Why You Should Have a Detail Library
I’ve been working on a post about record keeping and how we went about it. About ten years ago we made a concentrated effort to leave paper files behind. One of the things that helped was that we had a pretty good digital filing system in place. At that time it was on our server, and we had a way to log in remotely to access the files. Later we moved the whole contents of our server to Dropbox. That was cheaper and access was even better - any browser, smart phone or tablet could have access. Our server access by comparison was limited to certain computers, clunky to access, problem-prone and expensive to set up, change and maintain.
Back to my point, the key to depending on digital files is being able to find them. So we mimicked our project binder system so there would be instant familiarity. Then we added Admin, Finance, Business Development and Office Standards to round out everything we needed to file. So this is where the sharing comes in. I thought I would put the structure out there while I work on the rest of the article. Below is what it looks like.
I suppose some people haven't heard about Evernote, space travelers, perhaps. Evernote is a database, but without the aggravation. You store notes, pictures, files, audio clips and just about anything else that is digital in Evernote. Years ago these things would have been physical items and you would have put them in manila folders and binders. Why? Just in case you might need them sometime. Of course, you could never find them later.
Evernote is the digital equivalent of folders and binders of your stuff - except that you can find that gem again, usually in less than a minute. AND it is on your phone. You don't have to find the folders and binders first. If lots of your gems are physical, take pictures of them, scan them, and drop them into Evernote.
Besides being great at abetting pack rats, Evernote can be used to help you with more day-to-day real tasks. But before I describe other ways you might use Evernote, let's review the features.
First is cost. It is free. I used Evernote for about three years before I got a Premium account which costs $5/mo or $45/yr. The reason I went Premium was to share stuff that others could edit or add to. The free account allows sharing without editing. The free account has a 60 MB limit on how much stuff you can add per month. I haven't come close to hitting the limit, but I can see how you might. You can see all the limits here. There isn't a total limit! Check out the Premium features, too, while you are there.
After four years I have 3244 Notes, 21 Notebooks, 83 Tags to give you a benchmark. This screenshot of my tags will give you an idea of how I use Evernote.
Another really nice thing about Evernote is that they have continually improved their product. One improvement theme is adding Integrations: Penultimate, Skitch and several others - Post-It Notes, Business Cards/LinkedIn, Moleskine notebooks, clipping webpages with extensions. Each of these make Evernote more powerful and more useful. (Skitch is a markup tool that also lets you crop and re-size.)
Back to uses. I like to use Notebooks for subjects like IFTTT Feed, personal, a journal, Office Receipts, Project Records, Office Records. Some of these choices are driven by integrations and automation. You can upload just about anything by email and using # before the Notebook name and @before the tag name places it right where you want it.
Tags are like categories or folders. Some I use almost like notebooks, because when you select a tag just notes tagged with it are shown. Other tags help find things. Examples: project designations, CEU records, iPhone notes/records, house, PAID, topics and published. You can exclude tags as well as add them. I search my store of 'topics' all the time and it helps to exclude the topics that I have 'published'. Reminders work for me for long range one off tasks. Shortcuts I use for a short list of frequently used notebooks and tags.
One little feature that I really use a lot is the checkbox on the formatting menu. Whenever something is likely to become a task, add a checkbox. This would just be window dressing if it wasn't possible to search your entire database for all the notes containing unchecked checkboxes. Love it.
Searches are very powerful on the desktop app and the iPad, less so on the iPhone. The difference is how you can add multiple search terms. My workaround for the phone is to tag things I expect to need as favorites or to save the search so it can be used. Having all this information available on your mobile devices is really handy.
One of the techniques I picked up is that starting a tag with a special character will cause it to be listed first. It also has the effect of grouping all those with the same initial character. I use a ’/’ to begin a project tag, e.g. /SL-TR, which stands for Stevens Library Toilet Rooms. Searching for ’contract’ and ’/SL-TR’ finds the contract for that job.
I think that as everyone gathers more and more information it becomes increasingly tedious to wade through your file folders to find a document like a contract. Evernote solves that problem. The only shortcoming of a database approach is that a drawing file, for instance, can be shared but managing updates requires a new version to be saved. This isn't automatic like it can be with Dropbox where files in use on your computer are kept in synch with everyone else's computer.
Nevertheless Evernote is a strong collaboration tool for sharing research (screenshots), reference (PDFs), pictures and notes. Unlike files like a dwg, spreadsheet or Word doc which can't be edited in Evernote; a note can be edited and remains up-to-date for everyone sharing the note.
