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Profile: Fletcher Priest

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Fletcher Priest is pioneering a sophisticated web-based management system, but considers it self conservative

Even the cameras are digit al at Fletcher Priest, yet the members of the practice see themselves as IT conservatives. They have a policy of evolving into IT systems rather than taking big plunges. So why has Fletcher Priest become the first British comp any to use a new web-based project-management system, Project Net?

The practice is currently piloting the system on a major building com - mission. Fletcher Priest director Pero Maticevic explains how it works: You and the rest of the consult ant s in the design team build the drawings for a job entirely on an external server . It has sophisticated security systems with audit and paper trails so you can plot every change and give a name to its author . The company we are buying the service from, BlueLine OnLine Inc., also host s NASA files in the US, but we were concerned about the solidity of the security . So we got our building client s hackers to try to break in. They failed. Maticevic found that reassuring, but he s aware that nothing in computing is foolproof.

Security aside, Maticevic is enthusiastic about ProjectNet: When some - one on the team engineer or interior designer or architect changes a drawing, the changes are automatically incorporated in everybody s copy.

There is no scope for mismatching.

More importantly , suddenly there is no need to issue drawings any more.

The design team and the contractor and the client if they are up to it all work from the same documentation.

There is no need for expensive and tedious document-handling checks, and little need for printing.

So far it works like a dream, Maticevic says. You don t have to buy any equipment because you sub - scribe to the system. You ask if they can incorporate new little features and, mostly, there they are in the sys - tem a couple of weeks later . The data is regularly maintained and BlueLine OnLine supplies regular CD backups of the previous period s work and its changes. And when the building is finished, it can transfer the essential data to the client s facilities-management system.

There are other practical advantages. Maticevic says: It s difficult to arrange meaningful design meetings.

This system allows you to have a remote discussion over a period of time, putting up an idea which others consider and comment upon electronically, and eventually you come to a conclusion. You are freed from the travelling and the restrictions imposed by the rituals of the fixed meeting. You have better discussions because they are considered ones and therefore there s a higher quality of decision making. From the success of the cur - rent pilot scheme I think we will be using it on all our future jobs.

Despite the virtues of this project management, Maticevic doesn't have a lot of time for office-management systems. Commercial packages are rarely appropriate for the low volume of project s and the relatively wide client base of a typical architectural practice. For the office , he says, we have evolved our own system, per - haps because in the office we think the best communications are eye-to-eye rather than, say , using e-mail. W e are a friendly office and we go out together and see each other, so we don t really need an electronic organiser on top of that We don't adopt a system unless it comes as a relief and comes into being without too much fuss.

Fletcher Priest started off with a proprietary IBM UNIX network system:

IBM has been a major client. Now it's a Microsoft Windows NT networked system of 37 workstations, with AutoCAD the workhorse drawing platform on most of them. A core of heavy-duty 3D machines have version 14, and the rest the more afford - able AutoCADLT.

One computer is equipped with 3D Studio Max for three-dimensional rendering of buildings. Although Fletcher Priest uses 3D software for internal analyses, it doesn't, when you might expect it to, use it much for client presentations. Maticevic explains: People are comfortable with the idea that a rough pencil sketch on the back of a t able napkin can give an adequate idea about a design. But that s absolutely not the case with a rough computer sketch.

People expect a computer-generated image to be perfect in dimensions, design and photorealism. That is one of the reasons why, unusually for an architectural practice, so many of the Fletcher Priest workstations are equipped with Photoshop.

Maticevic says: Photoshop scores because it can be used to finish Auto -

CAD sketches to give the appearance of the artist s hand. It avoids the perception problems of computer drawing We have people here who are talented at drawing. W e found that they were comfort able with Photo - shop more than any other such application so we adopted it that way

round rather than taking a view about the best software. The computer is no more than an extremely sophisticated pencil. It s people who make great drawings, not software.

On the other hand, the practice did make some fundamental decisions based on external rather than personal criteria. Although the Macintosh has a devoted following among some architectural offices and many of the Fletcher Priest staff have Macs at home the practice made an early policy decision to go with Auto - CAD running on PCs. Maticevic says:

That wasn't because AutoCAD is necessarily the best CAD system or the PC all that much better than the Mac but because the two represented the industry standard. We talked to the people we normally work with, engineers, quantity surveyors, specialist s, contractors and client s. W e asked them what they used and established how we could best and most painlessly exchange information. Everybody, apart from some of our creative-agency client s, used PCs and most AutoCAD.

The NT server can cope with Mac files just as comfort ably as the PC files from AutoCAD and whatever applications fellow consult ant s on a project use. Fletcher Priest needs to be able to accommodate people, Mac-users included, who want to get away from the office and work at home for a couple of days. When they do, they plug directly into the network via the telephone system (rather than the Inter -

net) to become p art of a wide area network. In quite a lot of ways Project - Net is an extension of the practice s current way of working.

What s next? Bluetooth wireless communications is due to take of f in computing soon, which should make things even more relaxed. But the next evolutionary stage will probably be setting up permanently on-line with a dedicated web server . It means, says Maticevic, we'll be able to have connections everywhere.

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