Any seasoned pencil-and-paper designer who has tried to master a traditional CAD system quickly learns that it's usually faster to draw a one-off project by hand than to fire up the computer. But what if you could squeeze more than just drawings out of your CAD system? What about a system that creates project data and presentation materials that other divisions in your company can use? The next leap is to building information modeling, or BIM--the latest rage among architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) types.

Autodesk, Bentley, and other traditional CAD vendors are just starting to talk about BIM. Better late than never, because SoftPlan Pro has been developing BIM for home builders since SoftPlan 7 in 1994. The company's latest release, SoftPlan 12, raises the bar for every other residential design product on the market. The new version hits the mark for home builders, striking the right balance of usability and power, while adding a few new tricks.

Instead of drawing lines and boxes to represent a house, SoftPlan utilizes a palette of familiar but totally customizable building "objects," such as walls, windows, doors, joists, slabs, roofs, and fixtures. Since all of these objects carry data about their real-world equivalents, drawing a floor plan lets users create a detailed model of the project that can then be sliced and diced to create structural drawings, framing diagrams, and photo-realistic 3D presentations.

Of course, it's not exactly waving a magic wand. Success with SoftPlan requires meticulous setup, a good operator, and, most importantly, a strategy for putting all that information to work in your company.

SoftPlan has always been popular with the small design/builder crowd but has been slower to catch on with production builders, because it didn't let builders easily share AutoCAD drawings with colleagues. AutoCAD is the most common CAD package used in the building industry. SoftPlan 12 lets users import/export files to AutoCAD and helps to convert lines and shapes into SoftPlan objects; for example, double lines into walls. This means SoftPlan can finally coexist in an AutoCAD shop. A production builder might use SoftPlan for new product design, 3D modeling, and to generate a bill-of-materials, but then send the working drawings over to the familiar AutoCAD department for detailing and plotting.

One feature of SoftPlan 12 that should impress builders is the software's ability to insert any raster (dots) image directly on the CAD drawing. Now, blueprints can be embellished with images of 3D models, product photos, shots of the building site, even pictures of the buyer's family. Composite images that used to require an expensive trip to a custom printer can now be created in-house in minutes.

Another powerful feature of SoftPlan is SoftList, the software's fully programmable bill-of-materials editor. Smaller custom designers/builders can use this feature with minimal setup to generate a quick price check of a new design, while larger production builders who are willing to spend the time and effort to tie SoftPlan into their back-end systems can use SoftList to automate the takeoff and purchasing processes. SoftPlan provides the means to integrate each line item with the builder's back-end accounting system.

SoftPlan 12 retails for $2,985 for the base module plus the SoftList Bill-of-Materials module, the most common configuration. Voice Recognition adds $375.

Joe Stoddard is a technology consultant to the building industry. He can be reached at