Newforma Project Center is the earliest “project information management” solution for architects and engineers. In fact, Newforma was the first vendor to coin that term to describe what exactly its solution does — which is to manage the large volumes of information associated with the design and/or construction of a project. In addition to the actual design documents such as drawings, models, specifications, etc., a project information management (PIM) solution captures all the back-and-forth communication between the different members of the project team as they are working on finalizing the design, including submittals, transmittals, RFIs, markups, emails, etc.
I first had a chance to explore Newforma Project Center back in 2007 when it was in its fourth edition. (That review is no longer online, but a PDF version is available here.) Needless to say, while the application has expanded its capabilities considerably since then, I would say that its fundamental value proposition remains the same — organizing the vast amount of information that is constantly being generated for a project, to not only make it easier to manage but also to be able to instantly search for a required item, as well as maintain a complete record of how the project has progressed from start to finish.
Given that it was launched close to 20 years ago, Newforma Project Center has had many years to firmly establish itself in the AEC industry. It has been adopted for project information management at many of the world’s leading architectural and engineering firms. Some of the firms/projects featured in Newforma case studies are shown in Figure 1.
The idea of Newforma Project Center is to be a hub for all the project information that is typically spread out over multiple applications and data stores, collate and index it, and subsequently use it to create any type of project deliverable for any device. This is graphically depicted in Figure 1. One of the key differentiating factors of Newforma Project Center is the large number of applications it integrates with such as Revit, Procore, Deltek, Navisworks, Bluebeam, etc., allowing it to automatically bring in the project data that is created in them. The integration is done with what Newforma calls “connectors,” which will be explored in more detail in a dedicated section further down in this article.
In addition to the challenge of project data being distributed across multiple applications, another key challenge that a project information management solution has to address is that the data is likely to be residing in multiple locations. Before the advent of cloud storage, all project data was stored on a company’s local servers. The version of Newforma that I looked at in 2007 worked by installing a server that sat next to a firm's central server and automatically indexed and categorized all the project information that was created so that it could be easily accessed, managed, and searched. Now, with the growing popularity of cloud storage, Newforma connects to cloud-based data stores as well as local servers. While Newforma itself is still a desktop application that needs to be installed on a computer, it can access cloud storage in the same way as it can access local and networked data storage.
It should be noted that Newforma Project Center does not physically move any of the project data or even add tags to them. The files stay where they are and Newforma simply references and indexes them to keeps track of what document belongs to what project. Thus, there are no Newforma “project folders” as such containing data, even though it is a desktop application.
Launching Newforma Project Center opens the My Project Center interface listing all the projects a user has access to, along with some high-level information about the project selected on the list (Figure 3). Clicking on a project takes you to its dedicated Project page, where all the tasks related to the project are organized in terms of Activity Centers, as shown in Figure 4. There are a large number of these, showing the extensive range of capabilities of the application.
Accessing the Project Files activity center shows all the different data repositories that the project files reside in, include local file servers, networked drives, as well as cloud stores such as SharePoint, BIM 360, Autodesk Construction Cloud, etc. All the data that is in these repositories is automatically scanned, indexed, and OCR-ed, so that it is searchable. In addition to being able to find and view data, it can also be used in various ways, as shown in Figure 5.
Another example is the RFIs activity center, shown in Figure 6. In addition to filtering the list by the status of an RFI — open, closed, or pending — you can see all of the information associated with the RFI from start to finish. This includes all of the workflow actions including when they were done and who was involved; all the remarks in a separate tab; all the files associated with the RFI, which can, in turn, be linked to items in BIM 360, Autodesk Construction Cloud, ProjectWise, SharePoint, Procore, or any other collaboration or project management solution that is connected to the project; all of the emails that were sent or received that are associated with that RFI (we will look at email integration in the next section); a detailed log of all the changes; and any additional items that are related. In short, all of the information related to a specific RFI is immediately accessible in one place through Newforma Project Center, even if that information is distributed across multiple locations.
