By Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA
In the past decade, there has been a literal explosion of online cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tools in the professional service sector designed to address the operational aspects of practice. These include FinTech (Finance), LegalTech (Law), MarTech (Marketing), and PropTech (Facilities Management).
Until recently few of these tools specifically targeted the needs of the architectural, design, or engineering practice. Digital developers have begun to address the operational aspects for designers with new "ArchiTech" (to coin a neologism) applications that take a more focused approach to solving the challenges of the business of architecture.1
The practice of architecture is ripe with opportunities for disruption to the way things have always been done. Implementing new applications, frameworks, and tools can simplify and automate the non-design operational aspects of the firm. Leveraging new tools to manage the business more profitably and enjoyably gives the firm more time to practice what they love best, the practice of architecture.
For this article, I profile five recent entrants into the SaaS for the design practice. I found exciting opportunities to redefine the "how-to" of the business of architecture. These tools integrate multiple applications, automate business and marketing processes, simplify and advance internal and external coordination, and improve the communication between teams and clients.
Streamlining project management & finance
One of the more critical tasks in any professional practice is time management and billing. Managing staff workloads, coordinating time across multiple projects, and collecting data on resources and efforts that result in revenue recognition is—next to good design—the foundation for the firm's financial success.
Launched in 2020 and purpose-built for architecture and design firms, Monograph is a cloud-based practice operation platform and a suite of integrated tools designed to assist with project management, project planning, resource management, online time/task tracking, and invoicing. Robert Yuen, Monograph's co-founder, and CEO, said the mission of his company is "creating a better-built environment by enabling design professionals to work together seamlessly."
Using Monograph, firms can track and visualize the value of time across project phases, project budgets, team members, and clients in real-time. A customizable dashboard provides visual insights into the status of workflows, resource allocations, and how time is invested in projects.
To that end, the Monograph team provides free templates, webinars, podcasts, a reference library, and a support center to simplify adoption and help build results-based use cases. Using a platform like Monograph enables teams to make decisions, improve workflows, and turn time into revenue with greater ease. Peter Indelicato, VP of Product Development at Monograph, said, "Everything outside of design should be efficient as possible."
Marketing qualifications made easy
A common complaint you hear from most design firm marketers is the pressure to create customized compelling content in response to the time-sensitive, approach-driven, content-qualified RFP/RFQ cycle. Digital Asset Management (DAM) or Content Management Systems (CMS) categories offer repositories to store and sort images, but few combine data storage with collateral development tools.
ProjectMark, released in 2020, is specifically designed to address the needs of AEC marketers. ProjectMark is an integrated platform hosting all firm and project information, images, and marketing-related collateral. ProjectMark provides a centralized repository for project and personnel data imported and integrated from external CRM systems. ProjectMark is designed to keep project information and photographs current, categorized, and organized in a single cloud-based location, making it easily accessible from anywhere.
ProjectMark's online tools allow the creation of employee profiles, project and sector-specific company profiles, and the ability to store image assets and connect employees to projects. ProjectMark is an advanced content management system for professional, customized portfolio and qualification marketing collateral from org charts to customized marketing collateral.
The platform's report generation features are robust with checklist-based data selection, rich and flexible graphical template design tools, and a unique mapping component to illustrate the geographic experience. One of ProjectMark's most future-forward features is taking the customized SOQ output and creating and hosting a micro-website. A microsite allows potential clients to view and navigate a proposal on the Internet, ensuring better engagement while acting sustainably and helping build an online presence.
“We are construction people building a transformative platform for the industry we love,” said Tom Deane, the company’s CEO, and co-founder with Noel Brady and Anthony Lynch.
Enabling inclusive & equitable consideration
The pandemic ushered a new challenge for collaborative interaction that is the hallmark of architecture practice. While many firms adapted well to virtual meetings, neither the team nor client experience compared well to most design interactions' live, collaborative "charette" style meetings.
Desktop conferencing tools (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc.) and 3rd-party whiteboard tools (e.g., Miro and Mural) improved the process. However, desktop conferencing has paled to the experience of "being there"—where all participants contribute more than just voice and video and screen sharing — the way that a new entrant to the connected communication sector does.
Alleo, a SaaS virtual visual canvas and collaboration platform provides a highly customizable virtual meeting experience. Alleo is a virtual visual canvas collaboration platform. The software offers a highly customizable virtual work environment for meetings, collaboration, and managing shared documents and multimedia resources, allowing all participants to engage with whatever, whenever, wherever from any device (PC, tablet, phone), enabling improved collaboration, contribution, and ultimately the ability to get more work done virtually.
