What is the easiest way to draw a floor plan and to get basic working drawings for a home rehab?
December 30, 2010 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Architects, builders, and engineers -- what is the best software for drawing up a basic set of floor plans? What's the most cost-effective way to get a set of working drawings for a basic house rehab?

This is for a thorough rehab of an existing house. The floor plan will stay the same, so I'm trying to draw it up myself. I have the measurements. I drew the site plan in InDesign, and I think I can do the exterior elevations in Photoshop by converting photos of the house into line art, then adding in the few new elements.

What is the best software for drawing up the floor plan? I'm fairly decent at Photoshop, InDesign, and PowerPoint. AutoCAD offers a 30-day free trial, though after that point, I won't have access to it anymore. What would you suggest? I have the impression that AutoCAD would be much more functional, if the learning curve isn't unbearably steep. Is there some 2D-AutoCAD-for-beginners that would be easier to learn, or some AutoCAD freeware that wouldn't expire after 30 days? Google SketchUp?

I may then need more detailed working drawings. I'll know more after meeting with the city next week. I am trying to save money wherever I can because the project is underfunded, but I also want to do this right, so there's a good chance that I'll have to hand it over to a professional. (I would like to go ahead and do the floor plans for the meeting with the city, even if I end up hiring an architect later.) If I end up taking that next step, here are a few approaches that people have suggested:

Option A: Get working drawings from a particular architect who used to work in code compliance for the city. Possibly get drawings to a level of detail that we could sub out the work ourselves?
Option B: Work with a good general contractor. Do any contractors also do working drawings to show what needs done? (It seems like it would be a good match with hiring and communicating with subcontractors.)
Option C: I have talked to several people who drew their own plans, though it sounds like they then worked out some of the details later with their contractor. I could do that, and maybe augment it by paying the architect at his hourly rate to serve as an expert advisor, particularly on code compliance issues or to identify questions that need expert advice (e.g., an engineer). I would have assumed this was a terrible idea, but I've now talked to four people who successfully did it.

What would you recommend? Thanks for any and all help. I've been trying to research this, but I've received a very wide range of advice.
posted by slidell to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: By the way, please feel free to ignore the second question and just focus on the first. I have a meeting with an architect next week and will also call a design-build contractor, so I'll be getting more info on the differences between those approaches over time. In the meantime, i.e. this weekend, I need to turn my scrawled notes and measurements into basic floor plans. What's the best way to do that?
posted by slidell at 5:10 PM on December 30, 2010

Best answer: I use Autocad for plans, but have recently started using Autodesk Revit - a great programme for translating floor plans to sections. I found it really easy to learn, especially after Autocad, and "The Building Maker" feature is particularly good for 3D visualisations and building sections. [Much easier to render in Revit than fiddle around in Photoshop] I think you can trial it for free for 30 days which is long enough to get some drawings done.

For my own similar project a few years ago, I started with sketches, then used Rhino/ SketchUp for a rough 3d visualisation, [I would use Revit for this, if I was doing it now] then handed over to a drafty/designer to measure up and draw up everything in compliance with codes. She was much cheaper than an architect and she had some good design ideas too. These drawings were sufficient to take to town planning and were sufficient for my contractor. I added my own section drawings when working with sub-contractors - such as kitchen and bathroom joinery.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:22 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like paper and a ruler. Seriously, if you have an architect and a design-build contractor that should be good enough to explain the floor plan you want.

That said, if CAD stuff is fun for you then by all means go for it with whatever tools seem cool.

Learning curve wise, Sketch-up is amazingly easy to get the hang of compared to most CAD software. If you are familiar with Photoshop, etc. you can probably get comfortable making stuff within about 30 minutes.
posted by mr.ersatz at 6:04 PM on December 30, 2010

Best answer: If you're comfortable with adobe and have the full suite I'd suggest using illustrator for the plans, it's more precise than indesign. AutoCAD is pretty easy to learn, think you can pick up the fundamentals in a few days of solid noodling, and after the trial period is over you can import the file format (dwg) into illustrator if you still need to edit it. Given the scale of work you're doing I wouldn't rule out paper and pen either as it seems like a lot less hassle. Ultimately you just need an accurate drawing, doesn't matter what you use to make it.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:10 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I would agree SketchUp is probably the fastest to learn, and will give you multiple views in one drawing. You just have to build it as if it were real: ie: you have to build an interior before you insert windows, or the windows sit on the outside of a block (this will make more sense once you start playing with it). It's free, there are tutorials on YouTube, and Sketchup for Dummies is a pretty good book.

