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What IT's doing, what IT's not

At a recent seminar on IT and the architect, experts spoke with both excitement and scepticism about how we use computers

At last month's one-day seminar at the RIBA entitled, 'IT in Practice', delegates were given a wide range of ideas and perspectives on the role and possibilities of IT in small and medium-sized practices. Organised by Hewlett Packard and Cambridge Data Systems with The Architects' Journal, a series of influential speakers were charged with explaining the relevance of IT and to explore the potentials for both new and existing systems.

In recent surveys of architectural practices, about half didn't realise the variety of IT packages on offer and plumped for their IT hardware and software after talking to friends.

While this has merit, it suggests that a) architects don't trust IT salesmen, b) they see IT as an add-on rather than an integral part of the office, and as a consequence, c) they don't recognise the size of the commitment they are making. Having a chat with colleagues may convince you not to buy a certain package but for reasons which may only be applicable to your colleague's specific circumstances.

Winning over clients

Caroline Cole of management consultant Colander stated that, 'In the UK, 80 per cent of architectural firms win less than 50 per cent of the work for which they bid, 2 per cent of firms win 75 per cent of their tender bids'.

What makes the difference, she said, are business skills. 'The successful firms put themselves in the mind of the client before the project even exists.' Although citing that a small husband-and-wife team was one of the few consistently successful tenderers - presumably because of low overheads and long hours - it is presumably the case that many of the 2 per cent of successful tenderers win because of fame as much as skill.

However, Cole's point was that architects should 'nurture' their 'non-project-based skills', such as management, leadership and 'imaging'. In a world where clients are not versed in architectural language, the 3-D format is the most accessible way to convey a brief back to the client. 'Design quality', Cole noted, 'is rarely a core concern in clients' considerations'. Win their hearts and their minds will follow.

Boarding the bandwagon

In an upbeat follow-on presentation, Peter Duschinsky of BuyIT Best Practice Group emphasised that we are at the beginning of an S-curve of change and 'we are going to have to get on board the bandwagon'. He explained that once we recognise that e-commerce is a revolution and not evolution, we might begin to loosen up and use more of its potential.

The key issue for Duschinsky was that most smaller companies do not realise how to use IT as a strategic tool, and therefore are not able to exploit it for competitive advantage.

When he asked for a show of hands about who had an IT manager in their practice, about three-quarters of the audience raised their hands. However, when he asked if this meant that they were a dedicated IT manager, with sole responsibility for the IT process and no other official position in the company, only 2 hands stayed up. He pointed out that the level of service provided by the IT industry was woefully inadequate and that whenever buying into IT, architects should insist on ongoing support.

Ian Donaldson, of PRC Brewster, admitted that when a new computer system is introduced into an office, 'there will be significant drop-off in productivity. Architects should be prepared to absorb this downtime on the assumption that there will be a fairly rapid return to normal, and the potential to exceed productivity rates, within a relatively short period.

'We shouldn't be redrawing bathrooms, ' he said. 'The whole point of CAD is to draw as little as possible'.

It was hard to disagree with the fact that using CAD templates was a much under-utilised facility in small practices, but the reticence of architects to actively implement it reflected the short-term fear of set up time and costs. After all, how many practices have promised to compile a catalogue of standard details, but just never got around to it?

IT can't work miracles

'What you buy isn't what you get, what you need or what you wanted', said Joe Croser of Adrem-DCX. 'It doesn't matter what you buy, 'he continued, 'it's how you use it.'

Positioning himself as an anti-IT consultant consultant, Joe Croser relaxed the audience with the reassurance that they didn't really have to keep on buying the newest, latest versions of CAD packages in order to be successful. 'This is not about collaboration; it's not about stretching technology; it's nothing to do with improving efficiency or benefiting construction - it's a device for pleasing the client. That's OK, but that's all it is.' He was now on a roll. He explained that making IT work for you was more a process of commonsense application than rocket science. The main theme of Croser's presentation was to show that practices that are currently inefficient, poorly managed and badly structured will stay that way and computers are not a magic solution.

In this scenario, a lot of existing computer facilities can be made to function better, and he urged practices to make IT work for the user rather than the other way round. In a final round against the imagineers of ITCroser pointed out that 'people who produce impressive drawings are called artists and maybe it should be left that way'.

Check out the High Street

Fletcher Priest carried on the theme having a just-in-time approach to new software. With computer shops within walking distance from their offices, Pero Maticevic, IT director, finds it more convenient to browse the computer press and buy directly from the High Street. However, to communicate ideas quickly within the office, Maticevic prefers to sketch rather than complete presentational drawings. These sketches, which are primarily intended for office use, can be adapted for design development discussions with the client simply by using an ubiquitous program like PaintShop to good effect.

Maticevic asked the question, 'How do you start talking about a design, before you have the design?'

The answer, for Fletcher Priest, is collage; a quick, effective tool for rendering and peopling the building image. Sketches are scanned in and given broad brush-stroke colours to lift the flat 2D images. A full range of drawing effects can be achieved relatively straightforwardly. Site plans can be transformed in this way by overlaying colour and/or pasting aerial photographs (scaled up to match CAD size) over the drawn image.

Importing images of people, vehicles or greenery from scans of magazines are adequate for his needs.

Rethinking management

Robert Etchells, of HLM Architects has risen from trainee architectural technician to IT director in less than 10 years. Responsible for HLM's IT development, he emphasised the need for IT strategy to go hand-inhand with the company business strategy. Currently spending 5 per cent of turnover on IT, (including training), the practice has the usual Internet, intranet and CAD-management systems, and uses MicroGDS V6 Professional. Initiating this positive company approach to IT involved a 'fundamental rethink of the totalmanagement strategy'. Etchells considered that the reappraisal of the office computer network was a useful prompt for concentrating the minds of the company, and better management has resulted. This has fed back into the company and improved performance in non-IT specific ways.

Impossible to predict

The final presentation, on 'Future Trends', was something of a poison chalice, with everyone expecting the impossible vision into the future. Dave Bloomfield, technical director at the British Research Establishment (BRE), was unabashed. 'Future-gazing is a mug's game', he said. 'The head of IBM said in 1943 that there was only a world market for a total of five computers, and the US Office of Patents stated in 1899 that everything had been invented. Do not believe the people who tell you what the world will be like in five, let alone 50 years.'

By pointing to the phenomenal growth in computing power in recent years, Bloomfield noted that e-mail is the fastest-growing communications medium in history, and the potentials are unknowable.

So what are the possibilities today and why aren't we taking them?

Bloomfield considered that the inherent resistance to change, combined with a lack of proven benefits, seems to be holding things back. One of the key barriers to architects being able to take advantage of the potentials of IT was systemic; it stems as much from the competitive isolation of architects as from the built-in protectionism of software providers. To address some of these problems, there are initiatives in place - and more in the pipeline - to assist greater integration and compatibility in the industry.

Bloomfield spoke briefly about current EU projects to create commercial electronic information services, including CONNET which is up and running in three countries (www. connet. org) and I-SEEC, which is operating in seven countries. Both services provide technical information, construction news, a waste exchange market, a who's who, best practice guidance and detailed information on specialist equipment. Unfortunately, these services are not well used, possibly because they are not known about.

Similarly, the BRE's prototype National Standard Details Library, intends to develop into a commercial electronic information service of utilisable architectural details. Unfortunately it is still a long way off.

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