What is Architectural Design Software?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Architectural design is the process an architect goes through in his or her work in doing the preparatory work for the construction of a building. CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) software is software used to create 2D and 3D objects in a way that will appropriately translate into the real world. Architectural design software is CAD software that is specially crafted and specialized for the work that an architect has to do. Sometimes one company has different versions of a basic CAD program. In this case, the architectural design version will be the one whose features, assumptions, and tools reflect what is most useful to architects.

Architectural design software includes programs like AutoCAD and AutoDesk.
Architectural design software includes programs like AutoCAD and AutoDesk.

There are some free architectural design software programs, as well as some inexpensive ones for home owners who wish to try their hand at designing their own home. Professional architectural design software is separated in price by at least $1000 US Dollars (USD) in most cases, and by a vast amount of complexity and functionality. Some examples of professional architectural design software include Vectorworks® Architectural by Nemetschek®, AutoDesk® AutoCAD®, Bentley® MicroStation®, the self-named Chief Architect® Full, IMSI® Design TurboCAD® Pro Platinum, the self-named DataCAD®, and Graphisoft® ArchiCAD®.

Architectural design software is typically used in conjunction with a plotter or a high-end large format printer.
Architectural design software is typically used in conjunction with a plotter or a high-end large format printer.

Some of the key aspects of professional architectural design software include elements that are very specific to the task of designing a building, and some are more general. The capabilities in 2D drafting and 3D modeling are a given, but different programs have different approaches to Building Information Modeling (BIM) functionality. Shading, photorealistic rendering, and printing capabilities are also key, as is CAD standards management. A well-thought-out library is also very useful.

Productivity and non-core features that are also important include digital security as a means to confirm file approvals and controlling digital rights. Workgroup collaboration, including how files are shared and how versioning is handled, is extremely important for team projects. MicroStation®, for example, uses Microsoft® SharePoint®, while ArchiCAD® uses a BIM Server® to coordinate teamwork and sharing with clients.

Interoperability is crucial in architectural design software, on many different levels. First, the ability to import files from a wide variety of origins is helpful, and some professional programs keep the range as broad as possible, including Google® SketchUp® along with more traditional file types. The choice of ‘Export,’ ‘Save As,’ and ‘Publish’ file formats are also important, as is the ability to assemble multiple file formats. A variety of file format options are important for ‘Copy’ and ‘Paste,’ too. A program that runs on multiple operating systems can also be desirable.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to EasyTechJunkie about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@NathanG - I know what you mean. I worked a summer job at a place that used AutoCAD. A friend got me the gig. He probably shouldn’t have, because I had absolutely no talent.

It’s not that I couldn’t use the software; it’s that I didn’t understand basic principles of architectural design. The friend who got me the job was an architecture major, that’s how he got in, as an intern.

He referred me. I was not an architecture major; end of story.


@miriam98 - You’ve raised an important point. In order to use architect software, you need to be an architect. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve bought some advanced software package, lured in by the product’s creative possibilities, and yet have been disappointed when I tried to use it.

Why was that? Those creative possibilities were produced by designers, not amateurs like me. The software won’t make you an architect. You have to have those credentials and skills under your belt.

Otherwise your “creations” will be mediocre at best, whether the software application costs you fifty bucks or $1,000.


@Charred - You were using architectural home design software most likely, which is limited in functionality. After all, it’s not really created for architects; it’s created for normal folks like you and me (I assume you’re not an architect) and so some of the functionality has to be really easy and somewhat limited at the same time.

In the professional sphere, AutoCAD is among one of the most popular architectural design software packages, among the others listed here. I usually see advertisements in the paper for someone with AutoCAD experience.

Usually you have to take classes to learn that type of software. Coupled with architectural design experience, these software programs can become very powerful in the hands of a talented designer.


I’ve played with some of the free 3D design software that you can get off the Internet. The quality of the software is fair to middling in my opinion. But it’s free so I can’t complain.

I was using this program when I was thinking of remodeling my kitchen. The program lets you easily build walls to the scale of your kitchen and add windows and countertops and so forth. It wasn’t that flexible in terms of letting me change my layout a whole lot.

There these template layouts that you could tweak a little bit but the customization was limited. I think they had a paying version of the program that let you customize your options some more. Like I said, it was free and as always, you get what you pay for.

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