There's a new tool available for contractors, rehabbers and just plain architectural dreamers.
It's more powerful than a nail driver, more versatile than a reciprocating saw, more delicate than a finish sander.
What is this miraculous device? It's a computer program -- or rather, it's a family of computer programs that allows users to design, draw, even estimate costs and get a list of materials needed for any project, from rearranging the furniture to building a deck to remodeling a kitchen to planning a new house.
We discovered the computerized construction site recently, when Karol replaced an old, slow personal computer with a state-of-the-art model that's blazingly fast and brimming with memory capacity.
The design programs we've seen take advantage of today's speedier processors and enhanced graphics to deliver sophisticated images and an almost limitless range for manipulation. The programs seem to be written for people who know their field -- or know what they want in construction -- and not for computer specialists or professional artists or architects. Most run with the popular Microsoft Windows "point and click" software, so they're easy to learn and use. Anyone who can maneuver a mouse with some assurance can run the program.
There are dozens of programs available, most in both IBM-compatible and Apple Macintosh versions. The "Expert" series from Softsync Software is one; the "Design Your Own Home" series from Abracadabra is another. Prices generally range from about $30 to under $100, though more expensive programs are available.
So far, we have used two of the programs. One is from Books That Work, called "Design & Build Your Deck" (about $90). If it were a book, it would be bigger than the Oxford English Dictionary -- though a little more lively. If you have multimedia capability, you get sound and animation. Even without multimedia, you get clear, colorful graphics and simple animation.
Like most programs these days, "Deck" takes a good chunk of memory -- about 15 megabytes. But it covers all the bases. It starts with a design section; along the way it tells you everything you need to know about the building process, including animated tips on the proper way to carry and saw lumber and a list of safety warnings on dealing with pressure-treated wood.
While you're working on it, you can "see" a design in top-down view, side view, or 3-D; in any view you can strip off the "decking" to see the framing underneath.
There are four basic designs to get you started; you can drag the sides around to customize a shape. (The program gives you a running measurement as you work.) There are several options for railing design; you just click on one and the program installs it.
The "documentation" is contained in a slim volume, but if you need help or need more information, you can get it at any point. If you need to know how to connect the deck to the house, or how to fasten a joist to a girder, "Deck" will explain it, with drawings.
Once you've settled on a design you like, you can generate a materials list, a list of hardware needed, and a "cutting list," which details what sizes of lumber to buy and what size pieces to cut them into. Having the computer figure your cuts can really save money.
For a homeowner, "Deck" offers unlimited ability to play with a design, until you have what you want at a price you can afford. If you're not doing the construction yourself, it will give the builder an exact diagram of what you want and give you an idea how much it might cost.
Contractors could use the program to show prospective clients what various designs look like and to prepare their bids.
We also have a program called "Floorplan Plus," from ComputerEasy of Tempe, Ariz. (about $80). This program can help arrange furniture in a plan you sketch, or can be used to design a new house.
It's a sort of hybrid between an expert's computer-aided-design program, an artist's paint program and a big, friendly Windows program. It uses the mouse to "draw" walls; "objects" like doors and windows can be selected and fitted in. This program would be ideal for someone planning a kitchen remodeling or room addition; you can "see" all the options before you make the first call to a contractor or pick up a hammer.
For ordinary people in construction or rehabbing, programs like these are a dream come true. Ten years ago, when computer experts were predicting that computers in homes would be as common as toasters, most people laughed. Computers were hard to learn, hard to use and limited in the kind of graphics they could produce. Today, with speedy processors, great graphics and the simplicity of Windows, the tools are finally coming home. Click on OK.
Books That Work, 285 Hamilton, Suite 260, Palo Alto, Calif. 94301; ComputerEasy, 1-800-522-EASY.