William Duff Architects: Firm Profile

What is the history and background of the firm?

William Duff founded William Duff Architects in 1998 with the complementary goals of creating innovative architecture that makes the world a better place and cultivating an environment that promotes learning and growth. From the very beginning of the practice, technology has played a key role. We’ve developed a culture that supports the adoption of new technologies more readily and more easily because we’re very open to the new ideas and contributions of our staff at all levels. Often, it’s our youngest staff — the newest into the profession — who have the most cutting-edge understanding of what technologies are available. We give them an active role in engaging and promoting and adopting new technology.

What is the firm’s current focus? What are the key projects you are working on?

We have three studios — Residential, Commercial and Retail — in which we do residential, restaurant, retail and hospitality work (Figure 1). We’re working with companies that are utilizing technology in different ways as well. Some of our clients in the food and beverage sector are implementing robotics for food processing and creation, and new technologies for ghost kitchen concepts. We’re also working on several high-end residential projects where virtual reality has been very useful in helping the clients understand and visualize the project.

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today? 

Since William founded the firm, he’s looked for ways to utilize AEC technology to enhance how we deliver our services. We were one of the very early adopters of Revit, and in 2010 we committed to it entirely (Figure 2). Over time we’ve kept up with the latest technology by continuously experimenting and collaborating with industry colleagues, as well as sharing successes and best practices. This open communication combined with a growth mindset towards better ways to solve problems and identify pain points in our processes has led us to multiple technology solutions.

When recently designing our new office, we paired Revit with Enscape, which is a live rendering software (Figure 3). “William viewed the model through an Oculus headset, giving him a life-like sense of the space,” Job Captain Michelle Chen notes. “If he had any changes, the team could easily update the model in Revit, allowing the changes to be viewed in real-time through Enscape.”

“We’ve since shifted towards creating fixed viewpoints with 360 views to mitigate the risk of clients getting stuck or floating outside the model and getting lost,” adds Designer Matthew Ahearn. “Enscape offers an export setting that creates a QR code for these fixed views. You can also attach a floorplan to the view showing clients exactly where they are in the model. This adds a bit more clarity and consistency to the presentation.”

Since the pandemic started, we’ve adopted several newer technologies to help us communicate with each other and our clients. One specific tool is our 360-degree camera which has allowed us to be more efficient with our site visits for construction administration (Figure 4). Due to social distancing, only a few visitors are often allowed to be on a job site at once. The camera enables us to document the site from all angles and have that as a resource to share upon returning to the office. To coordinate with contractors, we also use Matterport and Open Space, which both capture jobsite information in 3D (Figure 5).

From a design perspective, due to shelter-in-place, it became evident very quickly that we needed some way to virtually pin-up. We adopted Miro as our digital whiteboard (Figure 6). It’s very intuitive, and it offers enough graphic options so that everyone can stylize how they are presenting. Miro mimics many of the benefits of the in person “pin-up” review sessions in a digital environment. As William notes, “My role is to provide design critique on the development of our projects and feedback. Instead of needing our team to click through slide-by-slide of everything we’re going through, I can zoom out in Miro and see it dynamically, allowing me to respond to the totality of the project as opposed to the individual images.”

We also use Bluebeam, a PDF editing tool that’s customized to the AEC industry, for all our group mark-ups on project sets, red lines, and the development and review process (Figure 7). The pandemic really accelerated our use and adoption of the program. Our fluency in Bluebeam was very beneficial when local jurisdictional agencies began to also adopt it as a means of reviewing plan-check documents.

Some of our very large clients all have their own technology that they’ve adopted, so we have to be adept at working with many different kinds of systems. One might use Procore for tracking project information, one might use Smartsheets, one might use something else.

What is the firm’s approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology?

As our firm grew, we developed a way to bring in more perspectives on how technology could inform our practice. We created a Strategic Initiative (SI) group around technology to help source and implement new ideas. This group grows and evolves over time and can continuously include new members of the firm. It provides an opportunity for people who have an interest in technology or an aptitude to contribute in a larger way than they would otherwise be able to.

