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ORMS plumps for third way

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The practice took the plunge and appointed an IT manager, resulting in improved performance and cost savings

We all know how frustrating it can be when technology lets us down. Why can't they do something about it?

Everything is grinding along at a snail's pace.We must need a bigger server.

Faced with this kind of complaint, most architects respond either by making a substantial investment or by telling their staff to grit their teeth and put up with it. But this apparent Hobson's choice is born of ignorance.

There is another option, and it is one that architect ORMS has explored.

It involves learning how you are actually using your IT, and whether the problems you are experiencing can be resolved by better management. If more investment is needed, you should pinpoint exactly where rather than upgrading everything. In other words, use your common-sense - but to do so you need considerably more IT knowledge than most architectural practices have.

ORMS' solution was to appoint an IT manager, Adam Pritchard, who, says director Dale Jennings, 'has started to buy programs that give him information'. One of the things this led him to discover was that, of the 98 gigabytes of data on the server, only 7 per cent was CAD related. Thirty per cent was presentation, 29 per cent was live and archived e-mail, 11 per cent was personal and 8 per cent was marketing images.

This was an important discovery.

ORMS had just doubled its server capacity at a cost of £10,000. 'We spend about 50 per cent more than the average practice on IT, ' said Jennings, who added that the firm wanted to avoid the need to upgrade again in another six months, which would have been the case without rationalisation.

The 30 per cent of space occupied by presentation is one reason for the proliferation of data. 'We have always used DTP, ' said Jennings. 'We got into doing presentations and having an image database 18 months ago.' But DTP is memory intensive, particularly if there is duplication of material.

'That is why we have an image database, ' said Pritchard.

In addition, said Jennings, 'the problem with presentations is that they tend to be cut-and-paste material. We have been keeping all the old stuff as well [old layers].When we get rid of that we will knock a huge amount of data off the server.'

Personal files are another issue.

Practice members tend to squirrel away bits of information that are not project based. The only way to tackle this is to instill a discipline of keeping essential material off the server, and to have regular purges. 'It is a process of education, ' said Jennings. 'We have to teach people why we want them to do things in a certain way.'

This is particularly true of the email system. In some ways the introduction of e-mail has been advantageous. For example, on a £15 million project for Capital One there are only two hard-copy letters on file from the client. But Jennings is concerned about records which, with a paper system, the practice kept meticulously. He is proud that the practice has not made a PII claim for 16 years.

Under the old paper-based system, administrators took a copy of every letter and filed it appropriately. Email has bypassed that system. While it is easy to ensure that a paper copy is made and filed of every e-mail coming into the office, taking copies of outgoing e-mails and filing them has, up to now, been the responsibility of individual architects. 'It requires architects to do admin that they won't do, ' said Jennings.

ORMS has been looking for an equivalent to the Lexus system used by lawyers, software that would pick up e-mails by file code or by key words and file them automatically.

The stumbling block has been that the practice is wedded to Apple Macs, on which it uses the VectorWorks CAD package.

'We use it because it is essentially an extension of the photocopy, Tippex and drawing that we used to collage drawings, ' said Jennings. The practice invested in MicroStation for one specific project, but is letting its licence lapse.

'With MicroStation, you need to know what you want to draw, ' said Jennings. 'With VectorWorks, you don't need to be that sure.' He says that the practice believes in an 'arts and crafts' approach that sees projects all the way through from concept to realisation, and that most CAD systems get in the way of the creative process. This may change for a future generation of architects for whom CAD is so instinctive that they do not notice they are using it.

If this sounds a bit old-fashioned, do not forget that this is also a practice with 51 staff and 64 computers, that has taken homeworking and remote access seriously.

It also recognised the value of employing a full-time IT manager.

Another of Pritchard's coups has been to identify a bottleneck in the system between the switch and the server. The solution was a piece of fast optic fibre.

Now which architect would have worked that out? There would have been unnecessary upgrading of expensive equipment - or a return to moaning and dissatisfaction.

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