Now that project plans have gone digital, contractors have one more reason to get online.

More than 1.5 million subcontractors nationwide regularly visit reprographic houses to buy copies of the latest plans and specifications for the projects they're working on or wish to bid on in the future. And what are these customers telling the reprographers? They're tired of wrestling with the outdated business processes associated with distributing and printing project plans and specifications. It's estimated that more than half of the construction work force has access to the Internet, and those Web-enabled contractors want online access to project documents. And they want it now.


The first form of electronic transfer of project plans involved e-mail, but most subcontractors found it difficult and confusing to deal with it. Without the latest CAD software or viewer, users couldn't open the files. And those who could view the files didn't have the proper equipment for printing the documents, setting the stage for the creation of online plan rooms and the reprographer's role in the burgeoning technology.

Online plan rooms allow owners, architects, and GCs to distribute project information to subcontractors, suppliers, and other members of a project team via the Internet. Users can view, download, and print any or all pages of project files.

The future of online plan rooms is secure, given the benefits the technology offers: increased bidding efficiency on new projects, easy access to all project information throughout the life of the project without ever leaving the office, new lead generation sources for new projects, instant e-mail notification of addenda to existing projects, and quick downloading of construction plans and specifications.

How it all got started.

Online plan rooms emerged in early 1996 from traditional builder's exchanges in which subcontractors had to sift through mountains of project drawings before submitting a bid to the general contractors on projects they were interested in. However, it could take days to find a job that was interesting; subs demanded an easier way to view drawings online and GCs wanted a better way to distribute digital drawings to the subcontractors.

One of the first groups to post drawings online was Citadon, an Internet access service provider for the architectural/engineering/construction industry, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Soon thereafter, reprographers like Ford Graphics, Portland, Ore., and the American Reprographics Co. (ARC), Glendale, Calif., saw the benefits of such a system and began offering local printing services for subcontractors.

The adoption of online plan rooms by reprographers in most major cities is growing at a staggering pace — by some accounts even faster than the adoption rate of Web-based project management systems. Recognizing that most subcontractors lack the IT infrastructure necessary to download and print such plans, savvy reprographers jumped on this business and technology shift, and now host online plans rooms for individual projects.

Napster for electrical contractors.

General contractors use online plan rooms to distribute plans to potential subcontractors, so they have an incentive to set up the virtual rooms through national services like Contractors Register, Inc.'s BB-Bid, F.W. Dodge's Dodge Plans, or even through local reprographers. Architects upload drawings and specifications to the site, where they are stored for later viewing by participating subcontractors who have received a bid invitation via e-mail or fax. Prints and specifications can then be downloaded from the site by the subcontractors or ordered as hard copies via a local print house.

If you choose to cut the reprographer out of the equation and download the plans yourself, you should begin by finding out what type of Internet connection your firm has. Without an ISDN, DSL, or T-1 connection, files will take an exceptionally long time to download. In this case, you should use your local reprographer to download and print the plans.

But even if you have a broadband connection, you still have to consider how and where you're going to print the documents. A good printer can cost thousands of dollars, so you may want to look into visiting the reprographer to print the files. If your system configuration will make it difficult to download or print the plans, or if the files aren't in a format that is compatible with your estimating program (.dwg or .dxf), you may opt to use the system for bid invitations only.

The costs of printing vs. online viewing.

Online plan rooms may make it easier for GCs to distribute drawings and specs, but what's in it for the electrical subcontractors? Who has to pay for printing the blueprints?

“General contractors are without a doubt making a push to get the subs to absorb the printing costs,” says Adam Dada, Chicago-based IT specialist. “And with all the pressure to reduce costs and make things more efficient, the use of [online] plan rooms is becoming more prevalent.”

Shane Bleddsoe, project manager, Candor Electric, Chicago, agrees. “If we can obtain digital drawings that allow us to estimate faster, we will favor those that give us the information we need when times are busy,” he says. “If we can easily download drawings and print them locally, this is a great time saver for both us and our customers.”

So how much does it cost? Some systems provide free document viewing and file downloads. Other systems charge you just to access the system. Chances are good that more than one print house in your area can offer these services, so it pays to shop around. If a GC is using an online plan room offered through the local chapter of Associated General Contractors (AGC), Alexandria, Va., it probably won't charge its subs to access the system. But it's a good idea to check on these potential costs upfront.

It's important to note, though, that service charges vary from one plan room to the next. Some require a paid subscription before a username and password are provided. If a GC is asking you to participate in such a system, make sure he's upfront about the costs. In most cases the GC, architect, or owner who is acting as the administrator has already paid the license fees to use the system. However, some online plan rooms are hosted by print houses and charge per hosted drawing, per month, or per megabyte for storage. Systems that allow an “open door policy” for subcontractor participation are the best choice.

According to Mike Tackett, the incoming president-elect of the International Reprographics Association (IRGA), Oak Brook, Ill., the industry needs standards so firms won't try to monopolize and take advantage of subcontractors.

“Initially, the Web frightened our members because they thought it would reduce the amount of prints being ordered,” Tackett says. “However, we're realizing that Internet-based systems allow reprographers to focus on producing a greater number of the larger orders.”

John Goecke of FX Reprographics agrees. “With current systems the trades feel uncomfortable with viewing projects online. So they turn to [the reprographers] to print out what they need,” he says.

A general view.

A year ago, the AGC created an online plan room in conjunction with Construction Software Technologies, Inc., West Chester, Ohio. Known as AGC/iSqFt Internet Plan Room (IPR), the service enables the GCs and their subs and suppliers to share and distribute project information, including plans and specifications, and reduce the cost of distributing paper plans, specs, and addenda during a project life cycle. The site also features estimating and project management tools.

Bleddsoe views the plan rooms as a way to help subcontractors learn of more jobs over a greater area. “If these systems can increase the awareness to the electrical community of the jobs being bid, there will be acceptance,” he says.

Until subcontractors become more comfortable online and have greater bandwidth capabilities, local print houses will be the most popular outlet for accessing online plan rooms. And that means not only will they have to play by the GCs' rules, but the reprographers' as well. Whether you're accessing the plan room from your desktop or relying on a print house to produce the documents, the technology will continue to be a popular way of transferring plans for bidding and estimating.

Jurewicz is a contributing writer based in Chicago.