Is the Price of Software A Barrier of Entry to Architecture?

  • 22 Apr 2013
  • by
  • Architecture News Editor's Choice
Courtesy of the Parametricisit Manifesto

From the prevalence of unpaid internships to the power of the C-suite, architecture is, according to writer Ann Lui, an “unlevel playing field.” Of the many obstacles facing young designers, one (that you may not have considered) is the prohibitive costs of design for architects trying to start their own firms.

As Lui points out in her article for Archinect, the times have changed since Maya Lin won the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial competition “with a blurry, hand-rendered sketch of a thick black line in the haze.” Today, “the winning entries of recent widely-published architectural competitions, like eVolo, are thick with unearthly renderings. Recently issued RFPs and many contract docs, even for small projects, include BIM deliverables. LEED certification — or other more holistic methods of “sustainable design” — require energy modeling; and new advances in thermal calculations and daylighting rely on digital building data. Whether or not we continue analog methods for design and how they are integrated in an architectural process is besides the point: to be competitive, cutting-edge digital design programs are integrally necessary. [...]

Yet when it comes to purchasing software, the costs of programs like Autocad and could be resulting in a self-selecting pool of designers who are able to compete, at least initially, at a higher level.”

Do you think Software is a significant barrier to entry in architecture? Should software be more accessible to all? How could we alter the profession to be more inclusive? Let us know in the comments below.

Read Lui’s article in full at Archinect

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Is the Price of Software A Barrier of Entry to Architecture?" 22 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>

    u arent serious?
    student shared CD/DVDs of programs has been around for how long??
    now a days, in teh internet age? torrents? havent heard of this? students + young professionals sure have

    this is a ridiculous article..

    • T

      who buys software? suckers, that’s who

      • Pierre

        If you get caught using an ‘illegal’ version, you can get up to 50 000$ in fine PER computer!!!!

        Who would be the sucker then?

      • Sherlock Holmes

        1. Which student/young architect is stupid enough to get caught? Survival of the smartest! :-)

        2. Seriously. No computer company would be that stupid to sue a student. They would immediately loose tons of future clients if people would read about it. They will knock on your door when you have the money because you won a competition or got a client directly. You have time enough to slowly legalize your office when you start growing. CAD programmers want to earn money and do not want to destroy their very limited field of clients which has a rather big variety of choices to switch to.

    • Pierre

      It’s a shame we have to break laws to be able to work, don’t you think?

      • T

        Pierre, it is.
        I view it as voting with my dollar, or maybe protesting. In the States 5-10 years ago, a CD was overpriced at $20. In comes Napster, torrents, etc. now CD’s cost $10.
        I’m not sure if the same effect can be had in this situation, but it’s how I justify stealing software!

    • iron

      u arent serious?
      Licencing of programs has been around for how long??
      now a days, in teh internet age? Licence? havent heard of this? students + young professionals sure have
      this is a ridiculous comment..

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  • Kyle Blomquist

    I’m assuming the author is referring to legitimately purchased and licensed programs for young architects and designers, not student licenses or pirated programs. In this case, she is spot on. For a small firm like ours, each work station for a program like REVIT is north of $2000-$3000 per license, plus the so-called subscription fee of about $700-$800 a year to keep it up-to-date. Add in legitimately purchased Adobe Creative Suites and any other modeling and rendering software, and its becoming terrifically restrictive both to young firms, and established small firms, especially during the lean times we have see recently. For each designer to have to pay around $3000-$4000 per year to pay for up-to-date software, its no wonder profits and job openings have both diminished, and we’re forced to have less people, working more productively, on older software. Software piracy is the only way for most to stay afloat.

  • samuel bravo

    It’s been some years since I left aside commercial 3d software to work only in blender ( Through this time I have worked on several architectural projects independently, also have cooperated with larger offices.
    Of course there are some parts missing in the free software side. I miss an image editing tool as powerful as Photoshop, a CAD software as autocad, and a BIM software. But lets put it this way, if software companies own your tools, they also own your work. If they shape your tools, then they may be shaping your creativity. We should care about our tools as the craftmen does.

  • Jason Wagner

    Yeah, the programs cost a lot, but I think they cost a lot less than hiring the extra staff to do those jobs manually.

