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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.

The Computer

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.

For my detailed thoughts on buying a machine for an ArchiCAD user, read this post I wrote in April 2013.

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.

The Software

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?

If you don’t know what BIM software to use, read this post. The answer is obvious.

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!”

Variables…

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.

This isn’t a rant against Autodesk; this is a rant against young firms wasting their precious resources.

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

Money+Money+Money

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.

Comments

  • May 6, 2013
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    If youve survived on your own without real data recovery options, youre either very lucky of very reckless. I’ll let you decide. But backup options for a single computer can be had for under 200 dollars, and NOT having data backup can (literally) be the end of a firm (whether trying to start up on their own, or seasoned and well along). Explaining to a client that you are starting their project over and will need two extram months to do it, because of a hard drive failure and an external hard drive got dropped at some point, is a disaster. Much like you say BIM software is from minute one, IMVHO so is a proper data infrastructure, even if its a small box with shared directories, some GOOD Protection for it, and some decent cable-ing.

    And your list above is decent, if youre one person going out on their own.If youre more than one, that data backup, and data storage device, and proper networking, are all costs better paid for up front, than cheapened out on and lost in productivity time downstream.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

  • May 6, 2013
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    Brian Sykes

    I know you can run the basics off of Microsoft Office, but I would really look at an online CRM, and/or project management software. You will really need a CRM system as your practice grows and the sooner you get real PM software in place, the better.

    I am currently torn between ArchiOffice, which has a little bit of a price tag, and the 37 Signals suite of Campfire, Highrise and Basecamp. Also, check out Zoho. But, the PM stuff should be part of this start up suite. And does not have to cost a lot.

      • May 7, 2013

        I might be biased, as I got my experience from a few smaller architectural offices, but it can be quite low level: basic book keeping in a spreadsheet (the official stuff is more efficient to be sent to a real book keeper), addresses and calendars that are shared between devices (if you work alone) or between colleagues if you don’t work alone, maybe a simple B/W laser printer (A3 format would be nice), digital camera and addresses of a nearby copy centre.

        Software is hardly the biggest cost. Real costs are your office and furniture (e.g. I submitted 25% of my former apartment costs initially, as one of the bedrooms was my first office), communication costs (keep it simple), your car and all legal insurances and membership fees of e.g. regional architectural organization. And clothing, including helmet and boots for construction sites.

        The real cost is loosing time in endless client discussions, in negotiating with the local administration for building permits, loosing time driving around or endless surfing for online information that you might find easier elsewhere. Be efficient when you are working. (I wasn’t that efficient)

  • May 8, 2013
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    Jared, thank you thank you thank you. My favorite post of yours to date. This is probably because I’ve given my notice and am officially paycheque-less on June 1st. Your comment about aspirational software was a great one. I’m tempted to go buy Artlantis and other programs, yet I’ve never used them. Maybe when more (any) revenues come in….

    You’re also correct that implementing a project management software right from the beginning makes sense. I’ve been doing lots of research, project demos, etc. with a variety of programs and have it narrowed down to:

    BillQuick or ArchiOffice (two products from same developer)
    BaseBuilders Praesto AE, and
    Clearview InFocus.

    Strongly leaning towards Praesto or InFocus. InFocus is cloud based (with smartphone apps) and includes general ledger functions. Praesto isn’t a general ledger but is exactly what architects/engineers need. Both have very flexible invoicing (fixed fee, hourly, phased, or combos), CRM, task management, etc. Praesto can interface with QuickBooks. Both are $25/month. cheap! BillQuick and ArchiOffice look great too, but are a bit pricier.

    For me, this is my plan:
    – powerful desktop + keep using my mid-range laptop
    – new smartphone
    – ArchiCAD (I managed to acquire a used key for a great price)
    – MS Office
    – Praesto / InFocus
    – possibly QuickBooks
    – free software: Scribus and Inkscape. Both have lots of tutorials and do the general tasks you need. I designed business cards, post cards, logos, etc. all in Inkspace with no previous training or experience in vector graphic programs. Scribus is easy too. Surely, it’s not InDesign, but we’re designers, not professional desktop publishers.
    – free apps: DropBox, Evernote, Asana. Love Asana for task management: I’ve organized workspaces in Personal, Firm Business + Firm Projects.

      • August 1, 2014

        leoda

        Jered, What do you use to manage your company? You say you run your life with Evernote. Do you use it to help manage your company? If so, how? And do you find it time consuming? You have also mentioned there was a post/follow up to this. Do you mind to send a link for this conversation?

        P.S. I was learning MS Project. I find it daunting and a waste of time. I have recently read this link about ArchiOffice: http://archinect.com/forum/thread/53744514/archioffice-project-management-software-for-15-person-firm
        Although I’m not sure if ArchiOffice is the best either. (side note: very interesting discussion added bygwharton on “tracking time”.)

        I looked up someone’s suggestion below, and it looks promising: http://www.frankcollaboration.com/about/
        I need to look into it more to see how it will manage shop drawings and other submittals, change orders, and other documents that are created during CA.

