A picture is worth… a smart storge system

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If you missed Renee DuFore Russell’s story on photography in the December issue, it would be worth your while to go back and give it a careful read.

She covered the fun part of making pictures – the why and how. This column will develop the nitty-gritty part – the storage and retrieval of pictures and related documents.

Of all the reasons for making pictures of your projects, I’m going to focus on one: marketing. You want to be able to demonstrate to a potential client that you are experienced and competent in the type of job under consideration.

Sure, you can tell a good story but it’s more powerful if you can back up the “tell” with plenty of “show.” And don’t forget that accurate job costing is an important element of marketing.

Sending clients out to look at a list of old job sites might not be the best idea. An owner might not maintain the buildings properly, it might be covered with snow and ice, more recent construction might obscure the view or the client might be just too darned busy to go prowling around. A quick presentation, at the least, could make a good first impression.

Most builders and architects keep track of projects by job number. Projects usually are listed in chronological order, often on paper. And that’s fine – as long as someone has a great memory for what was done and when it was done. And make sure nothing unexpected happens to the paper.

No more procrastinating

If that situation describes you, it’s time to get organized. For help in developing a plan for storage and retrieval of job information, including pictures, we turned to Nancy Hadley, archivist for the American Institute of Architects.

Hadley emphasizes that a storage and retrieval plan is needed to account for more than just pictures, important as they are. She identifies as a minimum drawings, specifications, bids, costs, correspondence (including e-mails), invoices, receipts and permits. A major part of the file should contain the names, titles, addresses, phone numbers and functions of everyone who was associated with the project, especially owners, consultants, inspectors and other officials.

Then there’s the issue of timing. When did you first hear about the project? When were each of the meetings? With whom? With what result? When did construction begin? When was each phase completed? When did you punch out?

Some builders also might want to include qualitative information, such as degree of difficulty, whether the project was a “happy job,” problems encountered and how they were solved. Was the project profitable?

Once a project is complete and all its costs are in hand, you should be able to calculate a bottom line that makes sense according to your manner of bookkeeping. With a good cost accounting system, you should be able to allocate all your expenses, including administrative overhead and marketing, to each job (or non-job, as the case may be).

As you can see, that’s a lot of information to get on one line of a job sheet. Worse, you might not be able to pull out some specific scrap of information when you need it.

So — where to begin?

The solution is to let the computer do the intellectual heavy lifting. The real question then becomes what software to use.

The least expensive option is the word-processor already in use in your office. Just create a form with the required information and save it as a template. The next most obvious option is an electronic spreadsheet such as Excel. Although it was designed primarily for crunching numbers, it has a full set of search functions, and the way it structures information in rows and columns makes it useful for filling out standardized forms.

Programs specifically designed for accumulating information include Access and FileMaker Pro. They are members of a class of programs called relational databases, which means that they group data using common attributes, such as job number. The resulting clumps of information are easier to understand as a collection of tables rather than as one humongous table. Trying to put everything on the screen at once gets unwieldy in a hurry.

From there, the options get specialized. For example, Adobe makes two useful programs specifically for picture management: Photoshop Lightroom and Bridge.

Be cautious about trusting your precious data, especially pictures, to proprietary file formats. Forgive me a personal explanation for that word of caution: I used to manage the computer-aided architecture evaluation program for the American Institute of Architects. As each CAD program was submitted to the institute’s panel of evaluators, I saved a copy, including associated dongles or other security devices as required.

Finally, with my basement overflowing with CAD programs, I donated them last year to Triton College in River Grove, Ill. But before relinquishing the programs, I checked to see which programs were still current and which were obsolete. The test was whether the vendor had a Web site.

As I entered search terms for some vendors, I found instead plaintive cries for help from users of orphan programs. They were no longer able to get at their old drawings because their dongles no longer worked or they had lost their programs or their computers no longer accepted old disks. If this situation applies to you, help is available. Call Triton at 708-456-0300 and ask for the architecture department.

Therefore, when saving pictures, Hadley and I recommend an uncompressed file format with the suffix of .TIF or .TIFF. It might not be around forever, but it is such a widely adopted standard that you can expect plenty of warning when the time comes to replace it.

One proprietary format that we can recommend ends with a suffix of .PDF – otherwise known as Acrobat or Acrobat Reader by Adobe. Again, its installed based is too large to go away quietly.

Also, most professional copy machines can turn any document that can be scanned, including plans, into a PDF that can then be transmitted electronically as an e-mail attachment or stored with other electronic records. Acrobat hasn’t quite ushered in the paperless office, but it’s getting close.

Hadley’s last bit of counsel might be the most important: Make two copies of everything and store them off-site in different places. Making electronic copies is too quick and too easy to warrant even the smallest risk of catastrophe. Then convert the files every few years to any new formats, operating systems, media, computers and programs.

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. Contact him at orlwjr@gmail.com

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