[With Video] Is a paperless project possible? New technologies bring new possibilities

October 24, 2018 Russell Thomman

From drones to virtual reality, today’s technology is changing the design industry—one benefit is we’re reducing paper and waste


Drones, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are all terms that are increasingly creeping into many of our project discussions. At Stantec, we are leveraging drones for data collection, virtual reality for enhanced communication, and artificial intelligence to develop rapid design iterations. With all this technology available, it begs the question: what role do paper documents play in our projects?

At Stantec, we are a multi-disciplinary, multi-office, design service, and it’s critical that we have constant and clear communication. The reality is that we must find innovative ways to reduce travel costs while maintaining project excellence. Our teams rely heavily on digital mediums to coordinate and communicate their ideas to each other or with consultants over Skype. In our dynamic workflow, we often turn to connected graphic tablets to fluidly collaborate, design, and coordinate.

While completely paperless companies are few and far between, I do think a “paper-less” project is possible, especially with the efficiencies of cutting out paper. It is simple. Time = money. The business case for smartphones and tablets is an easy one because of the increased speed in communication and the rapid availability of data. Our design abilities are augmented with a wealth of data at our fingertips. The pace at which we can turn a thought into a concept and then to a design is dramatically enhanced by how well we can use technology to do the lifting.


We used 360-degree photography to create an aerial tour of the north quarry at Lime Creek Quarry in Cedar Park, Texas.


Efficiency: old school vs. new tools

Traditionally, we had to draw a sketch, a draftsman would turn it into a set of documents, and then we would go build it—relying on experience to get it right. The most experienced firms were the best because they knew the traps of a design due to having the most project experience. In today’s world, a young designer can fail 100 times at a design and get it right on try No. 101 because they can see the built (digitally) results and learn from them. We can rapidly take a tablet sketch from idea to a built 3D model in a matter of minutes to hours, with the ability to get feedback from our clients and peers.

In the past, we had to travel to a site, attend safety training, and take the risk of being on-site. We took a roll of drawings with us (hopefully the latest version), and then marked them up to have them scanned (hopefully without damaging them). Now, we can use a 360-degree camera, a drone, and georeferenced photos to give us a detailed and analytical view of a site under construction. Time, money, and safety are all held in check with this virtual site visit, and we capture a wealth of data that can be used to inform decisions.


In-person site visits are irreplaceable—but now, we augment our site visits using technology and design intelligence.


Informed intelligence

To be clear, we still visit our sites—the site visits are just augmented with design intelligence. As we prepare for a field visit, we prepare georeferenced site plans, allowing us to see our physical location on a tablet at any time on-site. In the field, we GPS-locate field data that is critical to our project. We also use drones for pre-visit site reconnaissance, allowing us to review safety hazards ahead of time and see obstacles that were not present in an outdated aerial map. While loading design documents onto a field table is common, we can mark up these documents in the field, transmitting these edits to our design team in the office to be addressed while we are traveling back. This workflow saves time, and allows us to turn around field issues faster, helping our projects stay on time and on budget.


Communication benefits

Clear and constant communication is critical to any project team, internal or external. On many projects, we are investing our team and resources in developing 3D models rather than static graphics (such as sections, elevations, and perspective renderings) so that models than can be shared between consultants, viewed from any angle, and adapted quickly for design scenarios. _q_tweetable:Some say that digital technology is a hindrance, but I would say that the user only needs to become competent with their tool._q_By utilizing this workflow, we produce opportunities for QA/QC for all consultants as we work together to visualize the project. And by viewing these coordinated models together, we each gain a clear understanding of project opportunities and constraints. We still must demonstrate and document a design through plans, sections, elevations, and perspective graphics, but those are a product of our models, rather than the focus.

No project should exist in a design silo. When our clients, stakeholders, collaborating consultants, and even internal teams look at a set of plans, everyone may not see the same vision. Some of us have sat in coordination meetings nodding our heads, only to receive a 3D file and think, “Oh! That is what that actually looks like!” We have found that when all consultants can visualize the same information, decisions can be made faster and with more confidence. Revit modeling and clash detection have been present in buildings practice for a decade in regard to architecture, mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP), and construction, but it is rarer in site work. We prefer to coordinate our site in tandem with civil, MEP, architecture, and landscape combined, giving our project teams and clients a clear picture of how a site and a building can work in concert. We do this by utilizing real-time rendering engines, so that as we work, it is easy to see the design vision.


Author Russell Thomman, a project manager in our landscape architecture and planning studio in Austin, Texas, uses his drone at Lakeway Medical Center to gather 360-degree spherical photography for a virtual site visit.



The process of going paperless also has a positive effect on our planet. While not every project can immediately be 100% paperless, it is a goal as well as a mindset. Not only are we saving paper, we can be saving flight time, drive time, and personal time. The reality is many municipalities and many job sites still require paper documents, and all our drawings should be legible as paper documents, but if we can focus on what we can control, we can make a big impact.


The future is paperless

Going paperless is not going to happen overnight, but by thinking of our projects as a virtual copy of what is to be built, we can find efficiency that can help our teams, our clients, and the built environment.

For centuries, we’ve used drawing as a direct expression of an idea or thought. How a musician uses an instrument to make music, we use our hand and ink to create design. Some say that digital technology is a hindrance, but I would say that the user only needs to become competent with their tool.

About the Author

Russell Thomman

Russell Thomman is a project manager in our landscape architecture and planning studio in Austin, Texas. Russell is currently spearheading our 3D visualization and virtual reality for community development projects in Austin.

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