Here’s a tip for those of you who hate drawing polyline borders point by point in order to do a take-off, or a hatch. Try REC and REG (rectangle and region).

First, get used to using the often overlooked REC command. It may seem like a simple thing, picking two points to draw a closed orthogonal polyline (big deal, you can do that with ortho and snap), but when combined with the mighty REGION command, you’re cooking with gas. I like REC because you can cover an area with just two clicks instead of four, and let’s face it, most architectural plans are made out of rectangles (corridors, rooms…). Plus, the x,y coordinates come out nice and consistent, from bottom-left to upper-right.

On a new layer (e.g. A-AREA) start drawing rectangles all over the place, overlapping them with abandon. We’ll clean it up in the next step. All you need to do is make sure you’ve covered the entire area you’re interested in, with as many rectangles as you need.

Now, isolate that layer so you don’t mess with your drawing (LAYISO). Type REG and select everything/hit enter. It will look like nothing happened, but really you’ve just turned all those polylines into regions. What’s a region?

Regions are two-dimensional enclosed areas you create from objects that form closed loops. Loops can be combinations of lines, polylines, circles, arcs, ellipses, elliptical arcs, and splines. The objects that make up the loops must either be closed or form closed areas by sharing endpoints with other objects.

The special thing about regions? You can perform 2D Boolean operations on them: union, subtraction and intersection. So now that you have regions, type UNI (for union) and select everything again/hit enter. You’ll see all your rectangles merge into a single shape. Yeah, mind-blowing, isn’t it? It gets better: you can subtract regions from one another. Type SU, select your main region (the one you want to keep), hit enter, then select the region that will be subtracted (the cutting shape)/hit enter. You’ll see that second region cut away from the first. And you can use this method to make donuts. That is, you can cut out islands in the middle of your regions, and Autocad, for once, knows what you’re trying to do. (You can also INTERSECT regions, but I’ve rarely found use for that.)

Now that you have a region, with or without donut holes, you can get properties to find its area, and you can select it as an object to hatch. Autocad’s gotten better at hatching complex polylines with islands, but it’s still not perfect. However, I’ve never had a problem hatching a region. It works every time, no matter how many holes you cut out.

One thing about regions: you’ll see that the vertices are not editable like a polyline. The whole shape moves as a block. No matter, you can always explode regions when you need to. And of course, you can build the pieces back into polylines and regions again, now that the JOIN command is so much better.

You’ll notice that in the above definition of REGION they mention shapes other than rectangles. This is true–you can mix all kinds of things, as long as they’re all in the same plane. Many possibilities. Enjoy.

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You know what’s faster than using a photocopier to copy and/or send something? Take a picture of it with your phone. But, you say, it gets all distorted, and it’s hard to read… and the file size is too big. Go download this free app:

Genius Scan – PDF Scanner for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store.

You take a picture with your phone then quickly drag the corners of the image to correct for perspective. When you’re done it automatically converts it to an either black-and-white or vivid color pdf. Then you can email it (as a very small attachment) or move it around your phone to other apps.

Two ways I often use Genius Scan:

1. Draw a sketch by hand at my desk. Send by email immediately. (I usually take the photo a little askew in order to keep the shadow of my phone off the drawing. Then perspective-correction makes it straight again.)

2. Copy someone’s document during a meeting or in the field without ever even taking the paper away from the person.

BONUS: if you put a scan of a document (image or pdf) in Google Drive, you can ask Google to turn it back into text (OCR). Any scan–not just the ones made with Genius Scan. Not 100% effective, but worth a try if you need to edit or copy the text.

BONUS+: The Drive app also lets you access this feature directly with your camera phone.

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Everyone runs out of disk space eventually. Even if you have exabytes of space, it’s good to cull once in a while. Here’s a simple, lightweight utility for Windows to see all the files you have as proportionally sized rectangles: WinDirStat. (On their site they recommend some alternatives for Linux and Mac.)

It’s not a beautiful visualization, but it’s fast and free. Tell it what drive or folder to analyze, and it’ll create a colorful summary of all the files, organized by folder. (Filetypes are color-coded.) A directory listing appears on top, with filenames and sizes. You can click either the text or the graphic rectangle to select a file. From there you can get Properties, open in Explorer, Delete and some other administrative stuff.

It’s a great way to spot the huge files (or folders made up of hundreds of small files). I just did this the other day when I saw my Dropbox was full.

There are other utilities that do this, but I love the raw simplicity and ugliness of it. But that’s me. At work I set up Windows 7 to look like 98.

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Do you hate the search “feature” they put in Windows 7/8? I think it’s terrible and slow. Since Google Desktop was discontinued–hold on, let me take a moment to grieve–it’s been a sad, slow, opaque world for me. While Outlook search has improved greatly, I think because they integrated LookOut, searching through Windows Explorer is painful. It takes too long, returns too many false positives and has a pointlessly complicated syntax for refined search.