The learning curve for AutoCad is steep- I learned it, but use VectorWorks for all my technical drafting because it's easier, IMO. And really, if it's simple, hand drafting is totally doable.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:16 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi. I'm an architect and used to have a general contracting license as well. It would be helpful to know a little more about the scale/scope of your project. It sounds like you are maintaining the current footprint and you did not mention an addition, so my advice will be based on the assumption that you are doing a fairly standard remodel with no significant structural gymnastics.

For your initial meeting with the city, a scaled/dimensioned sketch would be sufficient in most circumstances. I'm in Seattle, and we have a pretty rigorous permitting process here, but I almost always go in to address initial questions with a neat, organized and dimensioned sketch. This gives them the information they need to advise you in the earliest stages of a residential project. I really wouldn't waste time or money on software for a floor plan at this point, especially if you have an inkling you may end up turning it over to an architect or design/build firm later anyway.

I applaud your initiative and believe me, a client that spends that much thought on the nitty gritty basics of a project (as opposed to finding examples of 400 kitchen faucets you like) is much appreciated. But the honest truth is, should you end up hiring a professional, drawing the floor plans yourself is not going to save you much money. The floor plan is the most straightforward part of the drawing process. If the city requires you to produce a full-fledged set of architectural/engineering working drawings, and you feel like you are up to this task, then it might be worth tackling the learning curve required in order to do that. It would save you a good chunk of money to do this yourself if you have the time and inclination. But should you have to turn over the drawing to someone else, just contributing the floor plan won't save you enough.

Not enough to be worth you taking the liability for it being error-free, accurate, and so on. Any firm worth their salt will spend enough time reviewing your drawing (since they will ultimately be responsible for the set) that it will be better to let them handle this for you from the beginning. Most firms use AutoCad and like to build their drawings consistent with their own process and conventions. The floor plan is the drawing that all other drawings are based upon, so they would most likely redo what you did anyway. Surprisingly, asking them to convert your drawing into their setup might actually cost you more than having them do it from the start. And you certainly don't want your efforts to later become the scapegoat should something go sideways during the project.

The most cost-effective thing for you to do at this point regarding your drawings is to not worry too much about precision for your first meetings with the city. This is not where precision matters. (The city will only care once it is time to submit a full set for permit...and your contractor will certainly care once it comes time to build...but the city doesn't really care at this point). Also, remember that in almost all remodel cases, specific drawing dimensions are only worth so much anyway. Dimensions always need to be verified in the field during construction, and the most accurate dimension always ends up being the one that actually exists in real life at the time things are getting built.

Instead, spend time interviewing architects, design/build firms, and/or contractors. Finding someone you trust and feel like you can work with under a stressful situation will be your best money-saving move at this point. A smoothly flowing project with great communication and trust will save you way more in actual dollars than what you could realistically save in doing the drawings yourself. Honest.

Imagine a situation where the relationship with your arch/contractor becomes strained. Something arises (as it ALWAYS does) and he has a chance to bill the item as a change order, or just absorb it into the project budget. If you have a great relationship, then it gets absorbed, and maybe you collectively make a few decisions down the road that tend toward cooperation and fairness. It all comes out in the wash and everybody is happy. Contrast this with ongoing tensions where you wish you would have spent more time researching decent people to work with instead of worrying about those drawings. You could quite possibly eat up all the money you saved by doing the drawings in a single change order. I've seen it time and time again. You will save the most money by hiring the right team from the beginning.

All of that said...if you are one of those people that really gets into the technical details and would just flat out enjoy doing the drawings, then by all means do so...if you have the time and are willing to accept the responsibility for them being accurate. I'm not trying to discourage you from doing them on principle. I'm just saying that if your contribution to the drawings may be limited, then it may not actually save you much money. There are better money-saving moves you can make.

If you decide to tackle the drawings yourself, I would suggest that AutoCad would be easy enough to learn when doing very basic 2D drawing like a set of traditional permit drawings. The trickiest part for the layperson/homeowner won't be the drawing, but instead the formatting and plotting that it takes just to get the things down on paper. The advantage to using AutoCad would be that it is the industry standard and you would be most likely to find help and printing assistance by using that as opposed to a more obscure program. Using AutoCad would also let other professionals utilize your drawings most easily if it turns out you want to go that direction later on.

