Using DropBox for Project Collaboration

Most projects I work on are collaborative in nature, and I like it that way. It's great to work with other professionals and create something together. Sometimes the teams get together in a live meeting, and those tend to be pretty productive, but mostly the collaboration is taking place online. The problem I have is that the online collaboration isn't as efficient as it could be.

A bit of background... Back in 1990 something I had a two year stint in the information technology department at Creo Products and my focus was tools for disseminating information effectively out to our customer service people. Before I started in that role email was a prime vehicle for sending out documents, and this became completely unwieldy as the company grew and opened up offices around the world in many time zones. When I left (and by no means do I take credit for all of this) we had a functional intranet and service techs around the world could log in and find the information they were looking for, without a phone call or email request. It was vastly superior.

This might be why I get annoyed when a project team I am part of gets in the habit of sending around their documents as email attachments. It is so clumsy. The email system gets bloated, all these different versions are floating around, and not everyone has the information they need, when they need it.

Fortunately there is a better, simpler, and more or less free solution. Collaborative Drop Box.

You can't understand how DropBox really works until you realize that there are two key parts to it. The first is the remote online server, the cloud. If you upload a file to DropBox then it goes on to some server, somewhere. I have no idea where, and it doesn't matter.

The second part of DropBox is a folder that lives on your computer (and any other computers you use where you have set up DropBox), and a background application that quietly drives the process of exchanging files between the your computer and the cloud.

Once things are set up then any file you save on your local DropBox folder is transferred to the cloud. And any file that arrives on the cloud is saved to your local folder. All of that happens in the background, automatically.

This is really handy on a solo level. I host pretty much everything in DropBox folder, and this means all of that stuff is transferred to my laptop automatically, and if I need to I can get any file from any where in the world via the internet. And files are backed up on the cloud, and it even saves old versions so I can get to a deleted file or a previous edition of a file if I need it!

If I need to share a file or folder I don't email it - I just send a DropBox link, like this one:
Whoever hits this link will get the latest version of the files I want to share.

So, back to our team collaboration. Everyone needs a DropBox account, which is free unless you want a lot of space or extra features. (I do, so I pay about $100 a year, and I consider this money well spent). To make it work as a team tool all that needs to happen is that one of us sets up a folder for the project. I typically use a structure like this:

And then that person sends out the a DropBox folder share. Not a link! That is different. It must be a share. (fastest way is right click in windows explorer, select view on, and from there select the icon "share this folder")

The sharing process will require entry of the invitees, by email address. The invitee will receive an email with a link to click. When they accept it then right away copy of that folder will be created on their hard drive, complete with all files and subfolders.

So at this point everyone can simply load their own data into their subfolder and in less than a minute it will be available on their team mates hard drive. If one of us deletes a file then it is deleted from everyone's drive (That might sound like a problem, but probably they deleted it because it no longer has value, and if it is needed it is saved on the cloud as a prior version).

I think that is awesome.

Tom, Tim and I have been experimenting with sharing a live Revit model on DropBox. It looks promising. Stay tuned, and leave a comment if you have anything to say!

Aside, Kiteboarding Ban at Centennial Pier

This story just broke and, as an avid kiteboarder I feel compelled to protest. This is the letter I am drafting in response:

Dear Residents of Port Alberni,

I’d feel compelled to respond to the recent story about the ban on kiteboarding at Centennial Pier. I live and work in Comox, and about once a week all summer long I come down to Port Alberni to kiteboard at the pier. I realize the site was not constructed specifically for kiteboarding, and so I am always very careful to avoid endangering anyone around me. While on the water I keep in mind that I am a guest, and do my best not to interfere with the boat traffic. More often than not I am not visiting alone, and my friends think and act in a similar fashion.

We are shocked and disappointed by what appears to be a unilateral decision made without any consultation with the community designated “at risk” here. The economic benefit to your town is real! My friends and I often go for dinner at your local restaurants, and buy gas or groceries at your stores. Sometime we bring our “non kiter” families with us, and while we are on the water they hang out at the public Quay and spend money.

Furthermore, haven’t you seen the crowds that gather to watch us? They spend money as well! We are your latest tourist attraction, and we came to you free of charge!

 Will you allow this essentially free revenue stream to be chopped off without consideration?

It appears the fundamental element the Port Authority is concerned about is the danger involved in jumping off the pier. I don’t believe that this is as dangerous as it is made out to be, but I believe this problem can be addressed simply by requiring kiteboarders to launch from the leeward edge of the pier, where the wind will quickly take us away from the danger zone. A simple sign saying “kiteboarders must launch here” might suffice.

As the site grows in popularity the next step may be to add a jet ski support and rescue service, and I would be to pay an annual membership to support the costs.

We hope you will support us in our quest to reverse this ill considered decision.

Yours truly,

Brian Muir, P.Eng.


