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In a special survey for the AJ, we find out if architects are really making the most of IT in the workplace and at home

Most architects now have access to the internet at work and at home, but their use of it is fairly restricted. This is one of the main findings from a survey carried out for The Architects' Journal by IT solutions provider Excitech. This showed that the initial resistance that much of the profession showed to the internet is slowly evaporating, although the low level of usage suggests that the full potential of the internet is not yet being realised. Although in the world at large there is now a reaction to the idea that the internet can be a universal panacea, surely there is more to do on it than one hour's worth of work a week?

Investigation of home use shows that this is not extensive either. More interestingly, it highlights the lack of demarcation between architects' work and home life, with many having CAD on their home computers and using those computers for sending drawings and documents.

But the most startling conclusion of the whole survey is the perceived need for greater training and, to a lesser degree, for investment in better equipment.With many practices notoriously lukewarm about continuing professional development, this is evidently an area where their time could be spent profitably.

The survey also highlights the significant number of practices where there is no dedicated IT support and architects at the coalface of design are also having to make purchasing decisions and grapple with maintenance. The level of interest in IT from the everyday practitioner has been highlighted by the lively debate on our online discussion forum about the use of CAD for small projects (go to www. ajplus. co. uk).

The aim of Architech is to provide inspiration and assistance to the working architect with developments in this rapidly changing field. With the assistance of Excitech and its customers, we are able to present this snapshot of practice today.

The universe

Excitech had a response of more than 650 to its questionnaire, sent to 6,500 customers.

The breakdown of practices is similar to the RIBA's analysis of size of practices, with the smaller practices dominating. Note that the definition of 'architectural staff ' is less rigid than the RIBA/ARB definition of an architect, so practice sizes are likely to seem slightly larger. Nevertheless, average practice sizes are slightly smaller than in the RIBA statistics, given here for comparison. This may be because the figures are dominated by AutoCAD users, since this is the platform that Excitech sells primarily. And among the largest practices are some of the most dedicated users of MicroStation - so those practices are statistically under-represented.

Using the internet at work

It is encouraging to see that internet access in the office is becoming more widespread. A few months ago there were anecdotal tales of offices where only one computer had access to the internet, which was still conceived largely as a leisure activity. Now more than three-quarters of respondents have access at their desks. Time spent on the internet is still relatively restricted, with nearly half of respondents using it for an hour or less a week. Although it may be that estimates of internet use are, like alcohol consumption, severe underestimates, especially as there is the contentious issue of personal use.

Respondents were asked about a number of types of use, and about frequency of those uses, but with a lot of forms left largely blank on this question, it was only possible to deduce that the vague 'sourcing information'was the most favoured use, following by e-mailing documents.

In the home

Architects evidently treat their personal computers seriously, with more than half having exclusive use, and few sharing in any significant way. One can judge from the responses that only 13 per cent don't have a PC. And more than two-fifths of architects have CAD on their home PC - either for working at home or doing private jobs. Not surprisingly, the distribution of CAD packages is pretty similar to those in the offices.

We also found that four-fifths of respondents had access to the internet at home.

Usage in leisure time was, if anything, slightly higher than in the office, with more people citing 'personal' use, and smaller, but still significant, numbers sending drawings. In other words, a day spent at home working rather than in the office does not count - but catching up in the evening on the things you could not get done in the day does, as does any private project. Sourcing information was still the leading use, although doubtless the type of information had changed. We were looking at uses outside official 'working at home'.

Again, with numerous incomplete questionnaires, several categories had to be ignored, and figures do not add up to 100 per cent.

Making it better

Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe that they would make better use of IT with more and better training. Since these are Excitech customers, and Excitech prides itself on the training that it can offer, the problem has to be down either to what companies are willing to pay, or to individuals finding the time.With IT such a central part of everybody's working life, investment in, and commitment to, better training could play a vital role in raising effectiveness.

With one third of respondents wanting faster hardware, and 13 per cent requiring better software, companies would also be advised to examine their investment strategies - although we all know that moaning about IT plays a vital role in the bonding process in all offices, so these responses do require a degree of scepticism.

Since one-third of respondents work in practices with no dedicated IT support, helping all users to understand their systems should bring great benefits - it is back to training again. This also highlights that many purchase decisions are not made by dedicated IT professionals.

One quarter of respondents believed that they would benefit from remote management of their IT infrastructure - presumably drawn from those practices with little inhouse support.

Technology and protection

Widely heralded as the future of internet connections, ADSL has not yet made a major penetration of architects' practice, with only one in 20 using it, and another 11 per cent having leased lines. One quarter of practices are still dependent on single dial-up. This looks a little retrograde, but may be no bad thing, given the cavalier attitude to protection - one quarter of companies have neither firewalls nor e-mail content security, and with 11 per cent registering as 'don't knows' the actual figure may be higher.

However, when asked directly about viruses, awareness seems to be higher. One quarter of respondents' organisations have suffered recently, and four-fifths know that they have a proper anti-virus solution.

Only one quarter of organisations allow their staff to access the network remotely, although it is likely that this figure is so low because of lack of technical sophistication, rather than caution. In contrast, the majority of companies express 'concern' about the content of e-mails, and only just over onethird of respondents can be certain that big brother is not looking over their shoulder.

With recent reports suggesting that monitoring of e-mails may be an invasion of human rights, companies that are intervening should be confident about their systems and their motivation.

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