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Brave new world

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TTSP, a 60-strong practice, has set up a carefully considered framework for the way its architects use CAD All the drawing boards have gone.

But in the new architectural global village the likelihood is that the change to the all-VDU office has come about incrementally and often haphazardly. And, because architects are architects and not computer wonks, there is a good chance that this also comes with a hazy grasp of the necessary internal disciplines.

The production of drawings is no longer part of an esoteric rite involving tracing linen, pounce (technical term for talc) and springbow drafting pens performed between Honeywood File architect and builder. It is a process still largely instigated by architects but one that is open to cooperative intervention by almost any member of the construction team. Understanding and managing CAD now calls for a good grasp of data structures and a Machiavellian skill in encouraging all its participants to work within a well thoughtout operational framework Evangelical order How do architectural practices cope?

One model is TTSP, the former Thomas Saunders Partnership. This 60-strong London practice has used CAD more or less from the beginning and has had time to develop a mature CAD-management process. It is the responsibility of its CAD evangelist, Marco Crawford, who formally bears the title of CAD facilitator.

The practice is unusual in running MicroGDS as its primary CAD package. Crawford says that back at the dawn of the CAD era, the practice had opted for the pioneering application GDS when the choices were more or less GDS, RUCAPS or Intergraph. Later, when everybody seemed to have migrated to newcomer AutoCAD or, occasionally, to the direct descendant of Intergraph, MicroStation, the practice decided to stay with GDS in its new incarnation, MicroGDS. It is an application that can be found in a number of middling-to-large practices - Scott Brownrigg + Turner uses it, for example, and it is popular in Japan.

The reason for staying with it, says Crawford, is simply that the objectbased MicroGDS does things better for the practice than AutoCAD which, in its basic form, is essentially a drafting tool. It is also a couple of grand cheaper per seat than an equivalent incarnation of the industry standard.

Crawford explains that because MicroGDS can output files in DWG and DXF format, translating files between almost all the CAD packages is simple; or at least it was until a month or so ago, when AutoDesk brought out a new 'improved' file structure. There is now a bit of a rush in the non-AutoCAD world to unscramble the new file structure and resume interoperability.

The naming of parts

One of the advantages of MicroGDS, says Crawford, is that 'it is pure Windows. So it can be integrated with all the Windows standards, Power Point, Microsoft Office and the like.' Equally importantly, it is easily customised.

But Crawford warns that customisation has to be subtle.

One of the big difficulties in CAD management is getting draftspeople to use the right layers. One way is to issue a list and punish people who persistently fail to use it; not easy for a non-architect CAD manager in an architect-run operation if the offender is otherwise a useful designer.

Crawford does not have this problem because he sets up the raw resources for each new job before anybody starts drawing: the number of floors, services levels, plans and elevations.

Setting up these protocols means architects cannot go wild; and they can start work on a project without having to think about designing the information structure.

An important part of Crawford's job is thinking about taxonomies.

This is, of course, inherent in the organisation of what TTSP calls its 'pack' system of organising CAD data.

Crawford says: 'We are re-looking at our pack system, which we have had for rather a long time, and are considering NBS and CISfB. Both systems have virtues and vices, so it is likely we will develop a hybrid system.'

Crawford sits in the middle of the TTSP studio in Clerkenwell where staff have immediate access to him.

As part of his communication with users he has recently set up a remarkably comprehensive office intranet.

It carries office news, an image library, regulations, details of staff and new jobs. There is controlled access to the latter groups. 'It's taken a while to get people to look at the intranet, ' he says, 'but now we're hoping to integrate it with our CAD system, to issue drawings, for example.'

There is another reason for layer discipline. Unlike some CAD packages, it is easy for different people to work simultaneously on a MicroGDS model. Once an architect starts work on a layer, that layer belongs, for the time being, to the architect. But a colleague, whether at the next desk or in Hong Kong, could be working on the electrical layout, another on the door schedule. And changing ownership of a layer can be done on the fly rather than having to close down and come back in.

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