Nov/Dec 2011

Tapping the true potential of this powerful file format.

Many people think of PDF (portable document format) as a file type for publishing and archiving information. While these are certainly functions of PDF, leaders in the construction industry are tapping into PDF’s true potential by leveraging it as a tool for digital project communication and collaboration. The end results are incredibly effective—electronic workflows for RFIs (requests for information), submittals, bids, estimates, punchlists, and more, all based in PDF.

PDF 101
To understand how contractors are able to tap into the power of PDF, one must first understand the basics of the file format. PDF, now defined under the ISO Standard 32000, is essentially an electronic representation of paper. It is, therefore, a remarkably universal file type that can be viewed, printed, and manipulated across various operating systems and PDF viewing and editing applications.

This universal nature of PDF makes it highly consumable, especially in the construction industry. On any given project there can be hundreds of contractors, each requiring access to different project details. PDF bridges these gaps by allowing 2D and 3D information to be shared and viewed in a free PDF reader from any computer. It also provides a simple way to parse out information and distribute it appropriately. A project director, for example, may need to view complex, 3D BIM (building information modeling) data about an entire building. A contractor installing the flooring for the project, however, needs access to 2D information so he can appropriately measure, cut, and install materials. PDF creators provide the project director with a simple method of distributing relevant information to the contractor on the jobsite, thus reducing confusion and the risks for errors.

What truly makes PDF valuable, though, is its ability to be redlined and edited while still maintaining the underlying content. This is the sweet spot for construction. By leveraging the power of PDF editors such as Bluebeam PDF Revu, which is designed specifically for the construction industry, project teams can mark up and edit PDFs the same way they would traditionally comment on large format, printed drawings.

PDF At Work
Depending on the PDF editing application used, digital redlining tools can be as basic as text boxes, highlights, and pen marks, or as industry-specific as clouds, CAD (computer-aided design) symbols, callouts, and takeoffs calibrated to the scale of the drawing. PDF booklets can also be edited, so cover sheets and additional files can be appended to PDF drawings, and old pages can be replaced or deleted. This means PDF can be the de facto file format for assembling and distributing all project documents, including drawing sheet sets, submittals, RFIs, and specifications, thus significantly reducing paper usage. The possibility of a completely paperless project is still unknown, since there are situations in which paper copies must be transmitted. However, construction management firm Berry (part of Suffolk Construction,, Boston, Mass.) and project architect Perkins+Will,, Chicago, Ill., proved paperless communication is possible during construction of the Overlook Center in Waltham, Mass. The project team used PDF, rather than paper, to distribute most project documents, eliminating more than 42,000 pages of paper from the project.

When design feedback is captured digitally, project teams reap additional benefits in terms of cost and time savings. A Turner Construction,, New York, N.Y., project team based in Marietta, Ga., reported electronically redlining PDF drawings and submittals saved the project and the owner 63% of paper-related costs, compared to paper expenses incurred on similarly sized projects. And Gray Construction,, Lexington, Ky., reported PDF markup and distribution improved its submittal response time by as much as 60%.

The true value of electronic markups, though, is that PDF comments are not dried ink on paper. They are smart annotations with metadata, including the author name, date, and time the markup was placed; markup page number and position; and any text comments associated with the annotation. These properties allow electronic markups to be tracked, enabling a reviewer to see exactly who said what and when. For example, if an RFI response submitted in PDF incorrectly tells a contractor to move a wall two feet to the left, the superintendent can instantly identify who provided the erroneous information.

Markup metadata is particularly useful for project closeout documents such as punchlists. In Bluebeam PDF Revu, tool sets of punch keynotes can be precreated to signify common issues, for example, broken tile, and who is responsible for fixing it, such as the flooring contractor. After redlining PDFs on punchwalks using a tablet PC, comments can be sorted and summarized through the Markups list so each subcontractor receives not only a detailed list outlining the issues to fix, but also a redlined PDF drawing serving as a visual guide. This PDF-based workflow proved particularly useful for the punch team on the Terranea Resort, a $500-million, 582-room resort in southern California. The team used PDF to create punchlists in the field that were so accurate, a 90% completion rate was achieved at first backcheck.

Making PDF Work For You
The examples described above are just a small sampling of how PDF can be used beyond publishing and archiving to transform traditionally paper-intensive workflows into streamlined, digital processes. The true potential of PDF in construction, however, is just being realized. With industry giants such as McCarthy Building Companies,, St. Louis, Mo., announcing complete project document management through PDF5, it is clear digital transformation is just beginning. Given the incredible progress firms have already been making, it is exciting to think the best results from PDF-based workflows are yet to come.

Don Jacob is vice president of engineering, Bluebeam Software Inc.,, Pasadena, Calif. He can be reached at

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