Flowing seawater laboratory, design options

Seeing more Choices from an Architect

The variety of building shapes and sizes architects dream up can seem endless. I am sure clients sometimes wonder, ‘why did he make my building look like that? Could it look like something else?’  Buildings projects are significant consumers of time and resources. They hopefully last a long time. It’s important to get their design right. Seeing more choices from an architect will give owners the chance to play an active role in the design process. Architects have reasons to limit the choices they show, but more choices can significantly improve project success. Technology can help.

There is, in fact, a reason seeing more choices from an architect can be difficult. Architects love to design, so it is not a matter of being uninterested in the design process. In fact, most architects would love nothing more than to sit at a table with a large roll of trace paper and a Sharpie, and sketch all day. The problem comes from the amount of time and effort required to turn a sketch into a presentable design. That squiggly rectangle over there needs to be a handicap accessible bathroom. The large blob needs to be a lecture hall for 50 students. The entrance must meet code without sticking out like a sore thumb. To turn a sketch into something that works requires time, and time is money.

It Costs Money

Architects limit the number of designs they show to clients because seeing more choices from an architect requires money, and typical design fees do not support an extended period of conceptual design. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, the basic concept of a design has to be right in order for the building to be successful. No amount of brilliant detailing or impeccable construction can turn a poor design into a worthwhile project. Second, showing more choices gives an architect the ability to communicate their design process to the client. The client can see that her architect thought about other concepts with other physical shapes. The client will see the logic behind a unique form that, while stylistically surprising, successfully marries form and function.

Seeing More Choices from an Architect

What is the key to seeing more choices from an architect? The answer is software. For the last 12 years, we have been designing with two major technologies: the Sharpie pen and Autodesk’s Revit parametric modeling program. Revit has good market penetration right now, so there are a lot of architects using it. In Maine, penetration is lagging, but most of the larger firms and many small firms have been using Revit for five or more years. We have spent quite a bit of time incorporating Revit’s ability to explore design options into our design process.  Without going into too much technical detail, Revit is software that models buildings in virtual space. Since that software space is virtual, it does not take much effort to create several virtual spaces within a single Revit file. Revit gives architects the ability to create a design in virtual space A, and then create other designs in virtual space B, C, D and so on. Virtual design A might be the same as virtual design B, except at the front entrance.  A change to the back entrance in virtual design A automatically updates the back entrance in virtual design B.

For a recent residential remodel, we offered four design options in our first round of work. For a marine research laboratory, we offered nine options for their conference room and lobby. We could do this without charging any more for conceptual design than if we only showed two options using another CAD program. At a recent meeting with the research lab, we could clearly explain the different factors that led to different options. The option that we liked best was also the one our client liked best. That was a good meeting.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.