Saving your legal bacon
What are you doing with your old e-mails? No, this is serious. Because although you may well have archived all the drawings and documents of that last job, you could be expensively in trouble unless you remembered to archive all the e-mails. Some of them almost certainly contained instructions and material which a halfcompetent lawyer could use against you.
It is a warning Alec Milton, document-management guru at Arup, has for practices. And e-mail has further ramifications. What, for example, do you do when a person leaves a practice in the middle of a job? Do you close their e-mail account or keep it going? If you do the latter, what about personal privacy? If you close it, what critical messages will you never know about? Until, that is, they are waved at you in court.
Do you allow people to run their own e-mail accounts and hope to hell that they all religiously follow the filing procedures you have laid down?
Or do you set up a whole office email address with individual messages being distributed and filed by an administrator?
And even when you archive everything, including e-mails, is the data safe? Safe means safe from burglars, from fire and damage, from idiots wiping the wrong files, from corruption and from the inability to access them. A couple of months ago, Milton had reason to call up some files he had created in a practice a decade before.
They had been carefully filed on fiveand-a-quarter-inch floppies. Finding disk drives of this size was difficult enough, but the real problems were that the software to read them had not been archived with them and that a lot of the magnetic data had been corrupted. So, Milton argues, electronic archived files need to be updated regularly and re-stored with the hardware and software needed to access them.
Even small practices need to keep archives. It is a matter of legal prudence and there is probably small print in your professional indemnity policy about how long it needs to be kept. And it is not enough to simply keep archives: they also need to be accessible.
So how do you store archives? Milton argues for a variety of simultaneous methods. Arup offers a hosting service called Integration. It is an Oraclebased database that sits on servers in the UK and is a bit like the long-term storage services offered by hosting companies such as Buzzsaw and Citadon. Milton sounds a cautious note: 'We will put copies of our data on such services but we keep our own copies as well. There is no guarantee that the firm you have chosen to host your archives will be there tomorrow.
Or, more importantly, there 10 years hence. At Arup we are making the facility available but people need to go in with their eyes open.'
Milton is a committed believer in ITfor construction practices. 'Even small practices need to recognise that the way to move forward is to invest in IT.' Fortunately, architectural and engineering training involves working with IT, though there is, oddly, a certain snobbery among engineers about the idea of working with CAD as being a technician's job. It is not true at Arup and it is largely not true of architects who, as a group, are quite comfortable with CAD.
CAD files are digital and they have to be filed in a way that makes them instantly accessible during the progress of the building job, as well as after. This is where Milton's Columbus emerges into the spotlight. This document-management system (reviewed in Architech, AJ 24.2.00), is a brilliant spin-off from Milton's preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of handling documents. Co-authored by Milton, the free program is a heavyweight application which has won awards, has a lively website and an active plug-in writing forum attached. There is a good chance that it will become the industry standard document-management tool. Thousands of people worldwide like it and Arup has a commanding influence over the construction values of many countries. Milton points out that it would be a good idea if professional clients took it up as well: if you are working on five new projects with clients with different IT regimes it can be hell, he says, having to call up five different e-mail boxes every morning and night.
FIND OUT MORE Milton is running two courses as part of the portfolio of management training for architects organised by architectural management consultancy Colander. Entitled 'IT: 'Why can't I find that document?'' they will run on Tuesday 15 May, 2- 5.30pm, and on Wednesday 30 May, 9am-12.30pm, at the Building Centre, Store St, London. Cost is £155 per head but there is an early-booking discount. For more information or to book contact Colander, tel 020 7580 3058, or e-mail info@colander. co. uk