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Tools and Technology

How architects are using new tech to connect, collaborate and manage workflows

Digital transformation is no longer a drill.

If there’s been one overarching theme that every single respondent has highlighted it’s been our new found reliance on technology.

It was the sudden informational requirement around what tools are out there and how to ensure they’re adopted and used correctly which drove us to create this report.

As there are now tools for almost every aspect of an architects workflow we split our questions into 5 main categories:

1. Communications

2. Project management

3. Idea generation and problem solving

4. Interacting with clients and suppliers

5. Maintaining company health and culture

1. Communications

52% of architects told us they use Zoom. Followed closely by Microsoft Teams at 41% and lagging behind at 27% was Skype. These three platforms were way ahead of Google Hangouts at 14%, TeamViewer at 8% and, surprisingly to us, Slack is only being used by 6% of architects.

It was noted by more than one of the professionals we spoke with that moving to video calls had made people more polite in meetings.

I've been using ‘join.me’ for a few years to help screen share with clients, particularly when they are abroad or a meeting is difficult to schedule. What I have seen during the Covid crisis are much more efficient meetings. Whilst people got to grips with Zoom etc. project teams as well as clients have now settled into a good meeting protocol. Site visits are obviously an essential part of our work, however ‘meeting’ with the client, consultants and contractors via video conferencing will, I suspect, become much more commonplace even beyond lockdown. It will never be quite as good as meeting in person, but it will undoubtedly remain an extremely useful option.

Maya Vuksa,
Maya Vuksa Architecture

How firms are speaking with their clients is also leading to professional development opportunities for junior architects that wouldn’t previously have been practical.

"In some ways Zoom has been a breakthrough as a way to do meetings due to the unlimited number of team members who can join. It's been brilliant in enabling junior members of staff to see first hand how their hard work is being presented by the directors, gaining direct insight on client feedback. We’ve just won a big project and previously you wouldn’t have had all the members of a team in a new client meeting. Now all of the team can be present in the meeting, even just just listening. So our team now get that real awareness of the project from day one, even the most junior member of the team. They’re all listening to project discussions whereas previously you couldn’t put 25 people in a room - that’s definitely one advantage. However, what we most miss is the ability for our team internally to be together over the drawing board."

Jo Cowen,
Jo Cowen Architects

Junior staff learning through a deeper involvement in the actual business of architecture is definitely a good thing. Their opportunities to shadow and learn from more experienced professionals are diminished without face to face interactions. Not having yet acquired the knowledge and confidence to work autonomously means they need strong communications skills and be willing to ask questions through different channels in order to fully participate in project work.

Ensuring younger team members are empowered to ask for and receive the support they need isn’t a challenge that’s unique to architects. At Weaver, we’ve created a dedicated knowledge sharing channel in Slack, where less experienced staff feel comfortable asking questions that anyone in the company can help them with. The chances are if one of your younger team has that question then others will too at some point. We’d also recommend setting up private channels for staff members to ask questions they may not be comfortable asking publicly.

We loved hearing that many practices are setting up formal mentorship programmes to provide staff the support they need to grow.

We have always run a model where an Associate leads and mentors our younger team members. They proactively go and find out from the junior staff what their issues are, which gets confidentially fed into a management meeting with the directors every two weeks allowing us to tackle and respond to issues being faced in every part of the practice. Its important in the current climate that no one feels isolated and alone.

Jo Cowen,
Jo Cowen Architects

One of the most interesting use cases in terms of communications tools came from Studio McLeod where architect and gamer, Rusty Murphy had introduced an in-game persistent audio technology called TeamSpeak.

TeamSpeak is an always-on audio stream with settings so you can control when it listens to you and what you hear. I’d known it from playing computer games with many people all over the world. So when we were talking about home working and not losing our atmosphere and remaining connected to the studio, TeamSpeak straight away popped into my head as a piece of software where you can constantly have the ability to communicate and feel like you know what’s going on.

Having software that allows you to feel like you’re still in a group is important. Having something like TeamSpeak to allow you to have a connection with the studio that I don’t believe exists in text only communications. Finding some way to keep that communication going is definitely key to keeping your studio culture alive.

Rusty Murphy,
Studio McLeod

2. Project Management

Another area where there are a huge variety of tools being used is how architects are keeping projects on track and on time.

Microsoft came out on top again with OneNote being used by 14% of respondents. Trello is in second place with 11%, followed by Harvest at 7%, Evernote and Apple Notes at 6%, and Weaver being used by 5% of architects.

