I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with design software. Even with those that I haven’t found much practical benefit from (due to the nature of my profession) have kept me busily exploring their tools and features for hours, simply for the matter of seeing how they work, and how functional they can be.
Just over a month ago, my wife and I decided we would build a deck in our garden. While she saw an unmissable opportunity to get personally involved in home improvement, I saw an opening to find out as much as I could about software suites that would help us design the deck of our dreams.
So, I busily started searching for landscaping software thinking that it would be the best place to start until I realized that the very specific needs of deck design were actually catered for by specialized software.
Being a very human user of the internet, I first investigated the free-to-use options available. Through using them, my curiosity for testing out a few paid-for programs got the better of me.
So if you have been looking for smart and interactive ways to get involved with designing decks and patios for your home, here are some of the best deck design software suites that I came across during my experimentations with various tools.
But before we jump into which one's are the best, here is a little more information on what types of features you should come to expect from this type of software.
Garden Deck Design Software – What You Need To Know
What is the Learning Curve Like?
One of the main features I was interested in was how easily the program can be used, or rather how long it would take one to figure it out. Admittedly, sporadic experience with different design software has made it easier (in some cases) to navigate these programs; though still, I found that figuring some of them out was a bit more challenging than I’d like to admit.
How Compatible is it With Your Setup?
One of the biggest challenges faced in my search was finding a tool that could be run without having to set too much up. Many of these design tools work across platforms meaning they can work on pads or computers.
Though these ones do so by operating directly through your internet browser. In most of these cases, I found that the program would only work with one specific browser or needed extensions and plugins to work properly (if at all); though this generally only happened with the free tools.
Is it Paid or Free Software?
Which brings me to my next point. There is a lot of free software out there, and much of it is very functional. These platforms are generally developed by companies looking to use them for marketing purposes (which is fair enough), while others offer free trials that allow you to test the software before paying for it.
For the most part, paid programs are the most reliable and functional ones. Though if you aren’t going to make extensive use of the software, the price might be a little hard to swallow on these suites.
What Tools are Included?
While each piece of software tested did come with a few standard design tools, some of them go that extra bit further by including extra functionality. They may offer better renderings for presentation, have measurement tools or extensive materials libraries. Some of them make sharing your designs easier, while others give you direct access to the cost and supply of materials from suppliers.
With free-tools, more functionality often led to less stability or hidden costs, while the paid-for versions have their price affected by their functionality.
How Specialized is the Software?
To be perfectly honest, software dedicated purely to designing decks is out there but generally doesn’t hold much of the market. Some of the best design suites I’ve come across are ones for landscaping or architectural design; though these ones generally have a steeper learning curve than specialized software.
Now that you know what I was looking for in my search, let’s review some of the best deck design software packages that I came across while doing it:
Free Garden Deck Design Software
For those who are not actual professional landscapers, you might be unwilling to pay for software that will only be used for a short amount of time. This can be done easily enough by sourcing free design tools on the web.
Since most of these tools are developed by manufacturers and contractors who ultimately use them for marketing; you’ll find that they have excellent support features, and have been designed with ease of use in mind (since these companies expect that your knowledge on design software is limited).
1. Azek Deck Designer
The beauty behind Azek Deck Designer is that it is one of the few out there that runs from a browser as seamlessly as advertised, which means you won’t have to fuss around with additional installations to get it working.
Unfortunately, it isn’t properly supported for Android or iOS devices which may limit it for some users. For the laptop, MAC and PC users, however, it isn’t very demanding which means it can be used on almost any computer with an internet connection.
The settings tab is also very customizable, and it has a staggering amount of features considering it is free. With it you can create 3D models of your deck, can design your own materials, and can receive support in terms of a component glossary and useful design tips for beginners.
This software is designed with home-users in mind, which means that you don’t have to be a landscaping design professional to use it effectively. It is fairly simple to wrap your head around, which means that you can get designing almost as soon as you open the program.
For those with the hardware to handle it, renders come out in incredible 3D detail, making the presentation and exploration of your design far more immersive than with other suites. You can even make changes to the environment, background, and lighting shown in your renders, which means that you can personalize it to your own property to get a better picture of the finished project before you start building.
