Mention CAD in any design shop and you'll receive mixed reactions. Many designers have used computer-aided design, found it cumbersome, and returned to hand-drawn images. Or, they use some combination of hand-drawn and computer-aided renderings. Many work in two dimensions when they could use 3-D models offered by software like AutoCAD's Autodesk (, Bentley Systems' MicroStation (, and Graphisoft's ArchiCAD ( Even some top-notch architectural houses have decided clients don't care about CAD, as long as their architects deliver superb design.

A rarified few invest in training and integrate CAD with their design process. One such firm that has overcome the obstacles and embraced 3-D computer-aided design, making it essential to its business, is Rill and Decker, Bethesda, Md. The residential architectural shop typically works on $450,000 projects, designing 25 remodels and a dozen custom homes annually. Rill and Decker's design fee ranges from 8% to 15% of construction cost; it bills $1.4 million in fees each year.

For partners Jim Rill and Anne Decker, investing in CAD has paid off -- not just in 30% net profit margins but in relationships with the seven architects who work for them, with contractors they team with, and with clients. Through their staff's mastery of CAD design tools, they've transformed the designer-client relationship, improved communication, and reduced surprises in both design and construction.

Hand-drawn concept
Hand-drawn concept

It wasn't easy. The four-year process was littered with challenges. Yet now, with the exception of the partners (more on that later), all of the firm's architects design in 3-D. They don't draft or render but rather piece together a house electronically, tapping a software library of 2,000-plus standard and customized parts residing on their Mac OS X server. Doing so allows for meticulous construction documents designed in a program that allows almost unlimited, on-demand cross-section details. It also enables designers to perform "virtual walkthroughs" of projects with clients to make sure homeowners are comfortable with changes in living space or with room sizes and windows. "The biggest problem in architecture is people being surprised with what they see after it's built," says Jim Rill. "We want people to see it before it's built."

The firm found that integrating CAD meant creating a culture where architects constantly confer. "It's a verbal culture," says architect James A. Murray, the firm's technology guru who sets graphical standards and keeps the software's tools organized, so the firm doesn't keep re-inventing key design steps.

He says the culture "just happened." Although they've tried to nail steps down, they're always finding better ways to use the software, so trading suggestions verbally (a yell across the office) works.

Challenges and results

Consultant Matthew Lohden, of Lohden Steele in Frederick, Md., who has transitioned a few hundred people to ArchiCAD, says the biggest mistake companies make when incorporating 3-D CAD into their process is failing to understand the commitment. "If not done thoughtfully, it's a big waste of cash," he says.

Construction document
Construction document

Rill and Decker wanted to avoid that. So they paid Lohden, who was recommended by Graphisoft, $75 an hour to work on its first ArchiCAD project, with the time billed to a client. Next, Murray worked with Lohden side-by-side on a second ArchiCAD project. Lohden would help Murray when he ran into walls -- roadblocks in either the parameters of ArchiCAD or in his lack of knowledge of the software. They ironed out such standards as setting up curved or straight leader lines on plans and details like what you'd see or wouldn't see in the "layers," or views, of the software.  

Eight months later, with Lohden's project complete, he went from working full time to occasionally consulting with the firm. Murray then worked in tandem with another colleague on a third project. Via piggyback immersion instruction, the firm moved everyone to ArchiCAD, person by person, over six- to nine-month intervals.

"Everybody wants a James," says Lohden about Murray. "Every firm needs one lynchpin guy who sets the tone, determines the standards. You can burn a lot of time if people reinvent standards."

Rill says he and Decker realized if they put architects on projects while they trained, they'd get a dollar for every two spent and not lose any time to training. It took about six months for each architect to become profitable and proficient, which Lohden says is a typical timeframe.

3-D model
3-D model

  ArchiCAD, which has one of the smallest market shares of the companies selling 3-D CAD, bills itself as helping 100,000 architects in "virtual building." The program allows for storage of construction information in one database and lets changes made in one view be updated in others, including sections, elevations, and 3-D models. (So if the designer moves a window in the plan, it moves in the elevation.) Drawings can be produced and redrawn in any scale.

In training, Rill and Decker architects learned the tools they would need, says Murray. Then they learned the connections between the tools. After that came the all-important, overarching concept behind the design: that you had to think about building, not drafting. Unlike other CAD tools, which take a two-dimensional rectangle, for instance, and turn it into a cube, in ArchiCAD, there's no transition. If you draw a wall, it's in three dimensions. "You're working in heights and depths, not lines," Murray says.

