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CLIFTON HARNESS GOT IN THE BUSINESS OF ARCHITECTURE because he believed that apartment buildings shouldn’t be so darn ugly. However, his route to helping add beauty to cities is particularly odd—he ditched standard architectural practice and became a software startup founder instead for commodity architecture.
In case you are an architect reading this, don’t take this snub to practice too personally. In a recent hour-long interview, Harness made his case quite eloquently. More than that, he genuinely seems to care. So how does he intend to make architecture and cities more beautiful?
To get to that, we should probably start at the beginning.
From Developer Father to Better Architecture
“My dad’s a real estate developer here in Texas,” says Harness, “and I decided to go to architecture school because I didn’t really like the kind of buildings that he built.” Harness went on to describe what he saw was wrong with the apartments that his father was developing. Needless to say, he didn’t find the answer to the core problem that confounded him at architecture school, even a great school like the University of Texas at Austin.
I would come home from architecture school armed with the latest and greatest ideas and would ask my dad, ‘why can’t we have better buildings?
“I would come home from architecture school armed with the latest and greatest ideas and would ask my dad, ‘why can’t we have better buildings?'” says Harness. His father would then explain why in terms and language unfamiliar with the terms and language of architecture school. “It was a real struggle to reconcile the difference between architectural altruism taught in academia and the cold hard reality of real-life real estate development that my dad had instilled in me from a young age.”
So when Harness graduated from architecture school, he went to go work for a new urbanist apartment developer. “I decided to work for a high-density real estate developer to try to understand it better,” he says. He joined Street Lights Residential in Dallas and was put to work on developing site plan studies or what he referred to as “test fits” for real estate deals.
Test Fits the Hard Way
Joining the development company in 2015, Harness did test fits more or less full-time for two years before starting his software company. “When I joined, everybody was drawing site plans on trace paper to scale,” he says, “adding up things manually.” He was disheartened by the speed of the process.
“Our finance team would generate their proforma in five minutes and know what they needed to know. The construction team could make their quantity take-offs and get construction numbers back in a couple of days. But on the architecture side, it would take us a couple of weeks to get an iteration done and the developer team to run their proforma on it and get a hard cost assessment. So we were always the choke point when we were looking at deals,” says Harness.
Harness says this pressure of being the slowest part of the process shook him to find a solution to speed things up. He went to the company’s CEO to develop software to automate the site plan test fits he was doing. The CEO was encouraging but said they were a real estate company and didn’t develop software. However, the CEO told him he should do it on the side.
The Easier Way — TestFit.io
Working nights and weekends with software development co-founder Ryan Griege, Harness launched TestFit.io. His process to automate his work first began with AutoCAD, using Lisp routines and blocks. “My tech stack, or what they allowed me to use, was AutoCAD,” he says. Recall that another design staff was doing things on trace paper to scale, and this in the year 2015!
But on the architecture side, it would take us a couple of weeks to get an iteration done and the developer team to run their proforma on it and get a hard cost assessment. So we were always the choke point when we were looking at deals.
“I was really effective,” he adds. “In the beginning, it was taking me two weeks to do a test fit. Near the end of the process, it would take me less than four hours.” But Harness knew a dedicated software system was what was needed. He and his co-founder Ryan Griege began developing what TestFit.io has become today, a desktop app written in the C language.
It was essential to Harness that TestFit would produce instantaneous real-time feedback. “I wanted to keep pace with the designer’s brain,” he says. Another aspect that sets TestFit.io apart from rival solutions like Spacemaker.ai is that TestFit.io only generates one editable solution, not dozens that architects and development professionals then have to sort through.
“Honestly, we felt like those types of systems are wrong. Designers are really intelligent, and if you are going to dumb down their experience with software to filtering solutions, you are not going to have much buy-in,” he says. “And you are also not getting the benefit of their years of experience at the helm of the software.” TestFit.io’s customers told them early that they didn’t want millions of options but one option they could edit.
TestFit.io enables architects and development professionals to run building simulations against multiple parameters, including all geometry at the site, building typology optioneering (wrap, donut, hotel, podium, etc.), selection mix of unit types, parking configurators, shadow analysis, and all within a geolocated and 3D contextual model.
The user analyzes potential development possibilities on real sites with their actual zoning data, and TestFit.io can test various scenarios against zoning for instant pass/fail analysis. Harness has also released a workflow he calls Deal Information Modeling (DIM) that generates real-time financial analytics. That product is embedded into TestFit.io.
