Once the exclusive tools of architects and professional designers, computer-aided design, or CAD, programs are becoming increasingly available to do-it-yourselfers who are as comfortable with computer software as with building hardware.
Although not as detailed as the CAD programs used by the pros, the personal-computer versions are sophisticated enough to give clear, professional results (no more drawing out plans on grocery bags or napkins).
They provide enough functions to design one room or a whole house and the landscaping around it. In some cases, they also calculate how much material is required and how much it will cost.
Some programs are capable of printing out professional-looking working plans exact enough for permit approval (although they should be reviewed by a licensed architect or engineer). And unlike the professional programs, which can run into thousands of dollars, the PC versions do all this for less than $100.
However, in addition to some specific equipment requirements, there are a couple of suggestions for running this software. A mouse goes a long way toward speeding up drawings. Some programs permit drawing with the keyboard, but that, says one software publisher, is "like painting your house with a pen." In addition, suggests Al Levy, publisher of the Long Island Computer Association's magazine, Stack, a math co-processor will help speed up calculations, since such programs are slow because of the large volume of data that is processed. Otherwise, all that is required is time to study the tutorials and instructions included with the software.
The Home Series, Autodesk Retail Products of Bothell, Wash., $59.95 each.
This series includes five programs covering kitchen, bath, landscape and deck design, as well as general remodeling. Each program comes with a hefty instruction manual, and a "quick start" card to allow more experienced users to pass over some steps.
All the menu-driven programs contain libraries of predrawn architectural symbols, such as walls, furniture, appliances and electrical outlets for interior projects. The new deck software provides various styles of railings and benches, and the landscaping program contains different plant types and sprinkler system designs. You can mix and match pieces among the various programs to come up with a total design; finished plans can be seen in four elevations (front, back and side views).