Do you Collect old Technical Drawings?

a photo of young GarySitting here looking at a 3d model this morning I was contemplating how much things have changed since I commenced my first job. I realise that younger architects will have had no experience of earlier practices as many of our processes have completely disappeared from the industry.

My first day in an architect’s office was interesting. I had only ever prepared technical drawings using a clutch pencil on bond paper so everything was new to me. First job for any junior was nearly always “print boy” and the architect’s text book was a copy of Sir Bannister Fletcher’s “A History of Architecture”.

Week 1: Printing Processes
Plan copying was laborious. Architect’s either used an ammonia machine or a dyeline machine. Our office had a dyeline machine. These large machines had two roller feeds, one for reproduction and the other for developing. The process involved taking plans drawn on transparency, overlaying that sheet carefully on canary yellow chemically treated matching size paper (up to A0 size) and running them through an ultra violet light to produce a photographic reproduction. Then the “print” had to be developed through a bath of chemicals and hung on a line to dry. Managing the print machine meant topping up and mixing various chemicals.

A large print run was quite a process with paper draped on every available space to dry, and this process could take days to complete. For the inexperienced, it was easy to mess things up and on one occasion I accidently ran a negative through the developer… but as luck would have it, the lines didn’t bleed and weeks of drafting time was not ruined, and even though I feared it, I did not lose my job.

Most of our documents are not printed at all these days because they’re issued electronically as PDF files. You’d think we are paperless, but I think we use more paper now than ever before.

Week 2-3: Colour rendering
Nobody had a colour printer that I knew of. If the project was say, an alteration and addition.. all of the proposed work on a plan was highlighted by a particular colour coded to denote the materials to be used. After printing, my role was therefore to prepare coloured sets of the plans. Coloured sets were prepared for Council applications and for tender process as well as for the client and for the file archive. I was required to mix enough water colour of the same colour to paint every print so that the finished sets were consistent. In my first days of employment, I remember spending two weeks preparing water colour washes over 15 sets of A0 plans, elevations and the sections. A task I did many times over in the ensuing years until well after the advent of the Mac or PC.

The drafting board had to be at the right angle so that the water colour would flow evenly down the page. The brush had to be flooded just right so that the finish was evenly distributed. Each set had to be completed exactly the same, in exactly the same blend of colours. A beautiful set of brushes and high quality water colour paint was essential, as was the mixing process and these wet prints were strewn all over the office to dry before collating.

My practice today uses the same colour coding in our CAD drawings but sadly the process of preparing a drawing to be issued in colour is not as therapeutic as it was with a brush in hand.

Week 4: Architect’s tools
Does anyone prepare technical drawings by hand these days? An architect’s kit consisted of a set square, an adjustable square, a scale rule, a razor blade, a soft rubber, a hard rubber, a clutch pencil, an eraser guard, some lettering stencils, some blotting paper, masking tape, a strong light, a cedar drawing board laminated with green vinyl, an adjustable chair with footrest, an assortment of Rotring pens of various sizes and the all important pen holder with damp foam in the bottom of it. These essential items were used just about every day to prepare drawings on transparency film or velum tracing paper.

The pens have to be held just so to get a consistent line and can never be pushed up the page, you had to use blotting paper to avoid getting any oil from your skin on the paper or else the line would be inconsistent and your sheet grubby. Mistakes were undone and changes made using a razor blade following which the surface of the paper had to be repaired. For beginners, scratching holes in your work was common, at which point the drawing would have to be re-traced. However I once saw a guy spill a bottle of ink over a perspective he had spent 2 weeks working on, so he went home early and spent the next day picking out the spilled ink with a razor blade, good as new. That was impressive!

Rotring pens have a colour band representing the thickness of the line that they produce. In our CAD practice today, we use line colours to code the resulting line thickness, matching the colour code to those old rotring pens. This helps us to ensure consistent documentation and backwards compatibility with our archived CAD files and I guess it’s a bit nostalgic and ritualistic!

Week 5: Documentation coding

Because some of our documents were to be archived on microfilm it was prudent to complete text on a drawing using a lettering stencil matched to the rotring pen line thickness. This ensured consistent readable lettering and fonts, but it was a cumbersome process, one letter at a time, sometimes taking days to complete the text for one drawing alone.

to speed up the process some offices employed a code system, for instance, using two letters to denote a finish or material (e.g. NF) and those two letters were referenced back to a table where you would find that NF actually meant “New 1800 high colorbond metal fence …. etc”. I still see drawings produced today in CAD using similar documentation methods although it beggars belief that they do so, as it is a simple matter of typing it once using a keyboard and then you can copy and paste that same note in a matter of seconds across numerous drawings. These documentation methods should have become one of the curiosities of past practices but still seem to hang around. I suppose people who do that have their reasons.

Week 6: Plan Drawers

Remember them? We used to put our drawings away every night so that the humidity didn’t distort them. In a large office it was a logistic nightmare keeping everything important safely filed away and protected should there be a fire…. and just about everybody smoked cigarettes.

Workstations and office space requirements for Architects have become significantly reduced, than was previously necessary and now we have staff who telecommute and work interactively on BIM models across the web from the comfort of their own homes. I guess at one stage staff wore slippers and dressing gowns to their home offices, although iChat has put an end to that little perk, although they obviously have to buy their own coffee.

How things have changed.

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