Around a decade ago, KieranTimberlake principal Rod Bates worked on a project focusing on sustainability. But gathering accurate, granular numbers about the energy use of the building he was designing was highly labor-intensive. At the time, life cycle assessments were usually done only after a structure was complete, and there were no computational tools available to make the process easier.

“Calculating was really laborious: I actually had to weigh [materials],” says Bates, who is now in charge of software- commercialization at KieranTimberlake. “The data was all over the place. We said, ‘This can’t work.’ ”

That was the seed of development for Tally, a computer application that conducts a complete life cycle assessment on a building— not only its operation, but also its materials and manufacture—during the design and planning process. Created, produced, and sold by KieranTimberlake affiliate company KT Innovations, Tally is a prime example of the customized technology that architecture and design firms are increasingly creating in-house. Some, like Tally, are so useful and well-built that their creators make them commercially available to anyone in the field. Others remain proprietary, providing firms with creative solutions to internal and client-facing jobs.

The field is in its nascency and is still mostly the realm of larger architecture firms. But the work doesn’t necessarily require full-time teams wholly focused on computational innovation. In many cases, the most useful products are fairly simple scripts connecting existing applications and libraries. And observers think there’s much more yet to come.

Building on What’s Already There

KieranTimberlake has been thinking about how to solve design problems with customized technology since 1999. These days, the firm’s efforts range from applications that are solely created to improve internal processes to those that, like Tally, make it onto the market.

Creating anything new takes resources and staff time on the front end, and often requires training and maintenance later. So the firm tries to pick its projects wisely. KieranTimberlake has an internal, multidisciplinary group designed to examine tools and practices that can better serve clients. Together, the team asks three questions of a potential investment in new computational technology: Are there other tools out there that can solve this problem? Is it even possible to address the problem? And finally, is it practical? “We work mightily to make sure we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Bates says.

Some of the tools are relatively easy to create. Those that KieranTimberlake has designed for internal use, for example, help designers analyze elements like circulation or energy use, or create dashboards allowing users to better track in real time what they’re managing.

Those programs might simply be plugins—a piece of code that functions within a conventional program. “We work in a lively ecosystem of existing tools,” says Chris Connock, design computation director at KieranTimberlake. “Many that we make aren’t operating on their own, but are tying into [Autodesk’s] Revit or other software.”

Applications designed for commercial use may also heavily utilize existing programs. Tally, for example, is a Revit plug-in that adds extra information about building materials that a structure will eventually contain. Sphera software provides the actual data for various components. Another bespoke tool developed by KT Innovations is Roast, a survey application meant to be used by a building’s inhabitants that went on the market this year. A series of questions about temperature, humidity, airflow, and other parameters allows architects and facility managers to assess whether the building is running optimally from the perspective of those inside.

Roast doesn’t exist within another program, but it was created with the help of several open-source libraries and other collections of code. “So that allows us to get a scale and complexity in our application beyond what you think a small team can do,” Connock says.

KieranTimberlake has seen some financial returns from its customized technologies. But Bates and Connock agree that the benefits of making these tools widely available would go far beyond dollars. “It shows our clients that we know what we do and are good at it,” Bates says. “We want to be in the position of driving the industry.”

Plus, says Connock, the developers and designers who work on these projects massively benefit: By creating the software or hardware, they gain a deep understanding of how it works. “We often fold back a lot of the lessons learned from large commercial software into our internal tools and daily projects.”

Advancing the Field by Making Information Publicly Available

In making its custom-built software commercially available, KieranTimberlake is something of an outlier.

Creating bespoke technology for a commercial market is a challenge for most firms, says Charlie Williams, AIA, project delivery director for LPA Design Studios and chair of AIA’s Technology in Practice knowledge community. Not only can it be expensive and use up precious staff hours for development and support; it also requires a nimble team that can quickly respond to evolving needs in the field and market the result accordingly.

“You have to move quickly to set market share,” Williams explains. “You can’t dawdle and think [your product] will organically evolve—more commonly, you need to put energy and resources into making it very popular.”

As a result, he said, most design firms tend to focus their work on smaller-scale tools that can be used internally or shared with a client. That’s been the case with Boston-based Payette, but the company has put a spin on that practice. Some of its products do follow the traditional route: Payette’s Space Strategies division, for example, has developed an interactive survey tool that allows clients to graphically discover use patterns and opinions among an institution’s stakeholders. The firm makes the tool available only to its clients.

But two years ago, the firm’s Building Science Group was aiming to understand how window glazing design could affect internal temperature and the need for perimeter heat, and decided to try something different. Initially, the team had created an Excel chart to examine the various variables involved, but it became an unwieldy file that few people could modify.

So instead, says Andrea Love, AIA, a principal at Payette and director of the Building Science Group, “We decided to make it open source and available on our site.” After all, she says, “We were building on an existing open-source tool,” so it made sense.

The Glazing and Winter Comfort Tool now gets about 650 hits per month, largely from professionals at other firms around the country. Because it’s open source, those designers can modify it themselves and use it in other ways. “I know another firm has mentioned that they used it for summer comfort,” says Love, adding that Payette is considering doing a summer version itself as a result.

Making a proprietary computational tool open source seems counterintuitive, but Love says that Payette has historically aimed to share the results of its work—so it just made sense. “The mindset is if we all are doing research and sharing, we all advance as a field,” she explains.

Using Data to Uncover the Patterns Beneath People’s Use of Space

When architects start talking about companies making commercially available computer applications, Gensler invariably comes to mind. And indeed, the international company has offered software as a service (SaaS) available to clients.

But the firm’s latest tech innovation is not for public consumption; rather, it’s a tool designed specifically for clients to help them better understand how their space’s layout affects their business. And it all starts with data.

“Client spaces are generating data all the time through sensors, IT info, badging data on the door, and so on,” says James Wynn, a director of Gensler’s Intelligent Places division. “To help our clients, we’ve developed a methodology that allows us to integrate multiple sources of data.” Together, those data sources create a picture of how shoppers—in a retail environment, for example—utilize a space and spend money there. And that information, of course, can be extremely useful to that business.

Wynn thinks that the tool—which was only formally announced a couple of months ago— is unique in the design world. It combines human-centered research, computational design, BIM, and cutting-edge applications.

And it speeds up the pace of decision-making, he says. In the past, the feedback loop between an architecture decision and how it affects users has taken too long to be useful. With this tool, Wynn says, “what we’re hopeful about is that [it] will give us the ability to understand in a more granular way how people respond to design decisions.”

In the end, it’s not only the client who will benefit. In analyzing the data, Gensler’s designers will gradually gain a data-driven understanding of the patterns behind how people use space and how it affects their behavior. And for a design firm, that’s valuable knowledge.