Return to site home page


EnvironDesign Notebook: Going Paperless

A look at how technology was able to speed up one firm’s workflow while reducing its carbon footprint.

By Joshua Clifton


A look at how technology was able to speed up one firm’s workflow while reducing its carbon footprint.

Going Paperless

Rapid advances in technology have enabled architectural and design firms to trim waste and improve efficiency. While these tools are often core components of sustainable design practices, increased staff productivity doesn't always equal a smaller carbon footprint.

However, corporate officials at HASSELL, a multidisciplinary A&D firm founded in Australia, have embraced technology in a way that gels seamlessly with the company's long-standing commitment to the environment.

According to Bill Rue, chief information officer at the firm, HASSELL's adoption of a digital workflow system has not only led to a higher quality product and increased turnaround times for its clients, but has also significantly reduced the company's use of paper and softened its environmental impact. The approach, he notes, was a natural fit for a firm that is a founding member of the Green Building Council of Australia and a recipient of numerous sustainability awards.

"Our approach is collaborative, sustainability-led and functional," says Rue. "We thrive on doing more with less."

Prior to transitioning to a digital workflow, the firm would find itself buried under a mountain of paper. For larger projects, for example, the typical workflow involved printing a collection of files in larger formats like A0 and A1 (international paper size standards ranging from 33.1 × 46.8 inches to 23.4 × 33.1 inches, respectively). The files were marked up by hand and passed back to the draftsperson who would make any necessary changes. The process was repeated multiple times, and due to the sheer scale of the firm's projects and timelines, large paper stacks would inevitably grow around the studio. It wasn't uncommon to find a past project's sheet sets piled under a desk years later.

Consequently, HASSELL turned to Adobe Acrobat Pro and the Adobe Creative Suite Design Standard software to simplify the process. The technology enables the firm to convert proposals and other support materials into easy-to-distribute Portable Document Format (PDF) files. Using the free Adobe Reader program, the company's clients can view and interact with drawings and designs without having to buy special software or revert to paper.

As digital workflows became more frequently used with HASSELL's projects, the firm's clients became more aware of the benefits to them. For the firm, the technology proved to be a significant time saver. "Where previously we were reliant upon large format printing processes, media and delivery, now we could focus more on our point of difference—design," explains Rue.

HASSELL initially rolled out the software to key representatives within each design studio. Once it was obvious that the mark-up tools and additional editing functions provided numerous benefits and saved employees time, the digital workflow system was implemented across all departments and quickly embraced by staff.

"We're lucky in that our people are designers," says Rue. "They want to use new processes and technology as soon as it arrives. So we didn't have to announce a new workflow; we just provided the best tool for the job at the time, then developed some example workflows for our technology leaders, and helped set up and deploy some customized digital stamps."

Reducing the firm's reliance on paper hasn't been the only benefit of the new digital workflow process. According to Rue, the collaboration among staff members and between the firm and its clients is the true measure of the method's success. Rather than passing paper back and forth, the digital workflow allows the company to gain feedback from clients and peers much faster than before. For example, the company can provide the client with online document management system access to enable them to review a project just about anywhere.

"That alone means a faster and more resolved design development phase and, therefore, a better outcome for the project," notes Rue.

HASSELL did encounter a few hurdles along the way. Even after digital file delivery became commonplace for projects, some employees found it challenging to give up the system of marking changes on paper files. "However, once they saw they could mark up files in the studio or at home, and in a fraction of the time, they embraced the new tools," says Rue. "The stereotype of the architect with a roll of plans on the way to a meeting may be becoming extinct."

Additionally, some designers and architects may find that marking up changes on a small computer screen, rather than a paper layout, can stifle creativity in design. HASSELL kept this in mind by promoting the "sketch, scan and can" approach, which, according to Rue, ties perfectly with the company's digital workflow. Through the process, scans of sketches can be uploaded, tracked and integrated into HASSELL's document management system.

While the use of paper has not been completely removed from HASSELL's design studios, the company has noted a dramatic reduction in the need for printing infrastructure. HASSELL also no longer relies as heavily on couriers and mail delivery services.

"Digital workflows have empowered our people by allowing us to focus on design, not binding 300-plus large sheets together every few weeks," says Rue.

But the digital workflow process is just one cog in the HASSELL sustainability wheel. The firm also recently established a sustainable features unit to increase its environmental performance and its knowledge of sustainable design and innovation.

"We use this growing body of knowledge to provide strategic and policy-level advice to businesses and government, and to promote change," concludes Rue. "In all our studies, we are committed to practicing what we preach."

Joshua Clifton is a Chicago-based writer who specializes in emerging office technologies and ergonomically-designed workspaces. He can be reached at