Chief Architect X3

I’ve been busy lately learning the ins and outs of the newest version of Chief Architect software  This is a software that is used for drafting, design and rendering architectural spaces.  It is intended for residential and small business design which means it has a limit on file size –though I have no idea what that is because I never design anything that big.  I’ve seen small multi-story designs with Chief, though mine are maxed out at three stories.  Most of the time, I don’t even need to draw a whole building because my business is focused on kitchens and baths and rarely need to even focus on the exterior.  You might be surprised to know that the peeks of exteriors in my renders are actually photographs that are applied as background and occasionally a few features like ground cover, outdoor plants and furniture added to complete the view.  My main focus is the interiors of kitchens and baths and getting the details right in terms of finish materials and sizes for components like cabinets, windows, doors, appliances and plumbing fixtures.  Integral to successful kitchen and bath design is lighting as well –which even means locating switch plates, HVAC registers and light fixtures. (Read an excellent article on the importance of lighting design in kitchens by Cheryl Clendenon’s “Details and Design Blog”

For years I have been touting the genius, ease of use and affordability of this software.  It started out as a ‘builder’s software’ aimed primarily at the design-build contractor community and was developed in the great State of Utah where it’s headquarters still reside in the City of Coeur d’Alene.  I started using it way back in Version 9 –six versions and about 8 or 9 years ago.  Before that, I used the baby version (for about five years) that was produced by Broderbund software called 3D Home Architect which was developed by Chief and was eventually sold through Better Homes and Gardens (BHG) for the hobbyist  Now I think Chief markets it directly.  The major attraction to me was that it was so versatile and easy to learn on one’s own.  The transition from 3DHA to Chief was pretty easy since basic operations are the same.  It was a three dimensional-based design software that was on the cutting edge of it’s type at the time and different from other drafting or cad software that was two dimensional based (like AutoCAD). “Chief Architect® was created in 1992 for the professional Home Design Software market and was the first object-based 3D CAD system with smart object design principles; known as Building Information Modeling (BIM). Chief Architect® is the market leading home design software product for residential design.”

What enticed me to make the move from 3DHA to Chief was the application for professional use and a powerful rendering engine that does beautiful, lifelike interior views.  Chief offers all kinds of support to learn their software that is inexpensive and even free in some cases to those who purchase the Support and Software Assurance Program (SSA). There is also Chieftalk which is the user’s forum (moderated by Chief experts and often contributed to by them as well), that is like no other support forum I’ve ever encountered and was my forerunner into the world of social networking. 

Chief has expanded its reach and evolved over the years.  On Chieftalk, I have met other users all over the world.  The software is used extensively (for some strange reason) in Australia.  It also has users in Europe, Asia and throughout the western hemisphere.  I’ve had the pleasure to become acquainted with some fabulous designers and Chief experts from all over.  Many of whom have been chief users for more than double the time I have and some since it first came out.  I have found many longtime Chieftalk experts very willing to help with any problem I couldn’t resolve on my own and, sometimes just chat.  In the past year, many of them have become friends on Facebook as well.

The X Series is now in it’s third rendition (X3) and marks some significant changes.  Since the beginning of this series, Chiefers are able to incorporate symbols (models) and textures (materials) from a variety of sources such as Google 3-D Warehouse that has Sketchup models, and online vendors that have .3ds and .obj models.  Just about any material, photograph or image that can be scanned into the computer or found on the internet can be integrated into Chief’s already extensive library as well as symbols and textures from past versions.  There are many talented Chiefers who offer custom symbol making services through Chielftalk and through their websites at very low prices –and sometimes even free! 

While Chief has expanded its tools and capabilities, it has also adapted it’s use for specific work applications.  It now offers tailored versions for specific industries.  One can purchase an Interiors version that is a little less expensive than the Premiere (or full version).  For my purposes, I use the Premiere version because I like some of the extra features that it offers.  One significant fact is that it is the only software besides 20-20 Design (the leading K&B specific design software) that has training programs for certification through the NKBA listed on their site.  In the new series, Chief has begun incorporating manufacturer supplied catalogs of symbols and textures for cabinets, countertops, appliances, plumbing fixtures and many other items used in kitchen and bath design.  Unlike 20-20, it still does not have the pricing capability (unless you input the data yourself).  Many K&B dealers use the cabinet manufacturer’s own pricing software anyway.

Probably the most significant change for me has been the new Phoebe ray tracing engine that is used to create photo-realistic renders that Chief has integrated into the program with the X3 version that replaces PovRay ray tracing engine that has been used in Chief (I think since day one).  While PovRay did a great job, the biggest complaint I recall has been that it is very slow.  It was not uncommon to let a detailed ray trace run over night just to discover in the morning that there was something that needed to be changed!  There was no way to preview a trace before running it.  Chief does have a rendering component that is different from ray trace and has even added the ability to have drawings that look like watercolor paintings or hand-drawn sketches.

The new ray tracing component, Phoebe, is a huge improvement.  Instead of running the trace overnight, I am able to get a very detailed, high-quality image done in four hours or less.  You also have the ability to continue working on Chief or surf the net while a trace is running.  This is possible if you run Chief on a computer that has a multi-core CPU as Chief can be designated to run on one core leaving the other(s) available for other applications.  Also while the trace is running, you can adjust many settings to it such as brightness, saturation, contrast and other settings so you get a sense of what the end result will be like –and if you’re picky like me—start over if need be before getting too far into it.  And the very best feature of all (IMHO) is the wizard.  You don’t have to have a minor in physics to be able to create realistic lighting effects… just run the wizard. It offers three levels of quality –quick, standard, and high (slow).

Like everything in life, Chief is not perfect.  It’s become a really big power hungry monster that requires a lot of computer muscle to run well.  You need a lot of ram and they highly recommend a multi-core CPU machine.  Actually, the best computer for chief is of the gaming type that has a very specific type of video card that also has a lot of on-board memory.  Hense, I’ve ordered a new computer that will be arriving at the end of the month. (Though I’ve done pretty good with the old four-year old system I think.) The only real issue I’ve found that bugs me (and this is a BIG BUG) is that Phoebe cannot render sunlight into interiors through glass –or even if you change the ‘glass’ to ‘air’, it still doesn’t work.  I have it on high authority (Chieftalk forum gurus) that they are working diligently to correct this.  In the mean time, many Chief users (and likely me too if I can learn it) use Kerkeythea (free) or Thea Render (inexpensive but still in Beta) to create renders that need to have sunlight beaming through windows onto interior surfaces. Just the same, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve been able to create with Phoebe.  Here’s some of my recent X3 ray trace renderings using Phoebe’s wizard in standard mode:


 breakfast nook  kitchen top view


  master bath dining rm

great room


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