I’ve looked around for a good free alternative, and I’ve come to rely on Agent Ransack. It’s zippy, bare bones ugly the way I like it, and has a great name to boot. Once installed, you can access it through the right-click menu.

Try it, I think you’ll like it.

Pro-tip: the hotkey is the letter “a” so you can right-click on a folder and type “a” to get to the search box fast. Or, if you’re in no-mouse/keyboard-only mode, hit the menu key to the left of the spacebar and tap “a.”

Here are some search alternatives, but I haven’t tried them myself.

And here’s the crazy syntax for making Windows search behave.

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Sometimes you need to see what your fonts look like, and waiting for the preview in Word or Illustrator is just too slow. Try STC fontBROWSER (Flash). It lists all the fonts that are installed on your computer and gives you a quick preview at two different sizes.

There are other browser-based font viewers, I learned, with pros and cons to each. Read about them here.


Noggin Box Font Picker

I found this interesting:

note: How does a web app interrogate my fonts?
In a word: Flash. Most of these systems use a Flash applet to retrieve font names — even if the interface is primarily HTML.

The only exception is which relies on JavaScript. It uses a database of known font names and determines whether a font is installed by applying it to an element and detecting whether its dimensions change.

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Autocad CTB/STB viewer.

I don’t know how many of you will find this useful, but I sure like it. You can upload a .ctb or .stb file to this site and see what all the line weights and colors will look like. Then you can filter by color and lineweight.

(It’s Swiss, so you’ll see some French words. “Chargement…” means “Loading…”)

Bonus round: if you select-all once your .ctb is loaded, you can copy-paste to Excel (use “Paste Special…” to paste as plain text). You can paste several .ctb tables this way and do a side-by-side comparison of colors and weights. Handy when trying to work with another office’s plotstyles.

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Photosynth – Capture your world in 3D.

For iPhone and Windows Phone


A must-have for architects in the field: superpowerful app that creates XY panoramas with your phone. I say XY because you can point your camera in any direction–left, right, up, down.

Why are panoramas so great? You know how you’ll take 100 photos on site, get back to your desk and realize you missed just one shot that would tell you how something was installed? Or you’ll forget what sequence you took the shots and not know how two photos go together? With a panorama you have a fighting chance at documenting everything you need.

You just aim your camera, no need to tap anything until you feel like you’re done. It auto-stitches all your shots, saves it as a flat fisheye shot in your camera roll, and keeps the panorama in your phone, in the app. You can name your panorama and use the GPS locator to identify where it’s taken.

On top of that, you can upload to (once you create an account), see the panorama in the browser and share through email and Facebook. You can also embed it in a webpage.

You can choose to make your panoramas public (there are some great hi-quality public ones on or keep them private.

Great stuff. Go get it now.

BONUS: This is what Photosynth used to be. Really. Really amazing.

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Ever get a PDF from someone that looks mysteriously empty on your iPhone? An email like, “I marked up your drawing. See attached for the area I’m talking about.” Then you open the attachment and see your own drawing but no comments? It’s because the default PDF viewer (iBooks) can’t display PDF comments.

Never fear, there’s an app for that. There are actually lots of apps that show annotations. I like Adobe Reader. If you don’t have it on your iPhone you need to go get it now.

Once you’ve installed it, you can skip the default iPhone viewer in your Mail app and other apps, too. In Mail, just hold down on the attachment for a couple seconds instead of tapping. You’ll get a new screen asking what app you’d like to use. (Choose Adobe Reader.) The document is added to Adobe Reader’s library, and all the glorious comments become visible.

What’s more, you can add your own comments from your iPhone. And you can send the doc as an attachment from Reader. Or print it. You can also add it to, if you want to keep an account in Adobe’s cloud. If it confuses you, there’s help online.

Adobe Reader is great for field work, too.

You can collect PDFs here that are always accessible once they’re downloaded to your phone (unlike Dropbox, which requires a network connection). You can organize them in folders and/or rename the files as you please. So before you do a site visit, load it up with all your construction docs and finish schedules. Much more convenient than lugging around a binder.

By the way, you can “Open in Adobe Reader” from the Dropbox app, too. Look for this button (or a variant of it, anything with an arrow coming out of a box):


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Want to email a question about something on your screen without having to print a PDFor open Photoshop just to point at something? Here’s a Windows doodad that makes annotated screen captures much more useful.

In Vista/Windows 7/Windows 8, there is a built-in program called Snipping Tool. You can get to it by hitting the Start button and typing “Snip”. It should be the top search result (unless you have other programs named “snip”-something). The most convenient way to get there (all keyboard, no mouse) is to hit the Windows key,


…type “snip” and hit enter.

Your screen will fade out, and there will be a little tool floating in the middle of your screen.


