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Over the past 7 years, I ran a small architecture firm and grew the business from 2 to 5 employees. From this first-hand experience I tested a wide range of architectural software to address the various needs of our studio, from traditional design tools like drafting and modeling software, to the tools needed to keep the business running, bills paid, and staff on task.
For each general category there are always a range of software options which can often be overwhelming when first starting out and deciding what works best for your design practice. To help with the decision making process, below are the general categories of software every architectural firm should consider and some of the pros and cons of each.
We aimed to recommend the best architectural software based on what worked well for us as we balanced the cost of the software with the features and performance for our firm’s needs. Although I selected software that was ideal for our five person architecture firm, many of these recommendations are scalable to firms of all sizes. Also, many of the software options have tiered pricing for different sized companies so hopefully they will be affordable for a firm from one or two people just starting out to larger offices with larger budgets.
Best Architectural Drafting/Modeling Software
Revit is by far the most commonly used BIM software in the architectural industry in the United States. This is why we recommend it for firms of all sizes. We adopted it from day one of starting our firm which allowed us to streamline the design process, minimize the learning curve of using various programs, and easily coordinate with consultants. Revit LT is a lighter version of the full software and has almost all of the features you will need if you are a small firm or work on small projects. I would say it is good enough for firms in the 1-8 person range and is perfect for residential or small commercial projects where only one architect will be working on the project at a time. It is only 18% of the cost of full Revit, coming in at only $55/month or $450/year where full Revit is $305/month or $2,425/year. The main difference between the two is that you can have multiple people collaborating on one model at the same time in the full version. This is great for larger, more complex projects and larger teams, however the price is definitely significant especially for smaller firms just starting out. There is a large user-base that offers tips, plugins, model elements, and other resources. This is the go-to drafting and BIM modeling software we recommend.
There are two main downsides to going with Revit. First, it doesn’t run on Apple computers. So if you are using Macs you will either need to Bootcamp your computer and install Windows, or use Parallels to get the software to run. I really wouldn’t recommend it and if you want to use Revit I would purchase windows based computers for your office. Second, the files can become very large and tough to manage. We have had files quickly grow into hundreds of megabytes even for relatively small projects. Some larger more complex models can be gigabytes in size - taking up a lot of storage and often making the model slow to open, save, and respond.
The only true competitor for Revit, ArchiCAD, is another BIM software specifically designed for architects, giving it a friendlier interface and being a bit more flexible in design. I know a lot of people who swear by it as a vastly better program for design than Revit. However, it isn’t as commonly used throughout the industry and almost no consultants use it, making it harder to coordinate with engineers, and others. The main benefits are that it runs natively on mac operating systems, and may be a bit more intuitive to learn. However, we place a lot of value on adopting industry standards so it is easier to share files and collaborate with others which is why Revit is our recommendation. I also find it extremely frustrating when a company doesn’t publish their pricing online - I value transparency in cost. ArchiCAD for some reason doesn’t publish the cost and instead tells you to reach out to a sales rep. This is annoying and makes it less likely for me to choose to use their product.
SketchUp is another commonly used modeling software but has some major limitations. It is really good for quick iterations, massing studies, and concept explorations. However, when you are ready to start developing the design in more detail it is a very clunky and unrefined software. It is ideal for small projects that don’t need a lot of details. We would sometimes use SketchUp during schematic design, but as the team became experts in Revit this quickly faded out of our design process. Its shortcomings really come to the fore when trying to draft 2D drawings and details. It just doesn’t offer enough control of line weights and types to get a nicely developed detail drawing. For only $299/year it is a very affordable option and it also has a very intuitive interface so can be learned easily. There is a large user base that offers tips, plugins, model elements, and other resources.
At this point in our profession, we would recommend that everyone use a Building Information Modeling (BIM) 3D program. This is why we didn’t include software like AutoCAD or other 2D drafting programs. If you are starting a firm or considering adopting new drafting software go with a BIM program, otherwise you are starting out with antiquated tools.
Best Rendering Software
One of the great things about BIM software is that most of them can export 3D views very quickly and easily and many have built-in rendering options. It is a bit clunky but the renderings that you can create from within Revit can look pretty good, especially after a bit of post processing in photoshop. However, there is a new approach to rendering that is really changing how they are used throughout the design process, rather than simply for fancy presentation graphics. Rendering plugins with live updates are allowing designers to design and update their model while seeing real-time what these changes look like in a rendered environment.