The ideal follow-through on your fee calculation efforts would be to capture all the key parameters of the fee and project. Put this data in a table for future reference when you are proposing the next fee. Strictly speaking this is not necessary, but there will be many times that you wish you had this information. Besides this table, keep a copy of your calculations in one folder for easy research when you have a similar project or client under consideration.
I recommend setting up the table as a spreadsheet. Place each fee proposal on a row and use the columns to capture the data. The spreadsheet will let you sort the proposals by any column or even filter out proposals that are not relevant.
Here is a master listing of column headings you might consider, but just use the ones that pertain to your type of work.
You may never need to print this table, so don’t worry about how wide it is getting, but use ’word wrap’ and vertical column headings if you prefer. If you do need to print it, use 11x17 in landscape or your plotter.
As you can see from the list, not all information that you want to have is available when you are working on the proposal. Fill in what you know right after you complete the proposal. Then update any blanks in the table the next time you work on a new proposal.
Over time I think you can see just how valuable this information will be.
File server technology is changing - again.
Just when you think subscription-based Cloud solutions have taken over from physically owned servers, the game changes. I stumbled upon two devices that have been funded through Kickstarter. One is in production and shipping. The other just ended its fundraising period and should be available in April 2014. The new products have a lot in common with both physical servers and cloud servers. The difference is that you buy a device that makes your files available over the internet, and a device that holds the files, plug it into your internet connection and, Voila, you have a networked file server with Internet access. Included software facilitates file management and sharing. You have spent $300 to $400, ONCE, and you are in business. No monthly fees, unless you want to spring for a backup service. Since the synched files can reside in more than one place this may not be necessary. Or you could buy a hard drive to backup to.
The first product is called TRANSPORTER and already accepts orders for shipment. There are three models ranging in price from $199 to $299 to $399. The differences are: purchaser-provided drive, 1TB drive, and 2TB drive. See their video embedded below.
The second product is called LIMA and expects to ship in April 2014. There is just one model, possibly in various colors, for an estimated price of $150. (The Kickstarter site says there are about 300 deals still available to purchase two for this price.) See their video embedded below.
Transporter and Lima are examples of how the Internet and new technology are providing decentralized solutions that are less expensive and greener.
On the topics of file server solutions and paperless filing here are other article you might like.
Suggestions For An Electronic Filing System
Paperless Filing - How The Backend Works
Paperless Filing - How The Backend Works - Part 2
In Part 1 we looked at how you would integrate a 'Cloud' service into your workflow. In this 2nd Part, we look at how you might use Evernote and how a solution for you might look.
For an individual, Evernote might be all you need to save your files. And Evernote is a great addition to any paperless filing system. You don't have to buy anything to store 60 MB per month. Evernote is browser based, but there are free apps that improve the experience on just about every platform. Evernote stores files as attachments to notes. You scroll thru your notes by Tags and Notebooks, or you can use Evernote's very strong search feature. The key to retrieving files is tagging them with meaningful words. A really useful feature is the ability to ’clip’ web pages and screen shots for storage. This makes Evernote a must-have research assistant for product, code, zoning and other kinds of research. The clipping tools are integrated into Chrome, Safari, Firefox browsers as extensions making the process very easy.
The premium Evernote account is $5/mo ($45/yr) and the storage limit increases to 1GB per month and you are able to share Notebooks with other users who can add and edit information in the shared Notebook. Individual notes with attached files can be emailed to anyone. The biggest drawback to using Evernote as your main file storage location is that files have to be downloaded to edit them. Files like CAD or Word files start off being saved somewhere else, then moved to Evernote. Once modified, the file is attached to a new note or the same note, but it doesn't overwrite. This creates the opportunity to grab the wrong version for the next edit. I think it works better to think of Evernote as your file archive rather than a server. And it works much better than a server to collect and share research material.
Your needs bear on the choices you make. I'll break it down into three scenarios - an individual, a small team of 2-7, and a firm or larger team of more than seven.
THE INDIVIDUAL SOLUTION
The individual can almost certainly enjoy a cloud solution without spending anything for it. You probably already have several GBs of cloud storage as part of your Google account (Drive) or your use of Apple products (iCloud). If not, it is a snap to sign up for Dropbox to get started with 2GB free, and then use the Dropbox tools to urge your contacts to get an account, too (1/2GB per referral). Surely your SO, a couple of friends or family members will help you out. Bingo! You have 5GB of storage. Free.
