Architecture software has evolved way beyond creating 2D and 3D models on a computer. The best platforms incorporate Building Information Modelling (BIM) to help architects and engineers collaborate on the design, labor, materials, planning, and technical specifications of any project.
A recent report shows that 70% of U.S. architects believe that BIM has helped reduce their risk of project errors and 56% claim their clients are more satisfied after implementing collaboration solutions into their BIM projects.
We reviewed over a dozen architecture software platforms and chose the best based on ease-of-use, specific functionality (such as 2D vs. 3D modeling), compatibility with other architecture software, and the ability to help large teams share and collaborate on projects. What follows are our top choices.
The 6 Best Architecture Software of 2020
Best Overall: AutoCAD
Developed in 1982, AutoCAD was designed to bring the world of computer-aided design (CAD) from mainframe to personal computers. By 1986, AutoCAD had become the most widely used CAD program worldwide. We chose it as the best overall since it’s still the mainstay application for architects around the world and includes many building design and architecture toolkits.
For architects, AutoCAD is primarily used as a 2D drawing tool for creating floor plans, elevations, and sections. The software speeds up the drawing process with pre-built objects like walls, doors, and windows that behave like real-world objects. AutoCAD also offers specific architectural, mechanical, electric, and other toolsets to support any type of drawing and design.
AutoCAD can also easily convert 2D drawings into 3D objects with a variety of solids, surfaces, mesh objects, and lighting for detailed and realistic renderings. AutoCAD’s parent company, Autodesk, also offers several more robust 3D tools that AutoCAD integrates with easily. Due to its dominance in the industry, AutoCAD files are widely supported in other design tools and software.
Unlike much of the industry-standard software that’s slow to adapt, AutoCAD has quickly innovated for the 21st century. It offers a web and mobile app and online storage with the leading cloud storage providers, allowing teams to view and edit CAD drawings in real-time anytime, anywhere.
AutoCAD offers three pricing options: an annual subscription for $1,690, a monthly subscription for $210, and a three-year subscription for $4,565. All subscriptions come with a 30-day free trial and include both Windows and Mac versions. Users also get access to the Architecture, Electrical, Map 3D, Mechanical, MEP, Plant 3D, and Raster Design (Windows only) toolsets.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: ARCHICAD
Developed in 1982 and released in 1987, ARCHICAD was the first CAD product able to create both 2D and 3D geometry on a personal computer as well as the first Building Information Modelling (BIM) product for personal computers. We chose it as our runner-up because, while it’s not as widely used as AutoCAD, it lets users work in both 2D and 3D at the same time and supports BIM to help teams design buildings using the same database and computer model.
ARCHICAD is a 2D/3D architecture software specially designed for urban planners, architects, designers, and interior designers. Compared to AutoCAD, which creates drawings from 2D-lines, ARCHICAD lets users build models using real constructed elements, including walls, windows, roofs, and slabs. ARCHICAD also integrates BIM methodology, allowing architects, engineers, and contractors to work collaboratively on the same project.
Like AutoCAD, ARCHICAD is available on Windows and Mac computers and has a mobile app. While some consider ARCHICAD more user-friendly than AutoCAD, others find that extra software options make it a bit harder to learn.
ARCHICAD only offers pricing via local resellers. However, online research indicates that users should expect to pay $4,995 for a full one-time license. The company has a 30-day free trial as well.
Best for Beginners: SketchUp
SketchUp was developed in 2000 as a general-purpose 3D content creation tool that was easy for users to learn and fun to use. It’s suitable for architectural, interior design, landscape architecture, and civil and mechanical engineering drawing applications. We chose it as the best for beginners because of its budget-friendly pricing, simple and intuitive interface, and free web-based trial version.
Although SketchUp has far fewer features than any of the other platforms we reviewed, it’s one of the easiest architectural software applications to learn and understand and is a great way for students to get used to 3D modeling before moving onto more advanced software.
SketchUp offers two paid versions of its web and desktop software that's suitable for architects looking to learn the basics of 3D design. The first, SketchUp Pro, costs $249 per year and allows users to design, define, and plan accurate 3D models using an extensive component library featuring surfaces and materials with unique textures.
SketchUp Studio, the second option, costs $1,199 per year and offers all of the features of SketchUp Pro plus tools that help users analyze energy use, daylighting, thermal comfort, and HVAC before they build. Studio also supports collaboration and cloud storage, professional 2D presentations, and the ability to tour models at a 1:1 scale using SketchUp’s AR/VR and mobile apps. Both SketchUp Pro and Studio feature unlimited online storage for project sharing and collaboration.
Architectural students on a budget can also play around with SketchUp’s free web-based version. The basic 3D modeler lets users access user-generated and manufacturer-produced models, view 3D models on a mobile device, and import and export multiple graphic file types. SketchUp Free also comes with 10 GB of online storage for project sharing and collaboration.
Best for 3D Modeling: Rhino
Rhino (aka Rhino3D) is a 3D graphics and CAD software created in 1998 based on the non-uniform rational basis spline (NURBS) mathematical model instead of the traditional mesh-based application used in most 3D software. As a result, Rhino is able to produce mathematically precise representations of curves and freeform surfaces. We chose it as the best for 3D modeling because it has some of the most sophisticated 3D modeling capabilities of any of the software we reviewed.
