The Arcol Manifesto

Paul O'Carroll
8 min readFeb 8, 2022

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Arcol is a building design and documentation tool that runs in your browser.

Sketch based modelling

Architects deserve better tools

Most design tools are from the late nineteen hundreds. We need to bring the magic back to design. We need something powerful, intuitive, and collaborative.

Think of how much technology has changed in the past two decades. Google docs. Slack. Zoom. The iPhone. While almost every product we touch has become web-based, collaborative, and consumer focused, for some reason, our design tools are still stuck in an ancient desktop paradigm of the 1990s.

We believe that 3D building design tools should be powerful, yet easy to use. Web-based , intuitive, and most importantly collaborative.

CAD went mainstream in the 80’s, and BIM came soon after, but since then it seems like tools have lost the magic. Over time they’ve gotten clunky, slow, unintuitive, and driven by greed — incumbents are public companies and therefore they’re only growth metric is profit.

Arcol is bringing the magic back to building design and making it accessible to everyone — from world class AEC firms to people who don’t know what “CAD” or “BIM” means.

An Outsider’s Perspective

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

— Steve Jobs, 1997

I’ve always loved Job’s quote on “the crazy ones”.

I’ve been the outsider in everything I’ve ever done in life. Never “fond of rules”. AEC to me is no different. I grew up loving the industry from the sidelines.

Growing up, I would sit under my dad’s drawing table and watch him painstakingly design a building from scratch, all by hand and all beautiful. Then to go to the construction site with him months later and see this huge mound of timber, concrete and glass be erected out of the dirt. This was a fascinating experience for me. Seeing something important built from nothing. Magical.

I started my career as a game developer, and thought that being paid to make video games was the coolest job imaginable. I worked my ass off to learn my craft, and I loved gaming, but what I loved even more was architecture. I would find myself having conversations with my dad about the building design/construction process, always curious why the level of technology was not equal to that of something like the games industry. This was frustrating. AEC was being left behind…. why?

I dove in, started working in an architectural office and figuring out the intricacies of making something from nothing. What I discovered was that the reason design technology had not advanced was mainly due to the incumbent. They were selling 20+ year old technology and had no incentive to innovate because of their monopoly (Autodesk has ~70% market share in the US).

After rambling around in the services sector for a bit (started a design agency). I decided to break that trend, because architects deserve better tools. I created Arcol with the mission of bringing the magic (that I felt as a kid) back to building design.

To date, Arcol has assembled a world-class team, and gathered a waitlist of nearly 8,000 people who want to see us succeed. We’re building a Figma-like tool for architects and challenging these monolithic incumbents: a typical David vs Goliath story.

🧠 Rethinking building design

One of our main advantage over incumbents is we can ask: “What would designing a building using today’s technologies look like?” What would be it’s new “table stakes”?

Table stakes are things that aren’t huge innovations or mind blowing features, they’re standard in every other industry and should be standard in AEC:

🕸 Web based

Web based tools allow better flows of information across the building design process. Sharing work with your colleague is as simple as sending them a link, they can view it on any device they choose. No more dealing with competing operating systems, contracts on site can also easily access information. It also allows for faster roll-outs of updates.

And just because it’s on the web doesn’t mean we need to limit ourselves to simple 2D models. Tools like OnShape and Spline have shown that web-based 3D interfaces can be just as powerful as their desktop equivalents.

💻 Collaboration

We believe that digitised collaboration will affect every vertical and will have a huge impact on driving productivity and creativity. AEC is the sector it will affect most at scale, because designing/constructing buildings is inherently collaborative and involves a large number of stakeholders.

AEC can and should become even more digitized. We are also now living in an era of remote teams and globally distributed workforces. Previously you would be able to leave a sticky note on your colleague’s desk, today that’s not possible. Information should be more organized, transferable and scalable in this new world. AEC is currently in the phase of “email”, we are pushing the industry towards the age of Slack. Slack as a movement but also as an acronym — “Searchable Log of all Communication and Knowledge”.

From Slack’s site —

“Email isolates information — you can only see the conversations you’ve been included on.”.

This is particularly a problem in AEC with the sheer amount of stakeholders involved.

Slack allows you to have that information indexable, searchable, trackable and allows you to organize asynchronous communications independent of a singular closed silo. In a similar way we are building a tool to contain the entire history of a project — markups, comments, sketches…all the work that happens on the periphery while designing a building.

🙋 Usability

Usability should be table stakes. Tools that aren’t designed with the user’s workflow in mind and tools with “knobs and buttons” functionality over usability will be left in the dust in this new age of design tools.

People don’t go on two week courses to learn how to use complex tools like the iPhone. Yet the tools available in the AEC industry are so unintuitive that firms burn huge sums of money training employees on how to use these programs.

What’s NOT table stakes?

Now that we’ve covered the bare minimums, we can talk about some of the things that Arcol brings to the party.

Here’s what we view as new and innovative:

✏️️ Sketch based modelling

Sketching, drawing and editing should be as intuitive as possible. This is the lowest level form of interaction we have in CAD — yet these tools really haven’t been innovated upon much in the last 20 years.

We believe that it shouldn’t take you an hour and a half to create a window component with a curved top. We had a thought: rather than having to edit a family in another window in some other editor, what if you could simply make changes to a sketch of the window to add the curve?

In Arcol you can do just that. Every 3d component is built from an underlying 2d sketch. You can easily access the base sketch, make changes directly in the model, and then save your changes to have them cascade to the 3d representation.

🚪 Better defaults

As a designer you should not be forced to work with poorly created Revit families. Tools should give a set of defaults that allow you to hit the ground running. It should be easy to change and adapt these defaults to suit your needs (i.e changing brass door hardware to be brushed aluminum should be lightning fast).

For situations where you need to create something from scratch, you should be able to work in an infinite canvas (map material ideas, 2D sketches and 3D models) and then use sketch-based modeling to quickly and effectively create your components (families).

🎨 Infinite canvas

Design tools today force you into a small area of the screen to be creative. Locking you into a confined corner of the digital realm, given a pencil and told to create something amazing. This is broken. Designers should be able to think and work in an infinite space.

Both 3D modeling and 2D documentation have the chance to be creative and productive environments. What if these workflows weren’t as fragmented as they are today — what if you could storyboard your elevations, plans, and sections, and enter the 3d view for each with ease? This is one of the innovations we’re most excited about, as it will change the way we think about organizing information within the design process.

These are just some of the ways that we are applying first principles thinking to improve and change the current design workflow in AEC.

AEC is one of the oldest industries known to man, we have built things since man first needed shelter. Since then we have built up a series of workflows and processes, I think it’s time that we start to question some of them.

Once you delve deep into some of these processes, the answer as to “why is this the way we do it”, a lot of the time is just “that’s how we’ve always done it”. That’s a problem.

We approach building product through the “5 Why’s” (I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post). We have the opportunity here to re-think the building design process through first principles and logic. This is how we should be building products in AEC, not through tech-debt and profits.

Change is coming and it’s coming fast.

If this all seemed really cool, here’s how you can get involved. We’re currently hiring for a bunch of great early roles! Also, if you want to give Arcol a whirl or kick the tires then sign up to our waitlist — Join over 7,000 people and help us make Arcol amazing. You can also follow us on Twitter or Linkedin!

Cheers,

Arcol Squad

Thanks to Daniel, Michael, Mike, John, Kat and Ryan for helping to edit!

Also, I want to really thank *Irish accent* me da, Gerry. Without you pursuing the career you love and involving me, I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t have the appreciation for the built world that I do. Thank you, I love you!

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