Let’s say you plan to visit the offices of a top-tier architectural firm. What can you expect when the elevator door opens and you are guided past the well-appointed reception to the main workspace?
An airy room with large windows perhaps, and more importantly, an array of PCs coupled with large high-definition screens. And if you look a little closer, you might see that the iconic buildings of tomorrow are being designed on those same machines. The overall impression is one of overwhelming modernity and an embrace of the digital age.
But looks can be deceiving. According to Pamela Wallgren, co-founder of the Swedish architectural software company, Finch, architects lacked some of the collaboration tools that professionals in other industries might take for granted. An architect herself, she hopes her young company will be a disruptive force in the industry.
And there seems to be room for a fair amount of disruption. This is according to a recent report by McKinsey, the wider construction industry is stuck on the slow track when it comes to technology. Not only is it lagging behind other industries in terms of productivity, it’s also a bit late when it comes to digital transformation. Looking ahead, however, McKinsey predicts that, in addition to new materials and methods, the industry will benefit from a new generation of collaboration tools.
And more specifically focused on architecture, a joint report from Microsoft and the Royal Institute of British Architects – quite old now that 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 it best left to established software vendors?
Filling the gaps
Pamela Wallgren says her startup company stepped in to fill a gap in the market. Finch, she says, was born out of frustration with the technologies that were available until now. The company’s design tools were created to help architects design buildings more efficiently and help them meet the increasingly pressing need to address the problem of climate change.
So what does that mean in practice? Well, the company uses graphics technology that allows architects to generate multiple designs in the early stages of a construction project. To an outsider, that doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary. After all, architects have been using computer-aided design tools since the 1970s. You could think of it as a revolution that happened a long time ago,
But Wallgren – along with co-founders Jesper Wallgren and Martin Kretz – saw a lot of room for improvement.
Slowed down by manual processes
“We were slowed down by manual processes,” she says. “We were looking for software to design great buildings, but we couldn’t find it. So we decided to build it ourselves.”
Collaboration – or the lack of it – was a particular problem. According to Wallgren, files had to be saved and shared when two or more architects worked together on a project. This puts a brake on productivity.
“Our software is browser-based,” says Wallgren. “The existing software was desktop and did not allow collaboration. With our software, everyone can access one model.”
In addition, the graphing software – literally based on the principles underlying old-fashioned graphs – allows architects to experiment with thousands of iterations. In this way, designs can be tested and optimized. “In the past, architects often relied on their intuition and experience,” adds Wallgren.
But will this really make a difference, other than speeding things up a bit? Wallgren thinks so, not least because the ability to play with designs early on should make it easier to solve problems. This can be particularly useful when it comes to creating environmentally friendly, carbon neutral buildings.
Ask about change
There seems to be a demand for it. 12,000 users have signed up for the system and a number of major architectural practices are on board. The company – while still validating the software – sees this as clear evidence that the industry is ready for new tools.
So far, Finch has raised money from angel investors before a full commercial rollout. Meanwhile, initial progress the company has made in attracting users suggests there’s a market for the product.
But this is perhaps part of a larger journey through the industry. 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.