Starting an Architecture Firm? Let’s Discuss Software and Hardware Costs
Priorities in the 21st Century Architecture Office
When starting an architecture firm, you are confronted with a lot of expenses. How do you prioritize or justify where to spend your money? For the 21st Century Architecture Office, IT costs come before physical space costs. If you can’t afford the software you need to be successful, you shouldn’t be paying someone else for space. If you baulk at paying five, ten, or fifteen thousand dollars to set up your software and hardware needs; if you are horrified by $600 or $1000 a year to maintain your primary software program(s); you shouldn’t be renting office space. If those costs scare you, try spending zero dollars on technology. See if you can make a firm work that way. Seriously. Go down instead of up. Maybe you’ll discover a secret that the rest of us missed. Or perhaps you’ll realize that you can’t escape technology requirements in architecture. Either direction you choose, be smart about it.
Let’s think about this as calmly as we can
How much does a new firm really need to spend on software and hardware? It seems naive to discuss one without the other. But fortunately the hardware side is (somewhat) easy to answer. Let’s also make one big assumption. If you’re starting a firm, you’re looking at the costs for one person. If you’re more than one person from Day 1, just multiple these costs by the number of people… more or less.
If you’re a new firm you need a workhorse machine. This machine is going to be used for doing BIM, for accounting, for writing proposals, for building your website, for doing graphics, for doing everything. It’s going to go with you everywhere, unless you can do all your presentations via a tablet. The only thing it won’t do is CAD work. We’re in a BIM world now. If you’re a new firm doing CAD, just flush your money down the toilet and get a new job (keep reading for an escape clause). Ergo, you need a versatile machine, and to me that means a good laptop. I know desktops are cheaper and more powerful, but new firms need to be agile and fast. New firms need to be able to go where ever, whenever. That means mobility, that means a laptop. A good laptop is going to run you $2,000-$3,000, depending on the specs, whether you go Mac or PC, and a few other things. Well a really good laptop can approach $3,500 if you’re going all out and buying the top of the line Mac Book Pro with Retina display. But we’re trying to not spend tons of money, so a $2,500 laptop will do just fine.
The Other Hardware
What other hardware do you NEED? Well nothing really. Maybe a good laser printer, like this wireless one from Brother which will run you $100-$150. A printer like this will only do black and white, but that’s fine for most 8.5″ x 11″ printing. Since you’re just starting out, print fancier stuff at a trusted local copy shop. If you find that you are using a lot of color printing then you can look at a good color printer. But why bother to start? The same goes with large format printers. Outsource all your printing at the beginning; and avoid printing where you can. Go digital for as much of your presentation work as possible. Instead of thinking about beautiful static images, explore engaging videos and other media that support the shift to digital. Convince your clients and prospects that your digital media is superior to the printouts the competition is showing them.
Beyond printing, you probably already have a smartphone and a tablet. If not, get a smart phone, your business will be run off it. If you don’t have a tablet, no need to get one right away. Also don’t bother with an external hard drive. Do all your backups via some cloud based back up service like Carbonite. Three years of Carbonite will be cheaper than your external hard drive (which is also damn cheap, but requires more work from you). There’s probably some other piddly stuff like a mouse, an external monitor (see how long you can go with just a 15″ laptop monitor. I’m approaching 18 months and doing fine), a keyboard, etc. No other big ticket hardware items come to mind though.
If you are spending $15,000 on software when you start a firm, you are loaded, crazy, or stupid. In my mind there is one piece of software you should buy on Day 1. The rest should come later. Buy your BIM program: ArchiCAD, Revit, Bentley Systems, Vectorworks, or whatever you use. That is the lifeblood of your production and design work. Do not buy SketchUp Pro (more on that later). Do not buy AutoCAD (more on that later too). Depending on where you are in the world, the prices will vary. But expect to spend $5,000 to $6,000 on your BIM software, though I believe Vectorworks will put you below those numbers. Also with Autodesk’s move to Design Suites, maybe their numbers are higher these days? I’m sure one of my readers knows that answer. Also if you’re doing small work and new to BIM, ArchiCAD STAR(T) and Revit LT will save you a lot of money (this will put you in the $1,500 to $2,500 price range, depending on a few things). But if you’re doing BIM, I recommend you just go all in and get the full version. Go big or go home, right?
That’s it. Everything else is optional, unnecessary, or free.
What am I basing my numbers on? Two things. I went off on my own in early 2012. I know what my costs were, and I know what my business partner’s costs were (I’m in Minnesota, he’s in Texas). I know what software I needed to have, what could be put off, and what could be replaced with free versions. For instance, I needed ArchiCAD. That was a no brainer for me. For others it’d be a different BIM application. I do so much writing and a fair number of slideshows that after fighting Apache OpenOffice for a few weeks, I just went and bought Microsoft Office for $120, or whatever the price was at the time. It was money well spent. I really wanted Abobe Creative Suite 6, but GIMP was free. It took some getting used to after using Photoshop for years, but the extra effort was well worth not paying $1200 for CS6 or half that for just Photoshop or Illustrator. I’ll eventually need InDesign, and maybe Illustrator (though I’ll look into Scribus and Inkscape first since those are free alternatives). For now, InDesign is just a wish and I’m doing all my diagrams and cartoons in ArchiCAD—not ideal, but it works and saves me tons of money. I even designed my business cards in ArchiCAD. That actually raises a good point. BIM applications can mimic a lot of the basic functions of Illustrator and many other applications. This is great because I already own my BIM program and am crazy fast with it.
