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Scheduler works

technical & practice

A new electronic scheduling programme takes the risk out of cross-referencing and provides a benchmark of good practice Do you write your schedules of work on standard office templates? Who sets those office standards? Do you review their performance? How do you coordinate the schedule and the specification?

Fairly straightforward questions, but it is strange, says Richard Waterhouse of National Building Specification (NBS) Services, that 'no one is ever taught a correct way to write and manage a schedule'; we all seem to pick up habits along the way which then get set in stone.

For example, most practices tend to duplicate information. They make notes on the drawing, write a synopsised schedule down the side of the drawing for ease of reference, prepare a specification and then, perhaps, compose the detailed schedule of works.All of these will form aspects of the beltand-braces tender documents.

Unfortunately, these various pieces of information may not be prepared at teh same time or by the same person, leaving a great deal of scope for conflict between each instruction or notation. The wasted effort in preparing duplicate information is one thing; the time taken to answer queries from contractors to resolve conflicts is quite another.

NBS has therefore spent a considerable amount of time finalising a Best Practice software package, which should revolutionise the way that we construct and use schedules of work. It is designed, says Waterhouse, 'to set common standards. It is there not only to improve the speed and efficiency of producing scheduled information, but also of the effectiveness of conveying, interpreting and using that information.' The result is NBS Scheduler - a terrifically simple idea which works extremely well - to be launched at the time of going to press.

Testing, testing

NBS Scheduler is the result of three years of intensive research and development, based on many more years of accumulated knowledge. Its final phase of development has been the software trials carried out among 32 offices based in the North East (close to the NBS office in Newcastle upon Tyne). These trials were set up to identify any remaining technical glitches, but also to acquire information of user trials in real offices on real jobs. The results are in and interpreted, and the feedback has allowed the NBS to 'polish' the final version.

The 32 participating offices included 25 architectural practices (from sole practitioners to firms employing more than 10 qualified staff ), two housing associations, four building surveyors and a local authority, reflecting the wide range of interest and involvement in scheduling services. Half of the sample were given a two-hour training session while the others were just presented with userguide manuals. It appears that, with very few telephone queries during the trial, there was very little difference between the two samples - which the NBS interprets as indicative of the software package's user-friendliness.

NBS has been very honest with the results. In general, some offices had schemes which, at the time of the trial, were not appropriate for the software (and consequently never got around to using it), some said they were too busy to load it up, and one could not install it on his computer (it requires Windows 98). However, the feedback from at least 20 firms was sufficient to assess the current status of the software and allow it to be launched this month (see end of article for dates).

One of the mild criticisms at the trials was that practices needed more time in real work conditions. However, with the NBS providing more targeted introductory training, the back-up of a well-briefed support team with growing experience of real applications, architects (and other specifiers) will, undoubtedly, come to see this as a boon to any office.

For large practices or sole practitioners, NBS Scheduler has the potential to assist with internal quality assurance, provide considerable timesavings and consequently improve schemework cost-effectiveness. Priced at only £350, it has a quick payback period.

Positive responses seem to have far outweighed any technical queries.

Paul Kelly, of the Darlington-based Architects Design Group, commented that, 'this is a common-sense approach to specifying small jobs.

The innovative user interface means that it is easy to navigate and you don't need a manual.'

No more bills It is standard practice - and indeed expected by many contractors - that on jobs of more than £1 million, a bill of quantities (BoQ) is essential; but below £200,000 it is generally accepted that they are an indulgence. The situation with schedules of work is the reverse.However, rather than prepare a weighty BoQ, schedules are often a much more user-friendly way of bridging the 'grey area' of schemes between £200,000 and £1 million.

Since almost half of the £65 billionworth of construction industry in the UK involves jobs of less than £1 million, the schedule, correctly put together, could become the primary tool for pricing documents for almost 50 per cent of the construction market.

How does it work?

The NBS Scheduler CD brings up the opening page for creating a schedule.

It is a self-explanatory process which starts with the NBS Assistant - click to create a new project (or cobble together one from previous jobs), enter the project details and click on 'Create a Schedule'. You can choose from a list of templates for standard schedule 'types', including BCIS (Building Cost Information Service, which can be read against BCIS pricing data for an immediate feel for the costs of a scheme), a domestic standard, or Uniclass for offices. One of these types should fit the bill but, as you become more adept, there are opportunities to create your own to suit your needs.

The right-hand screen contains headings and sub-heads for, say, a domestic level schedule of work. On the left is a visualisation of a generic property. Using either route, the user simply drags instructional comments into the schedule's clause headings.

For example, by clicking on the index tab, a drop-down list of schedule 'constructions' appears, covering a detailed range of activities. (These are called 'constructions' instead of 'clauses' because they are groupings of instructions rather than static descriptions. ) By dragging the relevant 'construction' into the right-hand schedule sub-heading location, it opens out into a full schedule description.

Alternatively, by clicking the highlighted detail on the visualisation, 'constructions' can be accessed by clicking on an icon (related to a group of elements) or on a single element on the detail. By highlighting the schedule options which appear on the next layer, the relevant text can then be dragged to the schedule sub-headings, as above.

Self-writing specification Information can be built up as easily as this and all information is editable.

The beauty of the system is that the specification writes itself automatically.NBS has compiled standard specification clauses which are appropriate to practically all eventualities. In the example shown, the information link icon on the 'verges' sub-head refers you to more detailed choices about the type of verge needed. Clicking on one of these options automatically registers the specification clause within the specification document.

After dragging items to all relevant sections of the schedule, which should take almost no time at all, the specification document has been simultaneously created, and with a guaranteed lack of conflict between the two.

Any difficult clauses, or those that are non-standard, have immediate hyperlinks to the exact page and clause ofthe Building Regulations or (if subscribed to) to the NBS technical index (see page 46). This is a massive advance compared with the previous guidance on drop-down toolbars and should be a handy reference tool, as well as saving time in research.

Prelims also automatically prepare themselves in relation to the schedule, after you complete a simple 'wizard' series of options.

Information dissemination

There are many benefits to this system, but one of the coolest is the ability of the programme to automatically split the schedule into trades.

Contractors, it seems, do not automatically add on a percentage if they see a thick document coming through their letter box in the tender package, but they do add on a risk percentage if they see a badly prepared document.

NBS Scheduler kills two birds with one stone, by being neat and presentable (with a range of personalised facilities for adding headers, footers, logos, fonts, etc), but also meaning that the contractor does not have to photocopy sections of several documents, reducing the the potential for parcels of information to go missing.

The specifier can chose to alter the trades package - for example if the roofer agrees to do the rainwater gutters while the plumber takes responsibility for the downpipes, etc.

In this scenario, both trades get relevant sections, with the unused clauses automatically greyed out and struck through. It is all very clever.

Waterhouse is keen to emphasise the ability of this software to help improve the relationship between architects and contractors. The costefficiency benefits are self-evident, but given time and the fact that NBS is working on the development of teaching packs and CPD sessions, NBS Scheduler has the potential to become the industry standard.

Launch events: 21 November: the Compass Room, The Lowry, Manchester; 26 November: the Wellington Suite, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds lFor further information on the launch events or to receive details about NBS Scheduler, please contact Clare Morris, tel 0191 244 5546 or e-mail c. morris@nbsservices. co. uk

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