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Best architecture software of 2020: digital design for buildings and models

Best architecture software
(Image credit: Pexels)
Best architecture software

Architectural software has become a necessity in modern markets. It doesn't matter which platform you use - any form of digital design software will make life so much easier.

It isn't simply that you have a single space in which you can design your vision, but also the fact that you can edit, delete, and add at will. Additionally, for the more serious projects you can also include engineering information to ensure your structures are viable in a real-world context.

Additionally, you can also use architectural software to look at workflows and project management tasks, some of which are included, integrated, or can simply be exported into another program. 

However, dedicated software for architecture is still quite niche, as the programs have to be pretty comprehensive, and there are only a few vendors who specialize in this area. Even still, there are additional 3D digital design tools you can use alongside, to support, or instead of, in order to explore different design layouts and features.

Here then we'll look at the best architecture software on the market, and include some additional options worth considering.

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3DS Max

(Image credit: 3DS Max)

1. 3DS Max

A flexible modelling system with powerful plugins

3D modelling and animation  
AutoCAD file support
Powerful Plugins
A steep learning curve

3D Studio existed before Windows 3.x and was one of the first tools to offer hardware accelerated rendering of 3D images.

Its value is in creating visuals and fly-through animations to promote a project, rather than design it from the floor up.

Along with the vanilla 3DS Max, you can choose three special flavours designed for Media work & Entertainment, Production design & manufacturing, and an Architecture, Engineering and Construction collection.

That last collection includes products we’ll mention separately, including AutoCAD, Civil 3D. Revit and also InfraWorks, Navisworks Manage.

Those are just the major applications, as it also has tools for structural analysis, steel detailing, building performance analysis and even vehicle path calculations.

3DS Max is available through a yearly subscription of $1,545 with a discount available if you sign up for two or three years in advance. Alternatively, you can buy it as part of a bundle with Revit, AutoCAD, Civil 3D, InfraWorks, and Navisworks Manage for (a discounted) $2,825. 

Civil 3D

(Image credit: Civil 3D)

2. Civil 3D

AutoCAD with a civil engineering twist

Command line interface
Versatile approach
Occasional stability issues
Cloud isn’t well supported

Modelling and drawing are only two of the functions needed from CAD by architects and builders. There are many others, many of which are addressed by Civil 3D from Autodesk.

Designed to work with other Autodesk products, specifically AutoCAD, Revit and 3DS Max, it offers a design and documentation pipeline for Building Information Modelling (BIM) workflows.

One useful ability is the integration of survey images with terrain modelling, roads, service schematics and constructional geometry. All these elements are placed into a single highly annotated package. Allowing engineers to focus on their specific area, but also see how their changes might interfere with others.

Civil 3D costs $2,205 per year to license, or like 3DS Max it can be licensed with other Autodesk products in the Architecture, Engineering & Construction Collection for $2,825 per year.


(Image credit: AutoCAD)

3. AutoCAD

Yet more tools from Autodesk

Efficient keyboard shortcuts
Autodesk integration
Specific training required
Not BIM or Revit

AutoCAD has long been a staple of constructional engineers and architects, and Autodesk has built in specific building design and architecture toolkits into its staple AutoCAD software.

To speed up the process, it provides pre-built objects for walls, doors and Windows, and mechanisms for creating elevations, sections and plans from model geometry.

The only big caveat to this application is how firmly aligned to older working practices it is, where many in the building trade are moving towards a Building Information Modelling application (BIM) future. For those customers Autodesk offers Revit.

Cost is $1,610 per year, or you can get it as part of the Architecture, Engineering & Construction Collection for $2,825 per year.


(Image credit: CATIA)


Can model buildings just as well as jets

Huge model complexity
Very precise model data
Easy to learn
Very expensive

We first encountered CATIA over thirty years ago, when the creators Dassault Systèmes started to promote their in-house solution to other companies.

Originally conceived to precision model military hardware, it can easily handle complex architectural problems and generate finely detailed models.

Where many CAD systems added collaboration and security controlled distribution later, CATIA had this from its inception. And, more recently it expanded those coordination features to embrace Cloud functionality.

With such powerful and fully featured software Dassault don’t post exact pricing. Instead, you have to ask for a quote. That hints at a high cost per seat, although the number of companies that use it also indicates that it is probably worth what they’re demanding.

Chief Architect

(Image credit: Chief Architect)

5. Chief Architect

A software house building kit

Easy to use
Powerful smart features
On Windows PC and Mac

Substantially more homes are built than giant office complexes or retail parks, and that is the forte of Chief Architect.

This tool can be utilised by homeowners wanting to remodel, home builders, interior designers and architects creating unique residences. 

Depending on specific needs there is a product selection that begins very modestly and focuses, for example, on Interiors. Or, you can spend much more on their Premier product that handles complete buildings with all their details.

Using Premier or Architect Interiors you to rapidly construct 3D models of exterior and interior spaces and then project those into 2D plans and elevations.

Premier costs $2,995, and Architect Interiors costs $2,195 per annum, and then $495 per year renewal for either. Or you can rent them for roughly 10% of those prices per month.


