. are distinct examples of what is possible if you put in the effort.

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    Can you put a person in the rendering? Can you do a walkthrough or a look-around in real-time?

  • D E
    not directed at me but there is software that does real-time tenders and let you look around , walk around etc
  • Pinebaron

    Can you do a walkthrough or a look-around in real-time?


  • dan1888

    PinebaronI. . nteresting layout. You're showing a substantial number of recessed cans. Larger than 4" it appears. How did that get figured?

  • Pinebaron

    dan1888: A little over the top but more controllable and available lighting is better than less, with 12' ceilings in such a large space. Except ones above kitchen work area which are 4", the rest are all 6" on different sets of dimmers/switches and are usually deployed when cleaning or when we need lots of light in one area for any reason at all, else these are almost always in off position since we have wall sconces and kitchen under counter and top cabinet lighting for ambient lighting. All were installed per my design/distance/location specs based on trusses layout. The ceiling looks like inverted airport runways when all are switched on.

  • D E

    ok last render promise. all done with free sketchup and free twilight render. the noobie forgot to change the fridge door. location.

    the other thing that's great about SketchUp many manufacturers have their products in the 3d warehouse so sometimes you can find the actual model of the product you may be interested in

  • PRO
    RES 3d Sketches

    If you want a high resolution rendering you must upgrade to SketchUp Shop. Lunch might be free but not dinner.

  • D E
    res the renderer dictates the resolution not the version of sketchup
  • Pinebaron

    In my case the monitor dictates the aperture/view however my earlier rendering resolution was set to 400 pixels/inch. I use an LG 38UC99-W 38" curved monitor, screen resolution set at 3840x1600 using an MSI GeForce GTX 1080 GAMING X 8G Graphics card

  • D E
    pinebaron, nice equipment.

    I'm using cheap old stuff my renders take forever lol
  • BT

    > It's why architectural schools spend 5 years in undergraduate design studios, while undergraduate engineering schools don't have a design studio until their senior year.


    A design studio during senior year??? Whatever the heck this means.

    My engineering school:

    -freshmen: paper/pencil drafting

    -sophomore: drafting: [unique] gears project.. (usual crp: switch movement from directing a to direction b with added forward and back movement; rpm a to rpm b)

    -Junior: computer aided drafting

    -Junior: manufacturing some odd part project... design manufacturing process [stamping, lathe] and determine the tolerances...

    -senior: [unique] design car/pedestrian bridge with pylons and spans, determine support cables, 400 pages of docs. FINAL GRADE


    (^^^ Above doesn't even include my specialty [extra projects])

    design studio until the their senior year? Really

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Yes, you've verified exactly what I described: many university undergraduate engineering programs don't have an acutal design program for engineer students until their final senior (4th year). That's one, single design program for undergraduate engineers.

    Drafting programs are not design programs. Drafting programs are why we have so many "help me" threads on this forum, i.e., the house designs were created by drafters and CAD operators who have no design sense or design experience at all. They cannot design. They can only draft.

    Undergraduate architectural programs (which are 5 years) typically start actual design studios the second semenster of the freshman year, and continue to graduation after 5 years. That's 9 semesters of true design studios, ranging from small scale to large scale projects of all kinds.

    It's why one cannot compare the design knowledge and skill of engineer students to that of architectural students.

    Of course, architectural students likely know beans about higher math, physics and the sciences...

    Ask me how I know all this...

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