Design software helps both DIYers, pros

3D rendering of a reception room in Tyler Hall at Bucks County Community College. (KATHY APPEL)
3D rendering of a reception room in Tyler Hall at Bucks County Community College. (KATHY APPEL)
Posted: July 28, 2012

Want to see how your kitchen will look dressed in a nice sky blue? Or see if you'd like a set of chairs in that breakfast nook? What about checking out the view from the kitchen table after you knock out the dining room wall - without opening a can of paint, moving a piece of furniture, or swinging a sledgehammer?

With this kind of power, who needs a professional?

Lots of DIYers, apparently.

As the market bulges with do-it-yourself interior design software - the most popular comes from Chief Architect, Better Homes & Gardens, and even HGTV - interior designers have felt the impact, just not in the way you might think.

These programs don't steal work from the professionals; in fact, they often result in giving them more work - sometimes by setting a customer straight after she has designed herself into oblivion, or by offering the know-how to implement a plan that's more complicated than anything the customer would have thought up sans software.

"Some people come to me with a floor plan worked on a rat maze," said architect and interior designer Richard Morrison, from Redwood City, Calif., who gets at least four clients a year with designs - made from a software program - that must be reworked. And worse, they are involved emotionally, he said, "because it is their rat maze." That's where his skills are necessary, although he has had two clients who wouldn't back down from their original plan, resulting in a final "I can't help you."

The programs can be easy to use, or difficult, depending on the users' comfort and experience level with computer software, said Dennis Gavin, owner of Gavin Design-Build Inc., in Media. He likened this aptitude, or lack thereof, to what someone using a hammer and chisel could create out of stone: One person might smash it; another "could carve a statue like David."

One potential smasher-turned-Michelangelo is Jack Zimmer, owner of Zimmer Design in suburban Milwaukee, a self-proclaimed computer neophyte. He had never used a computer before he used the program made by HGTV, but within a day and a half, Zimmer said, he was creating designs with it.

Scott Harris, vice president of sales and marketing for Chief Architect, a producer of professional and DIY software (its professional version was introduced in 1991, and soon after a DIY version was launched), says the learning curve can range from an hour or two to a day or two: If you're comfortable using programs like PowerPoint, it will be on the quicker side.

The scope of the project also will make a difference, says Barry Evleth, director of product marketing for Avanquest Software, the designer for HGTV interior software products. Learning what is involved in a so-called instant makeover will probably take 30 minutes. But a deck? The DIYer will probably want to consult the tutorials, so it will be wise not to make any other plans for the weekend.

Of course, the more people who can really master such programs, the bigger the potential to reduce a designer's business, said Kathy Appel, co-owner of Hearth & Hedgerow in Quakertown and president of the East Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. But "they make mistakes, so they want to work with the designer with the next phase of the project."

Used in conjunction with a professional, the programs can add clarity to a project, even saving time and maybe even money. Before these programs existed, architects and interior designers had to draw the plans, and often, their clients didn't fully grasp what they were looking at. But in 3-D, it's another visual world.

The 3-D aspect, Zimmer said, provides depth, and clients more readily understand the design. They can ask questions, and make changes earlier in the process. "I can do so much more," Zimmer said. It is so helpful that he has clients buy the HGTV program.

"In this business, visual communication is really, really important," said Appel, who is a big proponent of interior design programs. "It's extremely helpful to me to be able to communicate to the customer, then send it to the customer, so they can see what it will look like."

3-D can give someone the ability to walk through a room and get an infinite number of views. That same information can be used in the construction drawings later on. That means "fewer surprises," Morrison said.

Customers become much more educated before going to a designer or Home Depot, Harris said. First using the program "cuts down the exploratory path."

Let's say someone wants to give her living room a whole new look - floors, furniture, walls, window treatments, the works. These programs are packed with all kinds of pull-down menus from which she can choose these items, giving her a vision of her future. You can't get that from a color swatch.

Of course, to get it right, she will need to have the measurements of the room and furniture, know how far the window treatments will hang, and possess a thorough understanding of scale. Otherwise, she could fall in love with that new overstuffed couch and later discover it reaches into a doorway.

Although the DIY programs have prospered along with reality TV design shows of the last decade, Chief Architect, one of the first makers of these programs, began when a Stanford Ph.D. in physics wanted to learn how to write software programs. His parents were building a house so he designed a program for the builders. They loved it; word spread, and an industry was born.

Privately held, Chief Architect does not reveal sales figures, but Harris said the company is doing "very well," and is in the process of releasing Generation 15. (Each new version has added features, more colors, new trends.) HGTV has its third version out, Evleth said, and its programs are selling well.

Still, the programs are no substitute for expertise. When you plan a kitchen that isn't up to code, you're on your own.

Said Evleth: "We agree, it's not just all do-it-yourself."

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