Next get an Evernote account if you haven't got one. Now move any inactive files from Dropbox to Evernote a few times a year to keep under your Dropbox limit. You have a sustainable free storage environment thanks to Evernote's total storage per account being unlimited.
THE SMALL TEAM SOLUTION
The Small Team, 2 to 7 people, Solution looks a lot like the Individual solution with the major difference that you may not be able to make it completely free. That is because of the need for sharing among team members. And to a lesser extent because the number of files will start to increase in number and total storage needed, you may bump into the limits of a free account.
So here's what you do. Someone gets a paid Dropbox account for $10/mo ($100/yr). This raises your storage limit to 100 GB for that account, which you treat as the main account. Structure your folders so that projects don't overlap and other business functions are separate too - say finance, business development, management. Make the main dropbox folder 'shared'. Everyone else on the team can choose which folders of that large shared account they need on their free accounts to keep below the free limit. This may sound like a lot of trouble, but we have done it and it really isn't. Unless you are working with 20 MB picture files, but even 100s of BIM files easily fit in 2 GB. And how many BIM projects can you be actively working on at one time? Checking your shared folder selections a couple of times a year will save you $100 per person.
Since you have 100 GB of storage for the team, there is no need to move inactive files to Evernote. However, the other reasons for using Evernote still apply. Once again, like Dropbox, make one account a premium account. This person starts all the Notebooks that will want to be shared with everyone else. Easy peasy.
THE BIG TEAM SOLUTION
The Big Team, more than 7 people, Solution looks just like the Small Team Solution except you are likely to need more paid accounts. There will be more people who need access to just about everything. That just isn't going to work with one premium account. (Although anyone can access all the shared folders through a browser! It just isn't something you want to do constantly because it is slower.) I once evaluated this approach for an organization of 120 people. They identified only 3 people who would need access to everything, and another 7 that would need access to more than 2 GB of files.
Here is another article that will help you go paperless.
I recently extolled the virtues of going paperless for your record-keeping.
What I didn't talk about was how you handle the backend of things, where do all these electronic files reside so that you can access them.
The traditional way was to buy a server, set up a local network, connect all your computers to the network, and file everything on the server. To go offsite you, set up a virtual private network on your server that you could log into from anywhere there was Internet access. (This could get tricky.) $10,000 would get the job done, and it would last seven years with a $1,000 or more per year in maintenance and updates. Only large firms need or can afford this solution.
Dropbox (or similar) is the new 'cloud' alternative to having your own file server. Dropbox is free for up to 2GB of storage and can be increased to 18 GB by getting friends to sign up too (500MB per referral). 2 GB might be enough storage for your work in progress unless your files include a lot of pictures and video. In any event you may be able to stay in the free arena indefinitely if you archive inactive files in Evernote. See the Evernote discussion in Part 2.
You use Dropbox just the same as a file server. Once installed it shows up in your file folders, where you can set up sub folders as you like. Wherever you are, if you can get on the Internet even by 3G, you have access to your files. Smart phones and tablets work the same except access is through the Dropbox app. Or you can get access through a web browser on any computer. The first time that you access a drawing on a constructions site with your phone, you will catch yourself smiling.
It is easy to share folders or files. Folders and sub-folders can be arranged the same way you are accustomed to. You can search your files, too, to find what you need, but I find a strong folder structure works best. Dropbox isn't the only choice. It is just the one I use and am most familiar with. Other Cloud services that work similar to Dropbox are Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, Box, Apple iCloud or SugarSync. The list could go on.
While technically your cloud data is safe and backed up, I have a 1 Tb hard drive security blanket that also holds everything that is on Dropbox. Your computer's hard drive might work just fine.
Another piece of equipment that you might need to be paperless is an all-in-one printer/copier/scanner - forget fax. People are still going to send you paper, but you don't have to keep it. Scan it and file it away. You could use your phone's camera for this. But eventually you will tire of photographing multipage documents, getting the documents to lay flat, and illuminating them evenly and brightly.
One last thing to consider, if filing all this digital stuff is a group activity, is an old-school paper attachment or coded directions for filing. This way you can indicate where you want something to go without being the person who does the scanning and filing. Or at least batch up the scanning/filing until you are in the mood. I found that a handwritten coded instruction works very well, often written on a post-it so the original remains pristine. "S/F-FAX/backstage" is an example. This 'says' to Scan and File the document in the Fine Arts Expansion project folder in the 'backstage' sub-folder. This code only works if you know the file folder scheme by heart. Otherwise you might need to paper clip a completed filing checklist to the document.
