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The Architect’s “New Normal”

Until a few years ago, subcontractors bidding on jobs received hard copies of drawings, but technological advancements threw a money wrench into the way things were done: The first electronically submitted plans started arriving.

“We went from getting one plan a week, to two plans and then about eight plans a week,” explains Todd Dubinsky, vice president of Elmhardt Construction Corp. a Long Island–based drywall contractor serving New York City. Today, Elmhardt, like many subs in the United States and Canada, receive PDF files of drawings.

“It’s almost like the plans are all three-dimensional on a computer screen,” Dubinsky says.

And that isn’t always a good thing.

“What’s being overlooked is that even if you use digital estimating software, sooner or later the plans have to be printed, especially if you get the job,” says Dubinsky, adding that sending out for prints from PDFs can be costly. The option? Buying a printer at great expense—inexpensive printers simply won’t provide accurate details or large enough sizes to work from.

“In the field drawings are still necessary, and the better the drawing, the easier the job will go,” Dubinsky says.

From the architect’s perspective, he understands the rationale behind the shift: printing sets of plans for every general contractor and subtrade bidding can be expensive. But the move to electronic documents has caused more than a few additional printing costs for subcontractors like Elmhardt Construction.

“I spend about two hours a week downloading drawings and sorting through them to figure out what I need to print,” Dubinsky says. “There are always questions about the prints (partly because the colors on a computer monitor don’t always translate well into black and white hard copy).”

Making matters worse, when he sends the architect an RFI specific to the work he’s doing, he sometimes gets back a complete set of amended drawings. It might be easier for an architect to do, but for Dubinsky and other subs it can mean extra work going through the complete drawing set a second time.

“You can give me a full set of plans, foundation plans, electrical and plumbing plans …,” Dubinsky says. “I have no reason to look at them.”

Sometimes he will review mechanical drawings if they show detailed ductwork, but to weave through a whole set of plans can be time-consuming—particularly if it is a complex project with an extensive set of plans.

Dubinsky also says increasingly he sees sets of “progress drawings,” which are only the first set he has to print. Amended drawings follow.

“You have to look at one plan to get one idea. The finished plan tells you one thing, but an elevation tells you another. Sometimes you’re bidding a job and you have to jump to conclusions. It shouldn’t be like that,” he says.

A small drywall contractor with a staff of about 20, Elmhardt typically gets two jobs for every eight or so it bids on. That translates to a lot of time and cost spent on drawings in times where every penny counts.

“Ten years ago if things were slow, there was nothing going on, but now there are tons of projects,” Dubinsky says. But that doesn’t translate to making money. Profit margins are slim at best, and sometimes jobs are taken just to keep skilled workers employed.

Dubinsky understands that some subs use estimating software that might not require blueprints, but that is pricey software, and hard copies are still required in the field. Elmhardt uses a KIP large format printer for all of its architectural drawings. The contractor purchased a used model for about $5,000—a new one would have cost more than double. In a busy week, Elmhardt prints about 100 drawings 24 by 36-inches in size. It’s not just money and extra time resulting from the electronic move; it’s also space, and the printer requires a lot of that. The contractor had to provide a 10 by 10-foot room for the printer.

Along with drywall, the Long Island contractor’s business includes rough carpentry and acoustical ceilings for restaurants, retail, offices and a smattering of high-end residential work in Manhattan. Dubinsky says traditionally one of the best ways of a subcontractor advertising its business was to bid on a lot of jobs, making itself known to as many general contractors as possible. But in today’s environment with electronic plans, it’s not always an inexpensive means of advertising.

F.L. Crane

Like Elmhardt, F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. of Fulton, Miss., has had to print plans for several years. The Mississippi-based full-service wall and ceiling contractor is facing hard times as well, with work down by 30 percent. Like Elmhardt, the contractor has had to adapt, but F.L. Crane President Mike Heering says he’s adjusting to the new norm.

“We have learned to do a lot of onscreen takeoffs and printing out half-size drawings for our reviews,” Heering says. “Only when we get the job do we print out the full size for the field.”

He says a high-end printer makes a big difference in the quality of prints. But rather than purchasing a printer, F.L. Crane & Sons leases a KIP 6000 model for about $1,000 a month. The deal includes maintenance and paper. The company uses about 125,000 square feet of paper annually.

“The quality of our prints is very good,” Heering says. “If there is color, it is produced in black and white, but the drawings are accurate. The only time color does not print well is when the toner is running low. We might still be okay on black and white lines, but the color will start to fall off a little.”

Heering says it seems like forever since the days when a sub could get a set of drawings for a deposit, and get that deposit back if the sub didn’t win the job. In those times successful subs would be given one or two sets of drawings from the GC. “I think that the architects have been hammered so hard by the owners to be low on their proposal to get the job of designing and drawing their project that they have taken out all the stops, just like all the contractors have, or face going out of business because of the lack of work,” Heering says.

Subs like Elmhardt don’t see any easy solutions to their woes. A return to the “good old days” is unlikely, adds F.L. Crane & Sons’ Heering.