The intuitive tool panel allows you to set the deck height, make use of various shaping tools to perfect your design, and allows you to add elements such as stairs, walls, doors, windows, and other accessories; while allowing for various viewpoints to get every angle of your design exactly where you need it to be.
2. Trex Deck Designer
Trex is a powerful tool, although it is fairly limited in that it only seems to operate on Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers, which might make it an unattractive choice for many; although this could be bypassed by using their mobile design tool instead of their desktop app.
The tool also gives you access to orders on sample boards that are supplied by Trex upon request and features intuitive drag, drop and resize functionality which makes designing on a touch-screen device fairly simple.
It also offers suggestions on which types of deck parts would best suit your design while offering design tips during its usage, which makes it ideal for those with limited knowledge of the industry.
Since it is primarily a tool for marketing Trex products, this software also vies you access to dealer and supplier information and can also give you a list of locally trusted deck-builders which streamlines the process if you use it; while your deck layout can be injected with character with various selections of materials and colors.
There is one other downside, but if looked at correctly it probably isn’t that big a deal: before you can start using the program you will need to register with Trex; which everybody knows is generally a way for companies to generate leads through your submissions. Still, if you do, this will allow you to save, export and print your designs; so even though it is technically free, the company still makes money out of it through this. But software requires incredible amounts of effort, time and money to develop, so this is somewhat excusable.
Still, it is a powerful and intuitive design program that is worth taking a look at if you can get it to work on your system.
3. Sketchup Free Edition
Sketchup is a fairly popular tool in the design sphere and is suited for engineering, architecture, landscaping, and interior design; which makes it a perfect tool for those looking to design a deck for their home. It has both a free and paid-for version (which I will discuss later) which makes it ideal for home users and those who are looking to test the program out before dolling out the significant cost of the professional edition.
The free edition is relatively loaded with features, which means that it can still be a functional solution for designing decks.
As it is with the pro edition, the free one has a bit of a steep learning curve; so if you have little to no previous design experience, you may find yourself wasting a lot of time simply figuring out how to navigate the program. Once you do though, the results are only limited to your imagination (and your willingness to upgrade to the paid version).
This tool essentially allows you to create custom 3D models that can be used for a range of applications. This allows you to design decks that have attention paid to detail, texture, materials, and dimensions with staggering professional accuracy.
As far as software goes, Sketchup free edition is relatively demanding on computer specs but makes up for it with stunning graphics renders and complex detail. And for those that didn’t already know it, it was developed by software giant Google, so you can expect it to be a powerful tool that stays in touch with the industry.
One of the things I found most rewarding about this program is that it doesn’t limit you to just deck design. Why not draw up a stadium, a design for an aircraft or visualize your dream home just for interest’s sake. With Sketchup, there are virtually no limitations to its application.
Paid Garden Deck Design Software
While sourcing paid-for programs is not everyone’s cup of tea, there is something to be said about how much more functional and robust these programs are in comparison to free ones. Many of them are multifunctional in nature, which means that they are not only well suited to deck design.
This makes them an appealing choice since they have more re-use value in being able to put together all kinds of designs and diagrams with relative ease and professionalism. Some paid-for software actually has a tier system for pricing, or worse, a monthly subscription; but still, their benefits often outweigh those of free ones by quite a stretch.
1. Punch! Landscaping Design
Punch! It might not be the most powerful design tool out there, but it does make it relatively easy for home users and comes at far less of a cost than many other design programs. It combats the learning curve by offering in-depth tutorial videos that will have you mastering the tools of the program in no time.
Despite its wide range of applications (home design, landscaping, and floor plans), it is actually fairly limited in terms of functionality.
Developing asymmetrical designs might be a problem since one of the most widely reported disadvantages of the tool includes the inability to use curved walls in your design. Though since you are using the program to design a deck, this likely won’t be too much of a concern for you.
It has, however, got an intuitive drag and drop interface which makes designing a fairly simple task, while a cost estimator can help you take better control of the project’s budget. The sidewalks and patios tool seems to be the perfect feature for deck designs.
Though my biggest problem with this program (and one that pretty much rules it out for me) is that you cannot export 2d plans from it (although 3D renderings are fine). When you are paying for software, it is my opinion that this is the type of functionality that you should be able to take for granted, even if the suite is cheaper than its competitors.
