Keeping Architects Organized with Project Information Management Software

Have you ever lost your keys? Better yet, have you ever worked on a project where you couldn’t find a document? Have you ever had the need to find an email sent to the one guy in your office who is on vacation? As daunting tasks as these may seem, they can be easily overcome by a new Project Information Management (PIM) software recently introduced into our office called Newforma Project Center.

But first, a bit about our firm. Our mid-sized Ontario architecture firm has always considered itself a leader when it comes to incorporating new technologies. We believe our vision was fully demonstrated in the most concrete of terms when, in late 1983, we ventured into the world of computer aided design, one of only seven architectural firms in Canada to adopt that pioneering role. Our firm was recognized internationally as a leader in the application of computer technology to the practice of architecture. That leadership role is maintained and nurtured to this day. In a fast paced world within which projects are delivered today, there is an inherent need for instant access to information. In a collaborative effort, such as architecture, the ability to instantly access and exchange information is crucial. We practice this daily within our office and with all of our consultants.

What does Project Information Management Software Do?

For the management of our documents, Salter Pilon has incorporated a project information management (PIM) software called Newforma Project Center. This software addresses the basic needs of organizing, finding, tracking, sharing, monitoring and reusing technical project information and communications in a way that is completely aligned with the people and processes which depend on that information. Newforma Project Center does not force drastic changes on team members’ work processes. It works together with most standard programs you would find in an architect’s office. Newforma manages project information and the processes involving that information. These processes and sources of information include project email, information searches, drawing review and markup, action items, BIM models, meeting minutes, project images, document control and transmittals, as well as secure, documented file transfers into and out of the firm via Newforma Info Exchange. Through Newforma, we are even able to access our project information while away from the office.

One of the many strengths of Newforma Project Center is the way it allows for seamless management of interrelated work processes. For example, an email may generate an action item which spawns markups related to the project timeline as discussed in a meeting. Capturing these relationships as work processes unfold is crucial to ensuring accountability and transparency, to avoid delays and to avoid claims. The software provides a means to capture and record these relationships. The resulting records facilitate management and provide an audit trail. The software even emails notifications alerting project team members to their responsibilities and commitments.

Newforma Project Center allows our firm to organize and manage internal project information, including project email, for all of our projects. It allows us to share and track published project information with external team members across all projects and it allows us to streamline project execution processes, including design review, contract administration and more…all resulting in more successful architectural project delivery.

From the outset, the main areas our office was looking to improve were email management, document administration and improved document sharing capabilities.

Email Management

Before Newforma, Outlook mailbox sizes in our office were limited. This approach works well when you are trying to get individuals to manage their email more frequently. The problem is that people get busy and before you know it your mailbox is full and you start getting phone calls about emails bouncing back. Newforma allows you to easily manage your emails by filing them as you send them. Incoming emails can be transferred, individually or in groups, by simply dragging and dropping.

In addition, searching for items within filed emails is easy with the built-in search engine. Have you ever wanted to find an email sent to the one team member that is away on vacation? Well now, with Newforma, that can be done as easily as 1-2-3. Not only are you able to search through your own sent/received email, but also that of other team members.

Document Administration

Like most other mid-sized architectural firms, our office used the “oldforma” method (as I like to call it) for the storage of our documents such as drawings, specs and administrative files. Our firm had set up a file organization structure for the storage of our documents. Email was always kept separate and was not easy to access. The key (and sometimes the inhibitor) to the success of such a system lies with the “users” and their ability/inability to file things properly. There were times when files were accidentally misfiled and finding them was not easy. For document sharing, such as issued sets of drawings, again it comes down to individuals to assemble and track the sets as well as keeping recorded copies of transmittals regarding those transfers.

First of all, Newforma allows you to amalgamate all project files under one source. It also allows you to keep whatever file structure you already have in place for your documents. And to keep our IT guy happy, Newforma does not replicate information being transferred. Attachments are linked to the outgoing transfers and are only available for a limited amount of time.

Then, Newforma allows you to index and search the contents of over 200 common file types used by architects today. Even documents within compressed file formats such as .zip files can be searched. And when I say search, I mean that you can actually search for keywords within those documents.

Newforma now has an add-in for AutoDesk Revit which allows it to work together with the Building Information Modeling software. You can link related information such as RFI’s or other action items directly to the building elements. The model can be configured to show colour codes for various action items. For example, action items could be red and rooms with open punch list items could be shown as green.

Improved Document Sharing Capabilities

Back in 1999, our office used a new outsourced computer technology, namely an Extranet, during the construction of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. The ‘Extranet’ system was a technological tool that provided total access to project information by all team members. The allocation of a web-based secure server allowed for the dynamic exchange and distribution of information. All members of the project team had secure access to project information, as necessary. All relevant project information was readily available and always current. The effectiveness of this tool was further enhanced during construction, where we were able to manage over 60 sequential tenders complete with a digital archive of each package. One problem, however, was that all documents were copies. Another problem with the ‘Extranet’ model is that documents are external to our standard filing system and structured differently. So generally when a project is completed you end up with a record set of documents that don’t match your internal file structure.

Since that period, most architectural firms, ourselves included, have embraced technology and host their own FTP sites. However, using FTP servers as a means to sharing documents, does not guarantee improved collaboration. Problems include; the hassle of repeatedly setting up a shared access, availability of obsolete files and the need for constant administration of the site. All of this on a non-user-friendly platform…

Enter Newforma Info Exchange. Having the ability to easily setup and administer document exchange was very important to us. This PIM software allows for the easy setup of project sharing without the assistance of the IT guy. In addition, all transfers incoming/outgoing are logged and available information is time censored. You choose the length of time documents are available for download. Out-of-date documents being mistakenly downloaded by consultants is a thing of the past. You also have access to logs, which confirm all file transfers by individual team members to ensure all parties have the latest files. No more excuses by team members claiming not to have the latest background drawings.

Conclusion

Although there are other ‘Activity Centres’ within Newforma that we haven’t fully incorporated as yet, such as the Newforma Viewer and Mark-Up enhancements, what we have seen so far is very promising. Newforma Project Center gives our firm an easy-to-use tool, which keeps us organized and cuts down on time required to administrate our projects. And best of all, this was accomplished with little training and little to no effect on our existing filing and project administration procedures in the office. I believe this is a great tool for keeping architects organized…now if only they could develop something to keep my desk organized!

Photo Credits

Dog with lost keys taken from http://911locksmith.co/

Name of the lost file photo taken from http://www.mahalo.com/answers/i-think-i-accidently-deleted-a-microsoft-word-file-does-anyone-know-how-i-could-get-it-back

Square peg in a round hole taken from http://www.stuartduncan.name/tag/square-peg-in-round-hole/

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About Steve Cliche

Steve is a senior architectural technologist that has been with the office for over 22 years. In addition to his regular project duties, Steve applies his skills to producing most of the firm's promotional material. He has a strong interest in new technologies, practicality and keeping architects grounded. Although Steve has promised not to turn this blog into his own personal weekly rant, only time will tell...
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