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Learning Curve

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If you’ve been wondering what skills were most in demand at the top 50 architecture firms [according to a 2013 Architectural Record Top 300 Architecture Firms study], Black Spectacles has already surveyed 928 job postings and compiled the software and other requirements listed for each job. Well done them!  


“In summary, for software skills, over 70% of architecture jobs require Revit skills, and over 50% still require AutoCAD skills.  The #3 software skill required is Sketchup.  We must admit that we were disappointed (but not surprised) to see that Grasshopper was only required for 3% of the jobs.  And good old-fashioned hand-sketching was only explicitly called out in 4% of these jobs.

The authors admit that taking only the top firms skews the survey towards the larger ones, which of course implies a certain kind of top-down production system. The demanded software therefore reflects the office hierarchy. Documentation software such as Revit and AutoCAD figure largest. Communications and presentation software not so large, and aids to creative thinking such as sketching hardly at all. Offices don’t need a surfeit of creatives.

• • •

Here’s a quick rundown on some of the programs architects should have experimented with, perhaps adopted, and almost certainly discarded for ones less obsolete.

Computer-Aided Design Programs

Off the top of my head, I can think of MiniCAD, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Microstation, AutoDesk, EasyCAD and TurboCAD. There’s many more out there and many have C-A-D as part of their name. Equally many people will advise on which is best for you.


Let’s follow the Architecture link.

Many an architecture student’s first introduction to CAD will be AutoCAD. Most students will have access to several versions and copies and people to teach them how to use it to draw plans, elevations and sections without getting their hands dirty or having to worry too much about accuracy. Making sure the elevations match the plans and the plans match the sections takes as much skill, care and time as it ever did.

Building Information Modelling

ArchiCAD has always been a struggler in the market due to poor choice of diffusion model in the early years. While AutoCAD was being given away to schools and businesses, ArchiCAD was expensive and had a complex system of hardware dongles purposely limiting any dissemination that wasn’t fully paid for. It was a shame because ArchiCAD was the world’s first CAD program with an integrated BIM and 3D functionality that no other program could match until Revit sort of did twenty years later.

Revit has leapt to the forefront very quickly and many people are amazed by how it revolutionalized the production of architectural drawings.


Visualisation Programs

“2D plans have long been the bane of designers when it comes to communicating ideas to clients, and humble concept boards and elevations can only do so much.  As such, more and more designers are turning to 3D which real, authentic and visual.” 

Some CAD programs have integrated visualization capabilities. It’s good to see cherry trees have finally made it into object libraries. [c.f. The Things Architects Do #11: Cherry Blossoms]


Google SketchUp has been around since the early 2000’s and was an instant hit with architects and designers who could not or were not able to sketch. 

“[It] is one of the most widely used and easy to learn 3D Modeling software packages on the market today. With SketchUp’s ability to use plug in software, such as V-Ray, iRender and Shaderlight, designers can take a basic 3D and morph into one that can (and will) get their ideas over the line in a manner in which clients can understand.” [ref.]

3D Studio Max was many an architecture student’s first introduction to texture mapping.


ARtlantis has also been around a while. It was one of the first rendering packages to enable control over lighting and illumination effects, and offered a choice of rendering engines. Maxwell and VRay were popular choices. Here’s a quick tutorial showing you how to set an Artlantis scene to be rendered with [in? by?] Maxwell.

And here’s one on how to export your SketchUp Pro 2013 model to ArtLantis Studio 15.

Here’s one on how to use the new VRay for Revit

Here’s a link to motionographer Alex Roman’s turgid film The Third and the Seventh,


and another link to an interview.


Maya was breathtakingly refreshing when it first came out but is now just part of the furniture.

“Bring your imagination to life with Maya® 3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software. Maya helps artists tell their story with one fast, creative toolset.” [ref.]


You can bring your imagination to life, if you dare.


You can use time to animate a cube mesh, if that’s your thing.


Here’s a YouTube tutorial on skinning rigging and applying mocap data.


Of all of the rendering sofwares, Lumion was perhaps the most welcome. It produced images that may have been incredibly cheesy but it was difficult to make something look really ugly.

Parametric Modelling Programs

Rhinoceros 5

Rhinoceros is primarily a free form surface modeler that utilizes the NURBS mathematical model. Its application architecture and open SDK makes it modular and enables the user to customize the interface and create custom commands and menus. Dozens of plug-ins available from both McNeel and other software companies complement and expand Rhinoceros’ capabilities in specific fields like rendering and animation, architecture, marine, jewelry, engineering, prototyping, and others.

“You can do anything with Rhino“, they say. “Can one really?” I ask.


Here’s the Grand Staircase of the Titanic.



