The End of Blueprints


Director of Marketing

We're big advocates of "going paperless." Our desks are free of folders, pens, printers and sticky notes. There's not a single TPS report to be found. We're also big advocates of software. So, when a visitor to our website shared their concern about the paper waste from printing blueprints, we were intrigued. Can estimating and takeoff software end the destruction of forests (or at least save a few thousand trees)?

A quick Google search didn't uncover the data we were looking for. So we decided to don the detective caps ourselves. After talking with a local repographics service, and making a few calculations, we discovered some startling statistics: 42,000 trees are killed each year to print blueprints. Laid end to end, this is the distance from New York City to Washington DC!

Tree Map.001-001

37 Million Blueprints Are Printed Every Year

Before construction begins on a job site, blueprints will be printed and re-printed numerous times over by architects, project managers, building owners, engineers and contractors. Our local repographics shop gets an average of 35 print requests a day from this crowd. Before the economy took a dip, this number was closer to 80.

For a single request, the shop may be asked to print one blueprint, or up to 300, depending on the size of the project. So on the low end, this shop prints off 12,600 (35/day) blueprints a year.

Reprography – the practice of copying and reproducing documents and graphic material – is a 3,000-company industry in the United States. Our local shop is considered a smaller shop, so assuming every reprographics company prints 12,600 blueprints a year would be a conservative estimate. Still, at this rate, this means the entire industry prints 37,800,000 blueprints every year.

Using the standard architectural size of a blueprint (24"x36") as our unit of measure, along with information we gathered from, we determined it would take 42,000 trees measuing 40 feet high and 6 – 8 inches in diameter to produce this much paper. Aside from the deforestation, there is additional pollution from the paper factory, vehicles to transport the paper, ink cartridges used at the printing shops and more.

Digital Plans Require Zero Paper

Blueprinting is an outdated practice; it is a 167-year old technology. Today, the same blueprint-based activities can be achieved using onscreen takeoff software. Contractors can view plans, measure lengths and volumes, and markup plans on a computer screen. Plans are electronic – either PDF or CAD files – and can be emailed around without printing a single sheet.

When integrated with construction cost estimating software, contractors can take a measurement, then calculate material quantities and volumes. For example, simply trace an interior wall with your mouse or digital pen, then the estimating software will tell you how many 2x4s, sheets of drywall, screws and insulation is needed to build the wall. The software also provides accurate material and labor pricing for your region.

In turn, this allows contractors to determine the cost of a job, then bid on the project. It reduces miscalculations and helps contractors avoid over or under bidding a job. This is the key to job profitability.

Cost of Software vs Cost of Paper Plans

While the initial software investment is larger than the $3 cost of a blueprint, the software will pay for itself by eliminating printing needs and improving the speed and accuracy of estimating jobs. Most estimating and takeoff software costs between $1,000 and $10,000 depending on number of licenses, feature and function requirements, and construction trade (e.g. earthwork, mechanical, electrical, etc). Here's a simple example to understand how quickly software could pay for itself:

Let's say your commercial construction firm bids on 100 jobs a year. For each job you print off 10 blueprints. At $3 a print, you're looking at a $3,000 expense just for blueprints. This is the same investment you would make for the one-time purchase of software.

100 jobs per year  X  10 blueprints per job  X  $3 per print  = $3,000  OR  1 software license

Incentives for Construction Software Adoption

For an industry that follows the mantra "if it aint broke, don't fix it," it will be tough to change construction companies blueprint habits. Going paperless for the sake of saving our planet is not going to drive change; it has to make dollars and sense.

So what will be the impetus for change? For starters, we think federal incentives could help. Just as the government is handing out incentives for doctors that switch from paper charts to electronic medical records, there could be an incentive for construction companies to migrate from blueprints to software.

Secondly, we think the US Green Building Council should create a LEED credit for builders using software instead of blueprints. This credit would be appropriate for the existing "Innovation in Design" category. It could be awarded to companies that use software in place of blueprints to carry out pre-construction activities.

Finally, there need to be incentives for the 3,000 reprographics companies to move from blue printing serivces to cost estimating services. This will obviously be a tough sell as changing business models is not easy. However, the business model does work, and one might argue it is more profitable because of lower operating costs (no ink, no paper, no purchasing and maintenance of expensive plotters, etc).

  • Liz Amason

    Very informative. I really like the idea of the LEED credit for businesses going paperless!

  • Guy Dauncey

    Excellent work. You don’t need a specific LEED credit – this could be one of the 4 bonus credits that anyone can claim.

