• Credit: Jeffrey Fisher

Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture, founded in 1994, exemplifies the technological trajectory of many small firms. During the first eight years, architects Matt and Libby Elliott, Blue Hill, Me., focused on getting the business up and running while continuing to hand-draft their designs. Last year, though, they made the leap to computer-generated drawings. One reason for the change was to attract and keep the firm's electronically savvy younger members. Another was to deal with the daunting scene in the barn--a growing stack of drawings and hard-copy project files stored in Rubbermaid containers.

"We'll start archiving our drawings on CD-ROM now," says principal Bruce Norelius. "At some point around the five-year mark it reaches a critical mass where it's difficult to find an old drawing if we need to."

The importance of proper archiving became painfully clear after 9/11, when many of the architectural firms in lower Manhattan lost their files. There's also the possibility of natural catastrophes such as fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods wiping out a career's worth of records. "There's probably not enough thinking about this," says Jonathan Cohen, AIA, principal of Jonathan Cohen and Associates, Berkeley, Calif., and chair of the AIA committee on technology and architectural practice. "Reconstructing documents is expensive and requires a tremendous amount of labor, if it can be done at all."

the last word

Cohen recommends a methodical, three-part approach to archiving for posterity. The most basic issue to consider is whether the type of media you're using will be around in 20 years. While there are legal guidelines for maintaining records (see sidebar, page 29), ideally files should last as long as the building. According to Cohen, CD-ROMs are the electronic media of choice, since magnetic media loses its data in less than 10 years. And CDs let you store a lot of data in a small physical space. "Most architects have the capability of burning CD-ROMs, and we know they will last 50 years," Cohen says. Despite their virtues, of course, computers can never fully replace paper. Everyone is reluctant to part with their rolled prints, for one good reason: They last forever.

Another consideration is the type of files you're using. Ten to 20 years from now, will you have the software to open the files? Typically, if you stick with one application, you can open an older version on an upgraded one. Even so, rather than saving files only in their native CAD format, Cohen suggests also saving them as a generic file type, such as Adobe PDF, that can at least be printed.

The third issue to resolve is where to physically put the records for permanent safekeeping. CD-ROMs are so inexpensive to make that you should keep copies in more than one location, such as a bank vault, a fireproof off-site storage facility, the office, or your home. "Redundancy in all three of these categories is really important," Cohen says. An Excel spreadsheet or an Access database--backed up, of course--can be used to catalog the archives' contents and whereabouts.

The Internet is yet another modern-day--and cheap--archiving option. If you have a Web site, your service provider probably allows as much as 300 megabytes of storage space on one of its servers, and you can purchase additional space for a small fee. "Internet storage has the advantage of being accessible from anywhere," Cohen says. "Web hosting companies have very secure facilities, and they back up their servers every night, though I wouldn't rely on that as the only backup."

hanging files

The advent of digital technology and the Internet has brought architects a long way from the days of dusty drawings in the basement. Not only do these technologies provide long-term solutions for safe storage, they grant the gift of greater accessibility. Many firms use the Internet as a kind of purgatory for files, a secure stopover on the way to their final destination. And that introduces a new set of challenges--managing the files. "Our biggest frustration is just getting people to identify the files for archiving," says Jill Rothenberg, associate AIA, of Cambridge, Mass.-based ADD Inc. When a job closes out at the firm, the project manager separates the as-built CAD files from the rest of the project files, puts them in a file folder, and copies that folder to a network file server dedicated for archiving, where it remains easily accessible. "We take the whole archive folder--which contains all the project documents--and burn that to a CD, but we found that over time, when a project comes back to life it's only the CAD files people want," Rothenberg says. "Only in litigation do we need the entire contents of the folder."

In 1997, the Spector Group, with offices in Manhattan and on Long Island, N.Y., began storing its archival documents on CD-ROM, and in 2000 began keeping "soft backups" on the Web for a three-year period, via an FTP site. "For three years after a project is finished, we tend to stay heavily involved with the clients," says principal Marc Spector, AIA. "There are often minor changes in furniture layouts, lighting, and the interior design scheme." With the FTP site, which is server space purchased from an Internet provider, the plans can be pulled up and modified quickly. Last year, the 55-member firm rescued several hundred projects from potential oblivion. It scanned construction documents dating back to the late 1970s and transferred the files to CD-ROMs, which now reside in a fireproof safe.

Larger firms, such as Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, with 300 staff people in offices worldwide, follow a more formalized system. "We archive along the way, because it's such an important process," says chief information officer Darren Rizza, AIA, in Manhattan. "If it's left to the end it doesn't get done efficiently." He requests that while the project is under way, the team organize information into specific folders as they complete the traditional phases of programming. When the project is finished, Rizza puts everything in its place. For the first year after completion, he keeps the appropriate files on a near-line facility on the firm's server, also known as network-attached storage (NAS), where they're used for marketing purposes. NAS is a type of hardware device for storing data, and it's less expensive than storage on a network file server, Rizza says. Access is slower, and the files are usually read-only. After a year, the files are permanently stored on CDs or DVDs, along with any marketing material that's been generated.

control issues

Archiving is a project's final act, the process of packaging and preserving files that are no longer active. But just as digital technology, with its easy access, blurs the lines between active and inactive, it has moved design away from the more or less linear process it once was. The issues of which electronic version reflects the latest iteration while a project is in progress, and how to control access to those files, are perpetual trouble spots.

"Architects are under pressure to deliver projects faster, and that means having to do things concurrently that used to be done sequentially," Cohen says. "Coordinating our work with consultants is key to quality. Whereas before we could wait until the architecture part was at a certain level before turning it over to the engineer, now we have to be able to do things simultaneously. It's led to issues of making sure people are working with the constantly changing versions."

