A few of us old folks have been in the AEC industry for half a century. You would assume that we have witnessed massive improvements of the design of neighborhoods being built during the computer revolution, but for the most part we have witnessed stagnation instead. If anything, the design of commercial and residential developments is worse than before, not better.
As a software developer (since the mid-1970’s) selling systems for consultants in the land development industry, the first question a potential customer would ask is: How much faster can I get my work out using your system?
What they never asked, was far more important: How much better can I serve my clients if I invest in your system?
This is as true today as it was four decades ago!
In the mid-1970’s it could take months to compute and draft a subdivision plat, so if you could reduce the delivery time in half using a software/hardware system, you’d be doing something huge. The next year hardware and software advancements would cut that time in half again, and that progression continued. The 1980’s saw massive improvements in automating ‘known’ tasks that would otherwise be done manually. It was also the era where CAD and GIS giants gained control of the industry.
We began to see a disturbing trend in the 1980’s from designing by hand (pen and paper) to the dependence on software to ‘think’ for the designer – negatively influencing the outcome (deliverables). Design was being ‘dumbed down’ to cookie-cutter automation instead of using software automation to discover better ways to build and design developments of all sorts – residential, commercial, and military.
Why? Simply put, software takes any task that can be repetitive and tries to automate it as much as possible. Take Microsoft Word, which I’m using to write this. If using a pencil on paper, I would read what I wrote and then erased and changed after re-reading it without the benefit of spell check or automatic grammar correction. Word cannot decide or guide what to write. However, design software actually does influence or guide the engineer, surveyor, planner, or architect around what to design.
Take this cul-de-sac:
This elegant cul-de-sac is a combination of compound curves which could be automated, but then, would become repetitive. Instead, software programs could have a simple circular cul-de-sac which would be a bit less attractive but could be instantly computed and drafted. In this case, robotic-like geometry is used to create more complex patterns adding only 15 or 20 extra seconds above that of an automatic ‘circular’ function.
In the above example, extra effort was required beyond what was supplied by a software vendor to add character and value to a neighborhood, thus adding a market advantage that is not just for the first time buyer, but all subsequent buyers. Because of this, it is sustainable.
As another example of how software should be utilized can be seen in Trasona at Viera, near Melbourne, Florida:
With Trasona, LandMentor, a precision spatial software enabled the analysis of site and architectural efficiency combined with pioneering methods trained within the solution to merge architecture and planning creating both homes and neighborhood that function better. By coordinating home and lot shape, we were able to achieve slightly better density than the previous ‘grid’ plan with homes that looked and functioned better while merging both interior and exterior spaces. This higher form of design simply could not happen using a system strictly for architecture, and another for site engineering as most ‘planning’ software is written. By using software as an enabling tool that encourages innovative design we were able to reduce the street length by 38%, keep all the existing regulatory minimums as well as unit mix, while actually slightly increasing density! Perhaps the most impactful comparison can be seen in the before (above) and after (below) comparison below:
The below image accurately depicts the same 35’ wide housing unit with ‘architectural shaping’ applied with every home designed in a way to coordinate interior living spaces with exterior views. The elegant and wide meandering walks? No possible automation for that. The direct pedestrian system that assures connectivity? That too – impossible to automate. The varied meandering setbacks that create a street that becomes a ‘park-like’ setting and encourages a stroll over a drive? No ‘easy button’ for that, either.
What software has done for the land development industry as a whole has not advanced it, but instead hindered it! An engineer or architect working to develop software may have the best intentions, but in many ways only replicates what they know. This is why most commercial and multifamily developments today look as if the same consultant was used on all the projects – in a way they were!
Intentional complexity. For the most part, today, software is being written by coders in-house or remotely (India for example), taking direction from company executives that determine how a function could be written to provide an increase of profits. A software company income comes from the initial sale, and continual income servicing the customer in updates, support, and trainings. As a software venture bringing new technologies to the marketplace we have spoken to many possible investors. Without exception, all are only interested in a ‘Software as a Subscription’ model, and all are only interested in an investment in software that requires extensive training and support.
Personally, I have a problem providing a design product that creates ‘legal’ surveying and engineering documents on what is essentially a ‘rental’ basis. I also have a problem with modular software models that can get a client in the door then continually gouge them on ‘add-ons’ to make software fully functional. My biggest issue with the software industry is how they make software complex to guarantee a support and training income. In the days of ‘smart-phone’ simplicity, it’s time to write software to be extremely simply to learn and use, and most important actually enjoyable. Those 3D images are not CAD derived, but Video Gaming derived, thus supporting VR, as well as future 3D printing when affordable large format color printers become available.
If nobody wants to invest in this business model, so be it, but everyone pays the price for intentional complexity. You, your clients, and ultimately the public live, work, and play in the developments you design. By eliminating long learning curves we can free up time to teach how to make better consulting decisions. And that, we hope, will lead us to be the new model for software companies serving the land development industry.