  • Chas

    I agree that there is an opportunity to greatly reduce the number of prints made each day for estimating purposes. But, how many of those prints wind up on top of a plan table on a jobsite or submitted to building code officials for review and permitting? I don’t foresee large computer screens on jobsites replacing paper. Tradesmen with muddy boots and greasy hands, working in all kinds of weather, need ready access to plans. I’m also not sure how amenable government officials will be to investing in software and working digitally. If you can address some of these other uses of blueprints, you can really make a difference.

  • Ed Med

    I agree with Chas, there needs to be a way to get the documents into contractors hands on-site. Maybe when tablet PCs such as the iPad are more readily accessible and less expensive, construction companies will be willing to pony-up for their foremen to each own one.

  • Richard Johnson

    Great Article – I just have one comment regarding your price discussion. The Blue Book provides a complete service to take digital plans or paper and convert them to industry standard PDF including separating the docs in to single pages and labeling each doc based on the title block. The digital files are then loaded into a private on-line plan room which is integrated with our Invitation To Bid system. And to make it even easier – we also include a free PDF takeoff and markup tool for all the people you invite to the plan room. All of this for the cost of $0! That’s right – The Blue Book has been training GCs, subs and suppliers to work digitally for the past several years. We have well over 6000 GCs using this FREE technology to win more work and control their FREE digital document distribution. Today we convert, label and upload well over 40,000 docs per and send over 1 million messages weekly in our network. SO – you could adjust your calculation for the cost of entry in to a total digital workflow – assuming the company has internet access – its FREE!

  • Dan Holdgreve

    As a general contractor bidding primarily commercial jobs, the average print we receive is probably closer to 30 pages 36″ x 24″, and are charged 8.5 cents per SF to copy them, so every copy of a full print costs an average of $15.30 each. Several years ago, we pulled back from covering the cost of full prints to bidding subs, offering them instead a limited number of exact half-sized sets. for pick-up. Half scale prints are actually 1/4 the size of full scale drawings, or 1.5 SF per page, but most reprographers will round that up to 2 SF (x 30 pages x .085 = $5.10 / half scale set). So this reduced our copy cost by approximately 67%. We still run one extra full sized set for our plan room for in-house take-off, and we now have our ftp site for digital download, though many of our subcontractors are not ready to take that step yet. Certainly within the next 10 years though, even we in the conservative heartland will be seriously considering paperless systems, if for no other reasons than competitive cost cutting.

  • Edward Theus

    Houston, though some of the idealogy you write is true,some of the “facts” you present are way off base. First, the term “blueprint” is outdated. The change in the reprographic industry from “blueprinting” to digital tecnology has already saved many trees.Your metrics of how many blueprints companies do yearly is not even close….so a company prints 12600 prints a year @ $3.00 each = $37,800 in yearly sales, if that were the case there wouldn’t be 3000 shops. For this generation, there will always be a need for sticky notes, pens, and yes, hardcopy plans. Definitley not as much as 5 years ago, but there is a lot more to the reprographics industry than you think. We are partners in the construction process (the ones who are just “blue printers” are out of business)and the more the construction industry realizes this, the easier the migration to more digital/less paper will become. We the “blueprinter” have already started this, but paper will never completely go away.

  • Terry Finberg

    Digital is cool.However, in the field, I am not sure how effective digital will be. I doubt you will ever get away from blue prints 100%. Iron workers, carpenters etc etc are not going to treat tables, ipads or whatever as gently as the manufactures of said products designed them.

  • Bud Nordman

    Watch this video about tablet PCs and iPads being used on the job instead of paper. There are ‘Ruggedized’ tablet PCs that are used in the military by tank operators and infantry soldiers. So the worry about fragile computers on a jobsite is not an issue. Handle a wet, creased, muddy, faded, folded paper plan and then we’ll talk fragile. A paper plan on a jobsite is like trying to read a paper road map in a convertible at 75 MPH.

  • Edward Theus

    I realize this article is dated, but Houston, let’s here from you. Blue Beam & Blue Book guys your opinions would warrant some merit if you weren’t trying to push your products. The Reprographic industry is going through a major paradigm shift and digital technology is taking over and will be predominately used moving forward. Paper will not go away completely…just look around your desk right now. I think the “facts” stated in the initial article were way off base a would love to know where Houston retrieved his information.

  • Markus Hogue

    Paperless is direction for blueprints, not only to save on trees and the enviroment but to save on the bottem line.

    I use bluebook and other paperless ways of viewing projects when I am working on sites, but what they lack is the flexiblity to change data on them. With a paper blueprint you can use a red pen and show changes but with pdf files, you must print them to show changes. Also try walking around a commercial site with a laptop and trying to view items on the screen. Not very handy and I hope Ipad or possible future electronics – eRoll – Rolltop, will make it simpler to go paperless.