In the next article, I will discuss how Evernote fits into the paperless process, and will give you some solutions for Individuals, Small Teams, and Big Teams.
I have only seen three filing systems in my career. The first was Manila folders with Acco fasteners. The project name was put on a Pendaflex folder. A Manila file collected all the paper for each phase in chronological order. Three or four folders per Pendaflex hanging file. We rarely needed to retrieve anything from the file but it was a job best left to the secretary.
The second was a binder system modeled after the system that I observed a Japanese client using. They retrieved items all the time with no bother at all. I adapted their system of binders to work for an architect’s needs. We quickly found that more than one binder would be needed per project - three normally. Design, Project, and Construction. We used a custom-designed set of tabs for each binder, the same every time.
The Design Binder was used for all the design phases with code research, estimates, schedules, materials research and so on. As it filled up we started the Project Binder and moved contract-type documents with Owner and Consultants into it, added Bidding Phase documents.
With the Construction Phase we started the third binder for Field Reports, Pay Requests, inspections, Test Reports (soil and concrete), Submittal Log, Punch List and Closeout Documentation. The project manager owned the binders, but didn't necessarily do the filing, so you knew where the binder for a project was located. You also knew where to find anything because the same tab system was used on every project.
The third filing system is the one we use now. It is as paperless as we can make it. See description of the paper part. The electronic part of our filing system relies on the binder system for its organization scheme. The tabs have become sub-folders on the server, where every project’s records reside as original native format files like Word, Excel, MS Project, Dwg, etc. There are also many, many PDFs from all the paper documents that we scan or document attachments that have arrived by email. Here is what our Project Folder Template looks like.
You may see ways of improving upon this, or see other folders that you would like to add. Here is what goes in each folder. Most labels are fairly obvious but others not as much.
The advantage of this system is that no special knowledge is needed to find any project-related file. Usually, you can do it in seconds. And you can email a copy while you are at it. Besides sorting by name or date, you can do a search for whatever you need. And, since we use Dropbox as our file server, you can access all of this data on your smart phone or tablet wherever you have cellular data, which is just about anywhere. I haven’t taken a briefcase, file folder or roll of drawings onto a job site since owning a tablet.
Note 1.) All the projects underway are filed under PROJECTS. Every year or so we relocate closed projects to a 'zArchive' folder under PROJECTS. That way every project is handy, easy to find, but not cluttering up access to the work-in-progress.
Note 2.) Our project-naming system is unlike any I have seen elsewhere. We use 3-4 letters to designate the client’s name, which is separated with a dash from another 3-4 letter ID representing the project name. The client name is abbreviated like a corporation’s stock ID, e.g. APPL for Apple, Inc. The project ID often stands for the initial letters of the actual project name, e.g. FAX for Fine Arts eXpansion.
When in the course of construction you need to get a price for a change in the Work, here's how. If the project is private, you have choices depending on how formal you feel you need to be. Generally, a formal paper trail is good to have. But if you have a good relationship with the Owner and Contractor, and the change is simple, you might even make a verbal request. An example is changing lay-in ceiling panels from one model to another. Very simple; verbal works. Or perhaps an email would suffice. The email will document the change for future reference. A long email or a letter describing the change with a clarifying sketch can take care of a more complicated change.
But if your project is public work, being informal might come back to bite you. So formal is better. I believe the AIA has a form you can use. We dreamt up this form below for a small public project that was, uncharacteristically for us, becoming adversarial.
Note that it needs to be clear that you just want a price, and only afterwards will a Change Order be issued (if the price is acceptable). In many instances, you might be chasing someone's dream that doesn't have a direct role in the project - the boss's boss - making the situation a bit political.
The formal approach always works, and it takes just a few minutes longer to implement.
Every project has some management 'boxes' that need to be checked off besides all the design 'boxes' that you usually focus on. These boxes refer to backstage issues like accounting set-up, working out a design budget, getting a signed contract, and so on.
We used to use paper forms to collect the info, and now they are editable PDFs. The whole thing would work better in Basecamp as part of your standard project templates. We will get there.
