Few software platforms work without updates, whether they’re in the form of occasional add-ons or continuous tinkering. Luckily, the culture of continuous improvement led by users has permeated the software industry, even for some proprietary programs that do not offer open-source code. As a result, architects—already in a profession requiring multifaceted skills—are following suit, taking on a new role as developers of their own tools. In the words of the Maker’s Bill of Rights, a credo for open-source hacktivists: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Four designers speak about the updates that enable them to own their software.

Marc Syp, NBBJ Since joining NBBJ’s Seattle office two years ago after teaching parametric modeling at Ohio State University, designer Marc Syp has seen a shift in how architects and software developers interact: User feedback guides the development of even proprietary products. He cites Grasshopper (Mainsoft, free) as one example. “It’s currently in beta, not a released software version,” Syp says. “But the development is very responsive to user feedback because of that. The speed at which that software updates is mind-boggling in some cases.”

On one recent healthcare project, Syp and NBBJ used Grasshopper to develop the building with the client’s interest in natural daylighting in mind. “I began to develop a tool for how we could think about how, when you move a building profile on a site, the daylight interacts with that profile in real time,” he says.

Syp contributed to the 0.8.0064 version. “I made a suggestion to change a certain behavior of a component that would greatly improve my ability to sort data. The update actually went live within six days,” he says. “It’s a design process in its own right to make these tools. Even within a single project, it evolves.”

Robert Petty, ZGF Architects Like many large firms, ZGF Architects in Portland, Ore., has an in-house model shop that employs sophisticated digital-fabrication methods—a leap forward from wood and glue. Robert Petty of ZGF and his department recently updated to Rhinoceros (Robert McNeel & Associates, $995) version 4.0 service release 9. The shop further supplements the tool with additional RhinoCAM, Rhino Terrain, and Grasshopper plug-ins.

“The model shop at ZGF has pioneered Rhino’s use and that has permeated out into the design group,” Petty explains. “Rhino is so great as middleman software. You can open up SketchUp files and it maintains materiality. It doesn’t open a Revit file directly, but you can export into Rhino and it looks beautiful. It’s very clean. You can preserve real curves and that kind of thing. We use Rhino to take any Autodesk AutoCAD or Google SketchUp or even Photoshop or Illustrator models and make our models off of that. We can run our laser cutters directly from it. Rhino’s also been good at letting us export back out. We’re bringing something in for the team, working on it, and handing it back.”

Arne Henneberg, Cooper, Robertson & Partners

The V-Ray for SketchUp (Chaos Group, $800) rendering engine is an example of how ubiquitous 3D rendering is, says designer Arne Henneberg of New York’s Cooper, Robertson & Partners. “Architects understand 2D drawings, but the clients prefer 3D,” he says. “In the past it was seen as an additional cost and time consuming, but the technology has evolved quickly. We almost never have a project without 3D anymore.”

V-Ray, he says, allows architects to quickly, and in countless variations, show clients how a design will look even before it’s finished. “You can really put in details and show the client the progress. And you can use it further to advance your design. It’s not a dead end anymore. It’s almost like a piece of clay modeling.”

The latest version of V-Ray is more user friendly, Henneberg says. “Before, you had to go deep into the menu settings in order to create details like people, landscape, or trees. Now it’s just a couple of clicks to produce basic or even sophisticated graphics,” he says. “Before, you had BIM models, but you couldn’t use them in the presentation. Now the rendering level has caught up.”

Kevin Boots, RBB Architects

Forget thinking outside the box. For RBB Architects in Los Angeles, opportunity comes increasingly from inside the cave. In partnership with a university and two other private software companies, RBB creates virtual-reality environments through what’s called cave technology. The firm uses Revit to build virtual models, Autodesk 3ds Max for lighting and finishes, and a 3ds Max plug-in, Flatiron (3d-io, $1,900), to “bake” the textures onto the models to be read by the cave.

“You’re standing inside the model,” says RBB’s Kevin Boots, AIA. “The military has been using cave technology for a while. It’s basically a 10-foot cube you stand inside with 3D goggles, and whatever direction you look, the computer recalculates the view.”

Boots explains that the firm’s cave technology is still a work in progress. “It used to not be able to happen without costly mock-ups,” he says. “We’re looking to export from Autodesk 3ds Max directly into the cave, but it’s not an easy process. There’s some export issues we’re working through to get our models into the cave.”

Cave technology fits RBB’s do-it-yourself approach to software, such as when the firm developed post-occupancy-evaluation software for the iPad to measure caregivers’ routes in order to identify inefficiencies. “We’ve always had add-ons and customized the software we used, even with AutoCAD back in the ’80s,” Boots adds. “We’ve always tried to make the software do what we want it to do.”