The program rewarded the detail-oriented attitude the principals fostered. Once key dimensions were determined, the program produced more drawings, more interior elevations earlier in the process (because they're generated nearly automatically), almost-instant cross sections, and unlimited perspectives.

Continuing education

The architects saved time and work with the new efficiencies -- features such as the ease of switching from 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch scale for interior elevations (with interior dimensions duplicated from modeling done earlier in the process). Previously, they would have had to re-draw interiors in the larger scale. This time gain meant they had more time with clients. There were fewer crisis site visits and design snafus, says Murray.

In transition, they fought real problems, convincing contractor partners that they weren't dumb, just working out the kinks.

One contractor partner characterized the firm's switch to CAD as "harrowing." Guy Semmes of the $4.7 million Hopkins and Porter, Potomac, Md., worked with Rill on 13 new homes during the transition. Semmes recalls one snag not picked up in plans, elevations, or sections. "The stairwell looked like it would work out, but when we were building it, it went 4 feet through the roof," he says. "It was too close to the slope of the roof. Jim Rill, in his masterful sales way, turned it into a positive change order that allowed a dormer giving 3 feet of headroom and letting light into the stairwell. We recouped the cost but lost overhead and profit."

Semmes says the problem isn't unique to computer-generated plans, but it's more likely because formulas are built into the software and can be tricked. "When you're making

Actual project
Rill & Decker Actual project

those conversions manually, it's got to work," he says. Murray says dimensions are near automatic, but the software demands attention to math. You can't remove a wall, for instance, spec a thinner wall, and not enter new dimensions. "Like anything else, learning the tools, we've gotten better at it," he says.

As Rill and Decker rolled out its investment and training over four years, it spent about $60,000 for hardware and software and $100,000 for consulting services. Rill insists that at no time did he lose money, breaking even in each six-month interval because training was on actual projects. After each six-month period, profitability increased.

The new design process also wasn't catastrophically slower, Murray says. "It didn't take twice as long, but a little bit longer," he says. And while it might take twice as long to do drawings, you were doing twice as much, Murray says. For instance, once the first floor plan is complete, the second floor dimensions are automatic. More information can be copied instead of re-drawn.

Looking back, still learning

As Rill and Decker realized how powerful the software was and the impact 3-D CAD had on clients, the firm used it more in presentations. They found clients understood design when they could "walk through" or "fly over" their project via 3-D simulation.

Sometimes, in schematic design, they present "video" CDs so clients, at home, can rotate around the house in Apple's QuickTime VR. (The QuickTime viewer is free, in a Windows or Mac version, at

Clients love the 3-D modeling. Contractor Dave Glazier of Wood Visions Construction, Damascus, Md., who has worked with Rill on 15 projects, says, "They can feel like they're walking in this thing and looking around. It gets them excited. It makes them feel like they're getting something more than if you hand them six pieces of paper. It gives them fireplaces and details you can't see on blueprints. It's a great system."

Because plans are more detailed earlier in the design process, it makes the builder more comfortable, says Bethesda, Md., contractor Conrad Zink, who has worked with Rill on 20 projects, mostly remodels. "The bidding is more accurate," he says. Ballpark estimating from plans before Rill and Decker embraced CAD resulted in a price plus or minus 20%, Zink says. Now, earlier on, he's able to estimate projects in the plus or minus 10% range.

Glazier says there are fewer changes during construction. He logs two or three client-generated change orders now vs. as many as 20 per job prior to Rill and Decker moving to 3-D CAD.

Rill and Decker has also discovered that presentations to clients, and to contractor partners, occur throughout the design process, meaning changes occur earlier.

Every two weeks, Murray runs an information session, where he also fields questions. He shows functions and connections on the software his colleagues may not be aware of -- new "library parts" he has created and improvements to standard ways of designing such features as doors or trim. The architects share insights that become the keys to faster ways to do computer-aided design.

Lead and leave alone

Ironically, neither Rill nor Decker is an expert on the software. They rely on staff know-how.

"We would advocate total immersion from a training standpoint," says Murray. "And even half immersion is not realistic for a principal, because they've got too many irons in the fire." Rill says to train six months on one project would eliminate the collaborative impact he has on all of the firm's $21 million-worth of projects.

"The belief in the concept is the key thing," says Murray. "Not being obstructionist or passive about it."

Examining the firm's experience, it's apparent that vision and commitment to integrate CAD with the design process can transform a business. The trick is not letting obstacles and mistakes sap momentum for change.