As the Romans Do

Relying on the more-than-2,000-year-old ideas of Vitruvius, Colin Graham’s Arcestra is changing the way landlords lease space

Colin CrahamSometime in the first century BC, a Roman architect named Vitruvius sat down to compose all or part of De Architectura. Today, it’s known as one of the only surviving Roman works on building design and construction, and it has influenced everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to present-day architects with its idea that all structures must possess three virtues: firmness, commodity, and delight. “Firmness meaning they’re robust and work, commodity meaning they satisfy functional requirements, and delight meaning they’re a real pleasure to use,” says Colin Graham, principal of Arcade Architects and Designers Inc. He’s an architect by training, but he’s also an entrepreneur and an innovator, so when he examines Vitruvius’s three virtues, he sees an idea that “goes back thousands years with regard to buildings but [one that] can also be equally applied to products.”

Apple, Ikea, BMW—such companies have applied solid design concepts to their own offerings with great success, so Graham tried to apply them to his own early start-ups, Vizible and Arcade, as well. And when those companies did well, Graham decided to focus his next venture on the actual architectural industry, which, as an architect, he felt was broken. “You don’t see any MBAs going into architecture because they look at the business model and it doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

5 Questions
with Colin Graham


What does innovation mean to your company?
I don’t see founding and building a company as being that dissimilar from designing and building a building. You have problems you need to solve, and you set about solving those problems via a disciplined process.

How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
I’m good at pulling together what would appear to be disparate ideas into a coherent solution.

Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
We’re just scratching the surface. Our mission is to index the built world, much like Google is indexing human knowledge. Anything society has created in the form of urban environments, we will be creating accurate 3-D [renderings] of them and [gathering] the associated metadata.

How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
I don’t think innovation has changed at all; what has changed is the market’s perception of its value. That was heightened by the success of Apple and the emphasis it put on good design—and not simply from an object perspective. The entire experience is part of the design process.

What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
It’s different for each entity. We all have our own idiosyncratic way of doing things, but innovation is not something you do or don’t do. It’s either part of how you see the world or not.

Graham’s vision for his new business, Arcestra, came from AutoCAD, a piece of design software released by Autodesk, Inc. in December 1982. He thought he could improve on it. “At the time, [AutoCAD] was, for the most part, a fancy eraser, taking architects who previously only needed a drafting table, a pencil, and a ruler to needing a host of equipment and a dedicated computer-aided design staff,” says Graham, who now serves as president and CEO of Arcestra. “But it was adopted so widely that, by five or six years ago, most commercial buildings were being documented in CAD.”

This led Graham to ask what could be done with the data. “For every building that exists, a CAD file also exists somewhere, so if I want to use that data, I shouldn’t have to redraw things,” he says. “So, how can I take existing CAD files and reuse them in an efficient way? What can I do with what has already been drawn?”

The result was software that continues to help commercial real estate owners lease space. Graham built a sketching program that automatically reads symbols from CAD files and then uses that data to create interactive, three-dimensional models of buildings—a boon to landlords, who have long struggled to show potential tenants what they’re getting. “Most tenants can’t understand architectural drawings, which are quite esoteric, but they’re familiar with cartoons and video games, so when you can automatically create accurate, three-dimensional, interactive models from two-dimensional CAD files, prospective tenants can very quickly understand a space,” Graham says. “In the past, tenants struggled to understand what they were buying, so it would take them months and months to make a decision. Now they’re armed with information that allows them to make decisions quickly.”

Arcestra has since moved beyond its original product offering. “We started with something small—a sketch-recognition tool overlaid on a two-dimensional CAD file—but we ended up collecting immense amounts of extremely accurate data from commercial real estate owners, so we understand when space is available, what the asking rates are, when it gets leased, etc.,” Graham says. From this info, he created ArcestraCoRE, a comprehensive asset- and marketing-management platform for commercial real estate owners and landlords that allows them to manage all their marketing requirements on Arcestra’s back-end infrastructure.

“They no longer have to engage with third-party web-design firms; obtain photography, videos, and animations; [or] interact with a multitude of listing firms about available space,” Graham says. “The data Arcestra receives from landlords is extremely accurate, allowing us to quickly become the plumbing for the commercial real estate industry.”

Whether Vitruvius in his wildest dreams could have conceived of such software, or even just a computer itself, his ideas live on in them thanks to the associative thinking of entrepreneurs such as Graham. And the products are better for it.