One very strong feature of this program is that it offers exceptional online support, tutorials, and FAQs. This means that you can work towards using it confidently even if you know nothing about the program at the start. As far as visualizing your finished product goes, this program competes with some of the best in the field. But as far as functionality in the actual design process goes, there are far better (albeit more expensive) options available to choose from.
2. Home Designer Landscaping Software
Home Designer offers a turn-key approach to home and landscape design, and for our purposes, we will concentrate on its simple to use and highly functional patio and deck software tools.
These tools go a long way towards giving users the power of creation by automatically generating lists of materials and sellers.
In being specifically designed for decks and patios, this tool allows you to specify the type of foundation, the dimensions of your deck, the materials used to make it, and the styles associated with your decks' planking and railing.
These designs can then be presented against the backdrop of accurate and breathtaking landscapes that will give you a fantastic view of the finished project in an intricate 3D format.
Of course, these landscaping tools are not limited to decks and patios, but can also empower you to creatively design elements of your home, garden, pools, and pathways as well.
It also allows you to import photos for landscaping which enables you to accurately work with the architecture, style, and measurements of your own property, to ensure that your finished project fits well with the environment it is built-in.
While the program isn’t particularly easy to use, it does offer comprehensive support documentation, contacts and tutorials which will outfit you with the design skills you need in no time; and it also features regular updates to ensure that the sources of your creativity keep on coming and growing.
The program is available for purchase on both PCs and Macs but doesn’t have a mobile version as of yet. Considering the fairly hefty system requirements to run the software, you probably can’t expect to see a mobile version any time soon.
3. Idea Spectrum
One of the first things you notice about Idea Spectrum is that it features stunning, photo-realistic graphics when compared to some of the other software suites in the landscaping and design industry. Like many of the others, it is multi-functional in that it is geared for home and garden design, and not just for patios and decks.
Idea Spectrum has also made their software more widely available by implementing a 3 tier pricing system depending on how it is meant to be used. The Plus, Pro and Architect tiers which all come with different prices and limits on functionality.
For a little bit more, the Plus tier has almost as much functionality as the Architect one (save the ability to place your company logo in the design), while the Plus package is usable though worth upgrading to Pro for a little extra money.
For those interested in designing decks, the program comes with a deck design wizard to make their design and incorporation into the greater picture an easier task for beginners.
The levels of graphics on the renderings can also be manipulated to either have ink and paint effect, a palpable diagram or a realistic representation complete with people, props, material libraries, and lighting, all of which make the finished presentation all the more impressive.
If, however, you are not actually a hardened vet in the deck design industry, the Architect tier will give you little more than the Pro edition would, and it will end up costing you quite a bit more.
And so I return to Sketchup, except that this time it is the paid-for edition and not the free one. While the free one is wonderfully functional, the professional edition makes it well suited to practical use.
It is, however, one of the most expensive pieces of design software on the market, which might have you eyeing out the free version initially; however, it obviously has a lot more functionality when being used.
If you recall from the free-edition, one of the most challenging aspects to this software is that it is difficult to use, and can be extremely overwhelming initially, especially considering that it is not specifically meant for deck or landscaping designs.
These are but two examples of its wide range of applications, which can make the program more than a little difficult to navigate. If you have the time to set aside for tutorials, practice, and experiment, learning how to use Sketchup Pro will give you what you need to complete diagrams, flowcharts, floor plans and landscape renderings in addition to deck designs.
For those looking to use the program specifically for decks, it does feature a deck design tool which makes it fairly easy for those who know how to use the program. Despite the functionality and superiority of this program, the price is regrettable, knocking it down a few rungs in comparison to your other software options.
The choice you go for will obviously depend on your needs, abilities, and budget which might make some of the less functional, though more affordable options the better choice for you. In terms of home use, I would recommend Azek for a free solution due to its outstanding compatibility and functionality features.
The choice between paid-for programs was difficult since they're all remarkably effective. However, if I had to make the choice based on cost, functionality, and ease of use; I would have to suggest the use of Idea Spectrum for home users and Sketchup Pro for professionals.