Digital file management at MDMA

Procedures for better storage and documentation of the design process were sought with the architectural firm MDMA.


Procedures for better storage and documentation of the design process were sought with the architectural firm MDMA.
Theatre BRONKS, drawing from the digital project file - © MDMA

Computer hygiene is a major challenge in digital archiving. The possibility of the infinite copying of documents often leads to chaos in the digital archive: documents can no longer be found and it is difficult to differentiate draft versions from final versions. Moreover storage and appraisal are jeoparised by messy archives.

It is therefore recommended to organise a regular digital clear-up day or trash day, to arrange the files properly and wherever possible use standardised, open and widely supported file formats. The advantages are as follows:

  • clear and quickly accessible documentation of the progress of a project;
  • new staff can easily find their way around old projects;
  • files can easily be exchanged;
  • there is less risk of problems consulting files in the long term;
  • valuable files are more quickly spotted, whereby priorities for storage can be more rapidly established.

In this pilot project, CVAa and PACKED vzw worked together with the architectural firm Martine De Maeseneer Architecten (MDMA). Measures for better filing are always best taken as quickly as possible, but for architecture and design archives this is especially important because of the existence of CAD files. These files are extremely complex and the accompanying software is evolving fast, which means that problems with accessibility can soon arise. It is therefore useful if the architect himself takes steps in the area of sustainable storage.

This pilot project aims to look at whether it is possible to employ best practices so that the design process can be enduringly documented during creation.

The desired results are as follows:

  • important documents in the archive are identified;
  • steps are taken to ensure the accessibility of important documents in the long term;
  • documents to be stored permanently are filed clearly and are given a logical name;
  • the process is represented in a policy;
  • the process is user-friendly and not time-consuming.

1. Establishing the method

The intention was to let the architects themselves identify the milestone documents of the design process and allow them to take measures to store them sustainably and maintain their accessibility. The milestone documents are the files that the architect regards as the outcome of the design process and which he wants to share with clients, external parties or team members. These are documents which, in the architect’s opinion, best represent his intentions and best document the project’s evolution and milestones.

For architects, the following documents are relevant:

  • 2D and 3D computer drawings;
  • renderings;
  • composite pictures;
  • PowerPoint presentations.

Videos, interactive 3D models and 3D prints are also included by some architectural firms.

It would be a lot simpler for the architect if the milestone documents were stored in a limited number of enduring file formats. This approach is inspired by the Collecting, Archiving and Exhibiting Digital Design Data approach used by The Art Institute of Chicago, implemented by Kristine Fallon Associates, Inc. For this purpose a distinction was made between two types of documents:

  • Design files (native files): are all files that are developed during the creative process, such as Photoshop files, CAD files, etc. Since there are often and as yet no durable file formats in this area, and migrations would be time-consuming because of the sheer numbers, they are saved in their original file format.
  • Milestone documents: represent the end results of the design process. Milestone documents should be accessible at all times. It is therefore important to save these documents in an durable file format. Milestone documents are often derived (as outputs) from design files.

In practice:

  • The architect identifies the milestone documents.
  • The architect saves these documents in an durable file format.
  • The documents are saved in a logically arranged folder structure, so that the evolution of the projects can be well documented and more especially so that the milestone documents can easily be traced.

The project plan was discussed with MDMA and a strategy for the digital archive was investigated. The agency was prepared to look for procedures to preserve the design process lastingly. A member of staff volunteered to work on the project.

2) The information analysis

An information analysis was started to identify the milestone documents and develop a filing plan for MDMA. An interview was used to try and map a global workflow and the documents thereby created.

By developing a folder structure based on processes within the agency, the structure will fit the working methods. By storing related documents together, they acquire a clearer context and it becomes clear which documents are important.

What was established during this interview?

  • Important design files are already saved in an durable file format (pdf) to facilitate exchange with partners.
  • The vast majority of the design files were no longer of use to the architect.

In addition to an interview, an existing digital project folder was also studied, more especially that of the Fleerackers project. This also provided more information for examining the way MDMA works.