Of course, the “magic” of everything coming together and being immediately accessible involves an initial setup of the project, the complexity of which depends not so much on the size of the project but on the stage the project is in before a solution like Newforma Project Center is implemented. For a new project, the setup is a breeze, requiring some basic details of the project, the project team, the list of users along with their permissions, and the locations where the different items such as files, emails, transmittals, etc., will be stored (Figure 7). For an existing project, while the setup is the same, all the existing data has to be scanned and indexed to provide the aggregated, searchable view. Once this is done, Newforma automatically starts tracking of all the subsequent activity on the project.
One of the key challenges in managing AEC project workflows is that a lot of the actual work related to a project happens via email, making the management of project-related email a critical functionality of any project information management solution. (See, for example, email management in TonicDM, another PIM application.) Newforma Project Center has a plug-in to Microsoft Outlook that allows both incoming and outgoing emails to be quickly saved with their respective projects. The plug-in is being upgraded to the newer HTML5 capability, which provides the exact same functionality and experience of the Newforma plug-in to the desktop as well as the web versions of Outlook across all devices – PCs, Macs, tablets, and smartphones.
Once installed (on the desktop version of Outlook) or enabled (in the web version), the plug-in allows emails to be filed in a project as an action item, submittal, submittal response, RFI, or RFI response. Figure 8 shows an email being filed as a Submittal in a project. Newforma can make an educated guess on what the project is, based on the subject, content, sender, and recipient of the email. Once the project is selected, it can also automatically populate some of the required information for creating the Submittal.
In contrast to other project data that is referenced rather than copied. Newforma actually makes copies of the emails that are filed, at the location that was specified in the Project Settings. The filed emails can then be deleted from individual mailboxes, streamlining them. The filed emails are scanned, indexed, and OCR-ed — not just the body of the emails, but also their attachments — so they can be searchable. Newforma can detect if multiple copies of the same email are being filed by different team members and automatically deletes the duplicates.
The entire repository of project emails can be accessed in the Project Email activity center, where it can be filtered and searched (Figure 9). In addition to making emails an integral component of the project workflow, this also has the advantage of the emails being always available, even if someone on the project team leaves the project or the firm.
As mentioned earlier, one of the key strengths of Newforma Project Center is the large number of applications it integrates with, allowing the exchange of project information and files between them to be automated rather than needing to be done manually. This is important as design firms are typically required to participate in multiple collaborations for different projects as mandated by the individual contractors of those projects — and this would be in addition to their own design collaboration solution as well as a PIM solution like Newforma to manage all their internal projects. By using Newforma’s “connectors” to these different solutions, users do not need to separately log into these solutions and learn how to work with them — they can simply authenticate the use of Newforma Project Center to manage the communication and exchange of project data, so they can continue to stay in Newforma and still be able to participate in the collaboration workflows.
The applications for which Newforma’s connectors are available include Revit, Bluebeam, Bentley ProjectWise, Autodesk Construction Cloud, Procore, BIM 360, Microsoft SharePoint, Deltek, and others. The functionality of each connector is different depending upon the application it integrates with. So, for example, the BIM 360 connector allows BIM 360 content to be viewed, accessed, searched, shared, and referenced from within Newforma; the Procore connector allows automatic transfer of RFIs and Submittals between the contractor’s Procore project into the architect’s Newforma project and back again to Procore; and the Revit connector allows bi-directional syncing of Sheets, Spaces and Elements between Revit and Newforma to facilitate issuing drawing packages, automating Punch List workflows, etc.
For collaborating with other design firms who are also using Newforma, there is a Newforma to Newforma connector, which allows the two Newforma implementations to talk to each other. There is also a option, Newforma Info Exchange, for collaboration with a design firm who is not using Newforma. This is a portal for external users to be able to log into Newforma and access the project data that is being shared with them, including RFIs, Submittals, Sheets, etc. Since this is shared information, the external firm can also edit the data, enabling them to participate in the collaborative workflow even without having a Newforma license.
In looking at how Newforma Project Center aggregates and provides a consolidated view of the vast amounts of information associated with a design project — which is typically distributed across multiple applications, data sources, and emails — it is hard to imagine how a design firm is able to cope with information overload and do its work without using a project information management system. And with regard to Newforma Project Center, its ability to connect to a wide range of applications to also bring in their associated data into its consolidated view seems like icing on the cake.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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