Architects have more control over their working files than they think, Cohen says. At the sophisticated end of the spectrum is software like Bentley Systems' ProjectWise that firms can purchase and install on their own server. The software maintains a history of work flow, offers the ability to view different document types, and creates an archive at certain milestones.

At $500 to $1,000 per seat, such systems are out of the reach of small architectural firms. But even sole practitioners can set up a password-protected FTP site, where they exchange the latest version of drawings. A consultant equipped with AutoCAD can download the file, work on it, and upload it again. Document files can also be made read-only, or they can be saved as Acrobat or plot files that the recipient can print and mark up, but not alter. "FTP sites can have more secure or less secure areas, and they can serve up all kinds of files, such as meeting notes, specs, schedules, and site photos," Cohen says. They offer a faster and easier way of transferring information than e-mail, which also limits the size of file that can be attached.

Most architecture firms use a repertoire of methods for transferring files, controlling access, and tracking the latest versions. Swanke Hayden Connell uses e-mail for the exchange of simple drawings, an FTP site for packs of drawings, and, if the project warrants it, an Extranet. FTP sites require the architect to devise a tracking system. By contrast, a project Extranet offers document-management services, and it's a more visual venue that allows participants to make changes right there, rather than downloading and uploading files. An Extranet is typically run by an application service provider (ASP)--such as Autodesk's Buzzsaw, Citadon's ProjectNet, or Bentley's Viecon--or self-hosted by an architectural firm running its own software, Cohen says. The Spector Group, for example, has developed its own Web-based project-management software. Consultants and clients can go to the Web site via secured access and stay in touch with the day-to-day operation of a project without having to attend weekly meetings.

The most seamless method of document sharing is a peer-to-peer network, such as Napster, where the files stay on people's own computers but are linked together. Because you are simply sharing your local files, version control is automatic. The disadvantage, Cohen says, is that you get none of the built-in document management services such as file viewing, check-in/check-out, and work-flow history that the ASPs give you. There are, however, free file-view applications available for CAD files, such as Volo View Express, that allow team members to view, print, and mark up CAD files. "Groove Networks is the best peer-to-peer system, and it's free up to a point," Cohen says. "Peer-to-peer would be a good choice for relatively small projects such as developer housing, and where everyone on the project team is relatively computer-savvy."

information keepers

Regardless of the tools architects use to traffic information flow, their most important task may be to educate themselves and their clients on the comparative usefulness of electronic drawings versus plain old paper.

"Suddenly, because everything is electronic, clients want to see everything," Rizza says, whereas before they didn't want to deal with all that paper. "Sometimes electronic media will speed up and enhance the process, other times it won't. But people think that because you're not delivering something totally editable, you're hampering the process."

Some of those same issues must be visited at the end of a job. What type of archival media should you give to clients? And how do you prevent its misuse?

For a client who insists on a CD-ROM of as-built drawings, the obvious solution is to copy them as read-only files. Regardless of the medium, architects need to make sure that every page of their drawings is dated and copyrighted, says Kathleen Hunter, Hunter Law, Cohasset, Mass., and that the client signs a disclaimer releasing them of liability resulting from someone's additional work.

Cottle Graybeal Yaw Architects, based in Aspen, Colo., occasionally gives nonmanipulable CAD files on CD-ROM to its retail clients for reference during tenant moves. A few years ago, the firm developed a CAD-file release form with help from its insurance carrier. Essentially, the letter states that use of the information for any other purpose is prohibited, and that the client must agree to hold CGY harmless for any damage, liability, or cost, including the costs of defense, arising from changes made by anyone other than CGY, or from reuse of the information without the prior written consent of CGY.

"The language in our contract was more general, so we developed this in letter form to give with the electronic information," says principal John Cottle, AIA.

When it comes to clients, Cohen believes architects are missing an opportunity to package project information and get paid for it. With the increase in design/build projects, it's one of the ways architects can reassert some control, he says. "Ideally, all the data on a project's changes and substitutions during construction would come back to the architect, who would create an as-built condition of the building. That becomes a very valuable thing for the owner to have."

In Cohen's mind, the client would be handed a CD-ROM of not just project drawings but operation manuals for the appliances, the furnace, the air conditioner, the pool filter, the audiovisual system, and the burglar alarm--"things that people keep in shoe boxes. Wouldn't it be great," he says, "if someone got a CD-ROM of their house that they could navigate with a Web browser and see schematics of the heating system, read product manuals, and keep track of warranties?"

Now, that's archiving for the future.

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.

biding time

How long are you required to keep project documents? The laws vary by project and by state. Whereas public work is regulated--in Massachusetts, records of public buildings with contract fees over $100,000 must be retained for six years after final payment--no such laws apply to residential work. "The amount of time you choose to keep residential documents is partly a matter of managing your risks," says attorney Kathleen Hunter, Hunter Law, Cohasset, Mass.

Check with an attorney where you practice to find out how long after a project is finished you can be held liable for defects. Each state spells out its own statute of limitations and statute of repose, which are procedures that govern the time in which legal action must be started. "A statute of limitations measures time by a specific number of years starting when the client discovers a defect. But the statute of repose usually shortens that time by also measuring it from the date a project is completed," Hunter says. In Massachusetts, for instance, the statute of limitations requires that legal action be started within three years from the time the plaintiff becomes aware of a problem, but the statute of repose limits the time frame to six years from the point of substantial completion.

Your attorney should also let you know what kind of archival medium is required in the states in which you work. "We just worked in Massachusetts, which requires a paper archive," says Darren Rizza, AIA, chief information officer for Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, New York City. "Your archiving process could be this beautiful electronic system, but ultimately you need a piece of paper."