DNM Architecture: Firm Profile

What is the history and background of the firm?

I founded DNM Architecture in San Francisco in 1999. Prior to founding the firm, I spent about 12 years in the architectural software space working as a director of Abvent SA in Paris, and then president of Graphisoft US, Inc. in San Francisco, and eventually as vice-president of marketing communications for Graphisoft. Prior to my time in the AEC industry, I was a licensed architect in Atlanta, GA, working for Taylor + Williams Architects.

My time away from architecture was an accident, really, created by an opportunity I had to join a software company in Paris. It allowed me to take part in the formulative years of CAD development on the first desktop computers and meet fellow architects on five continents. It also provided me with the financial stability to ultimately LEAVE the AEC industry and rejoin the ranks of architects, but now infused with AEC and general business experience that continues to guide my practice.

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

The firm focuses on residential architecture — particularly new homes, addition/remodels, small-scale multi-family buildings, and ADUs (accessory dwelling units). Most of our work is in the Bay Area, where our core business of new homes and addition/remodels is supplemented by small multi-unit buildings, including a 6-story apartment building in Berkeley, but we have worked on projects throughout California, as well as Tahoe and Colorado. While we have focused on residential architecture, we have also completed a variety of other project types including education, retail, and offices.

We have worked on 300+ projects over the last 25 years, and every one of them, large or very small, incorporates BIM (Building Information Modeling). In addition to our “traditional” projects, our newly launched partnership with Wellmade panelized ADUs includes product development and the full permitting process for ADUs in California (Figure 2). Most recently, we have expanded to the Palm Springs area to offer custom home architectural services throughout Southern California.

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

Given my background in the AEC technology industry, and specifically with ArchiCAD, there was never a moment that we did not employ AEC tools. A founding principle of the firm is that a client's project is "built" on a computer before it is built in reality. We use ArchiCAD today from initial concept development to final construction drawings (Figure 3). We are never not working in 3D and sharing our progress through BIMx files, renderings, and PDF (Figure 4).

We are an eight-person firm and manage about 35-40 active projects in various stages at any time. We’ve long embraced the idea of cloud-based teamwork and working together on a common file (using ArchiCAD for Teamwork). We were a hybrid office long before the pandemic with workers as far away as Armenia, Hungary, and Mexico. When the pandemic hit, it fast-tracked several communication tools into our practice, which helped us streamline our hybrid office even more; it greatly increased our ability to serve clients and work more efficiently. For example, when meeting with clients through Zoom, we can share our ArchiCAD model on screen and collaborate in real time, creating a dramatic increase in efficiency on our side and for our clients (Figure 5).

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

BIM (using ArchiCAD in our case) is now the language of architectural design, not paper sketches or 2D linework. DNM Architecture stays on the cutting edge of design and building technology, and all of the work we do is expressed through this medium of 3D parametric modeling; every project is immersed in it from start to finish. Other technologies, such as word processing, spreadsheets, accounting, and high-end renderings are also critical to the business, of course, but they do not define the building. We are an ArchiCAD-centric practice.

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

The biggest challenge I have found with AEC technology is best relayed in an analogy: English has about 170,000 words. Imagine that you are tasked with writing a book for English, but your language only contains 20 or 30,000 words. You could probably do it and get most of your ideas through, but there would be awkward workarounds and ideas that just could not be expressed properly, and some ideas might even just die out due to the inability to properly define them.

AEC technology is like a large, but still incomplete, language. It has to grow to become more comprehensive and seamlessly assist architects and engineers through their projects from start to finish (and beyond). Despite aggressive development, there are gaps in most software’s abilities to represent complex shapes and assemblies, hand-off models to — and receive models from — other disciplines or incorporate work from other fields into a design. AI will certainly be a big part of the solution to these shortcomings, while I am sure it will open new challenges as well.

How do you see AEC technology evolving in the future?

I think "evolve" is the right term.

There is no question that BIM is here to stay, but the tools must become better and more comprehensive. AEC technology development should continue to focus on three — sometimes conflicting — trajectories: power, accessibility, and ubiquity.

- More powerful tools are needed so that the designer's imagination is not bridled by limitations in software. An architect shouldn’t have to toss an idea aside because they can’t get on screen what they can see in their head or could draw in freehand. This is a great place where AI could come in and help designers complete their vision without making the program larger and more complicated to use (Figure 6).

- At the same time, improvements in interface design must ensure that everyone shares the same tools. Software should be easy to understand across all regions and levels of proficiency. We don’t need or want a pool of CAD stenographers transcribing the designer's vision.

- Finally, to really be impactful, the 3D model must be ubiquitous and transportable across multiple software platforms and for multiple purposes. Right now, architects might use ArchiCAD or Revit, engineers another program, builders yet another, product designers another. It’s essential because each profession has very specific needs, but the BIM file must be as transportable as possible across all disciplines. Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) are the closest solution today for this transportable file format, but it requires a consensus on standards among developers, manufacturers, agencies, and other stakeholders who are often competitors as well as collaborators.

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

Same as above. My wish list for AEC technology improvements is short, but daunting: be more powerful, accessible, and ubiquitous. Become more powerful without being more complicated … and become more portable!

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

In architecture, the advancement of technology and software has become an essential tool in bringing a building to life … often with greater ease and efficiency. More than the typical small firm we are deeply committed CAD users. It has been a pillar of our business since the start.

I tend to accept people as they see themselves, assume they know more or less what is best for them, and do what little I can to help them along their way. As a “humanist architect” (as opposed to a humorist-architect, which is just a hobby) my work is less concerned with adherence to a given style, advancing a school of architecture, or defending an idiom. It is mainly concerned with facilitating people as they navigate their environment and use buildings for whatever purposes they are suited.

If there is a consistent thread to our work during almost 25 years of practice and hundreds of projects, it is that we have placed the practical needs of clients and their communities first. We conceive of the floorplan as a diagram for living and try to anticipate how the building will live over time. The house is an extension of its users; through organization of spaces and myriad other design decisions, it anticipates and facilitates movement and delivers emotions that are needed — coziness, security, elation, energy, aspiration, and more.

We work to build, and our clients hire us to get that done for them. As a team, we make their dreams manifest. Often the buildings include ambiguities, some unresolved details, and some placeholders for potential change. There can be something like a symbiosis between spaces and the people who occupy them. We try to build those opportunities.

BIM software and technology allows us to create these spaces, fulfill those dreams, and achieve our goals. After the project is complete and the architect and contractor have moved on, our greatest goal is that a client experiences their building over time and feels: “this is me.”


Many thanks to Ken Shallcross of MA+DS Media facilitating this profile.

About the Author

David Marlatt graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1982 with an M.ARCH and began practicing in Atlanta with Taylor+Williams Architects where his houses and multi-family projects won national awards and publication. He worked in the CAD/BIM software industry for several years, including at Graphisoft where he served as President of Graphisoft’s US office and later as International VP of Marketing and Communications, before returning to architectural practice in 1999 to form DNM Architecture.


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