Every now and then I run across a program that defines a whole new genre of software.
Design & Build Your Deck sounds prosaic enough, but this initial effort from Books That Work, a California software start-up, turns a basic how-to book on deck building into a multimedia tour-de-force. More important, it's a useful piece of software that does one particular thing very well.
The package, which runs on IBM-compatible computers under Microsoft Windows, consists of two parts. The first is the Design Workshop, a sophisticated electronic drawing board that makes it easy and fun to design and view your deck and then generate a variety of printed drawings, plans, diagrams and parts lists, complete with prices.
The second part is a multimedia how-to book on deck building. You've seen these paperbacks in home improvement stores. D&B; provides not only searchable text that takes you through the process from start to finish, but also a variety of clear and beautiful illustrations, many of them animated and voice annotated (you'll need a sound board for the sound effects).
Anyone who has tried to use computer-aided design (CAD) programs to create something simple such as a deck plan can tell you what frustration means. D&B; knows you're not an architect, and it's only concerned with decks -- so it takes a much friendlier approach.
You start a session in the design workshop by choosing a basic deck type (free-standing, flush against one wall, inside or outside corner). This is just to get you going. If you decide you want to turn that flush deck around the corner of your house, you can do it later.
The first thing you'll see is an overhead view of your basic deck design. Using your mouse, you can enlarge or reduce any part of the deck, with accurate dimensions displayed at the top and side of the screen.
You can create notched or angled corners, add walls to conform with the layout of your house, and show the location of doorways.
As you're modifying the basic deck layout, D&B; is automatically calculating the number and location of footers, posts, beams and joists. Click the mouse button and you can make the decking disappear to view the support structure underneath.
When the basic layout is complete, you can add stairs and railings. There are four different styles of of railings, and when you've determined the height of your deck, D&B; will even figure out the proper cut pattern for your stair risers.
To get different perspectives on what you've done, you can switch instantly between top, side and three-dimensional views of your deck and zoom in or out.
Unlike CAD programs, which are designed to produce schematics and blueprints, D&B; actually shows you a deck the way it will appear in the context of your house. This seamless and absolutely natural approach masks some incredibly sophisticated programming that you're unlikely to find outside of expensive CAD software.
Once you're satisfied with the design, D&B; will produce parts lists, cut lists and a variety of diagrams to help you buy your materials and build the deck. You can specify different types of ++ lumber for different parts of the deck (some people use cheaper pressure treated pine or fir for the supporting structure and expensive but attractive redwood for the visible portions). If you know how much your lumberyard charges for each component and what lengths of lumber are available, D&B; will print out a complete price list and total for your project.
The Design Workshop is not without its flaws. Running a deck around three sides of a house is awkward and isn't documented in the otherwise excellent online help system that augments a thin instruction manual. But you can do it if you fool around for a while.
There's no provision for turning a stairway, and the program assumes a flat surface beneath the deck, which is rarely the case. If you need more than one row of footings and posts to support the deck, you may wind up buying slightly more material than you need.
The how-to portion of the program is likewise beautifully executed. D&B; will take you through the entire process, step by step, from laying out footers to staining and repairing the finished product.
Each topic is fully indexed, with hypertext cross-references, and the program keeps a history of the topics you've seen. So if you're confused about terminology or want to go back to something you've read before, it's a mouse click away.
The illustrations that accompany each section are generally clear and to the point. While some of the animations are superfluous, others do an excellent job of explaining things that a still picture doesn't do very well, such as using a 3-4-5 triangle to make sure your deck is truly laid out at right angles to your house.
Besides offering instruction, the program includes discussions of deck design, construction techniques and materials, and dozens of digitized photos of actual decks.
All of this comes with a price -- disk space. D&B; requires eight (count 'em) megabytes of storage, which puts it right up there with major word processors, spreadsheets and graphics programs.
Although you can print out any topic from the how-to manual, it would be nice to actually have a printed version of the book to take outside when you actually begin the work -- even if it added a few dollars to the cost of the program. Unfortunately, Design & Build Your Deck exists only in electronic form.
Despite its minor flaws, D&B; is a superb first effort from a company that promises more of the same. With a list price of $79.95 and a street price of about $50, it's well worth the money if you're building a deck yourself, or even thinking of hiring someone to do it.
A Macintosh version should be available in a few months, and the company is promising new releases dealing with general home repair and gardening. I look forward to seeing them. For information, contact Books That Work, 285 Hamilton, Suite 260, Palo Alto, Calif. 94301.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)