Design Software Costs: The Price of Doing Business?

image: Digital Production Middle East
image:  Digital Production Middle East

In an era where computers were created to make our daily tasks more efficient and improve our quality of life, the constant increase in software costs are starting to add back to that once relieved stress. After my previous blog, “The Emerging Role of Millennials,” many of the responses I received were riddled with commentary on the cost of software and how not every firm can afford the luxury of having a multitude of drafting or visualization suites at their disposal. While it’s obvious that it is a necessity in 2015 to have software capable of documentation to successfully deliver a project, the cost of such software is becoming a point of contention with design fees going down and the cost of doing business going up.

OUR DEPENDENCY ON SOFTWARE: Who owns who?
The inspiration to write this article came from a conversation I had on a return flight from a business trip a little over a year ago.  Serendipitous as it may be, I was seated next to a representative of a very large architectural software company. After telling him that I was a landscape architect and fairly technologically savvy, he proceeded to show me some of his company’s new software that was still in development on his tablet. He stated that the company was suffering, having “the most pirated software in the world,” and that everything they were working toward would be subscription and cloud based. This was the first time I had thought about the concept, but it all made sense, until I realized recently what the cost ramifications would be. Knowing that their product is a necessity to the success of so many firms, they can do what they want at nearly any cost. Of course software companies are businesses too and need to make their money, but the line between a healthy profit and greed may becoming blurred.

Funny as it may be, one of the most joyous reactions I’ve seen lately came from a student at the University of Massachusetts whose eyes lit up when I handed them a list of software they could download and use free with a student email. What so many software companies are doing with student licenses (likely knowing that their software will be pirated anyway) is both a great service for broke college kids, and a brilliant marketing tactic to ensure the success of their product. This also results in the expectation that students will know how to do more than current practicing landscape architects, and in turn, increasing the need for the purchasing of software at that firm in which they are hired. That is, providing the firm they gain employment can afford the software on top of what is already used.

SOFTWARE BUDGETS: Size Matters!
When asked, “Do you feel that software costs prevent you from creating better documentation, analysis, or renderings,” the 2015 ASLA Digital Technology survey yielded some interesting results. At nearly a perfect 50/50 split, half said “Yes” and the other half said “No”. What makes this interesting is that  this result is likely directly tied to the firm size of the respondents – with the same 50/50 split, 50% at a firm with 10 or less employees, and 50% at a firm with 11 or more.

On top of that, most of the respondents were production level employees and likely aren’t involved in the decision making on software budgets. With that said, it’s easier for a larger firm with multiple projects to absorb the high costs of software, and much harder for smaller shops to justify. In an industry that is beginning to produce renderings of a quality on par with those produced by movie and video game studios, the increased cost of the 3D visualization software may start to hinder innovation that ultimately elevates our profession and gives us recognition.

THE FUTURE: Perpetual vs. Subscription Based Software
In the past, purchasing software was just that, a purchase.  With a traditional perpetual license, you pay your money, you get the software and install it, you work your face off with it for 3-4 years until it’s obsolete, and then repeat the process. The option of a yearly maintenance cost can typically be added to gain technical support and software upgrades until the company deems it fit to discontinue the software.

Here is the big catch – the new approach that many software companies are going toward is something called an annual subscription.  This at first glance seems to make sense when you see the lower cost of the software and the flexible monthly or annual payments, but when you look deeper, that flexibility comes at a much greater cost.

To help show the numbers, below is a generic (but quite accurate) cost model. For example, if you have five employees that use drafting software on a daily basis, this is how the cost would break down over a five year period using the two different purchase methods.

image: Ryan Deane
image: Ryan Deane

Sadly, the increase in software costs can only hurt our profession. Firms who may once have had dreams of purchasing new tools to help them win projects or wow clients may be left reallocating their budget to maintain the software they currently own. Rendering software may become a luxury that can only be justified by large firms with dedicated 3D studios full of production interns, while smaller companies increase outsourcing visualizations to foreign lands.

Only time will tell if the increased costs and subscription approach will succeed. There is certain to be industry wide pushback on how the tools we use on a daily basis are purchased. Hollywood always seems to portray architects as millionaire playboys…Who knows, the next blockbuster may come back to reality and have us investing in software instead of a Porsche…

by Ryan Deane, ASLA, Digital Technology PPN Chair

3 thoughts on “Design Software Costs: The Price of Doing Business?

  1. Tom Baugh May 7, 2015 / 2:56 pm

    I’m a wetlands ecologist and sometimes do site restoration work. I’m looking for a low-end (inexpensive) software package that has the capacity to help me better communicate visually with others who are involved with a project. Can you recommend anything?

  2. Cheryl Corson May 7, 2015 / 3:38 pm

    Very timely article since I’ve spent the past week recovering from a hard drive crash. I’m a one woman firm that utilizes sub-contractors as needed. I’m very tech savvy, using Vectorworks Landmark with extensive 3D modelling, and have migrated to cloud based software for my accounting (QuickBooks Online), webinars (GoToWebinar, Vimeo Pro), backups (Carbonite), security (Norton360), and now, as a result of this crash in which I lost no data, my contact management software will now be cloud based (Act!). All these have monthly or annual fees. Even Adobe Acrobat has joined the bandwagon with a basic monthly fee of $15. That’s where I drew the line for now. So if you add up my monthly fees, not including website hosting and the like (PayPal fees, etc.) it’s a fair amount. I woke up this morning thinking of the film 2001: A Space Oddessy” and that HAL the computer had won. But I’ve drunk the Kool Aid on 3D modelling. I don’t think of it as design plus production. I design in 3D, looking at sun and shade studies, adjusting elements and proportions. I don’t use it to render my 2D work. I think the ship has sailed on the subscription based software issue. It’s the new reality that we must build into our fees. This means that schematic design fees must go up while CD fees will probably go down. Others’ comments will be interesting to read!

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