    And there are a lot of flashy renderings, but that’s always been the case. Back in the day, to get those charcoal or watercolor visualizations either meant that someone on staff knew how to do them, or they hired someone to do them, same as today.

    It’s definitely not a level playing field, but it’s always been like that, and it’s simply because rich people are friends with other rich people, who can become clients. Or rich parents use their position to get their kid an internship at a firm to get a head start. Or they have better access to good education and get fast tracked to an ivy league. Or they have enough money that they can risk starting a firm, or enough money to float them when there’s not much work. Other people don’t have the same kinds of networking opportunities, and they can’t take many financial risks.

  • Sherlock Holmes

    Competitions can still be won with simple drawings and a few good collages or sketches. Only completely architecture-unsavvy clients will fall for the most high-gloss rendering with the least content.

    Much more problematic are closed competitions with a limited field of “invited” (read client related/befriended/army buddies, etc.) competitors where, as a young architect, you can forget about winning it, the sooner the better.

    For other competitons you are asked to deliver loads of material which a small upstarting office cannot deal without going bankrupt and/or work 24/7. Idealy competitions should be held in two stages. First, a striking idea and an urbanistic approach. Second phase would be “paid” (at least your plots and model costs) and would go more into details such as worked out floor plans, facade sections and so on. But as a competitor you would know that you have some chances to win and you are not just investing out into the blue.

  • James Geddes

    Its just damwell unfair, the cost of software is like the cost
    of professional indemnity insurance for young architects, its
    just too much of a cost to pay, and for no guarantee of return either.

    The costs of setting up practice have financially affected my life.

    At the moment, I use the pen on tracing paper method of drawing, which is the only one I can afford. Which sets me behind the eightball, both in what clients expect, and the scope of projects
    I can undertake.

  • Sudar Khadka

    outsource it all. there are companies that can be hired as revit/bim consultants that can work with you with whatever input you give them. you give them sketches or CAD files then they revit it up and you check and revise. it takes the burden of maintaining an office and software out of your hands. good as a business model but maybe not too good in terms of “the craft”

    • Sam

      Yes, because that solves the issue of software prices and piracy…

  • notrem

    Sketchup??? Not a joke. Sketchup can do a lot! Get the plugins who are mostly free and do not hate the limit, but work with it. If you want to add some extra get Vray. Gimp is an amazing Photoshop alternative. By the way. Rhino, for what it can do is super cheap.

  • sndr

    As a small business owner I do my work in Rhino and blender. I am eyeing vray standalone to work with blender, but Cycles works just fine right now. All adesk products are off-limits for us, mainly because of their unfriendly EULA.

    Too bad for Revit, really, before they were acquired it was a sympathetic and friendly company that actively developed their product.

  • Afonso Gonçalves

    It is my own opinion that architectural software is definitely overpriced and that can seriously stand as decisive factor that can tip the scale in favor of those who have the means to acquire them. I don’t think there’s an excuse for, in this day and age, a young architect not know how to handle any form of CAD software but is it fare for them not to be in the same playing field as others just because they don’t have the same level of proficiency with design software?
    Companies who manufacture design software should do more to make their products more accessible. For example, Autocad, probably the most used CAD software among students and others, allows the possibility of acquiring an educational license to use it. However, when plotting something, you’ll find, in all four sides of the paper, written in very thick black bold letters “PRODUCED BY AN AUTODESK EDUCATIONAL PRODUCT”. Now I ask if the people of Autodesk think that’s an acceptable way for a student to hand in an assignment to a judge or professor.
    As for the use of illegal software licenses I know it may seem tempting. One quick stop at any torrent site will give you access to any software you want. But if we take this from the personal scope of using illegal software and apply it to a professional practice you can get an idea of the damage it can cause. Here in Portugal if a firm is caught using illegal software not only you have to pay a very “generous” fine but all computers can be apprehended as well. If you have no way of continuing your projects without your computers that can mean the loss of work, clients and credibility, not to mention the possibility of having to close your practice and leave your collaborators suddenly unemployed.

  • atiye ahmadi

    these are great iteams but need more.thanks

  • Pietro Stagno

    Far too expensive, borderline extorsion

  • An architect in London

    Well, I’m pretty sure that the price of these software is based not on the amount of effort necessary to produce them but on the amount of money a company can pay for it. They decided that it was better to have 100 companies pay £2000 for it rather than 800 architects paying £200. I find it outraging, and I believe that it is direct exploitation of the market with a terrible influence on the creative possibilities of architects.

