Archiving Project Documents
Better than a clipboard is a simple digital database in which you record such information as the date, type of document, parties notified, and where the document can be located. You can take this one step further by creating links to the documents themselves from your database via HTML tagging or PDF linkage.
But before you get that fancy, try first to develop an administrative system whereby you can rely on every project document getting logged into the database. Remember to consider all communication media, including e-mail correspondence, telephone calls, and fax transmissions. Your first, and perhaps most difficult, administrative challenge is to get the project staff to log everything in.
What to Store
Suppose you have now successfully completed a project and have a massive amount of mixed media, all neatly catalogued. What exactly do you keep, and what do you throw away? You have "standard-of-care" obligations to your client as well as to all parties current and future who may somehow relate to your project.
In our litigious society, you must be prepared for possible lawsuits. You may hear contradictory advice ranging from "save everything, you may need it" to "throw everything away, that way they can't nail you for anything." Either of those extremes is "easy" in the sense that it requires no judgment about disposing of particular elements. But be wary of these extremes because too much or too little documentation can threaten the usefulness that the information could have for your office as a resource for future work.
A better way to sift this mass of information is to keep only those items that "tell the story" of the project. For example, how did the project change from three stories to two? Why did the project budget increase by $100,000? Why was the window specification changed?
If your project database has been kept up faithfully, you can quickly red-line the log to eliminate the repetitive, superfluous items that do not "advance the story." After this editing, you will have a better idea of what to keep and what to delete for your project archive.
Storing an Archive
You will probably need at least a two-stage archiving plan. The first stage would encompass all the documents you need to keep to fulfill your legal obligations. State law in the United States usually includes a "Statute of Repose" that limits the length of time after project completion during which most construction professionals can be sued.
Most statutes specify a range from six to ten years. This length of time is a good one to set for your first-stage, full-story documentation. At the end of this time, you can further weed your archive into a final historical archive in which you only save those items that might be of interest to you for future reference.
The next question is where to store your archive. My office relies on the rule, "at least two media, two locations." Considering that you are likely to have both paper and digital archive material, perhaps we should amend that to "three media, three locations": one set for your paper archive and two sets for your digital archive.
If your office is like ours, your paper archive will diminish in importance — mostly because, as a resource of reusable data, it is not as practical as a digital archive. Occasionally, however, some nugget of information will prove available only via hard copy.
I won't repeat what's been written extensively on how to store paper archives. But in summary, if you don't store them in a controlled environment (65-70 degrees Fahrenheit or 18-21 degrees Centigrade, 35 percent relative humidity, air-conditioned, no direct sunlight), then you can't count on them lasting up to 200 years. But, realistically, most of us ignore those rules anyway and stuff boxes and tubes in attics and basements, where they are vulnerable to fire, flood, or plumbing leaks.
The nice thing about digital archiving is that we now have a chance to "have our cake and eat it too." Digital archiving is so compact that we can store the data in a place where it can be reasonably protected but also accessible for future use. Tape backup is probably not a long-term solution, but compact disc storage with a "shelf-life" of 75 to 100 years appears to be the most promising long-term solution today.
As your second digital medium/ location, you can also consider many affordable options for online storage at various Internet sites. The most important caveat with that option is to find a reputable site that has a chance of still being in business in 10 or 20 years.
There are many issues to consider when developing your own project archiving policies. One useful resource is the recent update to the Architects Handbook of Professional Practice from the American Institute of Architects. But the most important thing is to start thinking now about what to do about safeguarding one of your most important assets, your documents.
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Evan H. Shu, FAIA is an architect with Shu Associates Inc. in Melrose, Massachusetts. He is a contributor to publications such as The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice and Architectural Record and is publisher and editor of Cheap Tricks, a monthly newsletter for DataCAD users and computer-using architects.
This article was reprinted from the August 2002 issue of Cheap Tricks © Shu Associates Inc. with permission of the publisher.