Structural Design Software vs Spreadsheets: When Should Structural Engineers & Architects Upgrade?September 07, 2021|6 min read
Structural Design Software vs Spreadsheets
Structural engineers, architects, designers, and builders are all familiar with the usefulness of Excel spreadsheets in their work. With spreadsheets, competent users can run quick calculations to determine minimum and maximum capacities, pressures, reinforcements, and checks for dozens of factors. In fact, spreadsheets are leveraged/used to conduct many of the same functions as structural design software.
This begs the question: When and why would a structural engineer or architect upgrade from using spreadsheets to paying for a software?
It's a fair question, so let's get right down to brass tacks.
Why Use a Spreadsheet for Structural Design & Analysis?
It Costs Nothing But Your Time
You have to create and maintain a spreadsheet that suits your needs. You may be able to find free samples online to get you started, though the quality of these can vary greatly. If you do find a template, sooner or later you will need to modify it to suit your particular needs.
Overall, you will have to commit a lot of time upfront for creating and refining spreadsheets, which will likely include the creation of macros and possibly some VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) work. But, once it's made, you're ready to start running calcs.
Potentially More Transparency
If you create your own spreadsheet, you know exactly how it's built. You know all the calculations it can run, the formulas it uses, the inputs, and outputs. In a line of work that deals with safety and getting it wrong can quite literally be the difference between life and death, transparency is huge. You need to have full faith in your tools.
For that very reason, if you create your own spreadsheet, you should check your results against hand calcs, another spreadsheet, or software to verify its accuracy. If you use spreadsheets created by someone else, you should take the time for a very thorough review, and you should also test its results using another method.
Potentially More Control
Just as you may enjoy greater transparency through a spreadsheet, you may also be able to exercise more control in the reports you present to clients or the building department.
Want to show a specific result on your analysis report? Some software may limit your options for what is displayed in the report. With a spreadsheet, you can simply copy and paste.
Why Use Structural Design & Analysis Software
The pros for a spreadsheet sound pretty great, right? And they are. So, why would someone consider paying for structural design and analysis software?
Well, spreadsheets require an extreme degree of competency with Excel that not all engineers, architects, designers, or builders will possess. Furthermore, software is available that offers high transparency and high control, so you're not necessarily sacrificing those components.
There's a lot more to it though, so let's take a look.
You Don't Have to Build It
First and foremost, software bypasses the time sink required for a spreadsheet. In an industry where most of its professionals are time poor, this is a nice perk.
Structural Design Software Can Handle More Complexity
Excel is a brilliant tool with incredible breadth and versatility. But, at the end of the day, it wasn't built for design and analysis; it's limited.
Structural design software is built to excel (pun intended) at a single purpose. Accordingly, good software will be able to handle far greater complexity than a spreadsheet. This is one of the foremost reasons why engineers, architects, designers, and builders eventually upgrade from spreadsheets to software. You need the right tool for the job.
Structural Design Software Offers Greater Speed & Flexibility
Another leading -- and related -- reason engineers and architects upgrade from spreadsheets to software is speed and flexibility. Spreadsheets can be somewhat constraining in their design. Modifying a spreadsheet to account for new factors can be time and labor intensive. When time is money, you're burning cash.
In a dedicated calc application, it's much quicker to change a few inputs and get results back than it is in a spreadsheet. You can get the same work done in less time, giving you more time to review and optimize your designs.
Shared Files Streamline Workflow
Software also ensures that if you have multiple users, they all work from the same file. With spreadsheets, all too often users create their own copy and work from it. This can result in duplicate efforts that reduce productivity and potentially increase the risk for human error.
On a related note, your workforce may use different versions of Excel, which can quickly become problematic if spreadsheets are not backward compatible. Proficient spreadsheet creators can account for this in their design, but this forethought is not always present.
Training & Succession Planning Is Easier
When one person creates a spreadsheet, that person may make certain assumptions about a user's baseline knowledge. If they're the only person using the spreadsheet, these assumptions are fine. But, when they leave or you hire a new employee, that level of personalization can become detrimental.
Good software mitigates this risk. The best software companies provide ample resources for training via instruction manuals, how-to guides, and demos. They also provide fast customer service that can answer on-the-fly questions.
In this way, using software means even new hires can hit the ground running rather than puzzling through their predecessor's personalized Excel spreadsheets.
Built-in Safety Nets
We'll close with perhaps the most important consideration: safety. Properly built structures can save lives; improperly built structures can cost lives. It is an engineer's duty to mitigate as many risks as possible.
Software can help mitigate risks and improve safety in several ways, including:
- Building codes are kept up to date, ensuring your designs pass requirements. This also helps you avoid fines or unanticipated costly modifications.
- Input options for each field can be limited so that the software flags when an input is nonsensical for a given field.
- Visualization. Once a design is on a computer screen, necessary and desired changes can become apparent and are easily remedied.
- Audibility. Software can track who made what edits and when, creating a paper trail that is important for short-term accountability and long-term business security.
Should You Upgrade to Structural Design Software?
If your practice is growing, you need to improve efficiency, and/or you want to increase peace of mind, you should consider upgrading to a purpose-built structural design application..
Of course, in this line of work, you're well acquainted with due diligence. Measure twice, cut once, right? So, why not start a free trial? Discover for yourself if you think the gains from software are worth the price.