Project management covers a lot of different workstreams, and this is shown in the responses of the 48% of architects who selected Other tools. One architect told us that his project management system is “All in my memory”, but the majority of these respondents are using spreadsheets and proprietary methods rather than dedicated tools.

Having a central hub for task management is, in our opinion, one of the most essential elements to get right for distributed teams. There are natural informal communication channels that exist in an office which are important for keeping things moving forwards. Without these, staff need to be able to work more autonomously and managers need to be able to see what teams are focusing on. Having a centralised task management system means that teams can set daily or weekly objectives together and then break these down into tasks which are then allocated to individuals. Using a task management tool so everyone can see their own tasks, and the progress of others, allows individuals to know what they’re doing at all times, track their performance and have an understanding of how the wider project’s progressing.

Asana is definitely one of our most essential tools. Just to know what you are doing, not forget anything and keep on top of your projects. We use it in conjunction with Toggl to track our time. It’s important to know where your time is going. This helps us to evaluate our pricing structures and helps to prepare more accurate fee proposals for our clients. In addition, it can help us understand if there is something that is not progressing appropriately – for instance, you could find that 70% of the time on a project has been spent in communication rather than working on designs, which would be something we’d need to address.

Irkus Altuna,
Project Architect at Urbanist Architecture

3. Idea generation and problem solving

The creative energy that comes from sitting together in a group, shooting ideas around and discussing concepts informally is something that, prior to this forced distancing, we’d have found difficult to imagine as being possible to replicate using technology. But necessity’s maternal relationship with innovation has once again led architects to evolve their fundamental beliefs around how things are done.

There was significantly more variance in this category than for communications tools. 72% of architects selected Other rather than the leading tools such as Microsoft Whiteboard used by 15% of respondents, BIM 360 at 7% and Miro at 5%.

One of the most interesting insights that came from the “Other” answers was how the more technology savvy architects are using tools in combination to overcome the limitations of individual technologies .

One thing that we have been doing that has been working well is a shared desktop/Zoom combination. One of the downsides to Zoom and screen sharing is not being able to describe particular components verbally or through annotation, which can obviously be very powerful. To combat this, 2 or 3 of us will connect to the same desktop through a Google Chrome plugin called “Chrome Remote Desktop”. We would have a 3D modelling program open and can take turns manipulating the model. This also works when evaluating and updating CAD layouts in 2D. It feels very collaborative and is the virtual equivalent of leaning over someone’s shoulder in the office and showing them how to do something.

Taylan Tahir,
Director of Mata Architects

In our follow up conversations, the tool that generated the most emotive response was definitely digital whiteboard platform Miro. Those who are using this tech sung its praises in rapturous tones. We use this tool at Weaver and definitely recommend it to everyone we’ve been speaking to.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, talked about the struggle to replicate the power of physically sketching ideas, digitally.

Sketching together is difficult - We’ve been making do with what we have - Slack’s drawing tool, Zoom screen share - We’ve discovered and are using sketchtogether.com

Markus Nonn,
Eight Inc.

It’s clear that for many architects pen and paper is their primary connection point between their creativity and the world in real life, but finding a tool that could emulate the process of two or three people developing an idea sketching together in real time - the way you might sit around a table in the studio with your team and sketch something - was proving difficult.

Two architects were solving this problem with a combination of hardware and software.

My partner and I actually treated ourselves to iPad Pros the Xmas before last. They do work really well with morpholio and another app called concepts which, at its simplest form is free but you can buy add on packages (brushes, pens, colour swatches, stencils etc). Over the past few weeks I’ve test driven both of them more extensively and have come to the conclusion that concepts is the superior of the two.

Dan Marks,
Mata Architects

The XP-Pen desk tablets are wonderful. They allow us to draw by hand in Photoshop, do collective markups and design meetings in Miro and take notes with drawings in GoodNotes. We haven’t printed anything since we started remote working. I’ve always needed to make notes on pieces of paper, notebooks or Post-its, and I can still do that, but it’s easier to then organise, modify and share. The paperless office may actually now work!

Duncan McLeod,
Studio McLeod

4. Communicating with clients and suppliers

To say that the current moratorium on onsite visits has fundamentally changed how construction professionals operate is an understatement. This is an industry that deals in the creation of physical structures, but architects are unable to interact with physical environments or use the immediacy of being in those spaces to bring design visions to life for clients and contractors.

Various virtual technologies dominated this area unsurprisingly with 72% of architects using some form of VR, AR or MR in their work. The last few years have seen a transition from 2D documents to 3D BIM which has improved how stakeholders communicate and coordinate projects. The past few weeks have seen this trend accelerated to ubiquity.

