CAD-fused? CAD-phobic?

Newark, Ohio post-frame specialists WC Buildings chose Construction Maestro, a design and estimating computer program, to help estimate materials and labor.

Orchard Construction Co. in Armada, Mich., chose Autocad as its computer-aided design (CAD) program.

And Blitz Builders in Brownsburg, Ind., is still trying to find a CAD program that fits its needs and its budget.

Part of Blitz’s hold-up is the bewildering number of CAD programs that compete for its business.

A quick survey turned up more than 50 programs that claim to save time and money for builders who need plans, elevations, specifications, cost estimates, take-offs, presentation drawings for marketing and the like. Equally confusing, all claim to be both powerful and easy to use.

The heavy-hitters in CAD include names such as Archicad and Vectorworks by Nemetschek, Munich, Germany; Autocad by Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif.; and Microstation and PowerDraft, by Bentley Systems, Exton, Pa. Fully configured, they cost between $2,000 and $6,000.

At the other extreme are the free programs. Although the price could not be more right, they generally are distributed over the Internet and come without telephone support or paper manuals. The publishers’ motivation might be to encourage users to upgrade to paid versions.

When ‘free’ is important
The most popular free program is Google’s SketchUp. Triton College in River Grove, Ill., a leading Autocad training center, teaches basic design with this program. Frank Heitzman, AIA, head of the construction management department, praises the program for its ability to design in 3D and even to control lighting.

Detailed plans are more difficult. They require persistence and take time, Heitzman says. SketchUp’s main limitation is its inability to import and export Autocad files. For this, the user must upgrade to SketchUp Pro for $500. The program is available through the Google command line or from

More typical of the free programs is Design Workshop Lite by Artifice in Portland, Ore. It was an excellent program 10 years ago, but it has not been updated and might be difficult to run on current Macintosh or Windows operating systems. Details are at

Just to make shopping really confusing, two programs are called FreeCad. Both are intended primarily for mechanical designers, but their publishers say they have unusual capabilities that might be useful for specific AEC applications.

FreeCad by AR-Cad, Los Alamos, N.M., specializes in motion simulation. Those who want to show 3D objects that move will find the program, which runs on Windows, is worth a look. Check it out at

New, but still ‘raw’
On the other hand, FreeCad by SourceForge, is brand new — so new, in fact, that its Web site posts a warning that it is still being tested. For those rural builders who want a cutting-edge program, written from the ground up with the latest ideas in CAD software and are willing to put up with a few bugs, this program might hold some appeal.

In any case, the developer’s candor is refreshing. To download it, go to

IMSI/Design (formerly International Microcomputer Software Inc.) of Novato, Calif., publishes a family of CAD programs, some of which have been evolving since the company’s founding in 1983. Bob Mayer, IMSI’s chief operating officer, has a reputation as a CAD historian.

IMSI’s free entry is DoubleCad XT, a work-alike for Autocad LT, which is Autodesk’s scaled-down version of Autocad. It can be upgraded to XT Pro for $700. To check out this program, go to

DesignCad, also from IMSI/Design, isn’t free but it might as well be. The price is $50 whether you download it over the Internet or request a disc. Mayer described it as a 2D sketching program. It can be upgraded for an additional $70 to DesignCAD 3D Max, which does surface (but not solid) modeling.
A somewhat different upgrade path is provided by IMSI’s TurboCad series. Starting at $50 for Designer, it continues through $130 for Deluxe to $1,500 for Professional Platinum. Details are found at

Be a bit cautious
A9Cad falls into the category of “don’t call us; we’ll call you (maybe).” Its Web site,,   is incomplete, although the download does work.

CadStd (for Cad Standard), by Apperson & Daughters, is equally reclusive, but its site is more informative. The site’s most interesting feature describes how a 2D drawing can be exported to SketchUp to produce a 3D model. This combines CadStd’s strength in 2D with SketchUp’s strength in 3D. Caution: Although the upgraded Pro version costs only $37.50, the agency identified as CadStd’s authorized reseller, SWReg, says it has no record of the company or its product.

Middle of the road
Most professional-level CAD programs appear in the middle-price group. To ease the introduction, most of them offer “light” (LT) versions.

Trial versions also are common, but few offer lower prices than JustCad by Jon Hoke, Kissimmee, Fla. It’s free for 30 days; if you like it well enough to keep it, the price jumps to $39. It’s a pricing model more familiar to shareware. See it at

A cash-strapped builder needing a CAD program for a one-time project might like the pricing plan by Ashlar, of Austin, Texas. Its CAD program, Graphite (formerly called Vellum), can be rented for $40 a month or $400 for a year. A trial version can be downloaded free for two weeks. Buying an unrestricted license will cost $1,500. The program does 2D plans and 3D wire frames. Most users are product designers. For more information, see

Autodesk offers both a free, 30-day trial of Autocad and a light version, Autocad LT, for $1,200. Another Autodesk product, Sketchbook Pro for $100, is interesting for itself because it was designed specifically for use with electronic pens on digitizing tablets and tablet computers. It is not intended to provide an upgrade path to any version of Autocad and it does not use Autocad’s DWG or DXF file formats.