This is a visual scripting language for Rhino. It lets you do things like parametric rosettes and weaves, sine functions and transformations, solid difference, kanagaroo tags, voronoi boxes and lots of other stuff you didn’t even know you couldn’t do.


“For designers who are exploring new shapes using generative algorithms, Grasshopper® is a graphical algorithm editor tightly integrated with Rhino’s 3-D modeling tools. Unlike RhinoScript, Grasshopper requires no knowledge of programming or scripting, but still allows designers to build form generators from the simple to the awe-inspiring.” 

Their website will get you started with tutorials.


Energy Modelling Software 

eQUEST is probably the quickest option and is also free. This tutorial will walk you through the basics.

“Keep in mind that it focuses almost solely on energy and that load design in eQUEST should be limited to the experts. Check out this video that shows how awesome eQUEST is!”

TRACE 700 “… is a great option if you need to do Load Design + Energy. Tell your boss to suck it up and buy it for you. It comes with free support.” [ref.]

IES“Investigate suitable bioclimatic strategies even before a line has been drawn, and connect from SketchUp™ or BIM packages. By enabling informed sustainable design decisions you can be confident that the VE for Architects helps you deliver ambitious performance goals while seeking opportunities to keep costs appropriate. In fact, as top engineers use advanced IESVE tools you can easily collaborate and exchange models with them as you progress – facilitating an improved integrated and data driven process.” [ref.]

Here’s a tutorial for how to use IES Light with V-Ray in Sketchup. How awesome is that!

Urban Design Programs

City Engine lets you make bold and sweeping interventions relating to site density and height across entire cities, and provides you with updated floor areas and thus presumably return-on-investment as you go. If that all sounds a bit mercenary, we are reminded that CityEngine is used by several major animation studios and visual effects houses for the creation of digital sets of urban environments.” [ref.]

This test image was generated with CityEngine and has 1.135 billion polygons, no instancing and is rendered in 22 gigabytes of RAM.

• • •

A few observations.

1. Nothing’s changed.

No matter how skilled you become at using any or all of these software packages, you’ll still be a technician – someone who executes the ideas of others. No office needs a surfeit of people who can use a felt-tip.

Person using a felt-tip.

2. Nothing is used to its maximum potential.

All this productivity software results in highly contrived and inefficient workflows as a consequence of offices having legacy software and staff having different types and levels of legacy skills. For example, a head of architecture might “sketch” a building in AutoCAD 2000 because that’s all he knows how to use. That might then get passed to a graduate who has a copy of Rhino to “extrude” it so it can then be exported to SketchUp for preliminary work on elevations while plans and layouts are developed in Revit. None of these programs is being used in the way it was designed to be used. And even if they were used in some far superior string of hocus-pocus, everything will ultimately be put onto a USB drive as a PowerPoint to show the client at 1024 x 768 dpi on whatever IT/projection system there is in the boardroom.

The longevity of AutoCAD in the industry shows that software innovation and endless learning are unnecessary. Buildings are still being designed and built using legacy technologies in inefficient and illogical ways, only even more so.

3. Nobody knows it all.

If digital models are exported around the office into formats more suited to the task or the skills of the person actually performing the task, then the same is true for collaborations outside the office. File conversions are routine as is the loss/addition of information along the way. Municipalities may request submissions as Revit files but that doesn’t mean the project was designed using Revit or that Revit will be used for further documentation or detailing.


Nothing is ever enough

“Software skill requirements fell predictably along experience lines, with lower experience requiring more software skills.  The exceptions were in AutoCAD & Photoshop where the difference between the requirements of 0-3 years & 11-20 years of experience was over 20%.  The next largest difference was in Revit at 14%.” [ref.]

In other words, the most poorly paid are expected to be the most productive. This is no surprise. For a monthly subscription fee, will teach you how to use Revit and many other new packages suddenly indispensible for getting you a new job or letting you keep the one you have.

Lynda is linked to LinkedIn, the site that monetizes job dissatisfaction and insecurity. Just as you can never know enough, you can never be too dissatisfied or too insecure.

The online software instruction industry has shown sharp growth. Not only are employees agressively targeted and made to feel as if they must stay up-to-date to retain their job, but the unemployed are also preyed upon. Devoted instructors plant ideas like the “self-education trap” and describe in terror-inducing detail how you may not learn of some essential feature if you teach yourself.

Also targeted are the pre-unemployed, a.k.a. students. Students have a natural insecurity about the quality of their education which, coupled with questionable career prospects can easily be leveraged into them paying substantial money in the false hope of being able to design better. The slickest software school setups have a vast media presence promising “cool speakers in free seminars” and all the other paraphernalia of media-fueled architecture practice.

3. ‘Those that can, exploit. Those that can’t, defraud.’