    There will be more and more free/less expensive software apearing in the next years thanks to the global market, gimp and sketchup beeing pioneers of what a “freeware” can achieve as a new succesful business software model.

  • Juan Lagarrigue

    And yet, here we are, talking about software companies instead of architecture….. I really don’t think software costs are an issue; the issues are others, like having someone come to you because you’re young and cheap and then going to an established firm to complete the process and put their logo on your design; or firms letting go of older architects for younger people without families; and perhaps the dictatorship of renderers and cgi on a field where everything is visual. But cost of software? yes, it would be much nicer if autodesk was free, but who needs revit the moment you leave school?

  • Juan Lagarrigue
  • Teran Evans

    I’m a little surprised by the number of people who don’t understand the ramifications for using pirated software as a professional (which is the premise of the article). Yes, we all know students use pirated software. Everyone has done it…it is what it is. As a professional however, that circumstances are different. If caught (which is easier than one might think, especially if a disgruntled employee decides to get chatty) the fines can be in the tens of thousands of dollars PER computer. In more extreme cases you can be jailed or have your license revoked. In Europe you actually have the Software Police. They make unscheduled visits to design offices and check computers for pirated software. If caught, heavy fines are levied against the firm.

    • juan lagarrigue

      no need to pirate anything, just not pay attention to companies that are monopolizing the software for design, like adobe and autodesk. there’s plenty of free software out there to get by

  • Henri

    Reading the comments i would like to say some thing about french contest. If you apply for a public contest you HAVE to give the list of software you used and there serial numbers.
    Most of the offices have ONE version of each software for that and the rest is illegal.
    But still one version of each is bloody expensive !

    In thailande where NO-ONE buy the software… well that’s not correct. Everyone buy the software in proper shops. But shop just sell illegal copies (for 2 to 3 euros). So in thailande 4 years ago some companie send the police in every offices of Samui. This was a real mess ! Between all the offices that simply took a week of holiday, the fake police that asked for money, the real police that also asked for money… This was not a succes for the software maker.

    On the other hand a year and a half ago Nemetschek payed the pirate shop (at the source) so they don’t sell Allplan anymore. And it’s actualy IMPOSSIBLE to find it anywhere in thailande. A big succes for them i guess. (if you don’t count the fact that i had to learn another software as i could not afford this one…)

  • Joseph Vance

    I have been working in this profession for 29 years – and have owned my own firm for 22. I obviously started my career “pre CAD”, drafting on mylar, sometimes with pen and ink, even using “pin bar” drafting where “layers” was very literal – what we now know as a layer was an individual sheet of mylar you had to stack together – kept in register by a bar of pins on your drafting board. My point is I am an old fart with a bit of perspective. Coming from the “old school” I can tell you as mentioned before – the savings software provides in payroll far exceeds the cost of software. I know factually that to produce the work my firm does would, without modern software, require a staff of 15. That said, my firm is small, a total of 6, and software is no small expense. We use ArchiCAD which is roughly $5k a pop plus an annual subscriptiion fee to keep it current. However it is not just CAD software that is expensive, I just dropped $1,800 just to get the latest version of Acrobat Pro which everyone must have. Mine will not be a popular comment in this forum but the actual fact is the probllem is not the cost of the software, but the cost relative to the income for the profession. The reason in part for that I am sorry to say is the willingness of so many to offer services at a rate far lower than they should. It is an age old problem for our profession – more than many others architects are all too willing to undercut the competition – quite frequently to the point they lose money. It is not those just starting out – when you have no track record offering a lower fee is often the only way to get your foot in the door. The problem are more mature firms that “know better”. I recently lost a project to a firm more than 6 times the size of mine – with far more years experience tthan me – who undercut me (and what is considered a “going rate” fee) by more than 20%. While they are “feeding their machine”, ultimately they are hurting the profession. Every time this happens clients automatically assume the next time someone will go even lower.

  • mohamed lotfy

    what about supporting or even establishing a software company, supported through architectural association…and offering a free software for the globe!!
    Utopian but possible huh.