When I first started playing around with Enscape it quickly became clear how useful it would be as a part of the design process. Getting live views of the rendered environment while working in the model was incredible and changed the way I was designing. It is a plugin for SketchUp, ArchiCAD, or Revit (although Revit LT doesn’t allow plugins so you need the full version) so can seamlessly fit into your typical workflow. It has a low learning curve so you can quickly get the hang of the software and get your team using it on a day-to-day basis. The objects and textures that it comes with help make renderings good enough for client presentations with minimal extra work and without the need for lots of post-processing in photoshop. All-in-all it is a great tool and the recommended option for in-house rendering.
Another rendering software option that is getting widespread adoption in architectural offices is Lumion. Like Enscape, it is possible to get live updates of the rendering while working in the model which really changes the way renderings can and should be used. It seems to be a bit more mature as a rendering engine when compared to Enscape and has more features, like animations and objects. However, it is over twice the price so is a more significant investment and could be out of the budget for many small architecture offices.
Best PDF reading/editing Software
There are really only two big players in this space and one is head and shoulders above the other. Bluebeam is a standalone company focused on making the best PDF software. Acrobat is part of the Adobe suite of graphics software and is pretty commonly used by the general public. However, as an architect there is really no choice. You really should invest in Bluebeam. It has the most features, is designed for the design and construction industries, and gives you the most flexibility to create, edit, and markup PDFs. You probably only need the Bluebeam Revu Standard at $349/seat. It is by far the best PDF software for architecture firms of all sizes and definitely worth the investment.
Best Business Suite Software (writing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.)
Recommended: Google Suite
This one is a bit tougher to narrow down as it depends a lot on what computer you have and your personal preferences. Microsoft Office is still the dominant player in this space and if you have a Windows computer it is probably what you will use. iWork is really only useful if you have a Mac and are already familiar with this suite of software. I’ve used it a bit but didn’t love it only because converting files from office to iWork was never as simple and easy as was claimed and often the formatting would change.
With all of that being said, what we decided to use at my company was Google Suite. There were a few reasons we made this decision. First, we made the decision to use a custom gmail for our company email, and google drive for file storage and sharing. Google Suite is included in this cost. Second, and this is the big one, Google Suite is the best option for collaboration - there are no more emailing draft files back and forth to have individuals edit a document. Everyone can login to the single file and edit it together at the same time. Couple that with it being a web-based software and all of your files and the programs are accessible from any computer you find yourself on as long as it has an internet connection. This makes it easy to switch from a desktop at work to a laptop at home, or open files on a tablet while on vacation. It isn’t quite as powerful as the iWork or Office software but it does everything you will need to run your firm just fine and will save time and money which makes this our recommended approach.
Best Accounting/Bookkeeping Software
This the biggest player in this space and what we used at my company. The Quickbooks Online option gives you the advantage of having your accounting information available from anywhere and it has a nice and simple user interface. I think the desktop version is overkill for a small firm and is really only necessary if you have in-house accountants. Otherwise the online version does everything you need. It makes sending invoices, tracking payments and expenses, budgeting, and other bookkeeping easy and straightforward. It also is the most widely used book keeping software so there are tons of resources to help you learn how to use it and many plugins to add features.
Freshbooks is marketed specifically towards small businesses and is definitely more affordable than QB. It sells itself as being intuitive, simple, and easy to adopt. It’s also been recommended as great for service based businesses where QB is built for all businesses and thus has a lot of features that aren’t applicable to architecture firms - like inventory and product sales. The main reason we went with QB is due to it being the larger player and thus offers more plugins and syncing with other software. However, if I were starting out a new small firm I would strongly consider Freshbooks as a cheaper more streamlined option that probably does everything you need from a book keeping/accounting software.
If you are really trying to bootstrap your startup firm, Wave might be a place to start simply because it is free. As a cloud based software it is similar to QB Online although it does offer a few less features. It is really designed for small businesses with only one person who is running the accounting - meaning there aren’t multiple users like QB. It is a very simple and easy to use program and is more intuitive to pick up than QB which can be complicated and cumbersome with all the features it has. The main drawback to Wave is that it is less widely adopted so integrations with other software is limited. However, if you can live with a few less features and limited integrations, you really can’t beat the price.
It is really tough to recommend one of these over the others. If you are a slightly larger firm, say 5 or more people or are planning on growing your firm, and can afford the higher cost of QB Online that is probably the way to go as it is widely adopted by small businesses across the country and most accountants and bookkeepers know it - this is what we did. However, if you are just starting out and are planning on remaining either a sole practitioner or a small office, then one of the others might be a perfect fit. I tend to question things that are “free” as you usually get what you pay for. However, there are some decent reviews of Wave and it could be worth trying out as you start your firm just to save costs. One thing to keep in mind is that it does take an investment in time to switch from one software to another down the road, so consider what your future needs may be when selecting which program is the best fit.
