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The Computer Committee of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently assembled the experiences of Computer Committee members into a series of white papers on the subject of introducing computer usage into the typical architectural practice, as a guide for the first-time computer buyer or user. This is Part 3 of a three part series.
by George T. Manos, AIA


To start using computers, you will need:

A flat work surface. Since "the paperless office" idea is now exposed as more of a dream than a reality, you will need just as much reference surface when using CAD and other computer programs as you did before computers. In some cases you will need more. When using a computer to draw, you constantly look first at a reference drawing, then at the computer screen. Then there are long spans of time during which you look at nothing but the screen. The recommended height for a computer screen is slightly below eye level, and the keyboard normally rests in front of the screen. You sit at the keyboard (or digitizer pad and keyboard) about 18 inches in front of this assemblage. There is no room in front of you for a reference document. It has to rest alongside the keyboard and screen somewhere. A wide reference surface extending out from both side of the screen, deep enough and wide enough to hold the largest drawing set to which you will refer, on both sides, will be needed. This arrangement can be in a straight line, a vee (in which you sit on the inside of the apex of the vee and the wings lie along your sides), or a u-shaped arrangement. The vee probably works best but results in the most awkward floor plan layouts.

Failure to provide adequate reference surfaces adjacent to CAD and other computer-aided work stations is probably the most commonly found shortcoming in start-up work areas.

Preferred keyboard shelf height for a person sitting on a regular chair (not a drafting stool) is approximately 26-1/2 inches above the floor, so work surfaces on most existing furniture that are not typewriter-ready will be too high for a keyboard. Get (or make) a new piece of furniture or a keyboard shelf.

Electrical power. Personal computers can consume up to approximately 400 watts of power when running, including the monitor and a printer, if fitted to the gills with circuit boards, also known as "cards." Most consume less, up to, say, 300 watts. Some systems manufactured more recently claim to be "green" since they can shut certain portions of themselves down, including the monitor, if no activity is detected for a specified interval of time, thereby saving electricity when idle. Invoking that mode of operation invites risks, however, so starters are advised to wait until they are knowledgeable about their systems before turning on the conservation features of their computers. Systems vary in many ways, and one of them is in the number of outlets needed per station. Allowing for the computer, a monitor, a printer, a local lamp (or two), and other electronic devices sometimes found lying on desks, a minimum of four outlets is needed per station, preferably six. They can all be on one circuit. All your computers, if more than one, can actually be plugged into any appropriately-sized circuit if necessary. The days when each had to be on a separate circuit are gone. All circuits to which computers are connected must be grounded.

A telephone, and a modem line Currently many computer users are automatically provided with a telephone at the work station. If that is the case, consider adding a second telephone line to the same location. Computer and communications technology is rapidly approaching the point at which it makes sense to equip, with discretion, almost every non-networked computer with a modem and a telephone line, separate from the voice line which may also serve the station. Modems are now also fax/modems. Letters and drawings can be sent directly from a computer in one office to a computer or fax machine in another office, be it your consulting engineer's or your client's. That does not include drawing files, (these used to be known as "drawings") which can also be sent over the telephone. Drawing files can not be read by a fax/modem or fax machine, and so have to be sent using the communication capability of the modem.

If you are considering setting up a network and are not familiar with computers, hire a consultant - do not even think twice about it. Better yet, do not start out with a network. Find out what the use of the computer is like before you make such an investment.

Task lighting Almost every computer station can use local task light to advantage. Ambient lighting levels can then be lower, reducing screen glare. Local lamps can be aimed more precisely at the keyboard (or digitizer) as well as at reference documents than can lighting in or on the ceiling. Light is always needed on the keyboard or digitizer. Luxo-type long-arm fixtures are ideal for this application. Each station should probably be equipped with more than one, comprising one for the keyboard and one for each reference surface. Keep the light off the screen.

Shelves for manuals You will probably eventually need as much separate shelf space for computer manuals and their associated packaging as you do for a set of Sweet's Catalogs. Most starters will not believe this, but it is true. In addition to the manuals for the computer itself there are manuals for the monitor, the printer, the plotter, the modem, the video adapter card in your system, the CD reader if provided, and the tape drive, also if provided. Then there are the manuals for your word processing program, your spread sheet/data base program, your CAD program, your online communications/fax software, your operating system ("DOS," "System 7," "Windows," etc.). These manuals come in boxes, in which the device or program is packaged along with the diskettes or CD's which come with or contain it. Keeping the boxes is a good idea, which is more readily understood after opening one, which is part of the reason that they take up so much space. Suffice it to say, the space will be taken whether provided for or not.

Cabinets for supplies and media storage You will use paper by the reams, including letter, legal, plotter vellums, and bond up to "E" size. Plots will become as rough drafts are to letters. Get ready for a whole new way of looking at media. Media, i.e. tracings, are no longer valuable except as hard copy record. If a tracing is lost, you can generate another in a matter of minutes. Mylar is a thing of the past except for final plots, and then it may be better to have vellums printed onto mylar sepias. Supplies will include printer and plotter media (ribbons, toner cartridges, or ink cartridges, paper of all sizes), and computer media (diskettes, tapes, C/D's by the score). Figure on at least two flat file drawers for plotter paper (unless using a roll-feed plotter, in which case you should figure on a place to store extra rolls of paper) and a case each of letter, legal, and ledger-size bond. Computer media (diskettes, etc.) are stored best in metal or plastic cabinets.

