ONE YEAR UPDATE, Jan 28, 2014
Please see my original review below the update.
I am still trying to finish a house, we had some strange turns in our life so I am not a typical user. When I bought the program I was trailing electronically behind an architect who was doing the work by hand. Eight months ago we moved and started all over with out house. I am happy to say it is now almost finished. When I got into that level of design, I upgraded to Chief Architect which is the professional program. I was able to rent it by the month to match our project. There are a few steps to go through to be able to read a Chief Architect professional program on Home Designer but once you know it is no big deal. I am still VERY Happy with the program. Even with a high level of skill there are some quirks but that is not uncommon with a lot of computer programs.After being a daily user of both of the Chief Architect programs here are a few pros and cons. The Pros far outweigh the cons and the improvements seem to be the ones that people were most interested in seeing changed. Kudos Chief Architect.
1. Absolutely the best tech support I have ever experienced. There are scads of video tutorials that are free. The manual online is searchable even with poor organization of search terms when you don't quite know what you are trying to ask about. When you do need a person's help, someone is right on the phone with you to help. I made a really big mess once and they asked me to send a copy of my entire file for them to review. They posted an answer for me. I was so surprised. And, they are just downright nice folks.
2. The 3D modeling allows you to do a lot of things I did not know as an early user. For example, you can pick a chair, "paint" it with an eyedropper like you find in most color editing programs and then save the chair so you can use it again.
3. You can upload actual photographs and use them for your backgrounds so you can see how a project will look.
4. Some of the irritating problems with grouping and aligning have now been fixed. The align function works like Powerpoint's does.
5. The snap to functions are much, much improved. It is rare that I have trouble with this anymore.
1. It Is Still Relatively Expensive. Both the Home Designer Pro and the professional Chief Architect programs are priced well for what they are but they are not priced for most casual users.
2. Aligning floors and keeping paint colors in the rooms where they belong can get tricky. You have to break the wall lines to keep the colors where they go which then sometimes causes the floor-to-floor alignment to get wonky.
3. Setting ceiling heights in multi-level houses with two-story vaulted rooms is recalcitrant. There are clear directions on how to do it but sometimes the program reads the space where the floor would go as missing and thinks that your ceiling heights are different which then locks your ability to change ceiling heights below. This happens not too often but too often for me to not be frustrated. I have learned to deal with it but it took me a long time.
ORIGINAL REVIEW, Jan 16, 2013
One reviewer raised the issue as to whether or not the reviewers actually used the program. I am an actual user of this program. I have other reviews posted at Amazon and aim to provide information to others to help them evaluate whether or not a particular product meets their needs. My review is long but I have endeavored to enumerate the key things that I have learned. I like this product very much but do not think it is for everyone. If it meets your needs I can recommend it highly. I am extremely happy that I selected it when compared to other options.
MY SUMMARY REVIEW
Home Designer Pro is an excellent program for amateurs doing real architectural work. It is not a substitute for a program that a professional might use but it does have many of the same features. It is very detailed and allows the user a deal of control. However, without experience or practice it is not an easy program to use. If the extent of your computer software experience is MS Word, Excel and Powerpoint do not expect that you will be able to get right to the meat of this program. Those who bring to the desk knowledge of computers and of design and building will be the most quickly successful. The price moves the program out of the casual users budget but it is well below a full professional program. I believe it is an appropriate price for a program that yields such professional results for people working on their own or on projects of limited scope. Among similar programs I believe this one is the most robust for the knowledge and skill that the user has to bring to the table.
BACKGROUND OF MY GOALS IN PURCHASING THE PRODUCT
I purchased this software hoping to have a program that would allow me to do real architectural activities, not just draw floor plans. My house burned down in one of the 2012 summer wildfires in the Rockies and the dwelling reconstruction is complex and I am very involved in the process. I was reticent to spend $500 on a program that was marketed for non-professionals. I decided to purchase the program after talking with their sales personnel who were very helpful and clear that if I did not like the program I could return it or upgrade to the professional version. There are many things you can do in the full-blown professional program that you cannot do in the home version but overall I cannot find many things that an amateur would be missing. If you are planning to be in business using the software I would recommend the professional line that is twice and more the cost of the Home Designer Pro. Otherwise, I think this is a fine product.
The learning curve is steep. I came to the software with experience in multiple statistical, mapping and graphics programs. The most basic functions were not hard. The more complex, and helpful functions, are not click and go. The require a thoughtful approach accompanied by experience in the software and patience with learning. I estimate that it only took me a couple of days to learn to draw basic floor plans, place furniture and fixtures and create a 3D model. It took me more than a week's worth of effort to learn about doing exteriors in relationship to the floor plan and the 3D renderings. It took about another week to learn how to get the roof functions to work. After about a month working with the program I can remember how to do stuff and can do most anything I want to do. The work that I produce with the program is professional and is useful for the actual planning and building of my home. It is something that can be used for bids and built from which makes me very happy. I would like to be clear that it is not a substitute for a good architect or engineer.
THINGS THAT I LIKE ABOUT THE PROGRAM
1. It is very robust. You can make mistakes and recover from them.
2. The file protection protocols are very good. If you are working and forget to save the program automatically saves it for you. It is not easy to overwrite versions of your document reducing the "oh no" function. If you make changes and forget to save them or if you change and don't do a save as, finding the previous file is a snap. Each time you open your file you will be prompted to select the one you are opening or a newer version. It is nice to have the options.
