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Compressing needs

New systems of information retrieval can help to reduce the amount of paper stored - provided we know how to use them

A reliable, safe and fast data storage and retrieval system in an architect's office is as important as the data itself. There is no point having drawings, letters and photographs if you don't know where and how to access them.Far from saving time, computer-aided design can sometimes cost time when you consider the 'secondary'actions involved in CAD systems, such as finding files, copying them or printing them, not including finding ways to get around hardware incompatibilities.Time and money invested in organising the storage of data will pay dividends in the future.

Some argue that competition between architectural offices has shifted from 'abstract'considerations, such as originality, the aesthetics of design and style etc, to practicalities, such as consistency, responding to deadlines, flexibility of design and customer service.The efficiency of producing the right drawing at the required time may gain or lose a job, and at a later stage delay or enhance construction.This function is often taken for granted - it is only when the system is not up to scratch that one realises the need for improvement. Efficient data storage and archiving is the key to responding to the needs arising from these new competitive factors.

The distinctive nature of the storage needs associated with CAD drawings, digital images and moving image files is mainly their size.The computer or the server will crash more often in an architect's office than in an estate agent's, despite the specifications of computers being very similar.

Therefore, it is essential before creating a file that all the resources necessary to store, retrieve and use it are available, and that the best means for the job in hand is used.

Think things through While creating a CAD file, it is important to compress it as often as possible (whatever software is used - it is possible to compress . dxfs, . dgns and . dwgs).But the largest strain on storage, in terms of size, are image files such as renderings, photomontages and collages.Typically, an office keeps several versions of any image and one way to avoid the strain on storage capacity is to use the 'layers'function in software such as Adobe Photoshop.This helps to maintain flexibility, allowing the modification of component layers of an image (the rendering, the backdrop and additional elements), without affecting the bigger picture.

When the image is finalised, the layers are 'flattened' and can no longer be modified, but the image size becomes significantly smaller.When saving the final version or versions, the size versus quality factor is crucial (see box on optimising saved space).

Architects often overestimate the importance of the quality of an image, and in the majority of cases choose excessive quality resolutions for their renderings. These monster files reduce the computer's efficiency so actions take longer to perform. Being aware of the differences in size and quality caused by the image format is also essential, for example JPGS are smaller than TIFFS, but in some cases there is no real difference in quality between the two.Resolution is measured in dots per inch.Before defining the preferred resolution for all your images, it is worth having some printouts of the same image in versions of 72,200 and 300 dpi.This will be a valuable guide in determining what the final result looks like.

Initially, your files should be stored on the computer's hard drive, in the case of an individual computer (not linked with a server), or on the designated drive of the server, in the case of computers connected through a network.

Files deleted from the server are automatically backed up for a specified period of time and therefore data loss is very rare.

A CAD drawing should be saved every 30 minutes or so, overwriting the previous version. It is advisable that a version of the file is saved with a different name at longer intervals. The frequency of backing up should be decided according to the particular project and a combination of hard drive (or server) and an additional method should be used.

Paperless offices In general, CDs are an excellent, cost-efficient method of storage and archiving, especially for architectural offices. It is recommended that even in an office with only one workstation, there should be a CD writer.CDs are ideal for storing past projects or the largest files of past projects, therefore saving space on the hard drive or the server.The price difference between a CD writer and a Zip drive will be evened up by the low cost of CDs.Manual backup on to CD or DVD once a week is a common practice.

The existence of a server aids productivity and increases the speed within geographically remote teams.However, it is equally important to know that your CAD software also supports team working and file-sharing by different users.When project files are stored on the hard drive or the server it is wise to have a backup file with a different name. The major CAD software packages feature file types (. bak instead of . dgn, for example) designated for backing up drawings.

The combination of a CD writer and a server (suited to the size of the office) seems to be a winning solution. The truth is that although this may reduce the volume of stored paperwork, the need for printouts at every stage generally increases the paper consumption. These new systems offer the real potential to cut down on the amount of paper stored - but only in terms of the final drafts.There is still a huge number of printouts that are marked for correction before ending up in the bin just after the next version is printed.

So, it should not be expected that the paperless office will decrease paper consumption. In fact the opposite is more likely.

The trade-off of CAD systems has nothing to do with the amount of trees cut down, but lies in weighing up increased productivity (speed of project development and teamworking) against increased costs of investment in technology (including training, maintenance, updating and upgrading).

OPTIMISING SAVED SPACE

Image resolution does not directly define quality. Saving a rendered image at a 3,000 x 2,000 resolution simply defines the dots that are created vertically and horizontally. Most CAD software, when saving such an image, will automatically do it at a certain dots per inch (dpi), say 72dpi - the equivalent is approximately 26 pixels per cm.

Such a file, saved at 72dpi, will create an image 3,000/72 inches x 2,000/72 inches; or 41.6 x 27.7 inches. At 72dpi the quality of such a big image will appear pixilated. The quality will improve by decreasing the size.

At 200dpi, the size will be 72/200, that is 36 per cent of the initial size. If the initial goal was to have an A4 image at 200dpi, the file could be smaller than the one that was saved! Therefore, to obtain the required quality at optimum size, it is worth doing a calculation before finding that you have used up all the available space on your hard drive. For example, if A4 is the required size (11.69 x 8.26 inches), at 200dpi the required resolution will be (11.69 x 200) by (8.26 x 200) = 2,338 x 1,652 dots. This calculation can help optimise the storage capacity of the given system. In this example, it helps to avoid storing and handling at 3,000 x 2,000 when 2,338 x 1,652 is acceptable. The file size is almost halved (it is 57 per cent of the size of the first file). The printer output resolution should also be checked before defining the dpi specifications of the image.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Is sharing data (teamworking) effective?

To be truly effective this requires a dedicated file server.

Can you electronically store hand drawings?

Yes. Most large firms use some system of document management where all drawings and incoming letters, faxes and so on are scanned into a document management system. Sketches and important hand drawings can be stored electronically, but scanned drawings that consist of many lines may require an excessive file size.

How quick and easy is it to retrieve information?

Finding a stored file efficiently is a crucial factor. It is good (and usual) practice to store files by project. The various sub-folders in the project folder may include information files (files used to set up the project, such as site drawings and photographs), 2D design files (current proposal, newly drawn files),3D files (model files and final renderings) and finally plot files, which are documents set up for printing, including the company logo and standard formats.

Each sub-folder should also have a 'superseded' files sub-folder, something like a holding chamber before the recycle bin.

What is the difference between storing and backing up?

Storing is usually related to permanently depositing a file which may be needed in the future, whereas backing up is associated with the continuous working process and safety during developing the file that will be stored. A CAD file for example may be stored on a folder every time changes are made or in regular time intervals (probably once a day), but it should also be backed up with a different name, in order to prevent loss or damage.

Backing up causes delays. Is it really necessary?

Yes, it is essential, since the loss of data is the loss of the work of the office. The use of proprietary software such as Dantz Retrospect allows automated backups to occur typically every day, usually carried out at night when the office is not working.

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