Natoma Architects
Award-winning San Francisco based architecture firm
San Francisco, CA
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Eric with Charles Green, a project manager at Natoma
Natoma is an architecture firm lead by architect Stanley Saitowitz. Based in San Francisco, the firm specializes in multifamily housing and cultural projects but has ongoing projects in other verticals. We talked to Charles Green, a Project Manager at the firm, about the software they use to facilitate the design process.
architects on staff
ongoing projects
Software used
3D modeling software
Rhino is a powerful, full-featured 3D modeling software. We thought of it as Photoshop for 3D modeling. Like most architectural firms, Natoma uses Rhino as their primary digital canvas. Designers also use plugins like Grasshopper (automates duplication of architectural components) and V-Ray (renders designs at different levels of fidelity). Rhino is not specific to the architectural industry, however, as designers will use it for a wide variety of 3D projects.
High-fidelity visualization
Using Photoshop, architects merge photo-realistic renderings of their building designs with photographs of the site to help clients and stakeholders visualize the final product. This is especially helpful in preparing highly visual final presentations and summaries.
Revit by Autodesk
Building information modeling
Revit is a software for Building Information Modeling (BIM). It allows an architecture firm like Natoma to create a model and be very specific about the materials and components that will be used in construction. Natoma uses Autodesk products like Revit to translate their designs into a building spec for contractors.
Autocad by Autodesk
Building information modeling
Autocad is another 3D software that is sometimes used in the modeling process. Natoma might use Autocad to create a 3D spec for construction contractors.
3D printing
Preform is a software offered by FormLabs, a company that sells a 3D printer. Using Preform, designers can connect to the Form 2 desktop printer to produce resin models of their buildings. These models are showcased to the stakeholders in a project so they can visualize what the project may look like, on a smaller scale.
How do you discover new software to use at your firm?

Since architecture software is taught in university programs, Charles said the firm’s software choice is largely based on standard academic curriculum. Natoma considers new software based on the designs that interviewees and job candidates include in their application portfolios. If new hires can show that software unlocks new design capabilities, the firm would be open to trying it out.

What factors into your decisions for what software to choose?
Saitowitz, the firm’s principal architect and visionary, leads the design process and makes final decisions on anything that affects deliverables to clients. Architects are free to use the software they prefer, but produce their artifacts in common file formats.
We were surprised that so much for the building design and construction process is still done on paper. Charles explained that building information modeling is becoming more relevant in the industry and may, in the future, help catch errors and automate repetitive work. For now, Natoma prioritizes art over automation and prefers highly-flexible tools that bring design concepts to the forefront. Some possible areas for innovation that came to mind:

Cross-functional collaboration tools: Facilitate more and better feedback from the owner, architects, contractors, and engineers on the final design spec. Today, despite the complexity of the spec (a passive PDF that contains somewhere between 1 and 50 CAD files), collaboration and communication between happens over email.

In-context rendering: Today, to illustrate what the building will look like in context and how it will affect the nearby landscape., Natoma hires photographers to take photos of the surrounding area and uses Photoshop to merge the photos with high-fidelity renderings of the building designs. Software could help produce these visualizations by combining the building rendering with satellite imagery.

Distribution for architecture-specific software would most likely have to happen in schools. Architects don't usually Google the software that they need - instead they learn it while they are in school, and then in industry stick to the tools that they are most familiar with. Thus, creating a products that architecture students love and can carry into industry might be the best way for innovation in this sector.


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The many architectural models found in the Natoma office


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A 3D printed model of an upcoming project by the firm