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Documents Retention and Retrieval

Retaining good documentation for a claims defense is only effective if the needed documents can be located and retrieved efficiently.

Architects provide services, and the products of these services are documents. Accordingly, the architect’s ability to keep its documents sorted out and navigate them is almost as important as design and drafting skills; or at least the AIA has always thought so. The 1st edition of the architect’s handbook in 1920, then called The Handbook of Architectural Practice, had a lot to say about how the architect’s documents should be filed, suggesting a coding system to avoid misplacing or overlooking a document. Today, provides extensive information on filing and documents management, including suggested ways to enter the “paperless” realm. A filing protocol is essential if documents are to be accessed and retrieved at a later date.

Archival Management System

Purpose of Archive Management

There are many valid reasons to implement an archival management system. These include:

  • Data harvesting for marketing purposes
  • Efficiency in team member transition
  • Responding to owner project record requests
  • Future use on multi-phase projects
  • Data harvesting for quality management
  • Defense of claims and lawsuits

The sophistication of an archival management system can range from a manual index to elaborate management software. A firm’s hard copy archives can be outsourced to a company that will catalog, store and retrieve files. For the small firm, if there is a central filing protocol and all projects are filed accordingly, procurement may consist of merely finding the box or data file where the project documents are located.

Most of the architect’s work these days is digital, but some, at least through project completion, may be on hard copy simply because of our love for the artist’s brush stroke. The decision that must be made is to archive 100% digital or maintain separate hard copy storage. Because of technical advancements, everyone will eventually be 100% digital, so it is wise to start moving in that direction now.

Central Filing Protocol

An efficient archival management system requires a central filing protocol. It should be logical, simple, and adaptable. It should be reviewed periodically to determine if it is optimally functional, and it should be a strictly enforced firm policy.

There are many prototypical filing systems available when developing a firm’s internal protocol, however, attention should be given to unique uses and needs of the firm, and the prototype should be modified accordingly. An example of a project filing system can be found in The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice.[1] A firm may already have developed “pieces” of the system, such as project number assignments or project names prefixed on project type, and these should be incorporated into the final system.

Digital Media

Since digital technology is now cost effective for any size office, it is advantageous that all files be stored in digital form. It is easy to become distracted with the next “new project” after the old one completes, so digitizing hard copy documents should become just another typical step in the firm’s internal project closeout process.

The Project Record File

When a lawsuit is served, an answer must be filed within a certain time. After notice is given to the insurance carrier and a lawyer is retained, certain information is needed from the project files to perform a claim assessment and assist the attorney in preparing an answer. If this information has been collected in one location, much of the initial review and response time can be minimized.

A useful approach is to collect this information in a Project Record File so that only the information from the file need be retrieved in order to prepare the answer to the claim. The file should contain all base information relevant to the project, but it should also contain any other information that is felt necessary for issues that may arise after the project has completed.

A typical Project Record File can include:

  • Owner-Architect Agreement and all amendments
  • List of Atypical Conditions (non-AIA conditions)
  • Architect-Consultant Agreements
  • Owner-Contractor Agreements
  • General Conditions (if other than AIA)
  • Supplementary Conditions
  • Project Team Directory (AIA Document G807)
  • Project Abstract (AIA Document G809)
  • Certificate(s) of Substantial Completion (AIA Document G704)
  • Final Change Order (AIA Document G701)
  • Final Application and Certificate for Payment (AIA Documents G702 & G703)
  • Project Cost Summary and/or Job Cost Printout
  • Project Closeout Checklist
  • List of drawings at end of project
  • Project Issues File

When the file is retrieved, the attorney typically meets with the key team members assigned to the project, and the answer is drafted. This meeting also affords an opportunity to assess basic requirements for claim defense such as, magnitude of claim cost, consultant involvement, required expert witnesses, and staff time required for claim management.

[1] The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 15th Edition, Page 596-597

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