Long track records
Datacad, of Avon, Conn., holds one of the longest pedigrees in CAD, dating back to the early 1980s — a testament to its quality. Datacad earns the loyalty of its customers in part through annual meetings. Datacad LT is priced at $300. The full version costs $1,300. Its Web site is

Versacad, of Huntington Beach, Calif., like Datacad, also competes directly with Autocad, but for a total cost — $800 — that isn’t much more than some vendors’ introductory prices or “light” versions. Also like Datacad, Versacad has earned its durability by taking care of its customers. See

AutoDesSys is another contender for longevity honors. Chris Yessious, AutoDesSys’s founder, has been experimenting with three-dimensional drawing since the dawning of the microcomputer era. His latest product is Bonzai, an entry-level program leading to the well-respected Form.Z.

With all its rendering add-ons, it sells for $1,500. Its strengths are modeling and rendering. If you watched the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean,” you saw Form.Z at work. The ships were modeled with this program. See more at

Modeling and animation also distinguish Design 3D CX by Strata in Santa Clara, Utah. It supports both Macintosh and Windows operating systems, but most designers use it on a Macintosh, Strata says. Priced normally at $700, it was on sale in March for $300 through its Web site,

And still more choices
The Macintosh (with Intel processor) is the platform of choice for PowerCadd by Engineered Software, Greensboro, N.C. A general purpose drafting program capable of reading and writing Autocad files, it has a base price of $1,000. The expert version sells for $1,205.

As its name implies, General CADD Pro, by General CADD Products of Cherry Valley, N.Y., is a general purpose drafting program. It includes bearing commands for surveyors. Details are found at

VDraft (for Virtual Drafter) by SoftSource, of Bellingham, Wash., is billed as an Autocad LT clone at a fraction of the cost: $250. Not convinced? SoftSource offers a free, 30-day trial  at

ZW Cad, an Autocad clone from China, is supported from its U.S. headquarters in Weston, Mass. The standard edition, priced at $500, does 2D. The 2D/3D program costs $600. ZW offers a free download for 30 days. The president of ZW Cad USA, Kanti Purohit, acknowledges Autocad’s supremacy, but echoes his competitors when he says ZW Cad provides 100 percent of Autocad’s functionality for 90 percent of its users at 20 percent of the price. Go to

Autodsys of Dundee, Ore., (not to be confused with AutoDesSys, publisher of Form.Z), has an interesting approach to survival in an Autocad world. As a generic CAD program, Autocad usually is customized for specific applications, such as architecture and building. Builders could buy basic Autocad but instead of customizing it with Autocad Architecture for $1,000, they could buy AcceliArch for $900. It adds a 3D capability, but the main appeal is ease of use, says Ron Prepchuck, president of Autodsys. (Note that AcceliArch works only with Autocad, not with Autocad LT.)

For a bigger saving, Autodsys suggests buying AcceliCad for $500 instead of basic Autocad, which is priced at $4,000. Autodsys says it provides most of Autocad’s functionality and adds support. Without support, the price of AcceliCad drops to $400. Together, AcceliCad and AcceliArch are priced at $1,100. They run only on Windows.

The Autodsys Web site,, — among others — also sells Intellicad, an entry-level generic CAD program that several publishers use as their basic design engine, much as Autodesk uses Autocad as its base program. One of the appeals of Intellicad as a design platform is compatibility with Autocad’s native DWG file format.

Punch Software of Kansas City publishes both consumer and professional CAD. Its professional series, called Shark, is priced at $500, $1,300 and $1,800 with progressively greater capabilities. Go to

A world market
Once almost exclusively American, CAD programs now are being produced all over the world. For example, Archicad (Hungarian), ZW Cad (Chinese) and Vectorworks (German) were mentioned previously. The issue, of course, is the availability and quality of support, especially with time-zone differences. International software also is subject to foreign and legal politics. SourceForge, for example, has been banned in China, sued in France and sanctioned by the U.S. for sale in five countries.

A quick Internet search turned up these programs that might appeal to builders in the United States: Caddie and Microspot (British); Kompas 3D (Russian); HiCad, Cycas, SolidWorks and Felix Cad (German); Data Design System (Norwegian); Qcad (Swiss); ProgeCAD (Italian); and VariCad (Czech).

Builders and designers normally do not need the capabilities of mechanical CAD, but specific projects, especially in modeling, might find useful programs such as NX, SolidWorks, Varicad, Cadmax, Solid Edge and Cadkey.

Prices cited here are manufacturers suggested retail prices. Discounts might be available, especially if the vendor knows it is being purchased by a school or a student.

This list is not comprehensive. For example, it omits Cadopia, Visual CAD by TriTools and Digital Project by Gehry Technologies because they did not return phone calls or messages by deadline. CAD programs that are obviously intended for the consumer market (“Who needs an architect? Design your own home!”) also have been omitted.

The writer, Oliver Witte, welcomes comments, corrections and additions to this topic. Witte, a regular Rural Builder contributor and columnist, follows developing technology and new products for the construction industry. Contact him at or through the editor at, 800-726-9966, ext 13644.

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