(250) 890-0870


We've jumped into Revit!

In a prior post I explained how I build up plans with the MEP version of AutoCAD. It turns out that this was an incremental step in my quest to find (and create) the ideal platform for plan development. .

Just before Christmas I've broke out the business credit card and ordered a license for the AutoDesk Building Design Suite Premium. This includes AutoCAD MEP, Revit MEP, and a bunch of other stuff I probably won't look at for at least a year. It is a pretty big investment for a little engineering shop but I believe it is a good decision.

Our first project using Revit MEP will be the new York Machine Shop, up in Campbell River. Tom Dishlevoy is the architect and also works in Revit. I've managed to link to his model and things are moving along fairly well. I am also using the project for the renovation to the curling rink, and this is what the electrical room is going to look like:

Rink Electrical Room

I seem to be picking it up pretty quickly, thanks in part to the excellent training videos at, and by posting questions to the the Revit forums on the AutoDesk site. (And, once in a while I bug Tom my friend Shawn who also knows his way around Revit.)

There are a couple of pretty interesting things about working in Revit compared to AutoCAD. Sure, it is 3d, but for the most part my work is in plan, so that isn't really all that big a deal. One of the big items on that list is the way Revit handles layers. It doesn't! Revit does not support placing an entity (wall, device, line, whatever) on a layer. Instead, entities can be assigned to types (i.e. you are a wall, and you are an electrical device), and phases (this wall is existing, and that wall is new construction), There are a few other classifications that can be assigned as well.

Views can be built up that leverage the various classifications, so, for example, you can make a view that shows items of interest to electrical, existing. This can be set up to hide all new construction, turn off some architectural details, and make all the plumbing appear light gray in the plot.

I have yet to encounter a problem I used to use layers to deal with that I can't address in some other means with Revit, and generally the way Revit does it makes a lot of sense to me.

Another neat thing about Revit is the way it handles pages intended for plotting versus the actual content. That is a bit of a topic in itself and I'll save it for a future blog post.

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Introducing our new website!

Welcome to our new web site. The site is powered by an online service called SquareSpace. I heard about them because they sponsor my favorite podcast, "99 Percent Invisible" (which I'll write about in a future blog post.)

I decided to check out, but at first I didn't understand if this system would be a good way to build a site for a professional services company. It seemed really good for artists,  bands, and photographers and other artsy types. Fortunately the SquareSpace people are smart enough to include a wide variety of reference sites, and one of those is for a California  engineering company specializing in photovoltaic systems in California. Once I poked around their web site I knew that this would work for as well.

It's taken a while to configure the site and build up the portfolio of projects but I am pretty happy with the way it turned out.

I hope you like it too.

Please let me know if you have any suggestions or comments.


Thoughts on software tools for electrical plan development...

When I started up Muir Engineering the only tool I knew about for development of electrical engineering plans was AutoCAD. Well, and Microsoft Visio, which is fairly handy for schematics and block diagrams and such, but not very good for drawing up a building electrical plan.

I didn't realize until much later than this approach is pretty weak. The problem is that AutoCAD doesn't know a thing about electrical engineering! It has no clue that the block I just put down represents an receptacle. It doesn't know anything about panelboards, circuits. So, while the process of creating building electrical plans with AutoCAD is faster and more flexible than doing it on paper, it really isn't any different, in the same way that writing a letter using Microsoft Word, and writing one by hand use basically the same process. Sure, one can go back and correct mistakes, it is a lot easier to re-use content, and the spell check is pretty handy (especially for us engineering types, we are infamous for our lousy spelling), but it is still writing.

Then in early 2014 I learned about the MEP version of AutoCAD. MEP stands for "Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing". (I don't care much about the M and the P, but the E is pretty important around here!).

The software has a library of devices (and I've created a ton of new ones), and each device can have a set of properties. So, all of a sudden instead of a block representing a receptacle, I can drop down a device that is a receptacle, and that device can be configured for a certain VA load, and it can be connected to a circuit. Other entities the software knows about include panels, mechanical equipment, light fixtures and such.

The other really important piece of the puzzle is automatic scheduling. I used to build up schedules by hand, but with MEP the schedules are automated. This has saved me a lot of time and improved the accuracy of the drawings.

The problem I have now with AutoCAD MEP is that it is a bit of an orphan. I don't think AutoCAD has many developers assigned to new features. The AutoCAD MEP forum is a bit of a wasteland, and many of my postings go unanswered. It has some crazy and inconsistent behaviors, and it is a bit crash prone. I think AutoDesk has abandoned this product but won't admit that.

Just an aside, there is a product called AutoCAD Electrical. That sounds like something an electrical engineer would be interested in, right? Well, it turns out that that software is for detailed control system schematics, and isn't at all relevant to the kind of work I take on.

In 2015 I'll consider moving up to Revit but that looks like a major commitment, both in terms of time and money.