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Seven Big-Business Tools for Small Budgets

These programs garnered repeat praise during AIA TAP’s 2016 Building Connections Congress, and most of them are free.

By Michael Kilkelly

Seven Tools

While software represents a major expense for any firm, a number of free, or nearly free, programs put incredible computing power right at everyone’s fingertips. As CAD and BIM applications become more comprehensive and interdisciplinary, AEC firms need intuitive tools to facilitate collaboration and project management among all staff members, whether they’re in the office or on the job site.

This demand led to the theme “High Impact, Low Threshold” for the AIA Technology in Architectural Practice (TAP) knowledge community’s annual Building Connections Congress, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and chaired by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill senior digital design manager Robert Yori. The roster of tech-savvy presenters shared the tools they have found successful for their firms’ operations as well as individual use. Despite the diversity of firms represented in terms of size, market focus, and geographic reach, the programs cited by the presenters were remarkably similar, a testament to their functionality and accessibility. After all, if a tool can’t be grasped in five minutes, it will never be adopted, says Casey Martin, AIA, a Houston-based program manager within the Asset Management Consulting Group at Jacobs.

Below are the most popular tools that came up in discussion and are either free or nearly free. One pro tip from Andrew Cocke, the D.C.-based design technology manager for ZGF Architects: Deploying a new tool firm-wide in one rollout will almost certainly ensure zero buy-in. Instead, he suggests selecting a group of likely power users who will embrace the tool, letting its popularity grow organically.


Cost: Free for basic version, paid versions available. Works on: most mobile devices and web browsers

Rather than flooding the inboxes of multiple, likely uninterested recipients with emails that eventually break into smaller threads, Slack tracks conversations much like group messaging or texting apps. User-defined channels allow firms to organize exchanges about a particular topic or issue, such as marketing proposals or ductwork layouts, and employees can stay updated on a single conversation of record.


Cost: Free for basic version, paid version available. Works on: most mobile devices and web browsers

If you use spreadsheets to track your project tasks, consider Trello, a visual task-management tool that uses cards to track each to-do item. These cards, which can include text, checklists, images, and due dates, can be organized and re-organized into lists such as “ideas,” “to do,” and “done” through drag-and-drop. Group your lists onto dashboards to gauge progress in a glance, and add team members to your boards for collaborative tasks, such as the selection of wall finishes with an interiors team.


Cost: Free for teams of up to five users; monthly fee per user for larger teams. Works on: most mobile devices and web browsers

If you like Trello’s card-and-list approach but need more robust project-management features such as timelines and issue tracking, try Jira. It emphasizes agile development, an alternative project management system popular in the software industry that is beginning to make inroads in the AEC profession.

Seven Tools


Cost: Free for basic version, paid versions available. Works on: most mobile devices and web browsers

Collect and organize your notes, images, and bookmarks using Evernote’s digital notebook application. Apply tags and categories for quick searching, and use its sharing feature to collaborate with other users in near real-time on everything from project documents to task lists. On its blog, Evernote provides specific examples of how an architect can use its tool. As an alternative, OneNote is a similar digital notebook application that is free to Microsoft's Office 365 subscribers.


Cost: Free, in-app purchases available. Works on: iOS

Morpholio Apps is a suite of apps that can help anyone in the design community create, organize, and show their work. They include presentation and collaboration tool Morpholio, sketching and mark-up tool Trace, and collaging and presentation tool Board. With the recent release of the larger iPad Pro, tablet-based apps such as Morpholio will likely become essential to the architect’s toolbox.


Cost: $9.99. Works on: iOS

If you need to brainstorm and organize lots of information, try creating a mind map—a visual diagram of information—with MindNode. The iOS app lets you create relationships between topics and reorganize items through drag-and-drop. Similar applications, such as MindManager and XMind, are available for the PC. You can learn more about mind maps and mind-mapping software in my post on my blog ArchSmarter.


Cost: $49.95. Works on: Mac and Windows devices

Snagit turns images, videos, and screengrabs from your screen into JPG, PNG, MP4, or animated GIFs. You can also create, mark-up, and share what you’re seeing on your screen. Need to show the contractor where to relocate the lighting fixture? Take a screenshot of the drawing or photograph and then use Snagit’s tools to markup the correct location.

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in January 2016.

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