Avatar of David BanysDavid Banys

Architectural Engineering Software is Coming Soon to a Browser Near You: Q&A with Paul O’Carroll of Arcol

Arcol is a collaborative software tool in the Architectural Engineering and Construction space.

Arcol is a collaborative software tool in the Architectural Engineering and Construction space.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Railway user Paul O’Carroll, Founder and CEO of Arcol, a real-time collaborative BIM (Building Information Modeling) tool in the AEC (Architectural Engineering and Construction) space.

If there’s one thing to know about the AEC space, it’s an industry filled with very large software companies offering legacy solutions that dominate the market. This makes the Arcol team’s challenge all the more exciting as they work to help AEC teams streamline the design of better buildings.

In practical terms, this means that Arcol is designing AEC software that is not only built for the web (rather than for desktop), but that is also multiplayer and highly performant. If Arcol succeeds they will meaningfully advance the state of the art in the modeling, design, and documentation of building construction.

How many software teams get to work on products that impact the physical world around us? That’s one reason we were so excited to talk to O’Carroll – we couldn’t wait to dive in and hear O’Carroll’s plans for Arcol.

Let’s get started!

Arcol allows users to work with complex geometry.

Arcol allows users to work with complex geometry.

Railway: What can you tell us about software use in the AEC space? Since this is an industry dominated by legacy vendors, does that make it  an intimidating space to start building a company from zero?

O’Carroll: The AEC software industry can definitely be defined as an outdated space. It’s one dominated by a handful of large companies with huge sales/marketing teams.

For me though, I flip that on its head. Are the huge multi-billion dollar companies that dominate this market continuing to deliver amazing products that delight users? Are they innovating on new and interesting products and services? Do users admire these companies? In AEC in particular, the answer is very clearly no.

So even if it’s a bit intimidating it’s also an incredible opportunity for companies like Arcol to re-think and re-build the core software tools that we use to design the built world.

Railway: What prompted you originally to think that there could be a business here? We’re always interested in a good company origin story and we have a feeling there’s a great story behind Arcol.

O’Carroll: I wrote about this exact topic in the Arcol Manifesto! The short version of it is that my father’s an architect and I grew up actively involved in the world of architecture.

What I realized early on is that if you work in any AEC office anywhere in the world, you will soon experience first hand some really bad tools that designers are forced to use. These tools are extremely legacy – they’re built for desktop computers. These tools need to be collaborative, based in the browser, and re-thought for the modern architect’s workflow.

After growing up around the AEC world, I would eventually go on to learn programming, build games, and then form a digital design studio where we worked with some of the largest companies in the world to build design tools for their internal teams.

It was there that I started hearing about the exact pain points that I’d personally experienced years earlier when working with AEC folks. My company started building tools to fix some of those problems internally for companies, but it became clear to me that there was a much larger opportunity to build a product in this space and  really challenge the incumbents at scale.

That’s the reason we started Arcol.

Similar to tools like Figma, Arcol makes it easy to edit geometries.

Similar to tools like Figma, Arcol makes it easy to edit geometries.

Railway: What are the enabling technologies that make Arcol possible? If we think about Figma for example, they famously played around with WebGL’s image processor in the early days and later adopted WebAssembly. What about Arcol?

O’Carroll: We are fortunate to be backed by some of Figma’s founding team and early investors including Dylan Field and John Lilly. It’s clear that in their case that they were not only riding the wave of moving applications into the browser, but were also actively pushing the boundaries of what was possible in the browser.

We’re arriving later than Figma, so in a sense they cleared the path for us.  But at the same time, what we’re doing is more ambitious than Figma. We have a specialized 3D engine capable of evaluating a complex graph of geometrical transformations like lofting, sweeping, and composite solid geometry (CSG) operations. It’s going to require a lot of effort to realize the kinds of capabilities that we have in mind for Arcol.

At Arcol, usage of WebAssembly and Web Workers is in an experimental stage at the moment, but they are both inevitable components of our final product. This is because we will need to handle large projects while maintaining an interactive frame rate.

As one example, every window involves a handful of geometry nodes, so any commercial property with a significant number of windows would imply a very large geometry graph.  We need users to be able to change a shared parameter (e.g. window thickness) and see instant feedback everywhere. And that’s just the windows!

WebAssembly is necessary not just for its speed, but for its ability to use memory efficiently. It allows us to design highly compact data structures. Web Workers will allow our geometry algorithms to run off-thread, so that they never bog down the fluidity of the user interface.

The future of WebGPU is somewhat less certain than WASM and workers, but we will certainly be evaluating it as it matures. It offers compute shaders in its core specification, which is particularly compelling because it would allow us to offload geometry generation to the GPU.

Arcol also features tools for documentation.

Arcol also features tools for documentation.

Railway: Where does Railway come into the picture as you’ve been building Arcol?

O’Carroll: Railway is where we host all of our backend services along with our databases. It’s been an integral part of our infrastructure since the very beginning.

Railway: What drew you to Railway? What can you tell us about the product experience for your team?

O’Carroll: We value the simplicity to get started and the limited amount of support required from our team. As we’re still a small team we couldn’t afford to dedicate a a big chunk of someone’s time to working on infrastructure.

Using Railway has allowed us to set up a full server environment with little effort on our part and with almost no effort on our part to keep it going. The automatic deployments from a branch depending on environment also make it effortless to support a production and staging split.

Railway: If our readers would like to learn more about Arcol, where should they go? Can they start demoing the software or do they need to wait for an open beta?

O’Carroll: They can head on over to Arcol’s site - we’re currently still in closed alpha with a handful of users. We’ll be opening it up soon though. The best place to stay up to date is to follow us on Twitter or to join our waitlist of over 13,000 people.

And if there’s anyone who would like to get in contact with me personally, feel free to reach out on Twitter, which is usually the best place to get a hold of me.