As brick-and-mortar stores steadily become unwitting showrooms for e-retailers, the typical office may soon become simply a place for face time due to cloud computing. Google Docs has cleared shelf space once reserved for plastic cases housing productivity software, while Sage CRM and have relegated Rolodexes to bottom desk drawers.

Thanks to the growing bevy of cloud-based design programs, architects may soon be reinventing their own workplaces as well. This time, instead of turning model rooms into server closets with the onset of CAD, studios will be clearing out machinery. “Within five to 10 years, depending on where you are in U.S., people will no longer have computers in office,” says Will Burks, an intern architect who also serves as the IT director of Marlon Blackwell Architects in Fayetteville, Ark. Instead, Burks says, companies will rent temporary computers for their staff members to access complete hardware and software packages provided online. “Firms will be able to decentralize their offices.”

Burks says the lack of a robust, nationwide fiber-optic network is one factor currently limiting the complete turnover to the cloud. However, his prediction may be spot on given the potential that cloud computing—which taps into the cumulative computing power and capabilities offered by virtual servers and processers through the Internet—already offers architects. The following programs are just some of the cloud-based programs that are making the virtual architectural studio a reality.

To start off a project, designers can field survey existing buildings and project sites through Pictometry Connect, which hosts a virtual library of 145 million, high-resolution, aerial and oblique images that can also be imported directly for use in several Autodesk programs.

Autodesk’s AutoCAD WS has made cloud-based editing of DWG files possible, but several other programs have made BIM data remotely accessible to designers and their consultants and clients. The Autodesk 360 platform provides cloud-computing power for its Autodesk BIM 360 services, which include BIM 360 Glue, a clash-detection, coordination, and collaboration service. Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD 16 offers a database of cloud-based BIM components. Post-occupancy evaluations and building lifecycle management can be managed and monitored online through services such as FM:Systems’s FM:BIM, which syncs with Autodesk Revit.

Gehry Technologies’s collaborative platform GTeam allows project teams and clients to interact with 3D models and access BIM information without the native software through just a web browser. Sunglass provides an online model space for users to collaborate and edit 3D models created from CAD and 3D tools such as SketchUp and Rhino through the web in real time.

Instead of waiting overnight for models to render, designers can expedite the resource-draining process by capitalizing on the cloud’s computing power through Autodesk 360 Rendering, Shaderlight Cloud Rendering, or Felix, which are compatible with several 3D modeling programs.

Photos and renderings may be enhanced with several cloud-based, image-editing programs such as subscription-based Adobe Creative Cloud or free tools Picasa, Pixlr, and GIMP. Morpholio allows design critiques and pin-ups to occur virtually and in real time with reviewers located anywhere in the world.

Instead of calling a colleague to print drawing sets, off-site designers can remotely send files to their office’s web-connected, large format printers through services such as HP ePrint & Share and Océ Mobile WebTools. Drawings must still be picked up from the rack in person. However, Sculpteo and 3D Model-to-Print offer cloud-based 3D printing services that deliver the tangible outputs straight to a studio’s front door.

Finally, instead of fumbling with dongles and USB memory sticks, designers can present their work and credentials to clients through online presentation programs such as Prezi, Slideshare, and SlideRocket.

Relying on the cloud, of course, means that user access to any of the shared files and programs hinges on a strong and reliable Internet connection. Though Marlon Blackwell Architects office has taken the initiative to custom build an in-house server to act as a local cloud for its BIM projects, founder and principal Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, isn’t turning his studio into a virtual entity anytime soon. “I don’t want my designers to rely on the computer to articulate ideas,” he says. “But I do want them to develop a healthy confidence to move back and forth. That’s a goal for everyone.”

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