Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Amateur Drafting Solution

Home & Landscape Design Professional
I took drafting for a couple years in high school. Later I took printing classes at the same high school, and landscape drafting and a couple introductory AutoCAD classes in college. Just enough to get simple computer drafting basics down, and appreciate how deeply complex big architectural drawings can be. And let's not forget how hard it is to get something printed properly!

Since I began designing houses as a kid I've sketched them on paper, but they get lost and tend to lay around unfinished. Sometimes I need to make changes but if I change anything it looks a mess and I can't stand it so I just start over. Plus there's the limitations on sharing and sending paper documents, and storing one of a kind originals safely. I needed to capture my ideas in finished form electronically, so I could tweak and refine endlessly and share the results. I needed something simple enough to get me through the process a lot faster than sketching, and affordable enough to make sense in my budget.

A floor plan for a simple food cart.
I shopped around, read reviews, and  in the end I bought Punch! Home & Landscape Design Professional NexGen3. I had used an earlier version of their affordable architectural drafting program years ago and found it functional and a million miles easier than AutoCAD for quick projects. The only reason it wasn't working for us anymore was because of incompatibility with our current Windows operating system, which caused it to run slowly. This newer version is quick, simple, and does most of what I want it to, and I'm happy I spent the money. Roof-lines are hard to get exactly right and I'm still having trouble with 3D; changing the color of objects, making built in cabinetry, and creating good 3D views that show interior details well. I also played around with exterior house trim but I couldn’t get it to go where I wanted and I couldn't take it off once I put it on. I'm still tinkering and learning a little each day.

Here's a mockup of a larger portable kitchen design.
The only major issue I've had since I began using this newer version is printing. In the old version, you could export your drawings as a bitmap. It wasn't ideal, but I could open the bitmap with photo editing software, save it in a more compact and common file type and print and share it as needed. Now I can only export into .dfx or.dwg drawings, or VRML or 3D still images. As I understand it, .dfx is an open source CAD data file format developed by AutoDesk, and .dwg is the native file format in AutoCAD ( feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, my information is years old and may be out of date). To print those without sending them to my local architectural printing service to be run on their plotters, I'd have to run them through a converter, like AutoCAD DWG to Image Converter, one of many that can be gotten free from CNET and other download sites. Otherwise I'm reduced to taking screen shots of my drawings, which is how I produced my sample images.

This stumbling block is a little deeper than simply an issue of getting a print out or a useable file showing your design. In AutoCAD world, all lines have a default line weight (of .01 back in the day when I learned it). For working purposes, all lines display on the screen at readable thickness proportional to the screen you're looking at. It's only when you try to print your work that the near unreadable tiny lines become apparent. As an AutoCAD beginner, you go back and change all your line weights and from then on you start your drawings with a template that establishes weights for all the most common types of objects and lines used in your drawings. I didn't have to deal with all this on the older simpler version, and now it appears I will have to go back to the work flow of creating templates and always opening them up to start a new drawing.

My concept for a nearly ground floor bed design.
There's an animation export option as well, but the menu item is grayed out for me. I imagine that's because I haven't seen how to capture an animation, so there are no animation files to export. It implies that if I took the time to go through the tutorials and learn more about this program I could "record" three dimensional animated walk-through "videos", which would be great.

Punch offers several price points you can buy into for home design software, one with just the basics, one with more of a landscape library, others with more 3D capability, and even a couple of Mac versions,  Home Design Studio for $149.99 and Home Design Studio Pro for $249.99, which I have yet to try. I see they also have specialized software just for bathrooms, kitchens, landscapes, and interiors. I'm still not entirely sure I'm using all the features I paid for at the $179 version I bought, but I was seduced by the idea of the library of 3D objects, ability to edit and create my own 3D stuff, and somewhat realistic 3D rendering. I want to fully decorate and accessorize my designs in 3D because it's an immensely powerful way to road test design ideas without making so many costly real world mistakes. Obviously the library of objects contains a lot of huge things, but it's relatively easy to re-size them to tiny house proportions. I haven't tried my hand at using the 3D object design tool to create a true scale trailer for a tiny house foundation yet. That will be an upcoming project as time allows. So far I just draft my houses 20" or so off the ground.

To someone who has never had any computer drafting experience at all, this could be a workable solution for you, but expect to use the tutorials, be patient, and take your time. If you've used other drafting programs in the past I would say this package presents a nice balance of capability and simplicity. Ultimately, I haven't yet tried to create a set of plans to apply for a building permit, much less actually build from, and therein lies the true test.