        I have a friend who swears by Asana (a software engineer), and I do have some experience using it. But I’m not so sure I would use it for PM.

        I will also look into Praesto / InFocus, as suggest by Jeremiah (thanks for your post!), and http://www.liquidplanner.com/ as suggest by someone from the archinet link above.

        Does a perfect PM software even exist?

        all the best. and thanks for the info!

  • May 23, 2013
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    Damian Trostinetzky

    Jared,

    Another good piece of software you can use to run your office like a pro, is to sign to Google Apps for business, which include all the Google bells including google docs,and let you manage email and website like a pro for Free.

  • May 27, 2013
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    Brian

    Jared, which of Jeroen’s tools would you recommend for your ideal startup, BIM set up?

  • August 13, 2013
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    Chloe

    I’m still just a student of Architecture, but am quite sick of the uni advising us on what to learn when they are clearly not being too realistic. They changed from ArchiCAD to AutoCAD and from Maya to Rhino simply because “that’s what we need to know, that’s what practices are using.” …wait. BIM to CAD? Detailed modelling to a simplified NURBS system? Something tells me their switch has more to do with educational licenses than practice trends!

    So thankyou, this article has been enlightening. I recently switched over to ArchiCAD and managed to create a set of professional drawings and pre-photoshop renders in a fraction of the time it would have taken me previously.

    Lastly, one thing I have found to be incredibly useful as a fileshare system is BitTorrent Sync. It is free, you can create a “secret” that your team enters upon install to make it private, and can sync either automatically or on request. It’s doing wonders for a project I’m working on at the moment, however we’re an incredibly small unit with only four of us. I’m not entirely sure how the same set up would function with a larger team (would be interesting to find out). Still, check it out 🙂

  • August 30, 2013
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    Hi,
    Could please focus, or just mention any data management software that can run an Architectural firm. As you may know building a network for data exchange is very commons recently and managing versions of the same project is a must specially when you run different software for the same project, like doint the plans and the workshop drawings with Autocad and making movie and virtual tour and 3D presentation with 3DMAX, without mentioning contracts (words files), financial records (Excel) and so on. so I think It’s a must dependence on a data mangment software that control vrsioning across the local network and/or over a cloud system.

    Thank you in advanced

  • September 7, 2013
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    Excellent post Jared, and the frank tone about getting beyond the tired CAD discussion is refreshing.

    It’s very hard to stomach the upfront cost of a full BIM package, however, when you realize that you live in it on a daily basis, it’s the lifeblood of your ability to visualize and document your designs. Speaking of being mobile, Office 365 gives a good browser access to all the Microsoft Products including e-mail hosting for a decent yearly fee – I’d rather have work e-mail living on something other than gmail considering how much Google uses it for other purposes. BackBlaze is another good cloud-based backup solution – I think it’s cheaper than Carbonite.

    Project management software is a big challenge for me – I’ve used Newforma in larger firms in the past and it’s overkill for a small office, however, nothing else I’ve found really does the trick. Evernote is great, but until it integrates e-mail into project workflows, it’s pretty much useless for me. I want e-mail and documents all integrated into a cloud-based service….

    • September 9, 2013
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      Brian

      Though not specific to architecture, I am really impressed with Basecamp. It seems like your best bet if you want cloud based.

      • August 29, 2014

        Thanks Brian. I’ll look into it. I don’t see anything about e-mail integration with projects – is that part of Basecamp or done via an add-in?

  • October 10, 2013
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    Jared B. Many things you do well written! But as you said – a lot depends on where you live. In some countries, office equipment and software costs are much lower than you indicate! But the office itself, from the point of view of its design, location and accessibility, workstation (desk, chair, office supplies, etc.) naporyadok more than equipment and software!

  • April 15, 2014
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    Matt

    I thought I might try to revive the conversation as we are currently looking for simple to use project planning / management software for our small 3-5 person firm. We are currently using MYOB which suits our accountants and Harvest online time tracking, but are still on basic spreadsheets for project planning.

    I tried to contact Clearview In Focus, but they do not support Australia and I am yet to hear back from Praesto, so not looking promising. Of all the hunting around the web for products, In focus appeared to be pretty good. Not sure about Ajera, but this and alot of products are really geared towards bigger firms.

    • May 1, 2014
      reply

      Hi Matt,

      Any luck with your hunt, we are looking for the same, did you try workflowmax?

      • May 4, 2014

        Matt

        Hi Felipe, I have signed up for so many trials that I have lost count now!

        The one tool that I have really taken to now is Trello. For getting things done and assigning tasksm it is excellent + it integrates well with Harvest.

        I have also realised that Harvest is potentially much more powerful than I previously thought – it’s such a well designed interface + it looks like they are introducing more functionality to the projects side. So what I am now looking for is a project planning + resource planning tool that can integrate with Harvest.

