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RE: Catch-22 Software Cost

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I'm not sure if you received an answer similar to mine as I did not have the
opportunity to read all of your replies. However, here is my opinion:
1. If I develop a spreadsheet, TEDDS or Mathcad template, I considerate the
cost of doing business. It is ultimately amortized in the reduction of hours
that I spend on a job even if I charge an hourly rate.
2. There is a learning curve with most software; even we have the basic
skills in that type of analysis. I recall relearning to use Risa3D on a
project that I needed to design a 2D Moment frame. It took me longer than I
expected to relearn what I had forgotten by not using the software for some
time, but I had to absorb the cost and will probably forget again as the
features become richer in future versions.
3. AutoCad ADT 2005 (I upgraded from release ADT2 to ADT2004) taught me a
new way to draw due to the breakdown of content, elements, views and plots.
The learning curve was by far the most I have had to contend with since
writing Multi-Lat (which required me to fully understand the intent of the
code as well as the rhetoric in order to write the algorithm. I use AutoCad
on almost every project other than reports and have to consider the learning
curve as a choice - I move on or stay where I was. Autodesk may not have
continued to support the software past another two releases and to upgrade
would then have cost me the price of a full station, but I had to make the
choice of how I was going to communicate my drawings and if I was to
continue to keep up with some of my clients. 
4. Multi-Lat was a story in itself and many of the pangs of learning to
comply with the 97 UBC are within the archives. The goal was to create a
spreadsheet that would do the job while in the process of working on two or
three custom homes. The clients did not pay additional for my time and my
profit margin declined accordingly, but I gained a tool that I use on almost
every light-frame wood design project I work on today and after placing it
in public domain, I received comments and reports from others as to errors
in the spreadsheet that I have corrected over the years until it reached a
point where it is as accurate as most other tools.

Some years ago we had a discussion about the breakup of the UBC that, prior
to 1991 (I think this was the date) contained the design methods for most
materials. The later codes referenced AISC, ACI, AITC and other material
methods which increased the cost of my library and wasted nearly 80% of the
cost on portions of the codes I would never use. However, the I could not
penalize the public and still stay competitive with other offices even those
larger than mine that had a larger budget for a shared library.

At one time there were pay per use software companies who, I believe, had
agreements with the developer to allow users to lease space on an hourly or
daily basis to use a piece of software. I saw that as a loser from the
start. First there was the learning curve that came up with each new version
of the software that existed. Second was the instability of the company that
represented the software - if they went out of business you either bought
the software or hoped that there were no changes to be made on projects that
used this product.

Next there came the server based software. These are still around, but I am
not comfortable with them either.  On once side, the developer can continue
to improve the software based on a licensing fee charged either monthly or
annually. On the downside, if the architecture of the software changed or
prior results were inaccurate, you could be using software essentially still
in Beta stages.  

The latest (probably due to a certain saturation of the structural
engineering and CAD software market) came the annual subscription rate that
assured at least one major upgrade and for a "reasonable" fee kept you up to
date with the latest version and particularly all major bug fixes.
Originally I was probably one of the greatest critics of this type of
software but as time went on I found it easier to evaluate my software needs
and monthly amortization of each tool to decide whether or not I needed that
software, should look for something more to what my office could benefit
from, or create my own. AutoCad turned out to be the most cost effective for
me as it worked out to about $50.00 a month to keep the subscription going.
This is reasonable considering how often I use it. I don't wish to mention
other software products here as the choice is up to you to evaluate what you
use and how much it is worth to you, but I tend to favor this annual
subscription rate as long as I can space out my renewals so they don't all
fall within one month a year. 

There will always be fair competition and if you can amortize the cost of
your tools into a competitive price, then you have a shot at obtaining good
tools that you will reuse often. There were arguments that free software
meant that you had untested software and I would tend to disagree based on
the number of comments I read privately of bugs in other software. The more
complicated the software, the more chances there are of errors occurring. I
think the downside with free software is that it comes without documentation
or help files in most cases. You are obtaining a tool used by another
professional in most cases and you had better be sure you understand what
the author of the software intended for input and you must also be sure that
you have sufficient skill with the code and design methods as well as a
historic intuition on how the material will perform to trigger any issues or
concerns about the output you obtain. If the software is complicated (FEA
for example) I would stay in the commercial market with a product properly
beta tested to be on the conservative side of the error line.

I don't know if this answers the question, but I hope I covered the areas of

FWIW, I will be starting up a Structuralist On-Line similar to the journal
that I wrote for SEAoSC and SEAOC some years ago. My intent is to review
software that I am competent with - mostly for use on light-framing type
projects. We will also be expanding our Software Listservice so that if you
use specific software and want to discuss creative uses with others you will
be able to do so. Please write me with the name of the software you would be
willing to subscribe onto an e-mail list for and I will set it up. IES
Software has done well (although their traffic has dropped somewhat - hint,
hint) and TEDDS is our latest addition. Please check the Structuralist.Net
for our topic specific Lists as they will increase as the need develops.

Dennis S. Wish, PE
California Professional Engineer
Join our Free Topic Specific e-Mail Discussions and Web Logs at:

-----Original Message-----
From: Rich Lewis [mailto:sea(--nospam--at)] 
Sent: Friday, December 10, 2004 5:37 AM
To: seaint(--nospam--at)
Subject: Catch-22 Software Cost

I would like to know if anyone charges for the use of software in their

Let me explain a particular situation.  I am a small, one-man firm, that
is getting established.  I am working on the design of a special
foundation.  The project is an hourly fee plus expenses.  I don't have a
choice on that right now.  I could do this design with the limited
software I have and by hand calculations, but it would be much more
efficient if I bought some special foundation software and designed it
with that.  The dilemma is that since this is an hourly fee the software
that helps me be more productive actually reduces my fee.  On top of
that I still have to put out for the software.  That's what I think is
the Catch-22.  If I become more productive by making a capital
investment then I reduce my fee, hence making my capital improvement
harder to pay for.  

Now you could say that I still have the software to use on future
projects.  That's true, but future projects are again cut short fee wise
due to the increased productivity.  That means I need a lot more
projects to recoup the cost.  That also assumes I will have the kind of
projects that will need this software.

I was thinking about charging a "use" fee on the software to help recoup
some of the cost.  Is this commonly done by others?

If you are tempted to change this thread into an argument of "for or
against" hourly fees I ask that you start another thread because I would
like this one to address the issue of capital improvements and recouping
costs and not get sidetracked.


Richard Lewis
Lewis Engineering

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