(Image credit: Revit)

6. Revit

BIM-orientated design tool for architects

Highly efficient tool
Smart object connectivity
Little overlap in AutoCAD commands
Lacks an intuitive interface

Part of a whole new generation of Autodesk products aimed specifically at architectural studios that handle complex projects and need BIM (Building Information Modelling), Revit not only enabled the design and modelling of a building, but the coordination of multiple engineers collaborating on the same scheme.

Designers using Revit are working with objects, not a vector between two points, and that allows them to work quickly and with confidence.

However, even if they both use a command line interface, this isn’t like AutoCAD. And, those coming from that discipline might struggle initially with the transition. Once they’ve scaled the steep learning curve, Revit can offer a competitive edge over those that are just using traditional design applications.

Revit starts at $2,310 per year and comes in the same collection that AutoCAD and 3D Studio Max offer for architects.

Rhino 6

(Image credit: Rhino 6)

7. Rhino 6

The king of curved surfaces

Very powerful modeller
Plugins and scripting
Third-party services
BIM functionality is an add-on

Most CAD applications are great with straight lines and less marvellous with anything curved. Rhino was designed from inception to handle curved lines, meshes and NURBS surfaces of high complexity, like those in the features of a human face or the sweeping curves of a super-car.

For architectural design, Rhino can easily model the complex intersections of curved roofing or any part of the structure that isn’t inherently straight.

As a platform, it isn’t a specialised tool. Instead, it caters for add-ins and the Grasshopper visual programming system to enable it to be tailored to specific tasks.

This makes Rhino a highly flexible tool that can be tweaked to automate complex modelling and detailing operations for those projects that need them.

A single license for Rhino 6 on Windows PC costs €995 (£880, or $1,160), with a number of add-ons costing extra. Unusually for CAD software, you are not forced to upgrade to the next release and upgrades generally cost half that of a new license.


(Image credit: Sketchup)

8. Sketchup

A user-friendly modelling tool

Free version for home use
Very easy to learn
No built-in rendering
Not a collaborative tool

Originally a Google-backed project, Sketchup is now owned and developed by Trimble, who release a new version at least once a year.

As a start point for anyone entering 3D modelling, Sketchup is as easy as CAD gets. After a few easy to follow tutorials, designers should be able to work rapidly to construct complex solid geometry using it.

The free release has made Sketchup very popular, generating a large and active community of Sketchup users on hand to help the inexperienced. The user-base has also contributed to an extensive object library, a vast resource of pre-constructed parts to drop into any project.

It might not be suitable for designing a building entirely, but it is an excellent tool for rapidly prototyping a design when it is still at a conceptual stage.

Sketchup offers a free tier, although it has limited features. Sketchup Shop has more for $119 per year, while the full-featured Sketchup Pro costs $299 per year.

For professional use, Sketchup Studio can be used to create buildings for a subscription of $1199 a year.

Other architecture software options to consider

While we've featured some of the most powerful and popular AutoCAD and 3D design software programs in this roundup, especially for use in designing buildings and other architectural interests, there are plenty of alternative options to consider. Some of these are worth looking at because they better serve as an introduction for beginners, while others are notable for being free while retaining useful features.

TurboCAD Deluxe is a particularly good choice for beginners and intermediate users. It may not offer as many features as some of the other products on this page, but that's to be expected with a price tag of just $199. Even so, it may be a good piece of software to try in order to simply get used to basic functions, though be warned that there are no command line options here (which more advanced programs tends to offer).

FreeCAD is a free open source 3D modeler, which is especially good for reverse engineering models and seeing how changing parameters can affect the whole design. While it's not so feature-rich as the big paid-for programs, it is a well-supported platform and it does actually have some complex features to explore. Furthermore, it offers cross-platform support, so you can use it regardless of whether your PC is running Windows, macOS, or Linux.

SolidWorks is a powerful CAD program that manages to strike a balance between ease-of-use and advanced features. There's still a learning curve, though it's not overly steep, and some of the nice touches here include a wizard that looks for structural weaknesses in designs. However, it is a general 3D modeling tool rather than specific to architecture itself, so it might be better used for materials modeling rather than buildings. Even so, this product carries a lower price tag than many of the rivals we've featured here, so may be worth a look.

Tinkercad is another general 3D modeling tool that gets a mention because it's free to use and targeted at beginners. So if you lack confidence with tackling grand projects for the moment, Tinkercad could be something to get you used to some of the basics and features you might later develop more advanced training in. And because there's no charge to use it, the program won't burn a hole in your pocket – just treat it like a design sandbox to grow your skills.

CorelCAD is a dedicated CAD program from the ubiquitous Corel design team. It's a 2D drafting and 3D design platform that can be easier to use than some of the more complex products featured here. As you'd expect from Corel, though, this is a good all-rounder that aims to bring together a strong toolkit – not least in terms of the creation and manipulation of vector graphics – at a price that is less than half of the more expensive programs featured here. It also supports .stl files for 3D printing.