While hand-sketched designs certainly have a place in architecture, software programs make it easy for architects to create 3D models and renderings of their designs. Of course, much of the software available comes at a price — one that isn’t always accessible for students, small architecture firms, or self-employed architects.
In this article, we’re going to guide you through a few of the key factors you need to consider when researching architecture software, then break down the pros and cons of some of the most popular free architecture software programs.
Whether you’re looking for free software or to purchase an architecture program, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the key features that you’ll be using — and this will likely differ from one architect to the next. What’s the difference between computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM)? Do you want open-source or closed-source software? Will you need 3D modeling capabilities, or will 2D be sufficient for now? These are all factors you need to consider before weighing your free architecture software options.
Computer-aided design, commonly known as CAD, is simply the use of computer systems to support design; however, the term is most often used in reference to using a drafting tool to create lines and arcs in building designs. The focus with CAD is on creating drawings.
BIM, or building information modeling, on the other hand, takes things further and enables architects to integrate workflows and store detailed information about the models, including floor plans, materials, and costs. It can save time, but it’s often far more expensive and comes with a steep learning curve — and it’s not often necessary (or even recommended) for architects early on in their careers.
In open-source software, coding is freely available and it relies on mass collaboration for further development and fixes. This means that software users can copy, modify, and delete code, if they so wish. As long as the community of users is active, open-source software can continue to progress with new updates, features, and support for a long period of time. While open-source software is often free, it’s not always as user-friendly as closed-source options and it can sometimes be tricky to find technical support.
Closed-source software is the opposite. Code is kept private and its the software creators who are responsible for important things like introducing new features, providing fixes, and offering support. Closed-source software can be more stable, but it’s rarely available for free.
You can do a lot with a 2D plan, and the ability to create 2D designs is standard in every architecture software program. However, not every software allows for the creation of 3D models from 2D designs. Software that only offers 2D drawing capabilities is excellent to use as a stepping stone to more advanced architecture software.
Moving to software with 3D capabilities comes with a steeper learning curve, but it’s a critical skill for architects to eventually grasp. Software offering 3D CAD provides architects with greater precision and modeling, as well as the ability to deliver photorealistic renderings to clients.
While the below software options are certainly not the be all and end all, they are popular architecture programs that deliver excellent value, considering they’re free. Some of them have paid ‘upgrade’ versions available, while others are open source and completely free all the time.
FreeCAD is an open-source 3D parametric modeler that can be used to design real-life objects, including architecture. The software is operable on Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms and is highly customizable. It reads and writes to a range of file formats, including STEP, IGES, STL, SVG, OBJ, and others, making it easy to integrate into your existing workflow.
For a free software, FreeCAD offers some great benefits, including the ability to create 3D models from 2D designs and vice versa. The shapes of objects like walls and flooring aren’t restricted, allowing architects maximum creativity in their designs (think flooring that curves up into a wall). There are also plenty of resources to help users master the software, such as a wiki with tutorials and YouTube video library.
On the other hand, some users report difficulty anchoring 3D objects, which results in rotations actually moving them to another location on the screen. The interface also isn’t as user-friendly as some of the other softwares and can be somewhat difficult to navigate — especially for new users.
Blender is a free, open-source 3D modeling and design software that offers a significant range of features — once you get over the steep learning curve. Each design is started from scratch, requiring the user to have a strong grasp on the software to be able to achieve the best results. Luckily, there are a multitude of resources available to help architects master Blender and leverage all its features to the greatest capacity.
Since the software is open-source, it develops quickly and is responsive to ideas and input from users. There are pre-programmed keyboard shortcuts for almost everything, which is a time-saver for busy architects, and its menus and toolbars are highly customizable to architect preferences.
B-processor is a BIM software developed by Denmark’s Arhus School of Architecture. Since the platform was created from scratch and designed specifically for architectural purposes, the user interface and workflow are incredibly intuitive. The software offers only 3D views, with modeling done in a 3D viewport geared towards this task. B-processor includes some great features that increase efficiency for users, including the ability to automate repetitive tasks using ‘modellers,’ which are ideal for design elements such as windows, doors, and stairs. It also enables users to calculate quantities and costs, as well as perform energy efficiency simulations.
Revit isn’t technically a free software, but Autodesk offers it free to students and educators. It was designed specifically for professionals like architects, engineers, contractors, and designers and relies on BIM technologies for the ultimate 3D design and visualization capabilities. The software supports a modeling workflow (as opposed to a drafting one) and automatically updates any changes to the model in the 3D image, too. In addition to offering design, documentation, and visualization capabilities, Revit allows users to optimize building performance, run cost estimates, and monitor performance changes over the lifetime of the project.
Though the free, downloadable version of SketchUp is fairly basic and doesn’t include many of the export features, it’s an excellent software for creating quick 2D and 3D designs and is ideal for the conceptual phase. SketchUp is easy to understand and its intuitive, user-friendly interface comes with minimal learning curve — though the trade-off here is limited rendering capabilities. Due to the limitations, the software is best used for giving clients a walkthrough of the designs. With that said, SketchUp comes with an impressive component library and numerous plug-ins are available to level up designs, including to create photorealistic renderings.
LibreCAD is a free, open-source software with an excellent global community of users who can offer support. It’s compatible with macOS, Windows, and Linux and is available in over 30 languages, making it highly accessible to users in just about any location. LibreCAD a great choice for architects seeking software for 2D CAD, and while it lacks 3D capabilities, it offers just about all the features necessary to create complex designs. The software is fairly straightforward and the interface is customizable, allowing users to drag elements into the working area. Designs can be exported in multiple file formats for maximum versatility.
A brief overview
To help you quickly compare the software options we discussed above, here’s an easy reference chart that lays out the pros and cons of each.
A final word
It’s important to remember that you’re never limited to just one architecture software throughout your career, and there’s a case to be made for familiarizing yourself with as many different software programs as you can. While the above list isn’t exhaustive, it provides an overview of some of the most commonly used free software in the architecture field so that you can make an informed decision about which one might be best for you.
Regardless of which software you choose, be sure to download it from a secure source (like the official website). And if you get stuck while trying to figure things out, never hesitate to reach out to the community of users — your fellow architects are likely more than happy to offer some tips and tricks to help you out.
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