The History of Design Software

In today’s world, most construction projects rely on engineered wood products (EWP): wall panels, LVL/GLULAM beams, I-Joists, floor trusses, and roof trusses to build the structure of the building. It’s so typical that all trades know what they are intended for, and the average person has seen framers installing them at one point or another.

There was a time (early 90’s for me) when it wasn’t as common, when framers thought that 3-2X10 could carry the entire house, that 2×10 floors were the best product that you could have your floor made of, and surely those 2×4 flanges with OSB in the center couldn’t do a better job than a nominal lumber joist!

Gladly those days are largely over. To illustrate how far we have come, let’s look at the history of design software and EWP products and their evolution since I began in the industry back in 1991.



The common tape backup and machine of the 90’s. If you wanted certain information on the tape backup, you had to rewind the tape until you found the data require. This could take an enormous amount of time. I won’t miss this technology one bit!

For floor design, I had quad graphic paper ¼” square, 1 pencil, a 4 colored pen, my beloved HP calculator and a book of charts. We were only doing simple floors, as complex jobs required an engineer. 9 ½” depth was the norm for depth, as we had to compete against 2X10. The EWP floors were more of a convenience to the builders, and we used them to sell roof truss to our customers. For roof trusses, I used Trusstar and later Unista. With the 1st software, I drew the layout on the machine (that was the name of the computer back then), and start typing the truss. All truss would be a 3 line input, representing the span, shape, chords dimension and load. So on a roof with 30 truss shapes, I would have 90 lines to input. Unistar changed everything, for the first time we could design the truss in the layout, then the machine would let us know what the shape would be, therefore eliminating mistakes, it was a small step for construction, but a giant leap for the components supplier!

-Training time required:                floor: 45 Minutes             Roof: 1 Year

-Pros:    -graphical representation helped to see the product design

-Software calculate the plate required, therefore eliminating mistakes and omissions

-Cons:   -Bigger investment required than before              -Not compatible with prior machines

-Requires new skills to troubleshoot issues and problems

CD’s enabled us to retrieve information quickly, bigger screens (14”) started to appear, we replaced the 5 ¼” floppy disk with the 3 ½” which could contain as much as 1.44MB of information.



By then we had Planit an EWP floor software that would allow us to design the more complex project. Builders really started to see the benefits of EWP floors: bigger span, fewer supports, more space between I-Joists. Therefore fewer pieces to install, more room to run HVAC / plumbing and electrical inside the floor. By then 11 7/8” depth became the norm in the industry.

Clean computer (We finally call them computers) layout allowed the framer to see more clearly how to install the product, Engineers could rely on the Software company to guaranteed the structural integrity of the building. Lumber yards started to stock the product and made it more readily available. For the roof, I got introduced to On-Line+, eFrame, and Alpine. It did the same as prior software but started to become more user-friendly, it was faster and more graphical. You could design highly complex houses, and a bigger screen meant you could see more of the project.

Most component suppliers would have a truss guy and a floor guy, and the end product would be related to the level of communication they would have between them. You still have to make sure everything fits together nicely, between walls/floor beams/roof, and believe me, sometimes that was easier said than done.

-Training time required:                Floor: 2 Months                Roof: 6 months

-Pros:    -Less training time required.       -More production per designer.

-Output with more information, able to recheck design/load/criteria

-Cons:   -Since less training is required, designers are less experienced

-Not compatible, as we moved from tape backup to CD’s & from Unix to Windows.

This is today’s workstation, with multiple flat screens and sized between 24”-29” each. We now have a server that not only saves our information, but acts as an information hub, so everyone has the ability to access the same files in real time.


6-beamsToday, 14” depth floors joists are getting more common, as they eliminate vibration. Now I use Mitek Sapphire to design all kinds of engineered products: Roof trusses, EWP floor, Floor Truss, Posts, and wall panels (everything but the kitchen sink). I have dreamed of this day since the 90’s, no more miscommunication between supplier, co-worker, and software as it’s all in the same file.

The 3D views are incredible, I can clearly see the interferences between levels. I only draw the project once, since all the structural elements are present in the file. The load is transferred by the software, eliminating the “I thought the girder was there…” mistakes and having to come up with a rush repair detail.

With multiple monitors, I can see the layout, 3D views, customer’s criteria, and instructions all at once.

Training time:                    Floor: 3 months                Roof: 6 Months                 Both: 8 Months

-Pros:    -Too many to list in 1 blog!

-Cons:   -More equipment is recommended / IT department is recommended

These are actual 3D screenshots from Sapphire, you can see the roof truss, wall panels, and floor systems. So detailed that you can see the drop floor, how the truss bears on the wall/beams, how high the beams are, etc.




There’s Viewer software available for your customer to download so they can see the 3D views of the project you are designing for them, they can turn the structure around and see the fine detail. This eliminates most questions and saves time on the construction site.

We have come a long way since A. Carroll Sanford invented the modern day truss plate in 1952 in Pompano Beach, Florida. And Trus Joist Corporation invented the I-joists industry in 1969. How about in 20 years from now? I believe that Virtual Reality will be mature and integrated into most design application, moving your hand to move structural members, grabbing imaginary toolbars with your fingers, seeing the whole structure through a pair of glasses, perhaps using drones to do site inspection & approval. Teleporting myself into your office with options for your projects. At this point, it’s only speculation, but without ideas and dreams, we don’t innovate.  How about you? What design software did you use? Which one is your favorite?

Guest post by Martin Auger