BDP is embracing paperless working cautiously, as a progressive opportunity rather than an enforced ideology
In May, Building Design Partnership (BDP) moved into a four-and-a-half storeys plus basement building in London's Clerkenwell, the newly fashionable architects' quarter. And it has taken the opportunity to go paperless.
Paperless has been one of the big new things since the dawning of the computer era and possibly the least achieved. So BDP people look a bit sheepish when you ask them about their contribution to the credibility of the idea, because the office is not completely paperless. There is no need for this mild embarrassment because only a crazed and ideological organisation would force every current project to be changed to a paperless system.
The ultimate goal of going paperless is to have a more efficient, nicer office rather than being able to sit on the cutting edge of computerism and jeer at the slowcoaches. So although within six months all new projects will be started as paperless operations, there will be a rump of existing projects that are too inconvenient or laborious to convert to the new regime. There are, of course, other anthropological things going on.
BDP London office chairman Peter Drummond says: 'It's a bit like learning to swim: you don't want to entirely let go of the rail. Unlike the building move, there isn't a real deadline. It's [a matter of] developing a culture in which there is a willingness to let go of the handrail. It's a matter of managing the process of change.'
But the change is certainly happening. Already, all incoming paper material is scanned by two full-time operatives, is logged and, now in electronic form, is sent to the appropriate project administrator and, along with the more prevalent emails, is filed.
You walk around the studios and there is a notable absence of big bits of paper spread on desks and accumulated clutter, which at first you put down to the fact that everyone is being neat for the first few months of the new building. And then you discover that they are all serious about this remaining the norm.
The software basis for all this is the project-management application QTRAK and the associated document and drawing program QDMS from the Melbourne company QA Software. Daryl Jackson uses it in its Melbourne office and Multiplex, which built Stadium Australia for the Sydney Olympics, used it there and is using it to manage the construction of the new Wembley Stadium.
QTRAK is an information-management system that tracks project information. QDMS manages the electronic distribution of documents.
Together they provide an electronic matrix for information-based correspondence, specifications and email, and a means of logging correspondence simultaneously in job files, distributing information and archiving it.
The intention was that three-quarters of BDP projects would be paperless. Drummond says: 'That's the theory. It has actually taken a lot longer. However well thought-out an application [such as QTRAK] is, there are always needs for tweaks - these applications are always in a state of evolution.' Unlike, say, Word or Excel, which you install and are then on your own, this kind of big, multifaceted, expensive application needs customising for the special circumstances of each new client's activities.
The move towards being paperless started about nine months ago when a blitz on the way people stored information - and on the nature of the stuff they stored - began at BDP's old Gresse Street offices. On garbage days there were times when black plastic sacks, full of often reluctantly volunteered redundant material, were the chief feature of the street outside. However traumatic this soul cleansing might have been for some staff, it was accompanied by the establishment of a really efficient filing system.
Drummond says: 'All the old project files are in the basement in a huge racking system.You can get a file in five minutes maximum. What you see on the floor in the studios is personal stuff and a few project files.' Staff have their own personal lockers for coats and personal items and the studio workspaces are arranged with very long, deep benches. There are no sets of drawers to be seen - not even mobile pedestals - although one staffer who doesn't use a computer at her desk has redeployed the empty computer sling below as an improvised storage system for personal items.
At the end of this studio is a parallel-motion drawing board, yet to be mated with its tubular steel stand. And on other floors you will see a solitary plotter or two. Drummond points out that, if people find it easier, they are perfectly at liberty to do a printout.
He says of the few remnants of the old manual regime: 'Maybe that's an age thing, but there's no point in saying staff can't print out drawings if that's what they want to do.'
The new furniture is part of the process of stripping back to essentials. For several decades office furniture has been based on the conventional L plan, with the computer screen maybe at an angle in the corner or on the main arm of the desk.
With the relocation, BDP threw out conventional monitors and installed space-saving LCD screens - yes, they really do save space - which have much lower heat output.
The interior design section chose an Ergonom platform system, which is a more stylish version of the traditional architectural door-blank bench on legs. It has 2m-wide by 6m-long surfaces, with a cabling trough down the middle. There are no drawers or pedestals, and computer boxes are hung by straps under the benches at around 2m intervals - 2m being the average width allocated to each architect.Drummond says the 6m length is ideal because it is possible to squeeze everybody up a little and insert another person. He says that 'the flat screens have been a real enabler - and there is still enough space to lay out drawings'.
Architects have always moved around offices in order to be physically and conversationally contiguous with the current project home base. And some practices, such as DEGW, have taken that to the next stage of hot-desking.
Hot-desking is useful for people on the move, such as project managers, supervisors, job negotiators, consultants - and salesmen. Their basic items of kit are a DECT phone and a wireless laptop. The phone allows the user to be contactable directly on the same number wherever they are, and the wireless laptop lets them come in, open it up and be immediately online and on the office network. BDP has the wireless cabling but not the phones - and not yet the real need for this kind of working.
Drummond says: 'Hot-desking will evolve. At the moment people can have territory but not defensible spaces.' Wireless is, of course, useful in meetings - rather a lot of which are held in the informal simplicity of the ground-floor canteen-restaurant.
It means everybody can take their laptops along to meetings and tap into the BDP information network.
BDP people have not yet played around with tablet computers, but they have had thoughts about whiteboards and some people use new-technology wireless pens.
But the practice is taking it carefully. Having banished its documentation to virtual storage space, it is not about to litter the studios with unproven gizmos.