By Joe Stoddard Ten years ago I coined the phrase "CAD-Assisted Estimating" to describe early attempts by CAD vendors to provide take-off and bill-of-materials functionality. Those early versions were crude (and costly) by today's standards. Now, using CAD to automate the take-off process can be a reality. Three programs I often recommend to builders are SoftPlan Pro, CADSoft Build, and VectorWorks Architect.

SoftPlan Pro. SoftPlan is easy to learn, powerful, and flexible, making it ideal for custom builders. The take-off module can count items on the drawings or calculate materials/labor from user-defined assemblies. How and if a material is included in the estimate is completely configurable by the user, and custom formulas can be created to pick up materials or labor for special items. Cost: $2,785.

CADSoft Build. Build and sister program AP Design are based on AutoCAD technology, ideal if you already have AutoCAD expertise or need to share drawings directly with your AutoCAD-packing engineer. CADSoft's framing take-off module especially shines, and like SoftPlan, Build offers flexible reporting options. Cost: $2,995 to purchase; it also may be leased monthly.

VectorWorks Architect. VectorWorks is the most customizable program of the three. Programmers can access and manipulate information on the drawings, making it a good choice for larger builders looking to build a more customized CAD/estimating solution. It's also the only program of these three that's available for both Mac and PC platforms. At $1,295 (base), VectorWorks offers a lot of bang for the buck.

Today's builder-friendly CAD software can generate a usable bill-of-materials report straight from the drawings (rear) which can then be exported to a spreadsheet or other estimating application for further processing (front). [Photo: Courtesy SoftPlan Pro]

Keep in mind this is CAD-assisted estimating--the key word being "assisted." Most builders will still need to tweak results in a spreadsheet or conventional estimating software. Also, don't expect the systems to set themselves up: You'll burn some midnight oil testing configurations that best represent how you build and price projects, but in the end the added automation will be well worth the effort.

Technology consultant and former home builder Joe Stoddard moderates the JOURNAL OF LIGHT CONSTRUCTION's Computer Solutions Forum at