File Hosting/Sharing Software
All of these services do a good job at what they are made for. It is probably a personal preference based on habit and past use as to what will work best for you. We decided to use Google Drive as it integrated with the other Google services we adopted at our firm: gmail, GSuite, Chat, etc. Google Drive basically became our file server and we used it both internally to manage our files and externally to share with consultants and clients. It was easy and intuitive and the cost is scalable depending on what amount of storage you need and number of employees you have. We found that together it was the best option for how we operated.
I know many other architects who use Dropbox in a similar way to both organize internal files and share externally. The main drawback from us was that with Google Drive and their Gsuite of software you could not only store files but you could also create them. Drive is also a bit cheaper than Dropbox for comparable storage space. Dropbox does have some faster syncing of files which can be a plus, although we didn’t run into too many issues while working off Google drive for all of our projects.
We realize there are a bunch of other options in this space like Box and some of the built-in storage like iCloud or OneDrive from Apple and Microsoft respectively. However, most of the others are geared toward personal use or enterprise use for larger companies. The two options above are what we found to be most applicable to small firms and we chose Google Drive since we were already using other google software.
Because of our adoption of the Google Suite of products we used Google Chat for our internal communications. It is basically the same as Slack but comes with the suite of other google products we were already paying for. So we figured we would give it a shot. It worked well for our needs and did help communication within the office and around specific projects. It still had channels that you could great around specific topics or projects and most of the other features that Slack offers as well. At the same time, I think we are the only firm I know that uses it. As I talked to other architect friends no one was familiar with it as an option and almost everyone used Slack within their offices. There also weren’t many integrations with the program other than it’s compatibility with the other Google software like drive, docs, etc.
So obviously Slack is the dominant force in this space and for those reasons alone you may want to adopt it. It does have a free version that has some limitations (number of total posts before they delete older posts, storage space). However, if you are already using Slack for other organizations you belong to or even communication with friend groups, etc. it is probably worth sticking with that since it is already part of your habits and routines. As the industry standard, they also have lots of integrations, bots, and other features that can improve upon or add new capabilities to their software.
On the other hand, Microsoft Teams will appeal to those who have already invested in a 365 subscription or are ingrained in the Microsoft ecosystem. It has comparable features to Slack (or Chat) although it is said that their video conferencing is a bit more robust. We haven’t tried Teams but we reached out to some other architects and got positive responses on their experience with the program. It seems like it has a growing user base and we have even talked to a few people who are transitioning to Teams from Slack.
If you are investing in a specific ecosystem like Microsoft Office or Google Guite, then our recommendation is to go all-in and adopt their team communication tools as well. However, if you are mixing and matching to get the best of all worlds then we would recommend Slack as it has the most integrations and features to date.
Image Editing Software
There really isn’t a great alternative here which unfortunately keeps us stuck in the Adobe ecosystem. Photoshop is by far the most common program for photo editing in the world and a staple of every architect's office I’ve worked in. Investing in the Creative Cloud and having access to Photoshop, Illustrator, and Indesign has been imperative for our office’s workflow despite the relatively high cost. We invested in one license mostly because as a team of 5 rarely were more than one person using the software at a time. If your team is larger, or you have full time renderers or marketing staff then you would definitely need a few additional licenses.
As a competitor to Photoshop, Affinity Photo’s biggest selling point is the price - only $25 as a single payment. A bargain compared to the monthly subscription for Creative Cloud or even standalone Photoshop ($80/month or $34/month respectively). It does have most of the standard features that Photoshop offers and I do know a few architecture firms that used it as a replacement. For the vast majority who only need simple image editing it can probably do the job just fine. However, if you do a lot of renderings in house and edit those images intensively then you may miss some of the features that aren’t included compared to the depth of tools in photoshop. It could be a good place to start for a new firm or small office with a tight budget.
GIMP is the free, open source, option that competes in the image editing space. I haven’t used it and like I mentioned above, I have not had great experiences with “free” services and products. I would rather pay for quality than rely on a free thing that takes more time or doesn’t do exactly what I’m looking for. However, free is free and to some people that all that matters, especially small firms that are just starting out and are trying to bootstrap their way to growth.
Another free option that I’ve actually been using recently to do some very simple photo editing is Google Photos - mostly just for cropping, adjusting exposure and colors, and other minor adjustments to photography. It does a decent job at these basic things but doesn’t have anywhere near the features or capabilities as Photoshop and I can’t recommend it as a replacement.
Overall we would recommend that you bite the bullet and invest in Adobe Creative Suite as we find Photoshop to be the most in-depth option and having access to Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat Pro, and other software are huge benefits that are worth the price. If cost is a big concern, Affinity Photo probably does most of what you will need for in-house photo editing.