Throughout 2020, TestFit.io has grown in features. It announced in late March of 2020 that it had raised a USD 2 million seed round. Specific tools for hotels and modular buildings were released in May. Then TestFit.io released a beta version for office design followed by low-density housing. Now its latest release allows for direct 3D model editing. An impressive feature in this newest release is support for establishing multiple setbacks for different building heights. The user can even establish this setback process working with a specific setback plane angled in 3D.
As TestFit.io evolves with support for more building types, branching out beyond multi-family housing & hotels into low-density housing and other types, one key aspect to point out is the role the user plays in working with TestFit.io. The user has to work. “It’s a bit of a misconception,” says Harness. “I think people think they are going to plug in all the inputs, and the system is going to give them all the answers. You have to work a little bit.”
Architecture Needs a Better UX
One of the core problems that companies like TestFit or its rivals all face together is getting architects to think outside the box a bit more about their processes. Traditionally, many architects have done “test fit” like work or feasibility studies for low (or no!) fees hoping they will get the larger commission to design the building and recoup their loss on the feasibility studies. Harness says they should think more like lawyers and value their time better, but they need tools like TestFit.io, and they need to reframe their activities.
“It’s impressive when you can roll out trace paper and generate a vision in front of a client,” says Harness. “It’s even more impressive when you can give the developer the data they need to do their job as effectively as they can.”
It’s impressive when you can roll out a trace paper and generate a vision in front of a client. It’s even more impressive when you can give the developer the data they need to do their job as effectively as they can.
Harness encourages many of his architect customers to do “real-time deal prototyping” with developers in Zoom meetings. “If I’m sitting there with a developer working in real-time, I can hear what they want, I can hear what they are thinking, and I can understand their investment in the project right from the get-go,” he says, adding. “They are much more invested in the process when done this way versus just drawing up site plan options and sending them to them via email.” Developers can instantly see their core financial metrics like yield-on-cost and net rentable change in real-time based on the design.
“It’s simply a better user experience,” he says. “Architecture [services] needs a better user experience.”
Whether architecture needs a better user experience from the client’s view isn’t really the issue at hand. The more significant problem is how the profession of architecture will adapt to a constellation of related technologies destined to disrupt and reshape the building industry from the single-family home up to the development and management of cities.
TestFit.io sits within this large constellation of related tools. And TestFit.io fundamentally is a “disruptive technology,” regardless of whether Harness calls it “co-creation” or not.
Disruptive technologies are any technology that will eventually change the “common-sense way of doing things,” as technology economic historian Carlota Perez discusses. That is never an easy task and usually requires the replacement of an entire generation of management.
Autodesk has done a great job of educating the market about the idea of generative design for years; we are simply the first ones to execute on that promise for commodity buildings within the United States by focusing on its practical applications.
But TestFit’s strength may be its accessible price and its licensing model. Asking architects and developers alike to modify their standard ways of doing this is always challenging, but it gets easier when you reduce the risks involved. TestFit.io is an order of magnitude cheaper than competitors, and you can discount that with an annual license. Furthermore, some smaller architects acquire it for just a month or two. Harness says, “I’m okay with that because I’m getting their buy-in. At least they are buying into this new type of system.”
Recall that when Autodesk purchased Revit, they ultimately bundled it with AutoCAD so that architects could explore the move to BIM with much diminished financial risk. The lower price than rivals matters, and so does interop with other architect’s workflow segments.
Harness says they have spent a good amount of time with their Dynamo nodes, which are utilized to take finished TestFit’s to Revit for further development. “The big firms are more the customers using Dynamo,” he adds. “Building a BIM model is way more complicated than people think, so it’s not simply exporting a Revit file.”
As it turns out, SketchUp is the export that is more widely used. “And that is because Revit is really a more documentation tool where SketchUp is more a design tool,” says Harness.
As a design tool—or a pre-design tool as some may see it—TestFit.io appears to have a promising future by staking its ground within the larger group of pre-design phase or decision-support software tools taking hold with a disruptive AEC market. And TestFit—while likely seen as a competitor due to the Spacemaker.ai acquisition—has an ally of sorts in Autodesk because the software giant is slowly educating architects on computational design virtues. And that can only help by widening the addressable market for tools like TestFit.io.
“Autodesk has done a great job educating the market about the idea of generative design for years; we are simply the first ones to execute on that promise for commodity buildings within the United States by focusing on its practical application,” says Harness.
Whether this ultimately leads to better apartment buildings and better architecture is a wait-and-see case. But one thing is more apparent now, tools like TestFit.io enhance value delivery to real estate and development professionals for commodity architecture. And hopefully, that frees up time for architects to make sure buildings are a bit more beautiful.