Good luck on your project! I'm sorry this got so long-winded. Hope it helps. Feel free to memail me if I can clarify anything I've been rambling on about.
posted by nickjadlowe at 6:44 PM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hard to get more cost effective than free. Google Sketchup rocks. I use it to create concept demo sketches, fast. A ton of free video online to teach you. Lots of pre-made elements. Not precise, and limited as to dimensioning, sectioning, title blocks, etc. but fine for a visual pix of what you have in mind, to scale, easy to manipulate.

I use a 3DConnexion navigation accessory. Worth the $50 I paid for it.

FWIW, I am an electrical engineer and don't use this for things that require CAD. With its limitations clearly in mind, however, it's a valuable tool for what-if's and 'this is what I have in mind' stuff.
posted by FauxScot at 5:50 AM on December 31, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all! To answer the question about scope, it's a thorough rehab: roof, foundation, siding, drywall, replacing some stolen copper and the stolen kitchen appliances, checking that the last owner did the electrical right.

I am the kind of person who could get really into drawing plans, but I don't want to foolishly assume I can learn every building trade, several building codes, and state and local energy regulations (Cal Title 24 and City of Oakland green building standards). That's why I thought I'd start with the floor plans and then by checking with the city on what they need, see whether it's paperwork I can produce, or whether it's too far over my head.

Your answers have been very helpful! Thank you!
posted by slidell at 10:34 AM on January 1, 2011

Best answer: All of that scrounging around you are doing at the City is going to save you some good solid cash. It's time consuming, but that really is "an hour spent, and hour's $ saved" type situation. None of the code stuff or City stuff is rocket science, just super tedious. So you should be able to make excellent headway on the specific code requirements for your project from the City's perspective which will be an excellent package to have should you collaborate with a firm on down the road.

I wouldn't worry about any of the building codes. All of the contractors (elec, plumb, etc.) will have to be responsible for meeting those as a condition of having their permit approved and cleared. You won't (or shouldn't) hire a contractor that is unlicensed, so you can be pretty confident that they will satisfy all of those requirements without you having to get into the technical arcana.

But here are some things you may want to research that would be helpful info for yourself or to pass on to others:

- The locations of the sewer tie in for your house.
- Where the sewer/drainage lines run underground on your lot. Likewise the electrical service, if it is buried.
- Whether a Street Use permit is required for any dumpsters or trucks that may occupy the street during business hours for the course of your project.
- The locations of any easements that a contractor would need to be aware of.
- Whether the work done by previous owners was permitted and whether those permits were cleared or not.
- The exact requirements of the non-build-able setback areas for your lot. Usually you must maintain an unbuilt/unbuilt-upon area at the "side yard," "front yard," and "rear yard" a certain minimum number of feet from the property line. If previous work did not comply with those mandated setback distances, you may be limited as to what you may rebuild in those areas. This is either a complete non-issue or a major stumbling block, so it is worth researching early.
- If you live in a "ritz-y" neighborhood with views, there may be view corridors that must be maintained for your neighbors during the course of your project which can be impacted by scaffolding, tarps, machinery, etc. Again, probably not an issue. But I've done projects here in Seattle where that was the case and the mitigation of those requirements added a not-inconsequential chunk to the budget.
- If you are on a hillside, there may be specific rules you must follow for erosion control or structural considerations for your foundation work that you will definitely want to be aware of.

It's likely that none of this stuff will be an issue, but your time spent confirming this with the City will be very valuable. If something DOES come up, then it is important to know it from the very beginning. In this case, your efforts just saved you a bundle if problems can be avoided from the start. Good luck on your project. Happy New Year.
posted by nickjadlowe at 12:48 PM on January 1, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much. To try to put together your two comments, nickjadlowe, is it really not crazy of me to think I could do all the drawings necessary to get permits, with the input of licensed subcontractors? As I said, I've heard a range of advice -- everything from "just draw it yourself in powerpoint. We didn't even account for the thickness of the walls!" to "you really need to hire [architect] to do this right. He can get you everything you need to get permits, and it will only take two months and $10,000." A few people I know did do their own drawings, for new construction no less, but these examples don't necessarily seem applicable (one was rural Colorado, one was three decades ago).

Given our budget constraints, I'm inclined to go it alone and only hire someone once I bump into something I definitely can't do (I like figuring things out myself and figure I can get there eventually). But if that's either a recipe for failure, or if it's a foregone conclusion that I'll end up hiring someone who will redo any work I did, then as you point out, it'd be better not to waste time and instead to focus on hiring good people.
posted by slidell at 1:44 PM on January 1, 2011

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