How Small Architecture Firms Use Technology to Manage More Projects with Fewer People

Tracie Simmons ArchiCAD, Firm Stories

When picturing an architects work environment, it wasn’t that long ago that you’d visualize people hand drawing at drafting desks surrounded by pencils, pens and other drafting tools. Rolls of drawings everywhere. While hand drawing is still a critical part of the process today, you’re more likely to see computers sitting on desks with 2D drawings or more recently 3D models on the screen. In fact, according to the AIA 2020 Firm Survey Report 37% of small firms are using 3D building information modeling or BIM for billable work. And most of the rest are likely using a 2D drafting tool.

The number of available software packages are numerous. There are your mission critical programs like Autocad, Vectorworks, Archicad and Revit. Then there are the tools that promise added value like Bluebeam Revu for project management, several rendering and VR tools, and communication tools to keep your remote team connected.

For small firms these choices can feel a bit overwhelming and pricey. Plus, they require a lot of manpower to learn and use. In my experience working with firms of all sizes, I’ve found that there are several characteristics of practices that use technology wisely to take on more work and bigger projects with fewer people.

Leadership Counts

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The most successful firms I’ve worked with have strong leaders. They have a vision for the firm, they are willing to take risks, and they are willing to invest. Bradley Khouri with b9 architects, is a good example of a leader with a vision. His firm is “conceptually driven, trying to look forward rather than backward.” This vision has morphed over the years from a focus on individual projects to manifesting these ideas to help to shape his city of Seattle.

This relates to technology because these leaders are willing to constantly challenge the status quo, regularly evaluate how their firm can improve, and are intentional in the decisions they make.

Technology with Purpose

Just because a piece of software claims to be the latest and greatest or is sold by your current vendor, it doesn’t mean it’s the best tool for your firm. Taking the time to understand what you are trying to achieve with software will help you yield positive results.

Some questions to consider: Are you trying to make your firm more efficient? Are your clients expecting 3D visualizations? Will new software enhance your workflow and be compatible with the other programs you are using? Does your current software help you meet your firm’s vision and goals?

When Jerrod Nichols with Fuse Architecture started with the firm he dove in with the software that he already knew. Within 6 months there was a Revit vs Archicad showdown. See what they learned.

Fuse Architecture is a high-end custom residential design-build firm in Santa Cruz. A few years back they decided to change and simplify their design software. Before making the switch they decided to do a side-by-side comparison of their current BIM software and the one they were looking at. Ultimately, they decided to switch to a design-focused tool but if their priorities were different they might have stayed with their current software.

Consolidation is Key

I’ve worked with firms that use numerous software products to create their designs when one or two would do the trick. I’ve also seen firms re-build models because they design and document in different tools. In our consulting business we work primarily with Archicad and I’ve found that it can often replace three or four pieces of software.

“We used to use a lot of other tools within our process,” according to Stefan Hampden with CAST Architecture, one of our clients in Seattle. “Archicad’s now capable of doing those explorations and we feel like we’re facile with it and it’s fluid enough and it doesn’t create that barrier where we feel like we need to go to another tool to explore it.”

Standards Provide Efficiency

No matter what software you use, taking the time to develop your company standards and templates pays off tenfold.

  • Starting a project is faster and more efficient.
  • Man-hours are eliminated because various elements are being automatically generated.
  • Line weights and other graphic elements are established once instead of with each project.
  • Expectations are set so that your team won’t have to guess at what your documents, layouts and views should look like.
  • A consistent brand identity is presented to your prospects and clients.

Christopher Lee believes Archicad helps him dominate larger competitors without increasing risk or cost.

Christopher Lee, with d|a architecture in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, believes that his Archicad template does the “heavy lifting” for his small team allowing them to take on huge projects they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. “All my camera angles are already set up. The camera is live in my template so my elevations are automatically being generated, all my sections are automatically generated, all my schedules are being generated. Every time I drop a door or window in the software, it lands on a schedule somewhere. All that background stuff is being managed automatically.”

The Right Team

I’ve worked with some energetic teams that really gel and some teams that just can’t quite get it together. Teams that work well together do a better job of sharing ideas and embracing all that their technology has to offer.

This has made me a true believer in the idea that hiring someone that fits your culture is the most important criteria for building the right team. It’s fairly easy to learn a piece of software, but changing your personality, not so much.

When hiring, here are a few things to think about: Are they a cultural fit? Do they bring something new to the table? Will they take something off your plate so that you can focus on more important things? Are they a self-starter or will they need a lot of direction?

A Culture of Learning & Continuous Improvement

It almost goes without saying that well-trained, engaged employees are better at their jobs and better at meeting expectations. But did you also know that companies that offer comprehensive training programs have 218% higher income per employee than companies without formalized training, according to research from Shift eLearning. A survey from Ladders shows that 86% of millennials are more inclined to stay at their current company if they are given access to quality training and development.

Duan H.M Tran shares how adopting BIM broke down the barriers to teamwork at KAA Design.

This culture of learning goes well beyond how to use your firms software. It is reflected in how your team interacts, how much mentoring happens, and how much each individual contributes to the outcome of the work you do. KAA Design Group out of Los Angeles is one firm that really embraces this idea. In a recent ByDesign interview, Partner Duane H.M. Tran discussed their firms culture. He said, “It’s a really powerful thing honestly to be able to develop a cultural collaboration that’s truly about greater awareness and accountability” Senior Associate Meghan Beckmann added that “the notion of continual change and continual adjustment. That is what keeps the team together.”

All of these things affect how well a small firm can compete for more and bigger projects. While, as a BIM consultant, I’d like to say that it’s all about the software. In reality, it’s about how a firm is run, how the team embraces the tools that they have, and how willing the leadership is to continuously improve.

Written by Tracie Simmons
Managing Director, Archivista

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