Mixed reality is being used by 35% of architects to allow clients to explore designs in real 3D and engage and interact with design data more naturally. VR is being used by more than a quarter of respondents. These technologies are transforming collaboration but there are still difficulties to overcome, the main one being hardware. A number of architects are asking “How do we provide a client with the tech they need to be able to interact with design models in any form of VR?"

We’ve sent out virtual headsets to key clients. Using Iris virtual software, where avatars of both clients and our team members together can explore the design at scale, and have a ‘in person’ meeting – marking up changes in real-time to the virtual model. The headsets not only allow the user to be immersed in the design also will allow conversations between all parties in the meeting through the headsets inbuilt microphone.

Jon Ackroyd,
Ackroyd Lowrie

72% of architects using some form of VR, AR or MR in their work.

"We are on a mission to make people aware of VR possibilities. We are putting in place a premium service where we send clients headsets. It would be great to start interacting with them in a 3D world as avatars. We’re still in the early stages of developing this… We share our designs with our clients using BIMx – a platform where you can upload your 3D model and send it to the client with an app on your phone. And you can also use BIMx for VR in combination with Google Cardboard VR boxes."

Irkus Altuna,
Project Architect at Urbanist Architecture

We had already adopted VR a year ago and are using Twinmotion for real-time rendering of 3D models. Real-time rendering has been a breakthrough for us as it means we don’t have to stress too much about making the render perfect - clients can collaborate with us in the tools as a work-in-progress rather than a final design.

Rusty Murphy,
Architect at Studio McLeod

This adoption of advanced virtual technologies was counterbalanced with 27% of users taking a more old-school approach and sending paper designs via the post.

We were surprised that there was little discussion around using drone technology as a substitute for visiting sites, but one respondent was well ahead of the curve commenting “For the past few months we’ve been looking into drones to shoot from outside buildings and the potential of using that for photogrammetry - we’ve a long term fantasy of using drones to check sites.”

16% of architects are still finding innovative ways to do things in-person.

27% of users taking a more old-school approach and sending paper designs via the post.

"We’ve actually got what we would call some of the essential team, mainly the directors, who are still attending sites which is part of new business and essential to the future of the practice. I went up to a new site in Kings Cross last week but managed social distancing. Chris the managing director has actually rented the house next door to me and we’re effectively self isolating together between two families as Chris and I are continuing to meet daily and strategise the direction of the business. If we didn’t do this, the impact on the business would be too high."

Jo Cowen,
Jo Cowen Architects

10% of firms are providing Headspace and Calm subscriptions to their teams.

5. Maintaining company health and culture

During office hours, a company has a duty of care for your physical and mental wellbeing and a responsibility to provide a working environment and culture that encourages employee satisfaction and productivity. How this duty of care translates to a situation where office hours are no longer in a physical office has been a big question for many businesses.

It’s probably too early to have an answer for that, but what we did find out was that the secret to maintaining culture is to find ways to leverage technology to create shared experiences beyond work meetings.

58% of respondents said they’re using Spotify and shared playlists to keep their teams feeling connected.

Paying for subscriptions to run tracker app Strava was another interesting way to encourage teams to keep fit at the same time as engaging socially through having visibility over their colleague’s run times… or lack of!

Strava is keeping our staff mentally sane. When we go on a run we whack it on Strava and it’s helping keep the team together

Stefan Shaw,
Stefan Shaw Studio

Conscious of how times of change, such as what we’re going through now, can impact mental health, 8% of firms are providing Headspace and Calm subscriptions to their teams. These meditation apps are great tools to calm anxious minds during the day and powerful sleep aids for those finding it difficult to slow their thoughts at night.

Something that surprised us was that over a quarter of respondents said they were doing nothing to maintain culture. We’d like to think that this is simply due to the fact that, to date, the focus has been on more commercial aspects of the business. However, we’d encourage these firms to consider the well proven connection between culture and productivity in the workplace, and that this is likely to be magnified across remote teams, and especially so during times of uncertainty.

From a mental health perspective, I don’t believe in the actions many architecture practices, like Fosters and partners, have done where they’ve cut 20% off all wages across the whole business. The speed at which they did this seemed opportunist without understanding the actual economic impact. I think that financial stress has probably one of the biggest impacts for people in terms of anxiety and mental health so we chose only very recently to make the directorship take a 35% pay cut leaving all staff salaries secure.

Jo Cowen,
Jo Cowen Architects

Next: The Future of Work →