"Lack of productivity and burnout are at an all-time high, which is being blamed on virtual meetings," said Alleo founder Brandon Fischer. "Working synchronously or asynchronously and maximizing productivity is more important than ever with a flexible work environment."
Alleo provides more than 50 customizable templates and gamification tools designed to engage even the most reserved workers to contribute. Alleo allows firms to connect, communicate and collaborate anytime, anywhere, expanding the potential for business growth and continuity through enhanced, inclusive, and equitable communication.
“Alleo is like a collaboration Swiss Army knife,” said Ira M. Weinstein, managing partner at analyst firm Recon Research. “This platform supports video conferencing, multi-stream content sharing, advanced collaboration and ideation, webcasting, polls, shared meeting notes, and more. Alleo’s roster of tools could persuade even the most reserved workers to jump in and contribute.”
Improving communication by building a social intranet
Intranets are one of the foundational digital tools for any design practice. Providing a central repository of information is critical to a firm's ability to evolve, keeping institutional knowledge visible and viable, and providing a framework for the continual improvement of all aspects of the practice.
Knowledge Architecture's software platform, Synthesis, is a social intranet that integrates with Deltek, Newforma, and OpenAsset, providing a resource designed to help firms find, share, and manage knowledge while building a cultural community. First launched in 2009, Synthesis is one of the earliest entrants into the ArchiTech space.
KA's platform has evolved from its SharePoint roots and will launch its latest iteration, Synthesis 6.0, in the Summer of 2022. The new version provides several features to improve the user experience, including more straightforward navigation and menu structures, more accessible page design and maintenance with new image and document blocks, page templates, drag-and-drop functionality, content authoring, file organization, etc., and guides. This version also supports managing extensive collections of knowledge with new layouts, view, sorting, filtering, and grouping tools in flexible libraries and directories. Additional style tools provide brand consistency with the ability to customize colors, fonts, and logos.
Entering the visualization metaverse
One of the operational challenges of the design practice is getting client engagement and consensus. Communication and coordination issues between project stakeholders often result in extended timelines, multiple designs, building product selection iterations, and delays in finalizing design documents. New augmented, and virtual reality tools emerged to address this challenge—as the practice of architecture moves toward the metaverse—to facilitate real-time interactions between designers and clients to optimize visualization and product integration.
Trezi launched in 2016 as the first immersive platform connecting designers and their clients in an interactive visualization environment integrated with information from building product manufacturers. Trezi is a fully immersive virtual reality platform that dramatically transforms design experience, communication, and collaboration by bringing all stakeholders in the design process to collaborate in real-time and at full scale. Trezi enables collaborative participation in VR and non-VR systems for maximum client involvement across different technical platforms and bandwidths.
Trezi advances the understanding of realistic visualization of spatial design and improves product search, discovery, and selection. This approach reduces errors and costs, faster and better decision-making, and ultimately more significant business impact and profitability. Trezi also provides a related platform, Showcase, for building product manufacturers to promote their resources. Trezi’s other VR platform, Academy, was created for architecture and design students to explore and experience design.
Improving the business of architecture
In operations, marketing, collaboration, communication, and visualization, these five new applications are helping firms get work done more efficiently, more consistently, with improved results. Because an architect's education puts a strong focus on the practice of design, with few exceptions, the business of architecture is one learned by doing. Each of these applications focuses on removing the friction of operations from the practice of design.
Enoch Sears, AIA, LEED AP — President of the practice management consulting firm, The Business of Architecture — recently said, "Firms and practioners that don't adapt and automate their operational processes with new SaaS tools risk being swept away by the tsunami of disruption coming to the practice of design."
As science fiction author, William Gibson, said, "The future is already here. It's just not that evenly distributed." So, at the end of the day, it's up to you to explore the new options for the future of the business of architecture. Based on these emerging ArchiTech resources, it is an exciting future.
1While some of these applications specifically target Architecture, most can be applied to interior design, landscape architecture, and most building engineering and consulting practices.
About the author
Craig Park is an Associate Principal at Clark & Enersen, a full-service national architectural/engineering/planning practice headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is based in the firm's Charleston, South Carolina office and serves as the firm's Director of Digital Experience Design. Craig is a 40-year AEC industry veteran and a prolific writer and speaker on the intersections of architecture, engineering, and technology in the built environment. He is a graduate of Cal Poly SLO (Arch' 78), an Associate of the American Institute of Architects, and a Fellow of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (FSMPS). Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843.414.4404.