Let’s say you’re planning to visit the offices of a top-drawer architectural practice. What might you expect to see when the lift door opens and you are ushered past the well-appointed reception and into the main working space?
An airy room with large windows, perhaps, and more importantly a bank of PCs coupled with large, high-definition screens. And if you look a little bit more closely, maybe you’ll find the iconic buildings of tomorrow being designed on those very machines. The overall impression is one of overwhelming modernity and an embrace of the digital era.
But looks can be deceptive. According to Pamela Wallgren, co-founder of Swedish architectural software company, Finch, architects have been lacking some of the collaborative tools that professionals in other sectors might take for granted. An architect herself, she hopes her young company will be a disruptive force in the industry.
And there does seem to be scope for a fair amount of disruption. According to a recent report by McKinsey, the wider construction industry has been stuck in the slow lane when it comes to technology. Not only has it been lagging behind other industries in terms of productivity, it has also been a bit tardy when it comes to digital transformation. Looking ahead, however, McKinsey predicts that in addition to new materials and working practices, the industry will benefit from a new generation of collaborative tools.
And homing in more specifically on architecture, a joint report by Microsoft and the Royal Institute of British Architects – quite old now as it was released four years ago – also looks forward to a new era of digital design tools.
So are there opportunities for tech startups to provide new tools or is this something that is best left to established software providers?
Filling The Gaps
Pamela Wallgren says her startup company has stepped in to fill a gap in the market. Finch, she says, was born out of frustration with the technologies that were hitherto available. The company’s design tools have been created to help architects design buildings more efficiently while also helping them comply with the ever-more-pressing imperative to address the issue of climate change.
So what does that mean in practice? Well, the company uses graph technology that enables architects to generate multiple designs in the early stages of a building project. To an outsider that doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary. After all, architects have been using computer-aided design tools since the 70s. You might think of it as a revolution that happened long ago,
But Wallgren – along with co-founders Jesper Wallgren and Martin Kretz – saw considerable room for improvement.
Slowed Down by Manual Processes
“We were being slowed down by manual processes,” she says. “We were looking for software to design great buildings and we couldn’t find it. So we decided to build it ourselves.”
Collaboration – or the lack of it – was a particular issue. According to Wallgren, files had to be saved and shared if two or more architects were working together on a project. This puts a drag on productivity.
“Our software is browser-based,” says Wallgren. “The existing software was desktop and didn’t allow for collaboration. Using our software everyone can get access to one model.”
Added to that, the graph software – literally based on the principles underlying good-old-fashioned graphs – allows architects to experiment with thousands of iterations. Thus designs can be tested and optimized. “Previously architects tended to rely on their intuition and experience,” Wallgren adds.
But will this really make a difference, other than speeding things up a little? Wallgren thinks it will -not least because the ability to play with designs at the earliest stage should make it easier to iron out problems. This may be particularly useful when it comes to creating environmentally friendly, carbon-neutral buildings.
Demand for Change
There does seem to be demand. 12,000 users have been signed up for the system and a number of significant architectural practices have been onboarded. The company – although still validating the software – sees this as clear evidence that the industry is ready for new tools.
So far, Finch has been raising funds from angel investors before a full commercial rollout. In the meantime, the initial progress made by the company in terms of attracting users suggests there is a market for the product.
But this is, perhaps, part of a bigger industry journey. The Microsoft/RIBA report says digital transformation will make architects more productive and result in better building design, creating opportunities for startups and incumbents alike.