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Everyone's on speaking terms

Construction e-management systems mean better communication - and nowhere to hide if things go wrong

Construction e-management is proliferating, becoming the buzz term as other markets such as CAD become saturated.

Earlier this year AJ reported on ProjectNet, a construction e-management application used by Fletcher Priest on a major project. Fletcher Priest was an early adopter of the system - now other practices and projects are following.

What all these e-management systems do is provide a unified communication system shared by everybody on the building team which allows them to comment on the master drawings and documents in a building project. Their friendly face is the tendency for everybody to to work together simply because everybody is working on the same drawing. Their darker side is that they provide certifiable audit trails should there be a legal dispute at the end of the contract. They do not yet have an agreed name but words to look out for include e-project management, hosting service, electronic distribution and extranet. And architects will have to look out for them - they are beginning to be regarded with interest by professional clients.

One home-grown system is Cadweb (see AJ 17/24. 8. 00) which, with the backing of the development arm of the Prudential, is being deployed on six projects at GreenPark in Reading. GreenPark is a 72ha site with planning permission for a total of 210,000m 2of space. Cadweb was used on the first phase, 100 Longwater Avenue, a four-storey building designed by Foster and Partners - which masterplanned the entire project - with Whitby Bird & Partners as structural engineer.

The building was completed in October 1999 by HBG Construction under a £12 million design and construct contract.

Prudential has decided to continue with Cadweb on the subsequent phases.

Martin Feakes, who started off as a design engineer on the first phase of the business park, believes that it was the fact that the client was behind Cadweb that made it work. 'We'd had a look at e-project management systems before, but historically they had been introduced by contractors as a management tool rather than a collaborative system. The difference with Cadweb is that everyone is equally responsible for maintaining it and running it for the benefit of both the team and the client, ' he says.

Kevin Ashman, Prudential's project manager at GreenPark, also sees the fact that it is client-driven as crucial, even if this is by default. He says that although consultants and contractors may be familiar with the electronic data interchange systems available, few have ever suggested introducing one to a project. 'If we hadn't pushed them I don't think they would have done it, ' he says.

Now that the professionals do have the system, they are already looking for extra facilities to make their lives easier. 'We now have a powerful user group made up of the professionals who have already used the system, ' Ashman says. 'As they become more familiar with it and their horizons expand, their requirements dictate the pace of change. '

So how are the professionals finding it?

A spokeswoman for one of the architectural practices involved said that the whole idea was potentially brilliant 'and in the future will be the way most people exchange construction information. Still, at the moment, people have got the idea that it is no more than a glorified posting box. '

This practice claims that it is running rival systems to Cadweb on other projects, so that in perhaps a year it will be able to offer an evaluation of their performances.

But it is confident enough in Cadweb to have abandoned its own in-house database system for the GreenPark projects.

Cadweb at work

According to the Cadweb people, the engineer, architect or subcontractor decides who is to get the information - which can be drawings, documents, whatever. They send the data, which is compressed and encrypted, via secure networks. Cadweb logs the time and date it is sent and received and, of course, the sender and recipient. In that sense it is a glorified posting box. As always there is a need for everybody to conform to a standard file format and, if the architects are on MicroStation, all the builders and subbies on AutoCAD and the engineers on something esoteric, there is the tedium of translating to the agreed format. The only way to sort that problem out is to knock the software firms' heads about whenever possible.

No hiding place

One assumes that communications will be more or less instantaneous with Cadweb, as with the other electronic systems.

That sounds terrific. But it means that if you are late in drawing a detail you have promised the contractor by return, you are in trouble. Especially when this is a tricky phase in the architect-contractor relationship. When fax machines were introduced to construction, architects lost the useful excuses of material being in the post, on a train or with a messenger who turned up late and is now lost in the back streets of Bermondsey and won't reach the site until tomorrow. Now there will be no hiding place at all - and it will all be in the audit trail.

The company offers a cost model in which couriers, delays from using the post, printing, photocopying and so on are factored together resulting in a claimed real saving of 2 per cent of the total contract price (check out www.cadweb.co.uk). It will be interesting to see what the reality is at GreenPark because, of course, using Cadweb isn't without cost. One architect reports paying £250 per month. That doesn't sound a lot on a multimillion-pound project. But since all the other consultants and contractors are paying as well, the figure paid by the combined design and construction teams will probably be quite significant.

The reality is that not all the printing costs can be saved as claimed. Quite a lot of printing out has to take place, especially for drawings which show the whole picture as building layouts and infrastructure and landscape. There is, of course, no need to print out 12 sets of tender documents. But it is reckoned that savings on printing costs for some consultants will be a pretty close-run thing.

Forcing out the tiddlers?

One architect's concern about using eproject management is the small craftspeople who produce sensationally good joinery or metalwork or glazing. They invariably operate on such small margins that they will simply not be able to afford to tender against bigger firms as e-project management takes off. Of course, there is the view that it is precisely this kind of construction operation which should go to the wall. The fact is good building can't survive without them and any real project-management system must be able to include - and indeed nurture - this kind of specialist operation.

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