Rhino’s strength as an architectural design software solution lies in its ability to model the complex intersections of curved roofing or structures that aren’t inherently straight. It also makes it easy to import drawings and models so users can begin modeling without having to spend time learning about CAD.
Rhino also offers a large database of plugins and a visual programming system to automate complex modeling and detailing operations for any project. Rhino designs can be exported using 3D printers or laser cutting to create real-world objects.
Rhino can be purchased for a one-time cost of $995 and is available for both Windows and Mac systems with a 90-day free trial.
Best for Teams: Revit
Revit was created in 1997 to support BIM workflows and help architects, designers, and engineers plan and track all stages of planning and building from concept to construction. The technology was acquired by Autodesk in 2002 and has since been made compatible with AutoCAD and other products from the company. We chose it as the best product for teams because it makes it easy to coordinate members from multiple disciplines onto a project using one centralized database and model.
Rather than working with simple lines, Revit allows users to build models using components like walls, roofs, beams, windows, and doors. All changes to a model are automatically updated in all views, including plans and elevations. Revit’s automations also let users create a library of objects that can be accessed for any design or project.
Revit’s greatest strength is in its work-sharing capabilities. Multiple users can access the same model hosted on a local network or in the cloud using BIM360 throughout an entire project lifecycle. This makes it easy for architects to collaborate with electrical, mechanical, and structural design teams using the same tool.
Revit is only available for Windows and offers three pricing options: an annual subscription for $2,425, a monthly subscription for $305, and a three-year subscription for $6,550. All subscriptions come with a 30-day free trial.
Best for 3D Presentations: 3D Studio Max
3D Studio Max was launched by Autodesk in 1996 as a 3D computer graphics program designed for making 3D animations, models, games, and images. In addition to being used by architects, it’s also widely used by video game developers, TV commercial studios, and others. We chose it as the best for 3D presentations because it allows users to create full architectural visualizations of their project with photorealistic renderings and professional walkthroughs and animations.
3D Studio Max makes it easy for users to import 2D drawings and translate them into objects that can be textured, rendered, and lit in 3D. That means users can create realistic 3D architectural models with any CAD knowledge or experience. And, because 3D Studio max is part of the Autodesk family, it can also smoothly import files from both Revit and AutoCAD.
3D Studio Max also offers the most precise and realistic 3D rendering of any software available. Renderings are animated with highly realistic texture-mapping, shading, light refraction, and motion blurs that correspond to depths of field. All of these features allow users to create photorealistic presentations with animations and flyovers to help clients visualize what a design will look like once it’s constructed.
3D Studio Max is only available for Windows computers and offers three pricing options: an annual subscription for $1,620, a monthly subscription for $205, and a three-year subscription for $4,375. All subscriptions come with a 30-day free trial.
How Does Architecture Software Work?
Architecture software is primarily centered around design, allowing users to draw objects in 2D and convert them into 3D models. At the most basic level, architecture software can be used to create simple plans that can then be passed along to engineers and planners.
More advanced architecture software also allows users to design buildings with simulations of real-world objects in order to create a more accurate design incorporating materials, energy efficiency analysis, electrical systems, and more. By using this type of collaboration, these programs allow all members of build teams to work together to design, plan, and build projects in a more efficient and cost-effective way.
How Much Does Architecture Software Cost?
Most architecture software offers subscription-based pricing, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $2,400 per year. SketchUp was the outlier offering a substantially cheaper tiered subscription for students, with pricing starting as low as $299 per year.
Only two platforms that we reviewed could be purchased with a one-time payment: 3D modeler Rhino for $995 and CAD software ARCHICAD for $4,995.
Is Architecture Software Worth the Cost?
Architects who want to compete for clients will find it difficult to land business by drawing by hand on a drafting table. The expectations of customers who want to see designs quickly, see multiple versions of a design, or make quick changes necessitate the use of architecture software.
Having a strong foundation in CAD and 3D design as well as BIM software also allows architects to scale their business or join an existing practice. Finally, architecture software that supports photorealistic 3D modeling and virtual walkthroughs can help architects deliver more dynamic and exciting experiences for their clients.
How We Chose the Best Architecture Software
We looked at over a dozen architecture software options for this review. We were careful to balance our attention between game-changing platforms and industry mainstays to cover the needs of multiple users. We also wanted to go beyond basic design software and include platforms that were embracing rising trends like collaborative project management and photorealistic walkthroughs.
It was important for us to choose software that was the best for specific tasks (CAD drawing vs. 3D modeling, for example). We also wanted to cover software at the top of architectural trends like BIM and other collaborative models.
For these reasons, we considered things like cost and ease-of-use but gave them relatively less weighting. If we felt that a platform was a recognized leader in a particular category, expensive software with steep learning curves were still included. Nonetheless, we also wanted to include at least one option (SketchUp) that allowed students to learn the basic functions of architecture software for a relatively reasonable price.