Florian Müller

Architecture firms today are starting to use the cloud for more than just file sharing and storage. Whether it’s schematic design or project management with BIM, outsourced tasks such as rendering, or energy performance analysis, the days of relying primarily on company servers are quickly disappearing. To compete for and deliver the best projects, architects are taking to the virtual skies.

For firms with staff members scattered across multiple offices, or partnerships involving multiple practices, it’s natural to put a 3D model in the cloud. “We had to go there because of how we operate,” says Nick Cameron, AIA, vice president of CannonDesign, which was founded in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and now has offices in cities around the globe. “If you’re working on a dispersed team, having a centralized model in the cloud is number one. This idea of shipping models back and forth isn’t fast enough for how we need to react to clients. A cloud-based system allows us to collaborate in real time in any of our offices.” CannonDesign relies on its own privately hosted cloud in an off-site data center, Cameron says, but semi-private clouds hosted by companies such as Amazon can achieve a similar result.

Project and Content Management
Although BIM software is itself a tool for uniting the efforts of architects, builders, engineers, and other subcontractors with one model, “if you’re a structural steel fabricator, you’re not working in Revit,” says Dennis Shelden, chief technology officer of Los Angeles–based Gehry Technologies, the offshoot of Frank Gehry, FAIA’s firm that was recently acquired by Trimble. “Somebody still has to translate it out. It’s still a very disconnected process from the design view to the fabricator or engineering view.”

Trimble Connect software (Trimble, free for single-user accounts and varied pricing for organizations), formerly known as GTeam and designed by Gehry Technologies, allows building team members to connect and collaborate via one software platform by combining file management, BIM model viewing, and messaging. “The info’s all there to allow different parties to work on the same set of information expressed in different products,” Shelden says.

Software like Unifi (Inviewlabs, $10 to $19 per month) can also help architects better access their data libraries. “It was a really easy return on investment case,” says Lauren Collier, Assoc. AIA, design technology section manager of Toledo, Ohio–based SSOE Group, of her firm’s use of Unifi. “I could prove a search efficiency pretty much at a per-user cost. You don’t use Unifi every day. You use it when you need to load in and harvest items. Before, it could take three minutes to search for an item. Now it takes five seconds.”

Cloud computing also allows time-consuming tasks previously performed in-house, such as generating renderings, to be outsourced in a way that expedites delivery. San Francisco–based Gensler, for example, uses Nvidia Iray paired with Migenius’s RealityServer (pricing varies) to send designs to a cluster of GPUs (graphics processing units) off-site that can be received back within minutes instead of hours. “It produces incredible results in an incredibly short time,” says Gensler managing director Ken Sanders, FAIA. “We can do not just photorealistic renderings but these complex daylighting analyses where you’re simulating light with very high fidelity. You can turn those around in seconds or minutes rather than taking all night to compute.”

CannonDesign’s Cameron also recommends Rendercore (offered at $0.20 to $0.35 per core hour of usage), a third-party provider that can deliver renderings as a Revit plugin. “We need that efficiency to share those models,” he says. “Offloading some of these intensive processes is the future.”

Performance Analysis
The cloud also allows for an array of energy and building performance analysis tools that can be accessed from any location. For example, Trevor Taylor, design technology manager at Portland, Ore.–based ZGF Architects, makes use of Autodesk’s Flow Design ($35 per month or $210 per year) “to study how the predominating winds might influence site design. Flow Design has been most useful for form-finding exercises during early design, in a model that might come from Revit or from SketchUp.” Autodesk A360, the software developer’s cloud-based collaboration platform, hosts the model.

Amy Leedham, Assoc. AIA, a designer at San Francisco–based firm EHDD, uses Sefaira to estimate a project’s energy consumption as a Revit plugin. “We use it very early in the process—even before an engineer has been brought on—with conceptual design to help make big-picture decisions about massing, orientation, and glazing,” she explains. “And the cloud was appealing because you could get results more quickly as you change parameters … test your ideas, and shape it into what we wanted to be. It helps us reduce energy by a pretty significant percentage.”