In addition to having recently run all these numbers for my own business, I’m a 32-year-old Generation Y architect and the Graphisoft Agent for Minnesota. I talk with a lot of firms. Both new and existing ones. Firms that chose ArchiCAD and firms that decided against it. A lot of these people are sole proprietors starting their firms. Some are strangers; others are friends and/or old colleagues; many have just reached that point where they flip over their desks and scream “Fuck it. I’m starting my own Firm!”
Where do you fall on the technology usage spectrum? Are you a Luddite or an Early Adopter Techno-Geek? Or somewhere in-between? If you’re the former, you’ll spend less; if you’re the latter, you’ll spend more. How much? Maybe 50% to 200%. I’m harsh and jerkish about using CAD in a new firm, but some firms can start that way. And I’ll begrudgingly admit that that’s okay. Your costs will be WAY cheaper. If you are going the CAD route, you do NOT need AutoCAD. Use PowerCAD or some free AutoCAD clone: it will save you tons of money. If you’re going the CAD route, technology is not critical to your business model. Don’t get tricked into thinking you need AutoCAD. In your firm you don’t. If you’re doing CAD, then ignore all this talk of interoperability, OpenBIM, data exchange, etc. You can save a 2D .dwg with a wide variety of free CAD packages. You don’t need AutoCAD.
Now if you’re a technophile, you might want Rhino and Grasshopper. You’ll be craving Artlantis or some other Rendering program. That’ll drive your costs up. But even the technophiles need to prioritize. Can you do all your renderings like this or this? Those can both be done with GIMP, which is free. Just because you want to use all the fancy programs doesn’t mean you need to, or will have the time to, or can afford to when you open your doors. Glamorous rendering software is great and all, but most of us don’t need it on day one. Or day two. Or day three hundred.
When I Support Using SketchUp Pro
What are you good at today? Are you a SketchUp expert? In a situation like that your best way forward might be to buy SketchUp Pro, do all your work in that, and wait. Don’t also buy a BIM or CAD application. Now is not the time for you. I was reminded of this recently when having breakfast with a former coworker of mine. He’s a wiz at SketchUp and recently left our old firm to start his own office. He had access to an ArchiCAD key and was dabbling with it, but he could do everything he needed to do in SketchUp. Should he, as a one man shop, also buy some other program? No way. Not yet. He doesn’t have the cashflow, the projects, or the need. Might he reach a point where he gets a project that requires BIG BIM (or even little bim) and he can’t handle it? With luck he will. But he doesn’t need to solve problems he doesn’t have today. And when he reaches that point, there are a lot of great solutions he can then take.
Also, it’s been almost 3 years since SketchUp Pro 8 came out (and a year since Trimble bought it). Maybe SketchUp Pro 9 will be 64-bit and turn from a Proto-BIM application into a real BIM game changer. If that’s the case, he stuck with what he knew and saved himself thousands of dollars.
Don’t know SketchUp, or aren’t very good at it? Don’t waste your money on SketchUp Pro. Put your money elsewhere. It’s as simple as that. Again this isn’t a dig against the quality or value of SketchUp. Instead of SketchUp, we could be talking about FormZ or some other 3D modeling software. This is about new firms putting energy into the wrong things. If you’re a solo operation and have the choice between learning 3D modeling or BIM, this is a no brainer. Go big or go home.
To Put it Simply
Hardware and software costs will run you a total of $2,000 to $10,000 to start, depending on all of what I discussed above. Don’t buy software that has a great free alternative, at least not until you’ve given the free version a good try. Don’t buy aspirational software. If you’re not doing renderings at your last job before starting a firm, don’t buy an expensive rendering software under the assumption you’ll start rendering now. Remember you are not alone. If you’re starting a firm, your friends are probably as well. Or did a few years ago. Or are thinking about it in the future. Outsource to, and grow, your trusted network. Reconnect with the old college buddy who went down a different path than you. Grow your strengths, educate yourself in what else you need, and then outsource and team up.
Am I way off? Someone tell me why. I’d love someone to step up and offer to write a counterpoint blog post. I think that’d be awesome. Who’s up for it? I’m sure for everyone new firm out there, there’s ten different opinions on what’s necessary and what’s not. Want to hear more of my thoughts on young firms? Subscribe to the RSS feed and also follow Shoegnome on Facebook and Twitter.
If you’ve made it this far, then you are REALLY interested in this subject:
I have my issues with the conclusions, arguments, and relationship the author has with technology (their $15,000 wishlist of software + the absurdity of the final sentence: “In the meantime, start saving for AutoCAD 2014.”), but this article from Archinet UNEXPECTED COSTS ~ Big ticket design software versus alternate methodologies is worth your time as well. Make sure to read the comments, there are some really good responses.