We’re also planning to add an IT/BIM Manager once our firm reaches a certain size. This hire would be a key member of our SI group, not take the place of it. We don’t ever want to close ourselves off to new ideas and new ways of thinking. William notes, “Some of the most innovative ideas often sound difficult to implement. I’ll make sure we never close ourselves off to that, and never resort to conventional thinking. We should always be embracing change.” 

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

A key challenge is a question of industry-wide adoption and resources. We work with an array of contractors in size and some of the smaller groups might be using older technology or none at all. Before spending a lot of time and resources educating our staff on technology tools, we must question whether the tech is being universally adopted.

Longevity, especially with emerging technologies, is another concern. There’s always the risk that products don’t get used long-term, and then you are left with tools that aren’t being utilized.

Another challenge is the automation paradox. Whether it’s BIM or the construction process, more and more operations are becoming automated. Our responsibility has shifted from manually completing tasks to monitoring the automated results. If users rely on the tools to solve any resulting clashes and skip the monitoring step, surprise outcomes can arise.

How does the firm see AEC technology evolving in the future?

We’ve been using virtual reality for quite some time, and more recently adopted augmented reality to our tool kit. In terms of hardware, it can be as simple as a camera, drone or in some cases point cloud imaging where laser pointers create a digital image of the entire area. With augmented reality, you’re able to plug-in a variety of real-time imagery as well. So, within your model you can navigate between what is supposed to be built and what is there currently, allowing you to see the difference between the two from a progress standpoint and a clash detection or construction error perspective.

A more commonly used technology tool is cloud based end-to-end project tracking. Coming from the construction industry, Procore software is a version we’ve been using for a long time (Figure 8). It manages multiple documents such as photos, drawings, documents, submittals, specifications, and it sends out automated emails. Everyone on the job has access to the platform allowing them to get real time data on any project information. It takes some of the guesswork out of who has what and who we are waiting on for a decision.

Currently we are integrating a software called Sefaira into our framework (Figure 9). It plugs into Revit and runs an energy analysis on our building models. This is an important tool as the industry pushes towards some aggressive goals for energy reductions. And utilizing Sefaira in the early design process is a powerful way to make highly informed decisions, saving clients money in the short and long-term.

If the firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

Dustin Foster, our technology SI group leader, notes, “There’s such a rapid rate of new tools being released each year. Some have staying power, and others don’t. It’s challenging to invest time and resources into these tools without the guarantee they will stick around. My grand wish is minimized risk for trying all these tools.”

Dustin would also appreciate a more interactive interface between BIM software and the products we’re plugging into our models. For example, we might be considering two or three different door and window manufacturers on a residential project. “It would be so nice to be able to plug all three of these choices into the 3D model environment with a direct client selection interface with multiple options to select from,” Dustin explains. “Having this direct interface with vendors could be a really powerful tool for all parties including vendors, clients and designers.”

Are there any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology from the firm that you would like to share?

As our firm increases in size, it is more important to have structure and systems that can scale to help us operate efficiently. “Getting bigger can sometimes create an impediment to being nimble and adopting new technologies,” William notes. “So, it’s extra important for us to find ways to make sure we stay continuously open to new ideas. There’s a common saying in the business world, “When the rate of change outside your organization exceeds the rate of change inside your organization that’s the day the organization begins to die.” We’re committed to continuing to adopt new ideas, to be a leader in change and to utilize the technologies that can help enhance and uplift our processes and most importantly our product — what we design.”

Acknowledgements: This profile was written by Wendy Osaki with input from Matthew Ahearn, Michelle Chen, Brenna Daugherty, Dustin Foster, Sarah Mergy and William Duff, AIA, LEED AP of William Duff Architects. Many thanks to them, as well as to Emilie Kress and Erin Cullerton of Design Agency Co for facilitating this profile.


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