Digital Design and the Future of the Small Architectural Firm

Like a lot of people of my generation, I was introduced to computers around middle and senior school. This was before Windows, Macintosh, Linux or Android. If we wanted to interact with the computer we had to programme it to do exactly what we wanted it to do. In today’s terms, we had to write our own software and create our own apps. Computers have come a long way since then.

BBC Micro computers similar to the ones I first used in school (Photo: Dom Walton,

We have seen the rise of the graphical user interface (GUI) increasing the opacity of the inner workings of computers. You don’t need to know how to write code any more. Using computers is no longer about creating but consuming. We now use what software we get off the shelf rather than create our own.

Apps (Source:

As the enforcement of anti-software piracy laws has increased in India, architects have become increasingly invested in specific proprietary software packages (ask any architect about the police raids that checked for pirated CAD software in their studios). Being tied to an expensive piece of software means that a designer is forced to use that software for as many tasks as possible to achieve a return on investment. Architects do not have the flexibility to select a piece of software that is ideally suited to a design task. As an analogy, if each app for your smart phone cost a lot of money, you’d probably just use a general purpose browser to search for the cricket score rather than buy an app made specifically to give you score updates.

The nature of a small architectural firm is that it provides customised design solutions to a limited clientele. If small firms are to use digital design tools to their full potential, and fully integrate them into their work flow, then a standardised software package cannot be the solution. For a small firm to fully embrace what digital design has to offer, it needs the ability to customise design software to provide customised design solutions.

The trajectory taken by architectural software has been in the opposite direction to the needs of the small firm. Simple Computer Aided Design (CAD) software which functions like a digital drawing board has now given way to Building Information Modelling (BIM) software that is able to handle all aspects of construction from site surveying to construction supervision. The ability of BIM software to process all kinds of data related to design and construction vastly increases the efficiency and productivity of an architect.

The more data an architect processes using standardised software, the more the architect is restricted to what the software is pre-programmed to do. For a large architectural firm doing commercial projects this is not a significant trade-off, in fact, standardisation across projects is an asset in terms of speed and efficiency. But these very advantages of the software are not only an anathema to small practices but also significantly increase the competitive edge that large firms have over them in an already shrinking professional space.

Unlike CAD, BIM software is not only a design tool but also guides project management and construction. The global standardisation of BIM software results in an overt and/or covert standardisation of building materials and technologies. The kind of software an architect uses influences the form and aesthetic of the buildings they design, the kinds materials used in the buildings, and the kinds of construction techniques required to build the buildings. The implications of this discussion therefore go far beyond the confines of architectural firms and their software to ultimately affect the economics of construction, the environmental impact of buildings, and social issues linked to the value of indigenous local skills and knowledge.

The way a small architectural firm negotiates the use software in their practice will only become more pressing in the future. One way to deal with this can be to use only CAD software for digital drawings and not use BIM in the project work flow at all. This is the way most small practices currently function but it may not be feasible to indefinitely compete with the ever increasing efficiency of large firms using BIM.

Another way a small firm may deal with this can be to introduce BIM into the work flow only after major design decisions have already been taken and use it merely as a tool to coordinate information robustly and efficiently. This would be akin to a writer writing with pencil and paper and only using a word processor like an electronic type writer to create a final draft for printing thus not allowing the software’s spelling and grammar checking (and other automated features) to affect the way in which the writing is conceived. In architectural terms this will make construction management and general coordination more efficient, but it will not allow the small architect to make full use of the possibilities that digital design opens up.

The third way for the small firm is to create a digitally aware practice that approaches software the way we were taught at school – to be creators rather than consumers of software. This does not mean re-inventing the wheel and making one’s own version of general purpose commercial BIM software. Rather, the digitally aware small firm must be able to quickly and efficiently create unique pieces of simple code that are tailored to perform the unique tasks that are required to create unique designs. These pieces of code cannot be sophisticated software but rough and ready tools for one-off deployment. The use of software here adds value to the creative process and is much more than an office automation tool or information database. Such code will not do away with the need for a CAD or BIM package but will augment it and overcome its limitations, acting as a bridge between the architect’s creative design process and standardised software tools. In real terms it may even function as a script that runs within a software package and makes the most of its pre-programmed functions. Such a small firm will be a savvy consumer and tinkerer of software with the goal of being a creator of unique and customised architecture.