“To make a change you would have to go back to the owners and convince them that they should be paying for these things, and I just don’t see that happening,” Heering says. “It was kind of like when we bid a job we would read between the lines and anticipate that we would have to do something like wrap a column or a sprinkler riser pipe that the architect failed to show on the drawings. Not anymore, because you cannot put anything extra in your bid or you will just be wasting your time putting your proposal together.”

4-Star Drywall

Bob Pirocchi, president of Toronto-based 4-Star Drywall (99) Ltd., says while he doesn’t mind paying for prints of drawings at time of tender (a cost of about $200), he agrees with Elmhardt’s Dubinsky that the high cost of printing drawings after he’s been awarded a contract can be a “ball buster. That’s when you start getting notices of changes on PDFs. We have no control over how many of these changes or site instructions are going to appear on a project.”

For example, Pirocchi recently received an unexpected set of addendum drawings that contained 14 pages on PDF files. “I tried looking at them on my (computer) screen but I practically needed a movie theater-size screen to be able to read them,” Pirocchi says. “I need a hard copy in the office and the job site so I had to take them to the printers.”

“Why should I have to pay for additional drawings after I’ve been awarded the contract?”

Furthermore, Pirocchi says once he’s landed a job, he’s issued one set of drawings. But he needs two sets—one for the office and one for the site. He has to pay to print the second set or purchase a high-quality printer or plotter that can reproduce 36-by 48-inch drawings accurately in color. Those printers aren’t cheap, however, (prices of $5,000 to $12,000 are typical), they require a lot of space, and the monthly paper and ink costs can add up quickly. Plus, someone has to operate the equipment.

Pirocchi says the problem is happening a lot now throughout the industry in Toronto. It’s a side effect of the computer age. However, if more subs complained about it, perhaps something could be done. Getting paid a sum for printing costs over and above the negotiated contract price would do, but GCs aren’t likely to agree to such an arrangement.

Four Seasons Drywall

Drywall contractor Richard Bennett agrees that there is no way around the fact that the job entails printing up a lot of architectural drawings these days. However, there are some pluses to moving out of the world of hard copy drawings and into the world of PDFs.

“We get the drawings a lot faster now. The pace in this industry is incredible, and this helps speed things up,” says Bennett, partner and chief estimator of Toronto-based Four Seasons Drywall & Acoustics Limited.

Four Seasons Drywall purchased a plotter that can print architectural drawings up to 36 by 48 inches. The plotter cost close to $5,000. Associated costs include $200 to restock paper and about $300 for ink every two or three months.

Bennett says it is the GC, not the architect, who saves money from the shift to electronic drawings. GCs used to get a couple of sets of drawings but they would have to print several copies to loan to subs. “If they didn’t get the job, they’d throw them all away,” he says. “Now they receive one hard copy from the architect and the rest are received in PDFs.” During the tendering process on a management job a GC might have had to print out 40 to 50 sets of drawings—three for each subtrade.

Bennett says that while some architects don’t highlight changes on amended drawings, most do to make it easy for contractors to review the changes.

“It looks like he (Elmhardt) is dealing with one of the odd architects who doesn’t (highlight changes),” Bennett surmises

The Architect’s Point of View

Impetus for the big shift to electronic drawings comes partly from building owners placing budget caps on the number of drawing sets architects can reproduce, says architect Walter Scarborough of Dallas-based architectural firm Hall Building Information Group. In the past, architects or GCs were requested by project owners to print up numerous sets of full-size drawings (between 20 and 50 sets). Many of those sets weren’t used, or only “a small portion” of them would be useful to specialty contractors.

Contractors, he says, are left with two options: take PDF files to a printer, or purchase a plotter.

“It doesn’t have to be a large format plotter,” Scarborough advises. “Usually, I print 11 by 17-inch size because I can pretty much read what’s on it.”

Subs doing takeoffs might require larger printouts for fine details, but the benefit of PDFs is you print only the pages you need. PDFs can be created online and sent to a contractor instantly; hard copies, by comparison, might take a day or two at a printer before being shipped to the sub. That can be a key time factor these days when deadlines are increasingly tight.

Scarborough adds that in many cases architects are under the gun to produce documents in a time frame too short to complete drawings. “There’s a shift down the line to force some subcontractors to make design decisions. I think that’s unfortunate, not good at all, but it’s schedule-based—just part of the way things are happening,” Scarborough says.

Scarborough says it is also unfortunate—but uncommon—when architects don’t highlight drawing changes or respond vaguely to requests from specialty contractors for explanations. “That’s just not being a good architect,” he adds.

As for the beef by some subs that electronic drawings prepared in many colors don’t translate well to black and white prints, Scarborough points out those drawings might be produced on building information modeling (BIM) software, which creates many items in color. The solution? Get a compatible color printer or reference the electronic image on screen to mark up the black and white copy.

“There’s a giant software change from two-dimensional CAD, which for the most part is in black and white and resembles hand drawings to building information modeling,” Scarborough says.

The bottom line is that the electronic medium “is much less expensive and much more efficient” than prints. “Whether contractors like it or not, the industry is going electronic. They don’t have a choice but to change with it,” says Scarborough, noting architects, too, have to adjust to changing electronic mediums.

Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.

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