    Getting LEED credits for going paperless is a GREAT idea and makes sense. I hope to be apart of this and not only save money but the enviroment.

  • Kevin Rowe

    Great article. I have been in reprographics for 40 years. I was asked to write a white paper on our industry by Goldman Sachs. The article was entitled “The Greening of Plans and Specs” and was republished by the AIA. The reprographics industry is now about 1400 firms, and shrinking. Volumes are off 40%.

     Our estimates of the trees killed is much higher. The average blueprint is 30×42 and our shop routinly did 3 million square feet of prints a month, and the specifications generated about half that amount each month.

    One example: Local 20,000 seat arena-200,000 sq. ft. of space
    Reprographics required to diseminate and distribute that information:
    2,000,000 sq ft of paper or 10x the size of the space.

    The industry is guilty of protecting printing and not moving to newer technologies to change with the times. Without this change we will find ourselves in the same boat as the newspapers and quick printers – as an industry we can do it but it is difficult to change a 100 year old culture

    Cost to all of the disciplines in time, effort energy to keep track of all this information? – thousands of project hours – manage the project not the paper!

    There are hundeds of in-house repro facilities some much larger that the print-for-pay. The advent of professional estimating tools, BIM, animations etc no longer allow for flat 1D imaging.

    Our company is doing everything we can to keep the information in digital form. How about that information at the end of the project called close-out? TEvery bit of that information was digital at one time – keep it digital until there is a demand for print. Don’t print and hope somebody needs it.

    Color marketing boards have know been found to have been mounted on a know carcinagen Styrene. Inkjet inks average $3000.00 a gallon, fuel to ship the prints. The manufacturing of paper is one of the biggest polluters of all time.

    Large 3D/4D/5D workstations, SmartPhones and operating system enabled tablets are here, the information is already digital and the process is way more efficient – let’s get with it!

  • Alan

    Like so many “green” sounding articles, this ignores the facts that paper is a
    biodegradable, renewable, sustainable product made from trees. It is also worth noting that cultivating and harvesting trees provides jobs for millions of men and women, and working forests are good for the environment, providing clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and – if you buy into the man-made global warming story – carbon storage. The pulp trees used for paper are grown like a crop, and reforestation occurs as a natural part of that cycle. Should we be equally concerned at how many corn, beans or wheat plants are “killed” each year? The printing and publishing industry employs over 500,000 people in the US alone. I’m all for improving efficiency and reducing waste; when it makes sense the market does this naturally and beautifully all by itself, only when founded on weak pseudo-science does it need government meddling and support.

  • Dennis

    Not to change the subject, I fully understand the issues facing our industry, but we actually grow trees to make paper and wood products, they are called managed timberlands. What effect do you think this will have on those industries? Paper is recycled mainly to save landfill space. So if it’s about selling software and technology, let’s put it out there like that and go from there. Let’s find something else to save the planet from, like narrow-minded ideologies.

  • john

    From a purely estimation point of view, I find the current method of E-docs very cumbersom to read properly. The industry needs to get a standard in place regarding hotlinks to sections, details & notes. Why can’t the drawings come with these already in place? Why do we have to set up all our own? It’s just as easy to set them up all at once when detailing the plans at the architects office. There is no need for the detail or section mark, just insert the hotlink and make it printable. Is that so hard? Same thing with notes, make them an interactive jump to the specific note. Also, a back & forth button to move thru the last 5 or 6 screens more easily would be immensley helpful. I don’t think Architects realize how much jumping around people do just to get the proper information in order to build an assembly. Until this is standardized within the design community, there will always be a need for printed plans, if only to have a copy of mini’s in front of the estimator so we can get information quickly and without zooming in and out, switching pages, etc. I can’t believe someone is not working on this already, this is 2011 after all, what are you waiting for…

  • Dan Trexler

    I partially agree, and partially disagree. I do agree that digial applications are the way to go in the office setting regarding estimating, scheduling and the other general pre-construction applications. However, the disagreement part would be that I think a hard copy of the plans and speciaifications on the job site is a invaluable asset. Maybe I am from the old school (which is sad, for I am only 50), but I prefer when I am on the site, I like to have a copy copy of the plans. That way I can flip back and forth thru the sheets, make notes when needed, and have a visual aid to have me problem solve. The diadvanage with a digia set of plans is that I feel it is easier to miss things. In a digial set of drawings, one needs to be specific as to what they are looking for. Sometimes sections or details are mislabeled and one need to scan thru the plans to find the correct detail. anyway, my thoughts…

  • EHouser

    Great theory for the office, but don’t forget the field guys.  Hauling a laptop around the job to check plans just isn’t going to happen in the near future!

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