Records Management for Architecture Firms: A Resource Guide

  

Posted on behalf of Nancy Hadley, Assoc. AIA, CA, Director, AIA Archives and Records

If you are looking for information about how to manage your firm’s project files, here are some resources that may help. They are organized according to the following questions commonly asked by firms:

What is records management, and why should we care about it?

Records management helps architects and firms

  • Protect yourself or your firm against liability
  • Accommodate returning clients
  • Preserve your historical legacy

There’s a good discussion of what records to keep, why, and for how long in Evan H. Shu, FAIA, “Retaining and Archiving Records,Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 14th ed. (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), pp. 445–57. Shu’s article provides more information on this topic than is in the 15th edition of the Handbook.

How long must a firm keep its records?

Records retention for design and construction documents is a complex issue. You may need to retain project documents for legal reasons, for the possibility of future alterations and additions to the project, or for historical documentation of the office’s work.

From a legal perspective, the minimum length of time to keep records on built projects is determined by the state statutes of repose and statutes of limitations. These statutes prescribe the time in which claims can be filed for damages on building projects. They vary from state to state. If the building project is out of state, check the contract to see which state was designated in the “choice of law” provision in the contract. Consult your firm’s legal counsel for up-to-date information on the statutes of repose and limitation in your state.

For an overview of what records to keep and what not to keep, see

  • Evan H. Shu, FAIA, “Retaining and Archiving Records,Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 14th ed. (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), pp. 445–57. The article discusses legal reasons to keep records and includes a sample records retention schedule for all types of firm records.
  • AIA Best Practice, “Want to protect architects? Retain project records”, contributed by Victor O. Schinnerer & Company

Is there a system we can use to organize our records?

The purpose of records management is to ensure that inactive files that should be kept for legal, financial, or historical purposes are retained and stored in an orderly way so that they can be retrieved.

For records management to work, it has to officially be part of the standard procedure for finishing a job, and someone must be in charge of checking that it has been done. An annual review of files is also recommended.

Records management must include all forms of records. The firm’s file-naming/organization system must be applied across both paper and electronic files so that all the materials pertaining to a project can be found in the same way.

See the following resources:

  • A sample project filing system is shown on p. 596 of The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 15th ed.
  • The National CAD Standard contains recommendations about naming, formatting, and saving CAD drawings that help ensure their accessibility over time.
  • OpenBIM and BuildingSmart is a collaborative initiative to standardize processes and procedures for BIM.

Keep in mind that electronic files need regular attention to preserve them (see the next section for further discussion).

How do we save electronic files?

For electronic files, saving a disk or tape does not mean that you have saved your records. Many firms have found that although they carefully saved the CAD drawings for a project they completed 10 years ago, they no longer have the software or hardware to read the files. To store electronic records successfully, regular migration must be part of the process. Those CAD files must be upgraded repeatedly as the software changes, or they will be lost. Can the AutoCAD version you’re running today read an AutoCAD 13 file created in 1999, or an AutoCAD 2.5 file created in 1986? Probably not. Every time your firm makes a change in its hardware or software, the stored electronic files should be reviewed and migrated as necessary.

The rule-of-thumb for saving electronic text and image files is to choose the “plain vanilla” format so that you don’t have to migrate frequently. For text files, converting them all into PDF format is generally recommended. Images are usually saved as JPG or TIFF files. Some offices have decided to scan all paper documents when a project is done and save the whole thing in electronic form only. Consult your firm’s lawyer about your state’s rules on the admissibility of electronic documents before choosing to go completely paperless.

Although there are no standards for long-term preservation of CAD files, the National CAD Standard has recommendations about naming, formatting, and saving CAD files that will help you migrate and preserve them over time.

The following resources provide more in-depth information on the development of preservation standards for digital design data:

  • The Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art and the Architect of the Capitol hosted a two-day symposium in November 2017. The symposium brought ADE stakeholders together to discuss the complications surrounding long-term preservation and how to begin the process of creating sustainable solutions. A report, available on the Library of Congress website at http://www.loc.gov/preservation/digital/meetings/ade/ade2017.html, was created to summarize the symposium events. The full morning and afternoon sessions have also been provided as well.
  • The Art Institute of Chicago sponsored a major study in 2003-2004, conducted by Kristine Fallon, FAIA, on how museums and archives can preserve digital design data. The Art Institute developed an open-source repository system for archival use, called DAArch. For a description of the project, see http://www.artic.edu/collections/digital-design-data
  • From 2007-2009, MIT launched FAÇADE (Future-proofing Architectural Computer-Aided Design), a research project on preserving architectural digital design data.

How can our firm create an archives program?

Tawny Ryan Nelb’s subarticle, “Record Keeping to Create a Legacy,” on pp. 447-449 within the article “Retaining and Archiving Records,,” in The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice (14th ed.) includes a brief discussion on record keeping to create a legacy within your firm as well as finding an archival repository to preserve your legacy.

For information on partnering with an archives at a library, museum, or historical organization, see “Will you be remembered?, by Steven M. Cox, AIA, NCARB, in the AIA’s Best Practices series.

Architectural Records: Managing Design and Construction Records, by Waverly Lowell and Tawny Ryan Nelb (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006), covers all aspects of establishing and managing an archive for historical architectural records. Although its intended audience is archivists in an institutional setting, it is also a good reference work for a firm setting up an archive of many years’ past work.

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