        So far the products that have impressed me most are:

        All in one:
        10000ft
        Proofhub
        Hubplanner

        Planning only:
        Tom’s planner
        Ganttic

        However, none of these integrate with Harvest unfortunately.
        I will have a look at workflowmax as well.

  • May 5, 2014
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    Hey, We are a using Frank Collaboration, it’s specifically for Architects, and offers Project Management, Project Finances, Human Resources, Time tracking, Customer and lead management, proposals, etc. We found it very complete and being a cloud based platform with no licenses to pay upfront and just a monthly subscription, it fitted perfect for us.

  • May 15, 2014
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    raquel

    Great advice, I do think that in the long term a CRM software would be needed. Have you seen those? I have tried Zoho and paypanther and I am still on the search, would you recommend any other?
    Thank you !!

  • June 4, 2014
    reply

    Jacob

    Jared,

    The company I am working for is going to make the design service larger. Currently there are 3 people in the design service and we all are working off lap tops. My boss wants to buy a server and a 3D printer. Any advice you have for us?

  • July 31, 2014
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    Mårten

    We use liquidplanner as a PM tool. Cloudbased, monthly or yearly subscription. Very good for estimating tasks and resources, logging time and doing analyses. It even connects all tasks to your calendar (smartphone or computer) and updates in real time.
    Check it out, it’s a very powerful tool.

  • April 1, 2015
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    SR

    Have you looked at Deltek Ajera (formerly Axium) for either CRM or for their PM and accounting? http://www.axium.com

  • April 14, 2015
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    Hello, We are a 5 person firm looking for pm software. Liquidplanner requires 10 ppl so we are too small. We are looking at Praesto, AffinityLive, Engineeroffice, Procore, maybe Clearview InFoucs, but not sure we want to switch from QB too Clearview accounting. Does anyone have any input? Thank you!

  • April 18, 2015
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    Mark-the-Architect

    To the point (with general thanks, concurrence and context below) :

    I have a suggestion for architecture firm / project management software that I have been using for decades to track time sheets, proposals, budgets, billing rates & methods, contacts, employees, staff allocation, project correspondence, phone notes, document mgmt, ToDo lists, project lists/photos and more, across multiple employees & multiple projects : It’s “Arch Administrator”, by PS Software Solutions ( http://www.psss.com ) Specifically tailored to the architecture / engineering world, I would consider it a direct competitor to Archi-Office (which I briefly tried at another firm) but less complicated to use and to set up (which can be done incrementally, and changed as needed) – and it’s much less expensive.

    The developer of Arch-Admin, Paul, is an architect (now full-time software business guy) who initially developed it for his own practice and has since continued to refine it and add to it. It is reasonably priced (based on # of seats) & suitable for small as well as large firms. Paul himself is regularly available for support and is interested in suggestions which he actually incorporates into subsequent releases – many times as a free upgrade. It will import and export to Quickbooks (which is what I have been doing) but, over time they have added pretty much all of the financial and accounting features of QB into the core of ArchAdmin, so it can now be used instead of QB. It will also import & export to Outlook contacts (which I also use) It is customizable regarding work descriptions, phases, tasks, rates, invoice formats etc.etc.

    I think its only weak point is some (workable) limitations to print-formatting (tho’ it does incorporate your custom letterhead) because it is database-based (its a Lotus Approach application, because Paul found it easier / better to program than MS Access) and thus field lengths & print variables etc did need to be constrained at some point.

    I really can’t say enough good things about Arch Administrator; It enabled me to start, run, & keep track of my own architecture office from the beginning, and it continues to serve me well today. Also, I like owning my means of production / management; I guess I’m “old school” – despite some advantages (& trendiness) of cloud-based subscriptions, I’m not keen on the cost and lack of control.

    But enough gushing enthusiasm – check it out.

    Who is suggesting this ? I’m not a software reviewer or marketer, I’m an architect – firm size fluctuating from 1-7 people over the past 20+ years, now a 2-person firm – and I’m just REALLY grateful when computer tech actually works for me, instead of the other way around. (Now, I need to break the AutoCAD stranglehold). I’ve been hot on computer-tech for architecture since the beginning (1979 for me ) but it has grown into a love-hate relationship over time. Software developers / marketers have a history of overselling their capabilities and goading us on, to the “bleeding-edge” of tech at the expense of getting our jobs done. I can’t afford a specialized tech department, and I do not exist just to install ( & re-learn) the next greatest software product / upgrade. Which is why I really appreciate your frank and pretty-balanced view of technology in the real world. Thanks. It’s apparently a topic that has a serious effect on me as I’ve run on a bit too long here.

    I look forward to reading your views your other topics

  • December 22, 2015
    reply

    Pingback: Starting Architecture Firm | online - best architecture firms

  • January 11, 2016
    reply

    Surprised No one has mentioned Filemaker

    • March 6, 2016
      reply

      megrez

      So am I. Filemaker connects directly to Archicad database… Interesting!

  • June 24, 2016
    reply

    Tony

    Has anyone tried https://www.costgem.com ?

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