Click “New” to start dragging a rectangle around the area of the screen you want. As soon as you let go of the mouse, you’ll see your screenshot with some additional tools up top:

  • Save (as PNG, GIF, JPG)
  • Copy to clipboard
  • Send as email attachment
  • Markup (pen)
  • Highlight
  • Erase Markup or Highlight

You can change markup and highlight colors. Also, before you start your screenshot you can change to free-form snip, active window or full-screen (drop-down menu next to the “New” button). If you want, see official documentation with video here:

Snipping Tool – Microsoft Windows

It’s a nice way to snapshot your screen (say, something you’re drawing in Autocad), circle the area you have a question about and email it to someone in just a few seconds.

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Yes you can. You can measure and/or dimension things to scale in a PDF, including AREA calculations.

You’ll need Adobe Reader XIAdobe Acrobat Pro or, if you’re like me, Foxit (free PDF viewer). I like Foxit because (1) it’s lightweight and (2) it puts all open documents in tabs. (Get with the times, Adobe.)

Note: earlier versions of Adobe Reader didn’t let you measure unless the author enabled Measuring and Comments.

Before I start, I need to warn you, Adobe did a terrible job with this tool. It’s hard to find, the different components are located in completely different areas, and it’s a bit ugly.

Adobe Reader XI (also applies to most of Acrobat Pro)

In the Edit menu, select Analysis > Measuring Tool. At the upper-right you’ll now see Snap Types and Measurement Types:


You’ll notice you can snap to nearest line, end points, midpoint and intersection. Personally I don’t use the snaps because they’re a little wonky. Then to the right you’ll see three types of measurement: linear distance, perimeter and area. For perimeter and area, you can close the line by getting close to the start point (you’ll see a little O next to your cursor)–double click to close the line.

At the bottom right you’ll see a status of what your scale is and what you’re measuring:


The most useful part of this display is the Angle. For some reason you can’t dimension an angle as a comment on the PDF, but you can see what it is here.

The dimension will appear as in any drafting program. It will also come with its own comment popup, which you can minimize or add comments to, if you like.


At any point you can right-click somewhere on the page and change the scale of your measurement. Make sure you’re still using the Measure Tool (not the black arrow or hand tool). The first option on the pop-up contextual menu will be “Change Scale Ratio.” You can change either number, i.e., 1/4″ scale can be 1 inch = 4 feet or 0.25 inch = 12 inches.

Before setting the scale I recommend finding something to verify your scale. If there’s a graphic scale, measure it at 1:1 scale first and check your numbers. Or if there isn’t a graphic scale (does anyone use those anymore?) find something like a 36″ door to confirm.

Note: sometimes a PDF will have a scale built-in. That’s usually ok, but I find more times than not, the scale is wrong. If you’re having trouble setting the scale, go to Preferences (Ctrl+K) > Measuring (2D) and uncheck “Use Scale and Units from Document (when present).”


Like with any comment/markup in Acrobat, you can change the style with Ctrl+E. A little toolbar will pop up, showing you everything that can be modified.  You can also modify dimension properties by right-clicking on the dimension line and choosing “Properties…” (Here, for some reason they give you a dialog box instead of a toolbar.) Right-clicking will also show you options like “Flip Line” and “Add Label.” And to make it just a little more complicated, you can also right-click on the dimension line and select “Measure Preferences” (same thing as Ctrl+K > Measure (2D)).

TIP: In case you didn’t catch that, you can use Ctrl+E with any markup. If you have a text box, Ctrl+E will let you set the font, font size, font color, background/border colors etc.

You can also right-click off a dimension line (anywhere else on the page) to get a different pop-up menu, with things like “Turn Ortho On” (also available in Preferences) and “Export Measurement Markup to Excel” (I haven’t found this useful yet).


I haven’t found a way to override the dimension text. So if you see “4.01 in” and want it to appear as “4 in” you can either fiddle with the start and end points until you get exactly what you want, or you can do what I do: create at text box (comment), type in “4 in”, then drag the text box over the dimension text. If you want to be a little more stylish, you can use Ctrl+E to change the properties of the text box (white background and border, smaller text maybe).

Adobe Acrobat Pro X

Just about everything is the same for Acrobat Pro (Version 10) as it is with Reader XI, except:

The tool is found in the right pane (now that you’re a Pro, you get a button, not a menu item):



Under “Analyze” (Measuring Tool). The thing is, Acrobat hides this by default. To make it appear, go to that little icon of a little menu and select “Analyze” at the bottom.



TIP: Right-click on this “Measuring Tool” button to get “Add to Quick Tools”–the icon will be added to your toolbar at top for easy access.


You can find the measuring tools (Distance, Perimeter, Area) in the Comment menu. There aren’t a lot of formatting options here. What you see is what you get. But it gets the job done.

Have fun.

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