The main problem with this system is that it is often hard to provide the answers when the answers are needed. So things linger in limbo and are forgotten until they affect the project. The perfect example is time-keeping. You can't log time on the project until it has been "set-up". The original form that collected this info was two pages long and asked for a lot of things that couldn't be identified on day one. So we invented a sub-routine for tracking what was still needed. That may have been worse.
Eventually we ended up with more forms, each asking for a discreet piece of information when it was needed. In the document below, you can see the forms that we use. You can download a PDF of our PROJECT FORMS here. Use the comments if you have any questions.
If it weren't for having to prepare a tax return, accounting (or bookkeeping, more properly) might be just as simple as sending out invoices and paying bills. But the need to calculate profit so that the government gets paid its share, and perhaps to divide those profits among principals of the firm, adds new levels of complexity. Tagging expenses with categories also becomes an issue. Depending on your need to know, most of this can be worked out by your accountant at tax time, or quarterly or even monthly.
If you find that you want or need a more sophisticated accounting program, it will give you the tools to get this feedback as often as you want it.
For professional service firms, taxes are reported on a cash basis. This means that you only count the money you receive or pay out in a calendar year. Depreciation of capital expenses, like a server, adds to the record keeping. But cash accounting can only tell you so much, and that is where accrual accounting enters the picture. Even though you pay taxes based on cash accounting you may want to keep the books on an accrual basis for the following reason. Accrual accounting tells you how the time and materials and services you pay for in a period of time compares to the money you earned from selling that same time, material, and service.
Profitability is based on invoices sent out and expenses incurred whether the money is actually received or paid. With a cash system you often spend the money now and only get paid 30 to 90 days later. That is a big disconnect. Sophisticated accounting programs can present the information as cash or accrual basis to suit your needs. So can an accountant. So can you, but it takes a bit of effort. In a simple system what you want to see is your cash balance building in the checking account so that you have a balance equal to 3-6 months of expenses. You also want to see that all the invoices you have sent are more than all the expenses you have paid or that are to be paid.
Another issue for architects is the profitability of each project. Assuming profitability varies from project to project. You need to know why. Is it the project type (new construction, remodeling, etc.)? The project size? The building type? The client type? The project manager? Clearly you would like to do more of the profitable work and less of the unprofitable work? But you can't do that until you know what the profitability is on each project. So your bookkeeping has to collect information on why you incurred all your expenses. For instance payroll has to be broken down into General Office, Project A, Project B, etc. The reprographics bill has to be allocated to the various projects. And so on. This doesn't require anything more than extra columns on a spreadsheet that looks a lot like a check register, but eventually it becomes unwieldy.
The choice of system comes down to how much time do you and your staff want to devote to bookkeeping and how much are you willing to pay others to keep things simple for you. Unfortunately allocating expenses to various projects is not something you can delegate to your accountant.
Next time - Accounting Software Criteria
Over the past few years our filing system has become nearly paperless. In the past, a large project might have generated anywhere from four to 12 three-inch-thick binders of paper.
The old process used binders with tabs for the various topics that we always encounter - Site, Codes, Budget, etc. It was about as easy to file things as using manila folders, and it was much easier to retrieve things.
The new system mimics the organization of the old system, but we use nested folders on the server to file the content digitally. It is easier to file and much easier to retrieve information.
Here is how it works.
Many times you won't have paper at all. For example, draft a proposal; when complete, turn it into a PDF and email it to the client. File the electronic original. I often print a draft to proof/markup, but I don't save a paper copy.
There is no real point in trying to avoid all paper; just don't file the paper.
Besides taking less time to file and retrieve, the electronic files don't take up floor space, and don't take longer and longer to find as time goes by.
SINCE THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED a lot has changed. So it's time for an update.
Finding information on Architekwiki can be done in two ways.
The first way is by using the Google site search widget to filter the articles based on your key word(s).
The second way is by using the categories of the blog in question to filter the articles. We will address them one at a time. [Footnote: from time to time duplicates show up in the lists of categories for unknown reasons. I attempt to eliminate them.]
For the WIKI page there are 20 categories, listed below. Every article is tagged with one of the first four categories and also with one or more of the other 16 categories. (You will note the actual category list are in alphabetical order.)
WIKI categories and a brief description of their intended content.
For the DETAILS page there are 14 categories, each represents a category in the UNIFORMAT II system. This article will give you more information about UNIFORMAT. The one exception is Proj Dwgs, which is used to tag articles about an entire project.
For the BLOG page there are 6 categories as follows. Others may be added from time to time.
Updated: September 28, 2013
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