Procedures for better storage and documentation of the design process were sought with the architectural firm MDMA.
Monitoring the Bronks wharf - © MDMA

What was deduced from this?

  • The filing is already split up into phases.
  • Most files and/or folders are dated.
  • There are a lot of duplicates on file.
  • Some documents are put in illogical places in the folder structure.
  • It is sometimes difficult to identify documents or establish why, by whom or at whose request drawings were made.
  • Another problem is distinguishing final documents from the various versions and working documents. This makes it a challenge to identify important drawings.

3) Introduction of a clear and standardised filing process

Using the information analysis and project folder, a new filing system was designed for MDMA.

The following is important for the filing system:

  • the working methods used by the firm are respected;
  • a good overview of the various versions is achieved;
  • milestone documents are quickly identified.

Most architectural firms are characterised by their project-oriented work routine. Furthermore, the vast majority of architectural projects can be divided into the same generic phases – ranging from the creation of a draft design, the production of a work file, and follow-up on the site, to the registration of the delivered state of the building (the so-called as-built). These phases were also recognizable in the MDMA routine. As a result the filing plan is based on projects in which a distinction is made between the various stages of the project.

4) Testing the new project filing system

The filing plan takes the form of an empty folder structure, which is set down in a zip file and is ready for use at the beginning of a new project. This means that staff will find it much easier to use consistent filing practices. A short manual was also provided for temporary staff, outlining in brief the structure of the filing plan. This manual also contains tips for proper file naming.

In order to test the filing system, we proposed that a member of the MDMA staff clean up an old project folder and put the files in the new folder structure. The files from the BRONKS project, one of the firm’s key projects, were spread over various CDs and were now collated in one folder. Using the action plan, an MDMA staff member was able to arrange the files.

While cleaning up the BRONKS folder it became clear that the folder structure had few shortcomings. All documents were successfully placed in the folder structure. During an evaluation a few details were amended and superfluous subfolders were deleted.

MDMA was very pleased with the folder structure. They will now try to use it for each new project. The empty model folder structure is seen as a great help in this process.

5) Determining the value of files

In a final session the folder structure of the cleaned-up BRONKS folder was talked through with the architects in order to identify the milestone documents. This was used to establish preservation measures at the folder level. This also offered an opportunity to perfect the model folder structure further.

Procedures for better storage and documentation of the design process were sought with the architectural firm MDMA.
Blow-up of BRONKS theatre from the digital project file - © MDMA

Ultimately the following simple distinction was arrived at:

  • Files are still valuable after ten years: A policy needs to be developed to maintain the accessibility of the content of these files.
  • Files are no longer valuable after ten years (or sooner): Preservation of the bit stream is sufficient for these files.
  • Files are no longer valuable once the project or project phase is complete: These files can be deleted as soon as possible.

Although the design of a preservation policy was not the main objective of this pilot project, a number of proposals were made in this direction. It was recommended to save permanently valuable documents in an enduring format, something that was already being done by the firm to a limited extent, albeit with a view to exchanging them. For files where this was not possible, such as CAD files, it was recommended to keep the software and convert files to a new format as soon as the software became obsolete.



Were the desired results achieved?

  • The process is user-friendly and does not involve any extra work for MDMA staff.
  • Naming and filing is clear-cut.
  • Milestone documents are saved in pdf format. An exception to this is the final CAD files of the draft design, final design and as-built.

Which problems are as yet unsolved?

  • In addition to the filing, the storage method on CD is problematic. An alternative needs to be found for this.
  • For the milestone documents that need to keep their CAD functionalities, there is no immediate solution, except conversion every time a new software package is purchased.
  • It would be better, for CAD files, if an agreement was made on layer use, line types and thicknesses, scale, Xrefs, etc. This simplifies the interpretation of content in the long term.


Nastasia Vanderperren (PACKED vzw) and Wim Lowet (Flanders Architecture Institute)

TRACKS is a collaboration between these partners: