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Contractors receive PDF files from project stakeholders all the time, but the types of information attached to each one varies significantly. Some PDFs contain a lot of information, while others are merely non-searchable pictures of documents. The inconsistencies create interrupted communication, inefficiencies, errors, and wasted time and energy.
Although working in 3-D enables members of the AEC industry to embed lots of information, PDFs are still the primary communication medium. Kyle Hughes, a senior project engineer in the Seattle office of Skanska USA, got frustrated when moving from a project where the PDFs included a significant amount of metadata to a project where PDFs were devoid of information other than what he could visually see. He decided to do something about that via coordinated industry-wide guidance. He gathered a small coalition of contractors who hope to help bring about major improvements in the way PDFs are created and what information is included in each one.

"Our aim is not to necessarily standardize, but to push the industry in the right direction," Hughes says.

Inconsistencies in PDF files make it difficult for contractors to get all of the information they need in an efficient manner and to communicate and collaborate. Some PDFs are merely scanned documents with no searchable metadata included. Naming conventions are not consistent; for example, drawings get revised over and over and "it can become cumbersome to collect that information," Hughes says. Vector-based content that should be searchable by keywords, symbols or images sometimes is not searchable because of the way the documents were created.

The better scenario is when contractors receive PDFs that have been directly converted from CAD programs, which include bookmarks, searchable text, hyperlinks and other metadata.

Hughes has gathered general contractors from around the country in a coalition dedicated to creating guidelines for creating more usable PDF documents, with the theme of "All PDFs Created Equal."  The group is meeting Aug. 1 in Los Angeles just prior to Bluebeam Software's eXtreme Conference. Hughes sought out Bluebeam, which offers PDF software solutions, to help with finding a diverse group of heavy PDF users at construction companies around the country to participate in the effort. General contractors currently participating in the coalition include Balfour Beatty Construction, BNBuilders, DPR Construction, Hoffman Construction Co., McCarthy Building Cos., Mortenson Construction, Skanska USA, Stiles Corp. and Turner Construction Co.

The group currently is wrapping up its initial draft of PDF qualities that contractors need. After producing a draft guideline for PDF creation, the group will expand the coalition to include third parties such as the American Institute of Architects, the U. S. Green Building Council and municipalities for peer review. Buy-in from those groups is essential because they are the ones that will be implementing the guidelines, and they need to establish realistic expectations as well as accelerate the guidelines in their respective arms of the AEC industry. At that point, everyone will have a chance to comment on the PDF creation guidelines, with finalization occurring late this year or early next year.

The coalition is trying to plan for the future as well. "This is to remind people it's evolving," Hughes says. "On a paperless jobsite, the necessity of being able to print [drawings] out in zones is eliminated. We want to move toward a single sheet for a single floor, not having multiple files for a single level.

"The reality is that a lot of us are trying to tie in 3-D models. The jobsite of the future is solely working in the 3-D realm, but for a variety of reasons from the sophistication of subcontractors to owners that don't necessarily want us to work in 3-D, those extraneous factors keep us from going in that direction," he says. "We have to think of the baseline group and how they work and right now it's in PDF."

While the coalition is looking to the future, in a way the PDF initiative is going back to the future. "What's cool about technology is it allows us to boomerang back so we're putting more power and control back in the field's hands," Hughes says.  "Once you bridge that disconnect of information going into the hands of the people who need it, that's the perfect jobsite."

Bluebeam is fielding inquiries from people who are interested in participating in the coalition or who want to be included in future efforts. For more information, contact Sasha Reed, Bluebeam's director of strategic alliances, at sreed@bluebeam.com.
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