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Electronic Plan Rooms Becoming More Widely Accepted 
By Pam Hunter

Electronic plan rooms are becoming increasingly prevalent, and digital documents and drawings are becoming more widely used and accepted in the architectural/engineering and construction (A/E/C) industries. 

Cliff Brewis, senior director, editorial, McGraw-Hill construction, which runs a network of plan rooms nationwide, says, “Brick and mortar plan rooms are increasingly becoming document handling centers. We are still making available to the marketplace hard copy documents, and we still allow for a kind of library of plans and specifications, but essentially what’s happening is we are also digitizing those documents at those locations…as quickly as possible.” 

Jim Walker, president and chief operating officer of John S. Clark Co., a general contractor headquartered in Mount Airy, N.C., says that his firm strongly encourages subcontractors to view documents electronically. He notes that many subcontractors now prefer viewing plans electronically because “they don’t have to get drawings they do not need; they can view them online and make sure they really want to bid a job before they get prints of them.” 

Brewis says, “By and large there is a general acknowledgement that the electronic plan [room] is a more efficient and less expensive way to distribute documents. You obviously don’t have all the printing costs and you can send out plans simultaneously across the marketplace to whomever needs them.” 

What different plan rooms offer varies. Most offer software that allows owners, architects and general contractors to invite subcontractors to bid on jobs and to view documents electronically either on a CD or on the Web—generally in the comfort of their own offices or jobsites. Some, like BXWA.com and The Blue Book, offer databases that owners, architects and general contractors can plug in to find potential subcontractors—including minority contractors—to work on jobs. Some don’t print documents at all but team up with local reprographic shops to be able to provide both electronic viewing and printed plans and specifications. 

Isqft, headquartered in Cincinnati, offers a subscription service in which clients receive a user name and password that allows them access to documents online, as well as a service in which general contractors can invite select subcontractors and vendors to bid on projects. 

Plan Express, headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., recently established a partnership with Kinko’s that allows contractors and subcontractors to access and print out documents at Kinko’s locations across the country. 

McGraw-Hill’s Brewis says document management throughout the life cycle of the project is the next big thing in electronic plan rooms. “I think you’re going to continuously see this trend. It’s not just electronic documents—it’s really managing the entire project electronically, really cradle to grave.” 

Several McGraw-Hill/Dodge plan rooms are partners within ReproMAX, an association of reprographic facilities throughout North America and Europe. ReproMAX and McGraw-Hill Construction are partnering to offer a new suite of products that will enable customers to manage all project documentation—from plans and specifications to emails, RFI’s and submittals—electronically. 

Despite the advantages that electronic plan rooms offer, some architects caution that digital documents present some challenges that traditional paper drawings do not. 

Reggie Currin, regional manager for Raleigh Durham for Imaging Technologies Services in Morrisville, N.C., says, “A lot of architects don’t want their drawings out there on the web for others to look at, even though it’s a secured environment.” 

Dave Brown, vice president with architectural firm Ralph Allen and Partners in Santa Ana, Calif., says that looking at images on a computer screen can make it harder for contractors and subcontractors to understand the scale of a project. “You can’t read the whole sheet on the screen at one time. You have to blow up certain areas, [and] there might be something on the other side of the sheet that explains what they’re not seeing.” 

Brown says his firm worked with one client that wanted to use electronic documents through the bidding process and found that several contractors and subcontractors had questions because “the scale was off…it made it a lot more difficult.”

Currin adds that some architects worry that since electronic drawings are downloadable, they could be easily manipulated or changed. 

Jim Kirby, a project architect with Perkins + Will’s Charlotte, N.C. office notes that a way to avoid problems with manipulation is to control who has access to the documents. “There has to be a clear understanding of who has access to what,” he says. “And the management of who has access to what has to be stayed on—you have to keep up with it.” Contractors, subcontractors and project team members who view Perkins + Will drawings cannot print them out; in order to print out documents, they need to go to a reprographic facility or request a document from Perkins + Will. 

Kirby is responsible for overseeing which firms can access Perkins + Will’s project documents. “That side of it is time consuming,” he says. He adds, however, that having online document services provided by a printing company “puts the responsibility on them to keep access management in check which minimizes my management time dramatically.” 

Kirby adds that electronic plan rooms offer many advantages to a large firm like Perkins + Will. “A lot of our projects serve multiple offices. So we have a lot of Perkins + Will offices working on the same projects for large clients, and a lot of our consultants are [scattered] all across the Eastern Seaboard.” 

Kirby says the key advantage to using electronic documents and plan rooms “is being able to share the information in a quick period of time. It provides a lot of flexibility in being able to view drawings…Our consultants can go to a certain sheet and pull from that at whatever time frame they need it.” 

Regardless of how individual architects may view electronic plan rooms, most acknowledge that they are the wave of the future. “I think it is inevitable,” Brown says.

Currin, of Imaging Technologies Services, acknowledges that “some people are skeptical and I certainly understand that. But the market is changing, and if they don’t change with it, they are going to lose the opportunity to be competitive in an ever changing market.” 


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