9. Website Software
If you are not a web designer Squarespace and Wix are where you should start to build your company site. They are both built to be user-friendly interfaces that allow you to create a beautiful website with no knowledge of html or coding. They offer a range of great templates to start from and it is easy to edit and add pages as needed. They process and adjust images to work with their layouts and they handle all the back of house security, dynamic adjustments, and other technical aspects of building a website.
We used Squarespace for our site as we found a template we liked and felt the interface was easy to modify to fit our needs. You can also change the template in the future and most of your content will seamlessly adjust - something that can’t be done on Wix which doesn’t allow you to change a template for an existing site.
Wix is a more widely used platform and thus they offer more plugins and other features that work on their platform. That is it’s real advantage over Squarespace. However, the drawback on not being able to change your template in the future is significant. If you ever want to change the look of your site you need to build it up from scratch. Either way, both platforms are pretty comparable and can create a beautiful website with minimal technical know-how.
Wordpress on the other hand would be the more robust option if you wanted to do something more customizable or hire someone to build you a custom website. It is infinitely adjustable and can do almost anything you can think of. However, it has a much steeper learning curve, less support, less out-of-the-box security, is harder to update or add new content, and it really requires more expertise. If you are a larger company or a design firm that wants a unique presence on the internet, this might be the better choice. Overall, we would only recommend Wordpress if you are hiring someone to build you a custom website and will provide continued support.
10. Time Tracking Software
There are a seemingly infinite number of time-tracking software options. It is hard to narrow it down to just a few choices. We selected these options for a few reasons: their integration to other popular software, the other features and services they offer, and their ease of use. Both TSheets and Harvest are options with apps and integrations to Quickbooks Online. They are some of the most widely used time tracking options out there and have tons of users. TSheets is advertised as having some more features but to be honest, either one will do almost everything you need as a small architecture firm.
Monograph on the other hand is a more robust offering beyond simple time-tracking. It offers a full suite of project and firm management services within its platform. It also integrates with Quickbooks Online for accounting purposes, but the real power is how the time-tracking also integrates with project schedules, fee tracking, milestone and task scheduling, and reporting functions. It is nicely designed, simple to set up and use, and offers a lot of value above and beyond just understanding how you spent your time. This is what we chose to go with when adopting time-tracking and project management software. It is a bit more expensive than the other options but does a heck of a lot more and is a valuable tool for any architecture firm.
One thing to consider is whether your bookkeeping software offers time-tracking. Freshbooks has integrated time-tracking which might make that a good fit to cover both accounting and timesheets. Quickbooks does have time-tracking options as an add-on but we tried it and it was pretty clunky and quickly transitioned to Monograph. However, if you are budget conscious it might make sense to invest in one software package that can offer both services.
Software Package Recommendations
With all the software options out there it can be difficult and time consuming to research and put together a package that will best fit your firm. Based on our research and testing at our firm, below is what we would recommend for a startup vs and established firm. The goal was to balance annual costs with the functions you will need to keep the company productive and profitable.
Startup Firm - 1-2 people
- Revit LT - $450/user
- Revit - Free + $ per rendering
- Bluebeam - $349/license
- G Suite $144/user
- Wave - Free
- Google Drive - Included in GSuite
- Google Chat - Included in GSuite
- Affinity Photo - $25
- Squarespace - $236
- Harvest - free version
Total: $610 + $594/person/year
Established Firm - 3+ people
- Revit $2425/user
- Enscape - $699
- Bluebeam - $349/license
- G Suite $144/user
- Quickbooks Online - $480
- Google Drive - Included in GSuite
- Slack Standard - $80/user
- Adobe Creative Cloud - $960
- Custom Wordpress + Web Designer
- Monograph - $360 + $180/user
Total: $2,368 + $2,829/person/year
The other thing to consider is that you could start a firm and grow slowly. You probably won’t need all of the software right up front. For instance, you could probably start a firm with just Revit LT, a Gmail address and use a spreadsheet to track expenses and issue invoices. Then you can purchase other software as the need arises. With monthly subscriptions you could probably get by for as little as $55/month (the monthly cost of Revit LT). Although there is savings by purchasing annual subscriptions to most software, you also could take advantage of monthly subscriptions and start and stop payments as needed. If you aren’t going to be doing renderings next month do you need to pay for Photoshop/Adobe Creative Suite?
Of course there is no perfect software for all users. Each person has experience with different programs or works on project types that might necessitate one set of tools over another. Our firm mostly worked on single family residential, some small multi-family projects (2-10 units), and tenant improvement projects. The software I recommended worked for the projects we did as well as the size of the firm we were. That doesn’t mean it was the ideal set up if we grew in size or started to take on larger projects and had additional revenue. We also were constantly balancing our immediate needs vs future goals and trying to adopt software that would serve us for many years with the intent of cutting down on training needed if we switched software.