Good software should work like a backhoe. A backhoe has only a few controls, and yet a good operator can use them to extend the power of his hands in remarkable ways. SketchUp is like a backhoe for CAD's digital clay.
The program is fast and easy to use. Simply click and drag shapes to create 3-D objects: Drag a box into a cube, add a line in the middle, and pull the line up to form a gable roof; draw another box on the side and push it in to create a window opening. Need help? SketchUp's Web site offers dozens of tutorials.
For many remodeling design chores, SketchUp beats even contractor-friendly CAD programs like Chief Architect or SoftPlan. Here are just a few tasks that only take a few minutes with SketchUp but would cost hours using CAD (if you could do them at all).
* Help clients visualize how the addition roof will tie in and the windows will line up -- without having to draw an entire set of plans.
* Design oddly-shaped decks, swimming pools, or other custom landscaping features. (SketchUp is a great deck design program.)
* Re-create grandma's fancy arched-front dresser, and see how it fits in the new master bedroom suite.
If you already have a conventional 3-D CAD program, SketchUp is the quickest way I've found to create fussy 3-D objects like hosebibs, meter sockets, and interior furnishings. And anything you create can be saved as a .dxf file and imported to other CAD programs. Visit www.sketchup.com for a 21-day free trial; pay $475 if you keep it. SketchUp works on both Macs and PCs. --Joe Stoddard is a technology consultant to the building industry. For more information, visit www.mountainconsulting.com.