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Making progress by design

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The Edward Cullinan office went totally digital two years ago.

Far from being traumatic, the move has paid dividends Two months ago, the Edward Cullinan office appointed Chris Johnson as full-time IT manager. For the past couple of years Johnson has been a one-day-a-week consultant, nursing along the practice's increasing involvement with digital technology.

By the beginning of next year, the firm will have a website and some members of the office will be well versed in the electronic document management system (EDMS) it is using for its mammoth Singapore masterplanning commission.

On top of that, everybody on the big upper floor of the old warehouse beside the Islington stretch of the Grand Union Canal will be computer literate, networked and have their own practice e-mail addresses;

unusually, job-based e-mail addresses tie in with the job databases being developed by practice member Geraldine Reilly.

One tends to think of the practice in terms of the gnarled Cullinan visage, those shaggy timber tailings schemes at Hooke Park, and the fact that it is run on somewhat collectivist lines. However, it has always produced remarkably hard-edged buildings, and is a long way from being institutionally Luddite.

Cullinan has had a computerbased accounting system for a decade - and some years before that had used an IBM CAD system for the duration of a project for the computer giant.

Even so, it was not until a couple of years ago that the practice decided to commit formally to digital technology. This was a collective decision, based partly on the fact that clients had begun to demand it of their building teams.

Practice guru Robin Nicholson says: 'It was enlightened self-interest - we saw that computers had the potential to be useful.'

Michael Kohn, chairman of the practice's computer forum, says: 'We simply bought into the fact that we needed them. It hasn't affected the fact that we work cooperatively.'

One early proposition emanating from that decision was to convert the office to hot-desking. That probably died a death because architects are more instinctively territorial in the office than, say, travelling salesmen.

Another decision was to commit to using MicroStation and the modern manifestation of that old Mac reliable, MiniCad, now called VectorWorks. The practice had the common bias in favour of Macs but, now that most CAD applications have been ported to the PC, there is a feeling that most of the office computers will be upgraded as PCs.

So at a time when AutoCAD seems to have become the industry standard, isn't the MicroStation decision a bit fashionably precious? Not according to Johnson - because people in the office are skilled at using it and new versions will be able to pass AutoCAD files from consultants and contractors back and forth more or less seamlessly.

As for the employment prospects of staff who leave Cullinan knowing only MicroStation, CAD applications such as it and AutoCAD seem similar enough in operation for conversion to the more widely used system to be painless.

Going digital involves a new discipline in the office. But doesn't that go against the grain of free-form and collective working? Cullinan architect Peter Inglis says: 'It makes a difference to the way we work, just as adopting CAD has done. Between the 30 of us we have developed an office handbook. It's not prescriptive, but sets out benchmarks - for example, how to set up our filing system. It has led us to recognise protocols that enable us to work as a team.'

In fact, all offices work on the basis of some kind of common protocols, written or not. But it seems true that in the digital office you have to codify the basic rules formally - just as it is critical to have a series of protocols about which layers are used for which elements in CAD applications. It is not that the Cullinan office has suddenly gone rigid - it has simply changed gear slightly.

Reilly's database started out as a digital version of the practice Rolodex.

It now maps project team activities and may link with other Reilly databases, one of which is a photo record documenting site progress on jobs.

Nicholson says: 'First it was names and addresses, then facts on jobs - this enables us to see who is doing what and who is doing too much and what the priorities should be.'

For the moment, the database will not include production drawings:

they are stored on both paper and disk with the team members.

The current exception to this is the EDMS system, which is used on the Singapore job. Johnson points out that using this now well-established method of transmitting, storing and managing information means that members of the building team can be in any part of the connected world.

Contrary to what you might expect, the time differences between Singapore and London have an advantage 'When we dump data on EDMS at the end of our day, our people in Singapore can pick it up in their morning and work on it, ' says Johnson.

This is the nearest thing you can get to 24-hour drawing production.

The time difference is seven or eight hours, so although, happily, it has not happened, it is only mildly inconvenient for people to stay back in the office for discussions across cyberspace. EDMS allows team members to look at a drawing simultaneously from anywhere in the world and to sort out the local problem on screen.

EDMS demanded the installation of a fast, leased, always-on Kilostream line, rather than ISDN or ADSL or cable. For a while, the practice used CD-based information systems for building regulations, NBS and product information. But Johnson says that since installing the leased line in March, 'you just log in and there the information is. Or you can search the websites of manufacturers or institutions for the most recent information.'

Digitising architectural offices can be traumatic for partners. By popular definition, they are all over 40 and were initiated in the mores and taboos of the international architectural longhouse of at least 20 pre-digital years ago. For them, the big revolutions were the introduction of A sizes, Rapidograph pens, and parallel motions. But as the Cullinan office - mostly people in their 30s or younger - has found, going digital need not be any more traumatic than were those groundbreaking innovations.

You quickly learn how to do it because it makes your working life a bit more pleasurable. But there is a sort of downside, as Nicholson points out: 'It is the amount of drawing we can produce - it can be enormous.

The question is, is it really helpful?'

And you think of the half-dozen or so sheets of heavy Whatman watercolour paper which made up the working drawings for all those big Victorian buildings.

Michael Kohn, 30 years old and the office computerisation evangelist, has a last word. He says all the CAD and organisation stuff is interesting enough - but the challenging thing is how to use the computer in the preliminary, conceptual and exploratory stages of design.

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