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Reducing complexity and boosting creativity with Excel

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Architects have the unique challenge of balancing creativity and business needs to create something beautiful—and profitable. While the profession is known for vision and creativity, bringing a building to life also requires extensive planning and coordination. The assembly, tracking and accounting of nuts, bolts, beams and every other material needed—can make or break a project.

Tools that ease project planning and let architects and staff focus on the creative work are essential. Ian Butcher, owner of the small architectural firm Best Practice Architecture and Design, knows this well.

For Ian, becoming an architect was a near-lifelong dream. Naturally, it was the artistic side and not the business side of the profession that captivated him. “I grew up in the suburbs. All I knew were suburban houses and strip malls. But in 8th grade we went on a field trip to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Our group was so large that we entered through the freight elevator. When the elevator door opened, I saw the museum building in front of me and I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve never seen anything like this.’ That was the moment I decided I wanted to be an architect.”

From offices to art studios, Best Practice keeps busy creating unique design.

Ian went to design school, became an architect and now owns and manages his own firm. “My biggest concern is how to pull off awesome projects,” he says. “Each time we start a new project I wonder, ‘Can we really do this?’ Creating good design is not the hardest part. The hardest part is overcoming challenges like budget, agreement with the client and coordination with contractors and vendors.”

Tracking materials

Project planning has become increasingly important as Ian’s practice has grown. From kitchen remodels, to office design projects, to multi-family housing design—the pencils in his office are busily sketching. Just as important, budgets must pencil out and projects must stay on track.

Ian and his team rely on Microsoft Excel to plan and track costs for each project. They create materials and fixture schedules in Excel—lengthy, detailed lists of the items needed, and associated costs—for each building project. From drywall, to light fixtures, to flooring, windows, doors and much more—he tracks all of it in Excel. “Excel makes tracking materials, costs and income easy. It even gives me a nerdy rush when I get calculations to reconcile accurately,” Ian laughs.

One of Ian’s favorite Excel features is the IF function. “I use it to make window and door schedules. I create a column for ‘orientation’ in my list of doors so I can choose N, S, E or W. This lets me instantly calculate the number of doors at each orientation.” Using this feature, Ian can reconcile his materials list with the actual drawing, and minimize costly errors of purchasing the wrong type or amount of materials.

Comparing construction estimates

His firm also receives construction cost estimates from multiple contractors for each project. Ian uses Excel to manage and compare these estimates because, he explains, “Each estimate we receive is formatted and categorized differently. To create an apples-to-apples comparison, we import all of them into Excel.” Ian groups like items together—cabinets, bathroom fixtures, appliances and so on—to get an accurate cost comparison breakdown.

Materials and fixtures schedule in Excel.

Managing labor costs and projected income

Ian also uses Excel to track labor costs and determine a fee structure for each project. “It’s tough to know exactly how a project will go. There are stops and starts,” Ian says. “With Excel, we can create a fee schedule and link it to a monthly billing amount to gauge our expected income over the life of a project and plan accordingly.”

This insight helps immensely with the firm’s overall budget planning to keep the business running smoothly and staff focused on great design. “Excel is a good tool to formulate and analyze our projected income and then use it to make hiring decisions,” Ian says.

Using Excel to balance creativity and practicality in projects

The name of Ian’s firm, Best Practice Architecture and Design, reflects his belief in quality design and not taking shortcuts. The same holds true for the business end of things, and the need to make good decisions, daily. “In the end, the responsibility lies on me,” says Ian.

Tools like Excel, for planning and calculations, are critical. Ian thinks he’s only seen the tip of the iceberg of what Excel can do for the business. He’s intrigued by new features like Tell me…, which saves time by quickly getting him to the feature or action he wants to perform. He also sees value in the ability to view historical versions of files. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally saved over the original file.”

Excel helps Ian accomplish the architect’s balance of creativity and practical business acumen. This balance of vision and planning can be key to any project—whether in business or elsewhere. Tools like Excel that help automate and streamline organization and calculations make more room for success. And there’s one more concept Ian adds to the architect’s equation, which seems apt for any business endeavor or project: “Have no fear. You just have to go for it.”

 

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2 comments
  1. It would be helpful if we were shown an example of and Excel sheet that Ian uses. Telling us what he does isn’t quite enough.

  2. I agree with Brad Norman. I opened the email thread to see some Excel examples. With the lacking of these examples in the video or write-up, this article did not do anything for me.

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