Relatively many rough plots on vellum are needed because with current technology it is not possible to know what a plot will look like by viewing it on the screen. The drawing must be plotted and printed, just as before, before you will know for sure what the builder is going to get in his or her hands. It is possible to be frugal with media but it is generally only marginally worth the effort since the benefit of using it outweighs the relatively minor cost involved in purchasing it. Sending out to a service for check plots is often highly unsatisfactory since you can never know for sure when you will need one, and when you need one, it is not always possible to wait for a service to generate one. That it why practices generally end up with plotters when moving to computer-aided drafting.

An array of hardware The basic components of a computer system include:

The computer (which comes inside a metal box). In the box can generally be found a power supply (200-250 watts), a motherboard with a processor on it (Intel or other 80xxx series, Pentium, Motorola 680XX, or similar chip), memory ("RAM"), lots of transistors (little black rectangles), a hard drive, a floppy drive, possibly a C/D reader and a tape drive, and several printed circuit boards. Processor speed should be in the 166 Mhz ("MegaHertz")-and-up range. Processor speed has been determined to account for 80% of the performance of any system, followed by bus structure and by amount of video board memory. Currently, processors with speeds above 200 MHz ("Megahertz") are preferred for CAD systems and, if you can afford it, the new Pentium II processor (not really a necessity for the uninitiated).

Memory. Most currently-produced software suites need at least 16Mb ("Megabytes," or 1 million bytes) of RAM total in which to operate. Generally, the more RAM a system has, the faster it will function with any given processor. Providing 32 Mb in a CAD system is common. Memory is inside the box.

Hard drive. 850Mb-to-1Gb (Gigabyte, or a thousand megabytes) hard drive. If buying a DOS-based system, if possible, get your hard drive partitioned into 100Mb partitions, not one, huge 850Mb or 1Gb partition, because the smaller partitions are used much more efficiently in DOS systems than are the larger ones. "EIDE" technology is now fine for drives of up to 4 Gb, "SCSI" is preferred for drives over 4 Gb in capacity. The hard drive is inside the box.

"Architecture." In '486 DOS systems, "VLB," or "VESA Local Bus" systems were recently preferred for their speed over standard-bus systems (a bus is an internal structure which carries data around from one component to the other inside the computer box). This option does not apply to Pentium systems, which all use high-speed PCI bus structures. Almost all new computers now use PCI bus architecture, and even newer, faster bus structures are already being introduced. If you're just getting started, don't fret, you don't need them.

Video. Video consists of the monitor and the internal adapter which controls it. Currently, the video section of the computer is the slowest part of it. Computer systems and software have to struggle mightily to keep that screen looking good and that little arrow waiting to follow your every move instantly no matter how much other computation is going on inside the box. Users pay a heavy price in computing performance for this embellishment, but most seem to think it's worth it. Minimum specifications for monitor/adapter combinations include a "flat" screen (i.e. one not markedly curved), 1024 X 768 resolution. .28mm dot pitch, 60-70 Hz vertical scan rates at 1024 X 768, 1 Mb RAM on the video board, and local bus architecture (this latter feature counts for a lot in providing video speed). 15" screens are minimum, 17" are better. Very large screens (21" and greater) offer diminishing returns considering their costs. Do not worry about what those numbers mean, just use them as minimum criteria. A good, basic monitor with those specs will cost about $325-$350, and a decent video card about $150. Higher prices most often but not always mean better performance. The video card is inside the box.

Fax/Modem. Current fax/modems operate at 14,400, 28,800, or 33,600 "Baud" (a measure of transmission speed down the wire). Internal modems (which are inside the box) cost less, external modems (which are outside the box) cost more but look sharp because of all the flashing lights. There are faster modems but a universal standard for higher speeds has not been established yet and many Internet Service Providers ("ISP's") are delaying in offering them until a standard evolves. Modems themselves cannot transmit, receive, or store information in your computer. Communications software is needed for that. Virtually all modems come with basic communications packages with both fax and online communication capability. That software has to be installed into your computer before you can use the modem. That is best done by your computer vendor. Look for fax/modems which support a protocol called V.42bis/MNP-5, which can boost throughput to as high as 57.6 Kbaud (at 14.4 Kb raw) if the receiving modem also supports the protocol.

Printer. Laser printers used to be considered tops for generating text and graphics but a slew of fine ink-jet printers has come on the market lately which can produce far better graphic images at a far lower cost than lasers. Laser printers are considerably faster on throughput, however. Dot-matrix printers have become special purpose machines and are now mostly purchased for data output, not word processing or graphics, although the graphic capability of some dot-matrix printers borders on the astonishing considering the way the images are made. Daisy-wheel printers are not nearly as popular as they once were. If you plan to generate dense graphics on your printer, consider getting at least 2 MB and preferably 4 Mb of RAM with it.

Plotter. There are ink-jet plotters, electrostatic plotters, pen plotters, pencil plotters, and a few exotic-technology plotters (which it is best for the starter to avoid) available. There are cut-sheet plotters and roll-feed plotters, A-Size through E-Size. Pen plotters are currently less expensive, feature-for-feature, than other types, but they are also considerably slower. At present, the best price-performance combination may be cut-sheet, ink-jet, E-size. Plotters by Hewlett-Packard and Calcomp tend to lead the field, followed by a slew of others. Consult your colleagues and your budget on this item. Those are the basic components. There are others, but including them is beyond the scope of this discussion. Then there is the software (oh, no . . .) (more on this subsequently).

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