It’s that old adage again, this time expanding downwards into lesser but larger markets. If you’re still unemployed after having paid good money to learn all this software, you can still claw some of it back by taking classes to become a tutor. You’ll learn how to replicate a Shanghai supertall from an image and then move onto some megamansion you’ve almost certainly seen online. Some of the old favourites are still around to let students think they’re getting closer to design.

This is an example of ArtLantis being used to add texture to SketchUp. [Nobody ever seems to notice that huge hill behind the house.]

It’s rare the class that will pose design problems of increasing complexity that require the software to be creatively used in order to solve them. Mostly, copying is presented as designing and is accepted as designing. It sounds like a scam when aggressive mis-selling meets the suspension of disbelief. Or, it could be we’ve unwittingly reverted to the old Beaux-Arts system of learning by copying. If that’s the case, then two things:

  1. Copying is probably all that was ever necessary.
  2. The Bauhaus-style of architectural education created its own market in a way not so different from today’s software teaching schools. It artificially divided the workforce into a self-replicating system consisting of those who know and those who think they need to know. Those who know could teach others what they knew and, once they did that, could then teach them how to teach others what they knew.

Teaching now means teaching how to use software but how, and to do what? If those software ‘skills’ are best taught by copying then we’ve definitely returned to the Beaux-Arts style of teaching architecture.


The snag in the system is that the software developers and vendors are better placed to teach people how to use their products, and to teach people how to teach others.


Institutions of higher education need to think very carefully about the type of value they supposedly add. 

5. Nobody’s saying anything about design.

Software is concerned with the production of production drawings and marketing materials – there’s never mention of anything that stimulates the generation of ideas. This is because there’s no software that replicates the ability of the human brain to take diverse types of information and make both controlled and random associations to indicate where a solution might lie. It’s the creative process in its widest and truest meaning. 

Parametric design approaches are not what I mean because some vital information may resist quantification or even conscious identification. Genetic algorithms are also not what I mean. They also use only quantifiable information yet more closely approximate the creative process by bringing the brute force of computational power to the tried and trusted feedback loop we know as Trial And Error.

Adherents of both approaches claim that being able to explore “entire” [!?] universes of possibilities assists the design process. The difference though is the type of design process being assisted. Parametricism tends to be used for form-finding “problems” and the solution found when the process stops and a solution decided upon – as ever it was.  Genetic algorithms tend to be used for multi-variable environmental problems and generate mutations of variable combinations until they converge on the optimum combination. It’s a bit like evolution, hence the name. 


Even if we overlook the diminishing importance of the ability to sketch architectural ideas, employers indicate no preference for where or how those architectural ideas are supposed to come from. It’s safe to assume clients don’t either. It adds negligible value to the product. Once again there’s no lack of people offering advice and instruction.


The generation of concepts provides a welcome relief from existential worries at institutions of higher education and is a source of professional pride for tutors, and grief for students as they attempt to magick a building out of less than nothing.

“the starting point was ‘bones’ … “

Some job advertisements request “design flair” but this could be just a ruse to flush out those who think they have it. Starchitect employees have already expressed their desire to work for a pittance in order to breathe the same air occasionally. That’s why they’re there.

6. Nobody’s saying anything about anything else.

The ability to hand-sketch was low down the list of desirable qualities for architects to have. A knowledge of history – or even an awareness of the role of buildings in society –wasn’t even identified as a skill let alone rated as one. History is still taught yet nobody knows why. It’s not on any employer’s wish list so it too can’t be anything clients value or would like to see valued.

The rejection of the Beaux-Arts’ revered history, the Modernists’ abstracted history, the Post Modernists’ caricatured history, and even the urban pragmatists’ what’s-already-there view of history means that we’re left with Futurism all over again, only this time it’s a mannerist and pan-global one fuelled by clients with the agendas to encourage it and the money to build it.

I’ve begun reading this [thanks Tim Waterman]. I expect it’ll be preaching to converted but every now and then it’s good to read a book that articulates what one had been suspecting for a long time. At £67 for the e-book, it’d better be better than good or else I’ll think I’m trapped in a system where thinking about architecture is produced and consumed like software, and with as little to show for it. I don’t expect to be getting my money back any time soon but I’ll let you know if I think you should part with yours.



  • Dear Graham,

    we must protest in the strongest terms: Revit is a hugely expensive, hungry and clunky application and is NOT the market leader for the discerning apple mac based practitioner. Vectorworks 2017 (the current version) is superior and has led the polls for consecutive years. Daniel Libeskind to name just one leading international practice uses Vectorworks.

    Regards ZAK | Service Team

    VectorProject Kenya

    Follow us on LinkedIN


    • I’m glad to hear it. I haven’t used Vectorworks since the early days but I’ve just applied to download an education version of Vectorworks 2017. I’ve been an ArchiCAD user for many years but I’m interested to try it.