3. The array of products and materials is truly astonishing. One of the differences between Home Designer line and the Chief Architect line (the professional line) is the amount of access you have to materials. There are more available in the Chief Architect line but the number and variety of products available in Home Designer is impressive. It is possible to import information in multiple formats including jpg and tiff. It will import DXF files but not DWG. I have found this to be somewhat frustrating but interoperability between various CAD programs is not as seamless as other types of programs. The import and export protocols are generally excellent and allow you to import CAD furniture etc from other places. For example, you can import backdrop jpgs so that you can have your 3D model sitting on the actual property where it will be built. Many product companies provide their catalogs to the users of the program. For example, Sherwin Williams paints are available. You can also import GPS coordinates.
4. The materials list function is extremely helpful. You can compile the list by room, by floor, by building or by the entire project. You can sort the materials so that you can view by all of your materials in a searchable, categorized master list or by the total materials needed for a specified place within your larger project. For example, you can request materials list for all bathrooms or one bathroom. You do have to be very meticulous with the general building materials, fittings, fixtures and furniture that you use in the home because the materials list will catalog exactly what you put into the program. Early on I kept making duplicates of cabinets when I tried to place them. I got 4 dishwashers piled on top of each other in such a way it appeared to only be one. I got a bid back that included 4 dishwashers since that was on my list :-). The process seems to work best using it within the Chief Architect/Pro program but you can automatically export the files in comma delimited, excel or html formats.
5. The computer requirements to run the program are not all that intense. The computer requirement to run it well and fast are. I work on multiple computers, one that has 24 GB ram, one with 16 and one with 8. I can tell a big across my machines. It is not that you cannot use the program but the difference in how you use it are pretty important. For example, some products will not render on some computers with less power.
6. You can have the program installed on multiple computers. If you move from one computer to the other to work you simply deactivate the license on one and reactivate it on the other. The change is not hard and takes less than a minute to do. I like being able to know clearly what I am doing with intellectual property. It is nice not to have to guess if you are or are not following the specified rules.
7. The snaps and grids are robust. You can draw a pretty poor line and it will straighten right up.If you miss getting walls connected you can fix that by selecting one of the lines and right clicking, select join line and then click on the other line.
8. The program is organized so that you make multiple stories in one plan. It is a matter of a single click to go one floor to another. If you want to see all of your floors at once that is possible. One of the great features is the "align with wall above/below" This allows you to make sure that each floor is perfectly aligned without having to struggle with it yourself.
9. There are multiple types of 3D renderings from which you can choose. Some render very quickly with less detail and others take more computing power but are much more life-like. You can pick what you need for the moment. One of the interesting options for 3d modeling that looks as much as possible like real life (perspective view) is to draw the whole house or just one floor. This is very useful if you want to work on one place and do not want to render the entire building.
10. It is really nice to be able to show other people what you are thinking. Flat floor plans are extremely useful and are immediately clear to some people. However, I have found that I can do the 3D modeling and truly convey what I am thinking even if the other person has not been working on the project or have experience with reading blueprints.
11. The doll house views are extremely useful and downright fun. The full model draws all of your floors, say foundation 1st and 2nd stories. You can click up and down the stories and look inside of each floor. You can look down (useful to see if your framing lines up) or you can tilt the view in any direction so you can see detail of how the building looks outside and even your decorator items inside and out in this or that spot.
12. You can send your documents to a layout option which is a blueprint format.
13. The number of text and video training options are laudable. You can go to any online search engine and search for the topic of interest with the key word Chief Architect and you will have multiple options for instruction. Many are from the company itself. They also monitor discussion groups and enter with answers when it seems appropriate. (COMMENT: see discussion with this review as an example).
14. The quality of the text and video training and tech support documents is some of the best I have ever seen for any program anywhere. While there are some fee-based programs the amount of free help is excellent.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT BEFORE YOU PURCHASE THE PROGRAM
These are things that some might call limitations but I put into the category of reality check. Working with a complex 2D and 3D program is not point and click. The program will do many things for you, you can even use pre-loaded templates or space planning blocks. However, it is important for the potential user to think honestly about how they will use the program and what their skill level and commitment to using the program is.
1. The most important issue/limitation is the user knowledge required. I must qualify this. There are multiple levels at which you can work. To work at even a moderate level the program is complicated. The biggest hurdle is the user's knowledge of the language and functions of design and building. The are glossaries and tutorials available but that does not help a lot if you don't know what you are trying to learn.
2. It is expensive, relatively. The program is less expensive than some and more than others. I think it is a good value but $500 is not cheap.
3. Working in 3D requires some knowledge of working in X, Y and Z planes. You can edit in 3d but you won't be able to tell without doing a 360 if the pillow you placed on the couch is exactly lined up in X and Y but is located 40 miles into space on the Z plane. It takes some practice. While I was learning and I kept throwing house spinning out into the stratosphere we made a joke saying, "Auntie Em, Auntie Em" from the Wizard of Oz. I must say this problem is not unique to the program, it is endemic to working in anything 3D on a flat plane like a computer screen.
4. To run easily, it takes a fair amount of computer horsepower. This is not particularly concerning to me but this program probably won't run on a garden variety home computer that is used primarily for email and surfing the web.
5. I wish the program had easier align functions. I have moderated this comment from my original review because of assistance provided in a discussion regarding this message. I felt like Chief Architect was less competitive by not having an obvious way to align items. As an example of why (Please note the discussion regarding alignment on this review)I think this is a great program, someone from someone from Chief Architect responded to the review and provided information as to how to address the problem. The directions he/she give are clear. This demonstrates one of the reasons I like the product. They are out there and they offer assistance. I must say that I have had difficulty with this function. My experience has been that getting cabinets in a row,is not as easy as most of us have grown use to using programs like Powerpoint. It may be a trivial but to me it would be better if the program incorporated a more intuitive or user friendly method.