The development of the World-wide web during the 1990s started a technology change across architecture, engineering and construction and facilities management that continues to this day. For an often geographically-dispersed, multi-company project delivery team, the ability to send messages and associated attachments electronically was attractive, but email was not the magic bullet that design teams might have anticipated.
Paper-based drawings and documents still dominated, and most of the processes involved in their exchange were simply replicated electronically. It was difficult to ensure everyone worked from most up-to-date version of a drawing. Email ‘conversations’ could not easily be tracked across different companies’ email systems; and people could be swamped with messages needlessly copied to them ‘for information’.
In the late 1990s/early 2000s, web-based construction collaboration applications – ‘extranets’ – emerged as a potential alternative to email and paper-based communications. Instead of each company maintaining its own island of information, a single secure shared repository of project data was created, hosted by specialist Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers. So long as they had internet access and a web-browser, project team members could access the latest project information, annotate drawings and documents, and manage common construction processes (requests for information, change orders, etc.) online. An electronic audit trail recorded who did what and when, creating more transparent reporting than was ever possible via email.
The 1994 Latham and 1998 Egan reports also encouraged more collaborative approaches to construction project delivery. In 2002, Accelerating Change identified information technology as a cross-cutting industry issue, and recommended wider adoption of electronic systems to manage design and construction information. All very well, but successful collaboration was – and remains – more about people and processes than technology (vendors often talked about an 80:20 split).
Email, however, is still important, particularly for minor projects undertaken by small teams and involving limited exchange of design information. Other document management systems are also used. These ranged from simple FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, through intranet-type applications such as Microsoft SharePoint, to construction-specific tools that can be hosted by construction businesses.
Building information modelling (BIM), however, poses new challenges. Instead of exchanging various deliverables – written briefs, specifications, bills of quantities, design drawings, visualisations, photographs, contracts, forms, notices, etc. – project teams will be developing and progressively populating accurate digital models of the built asset.
Design collaboration will increasingly be about structured data – not drawings or documents. Models will incorporate large amounts of information, in addition to the dimensions and geometry of the various components and materials comprising the asset, and some data will be hyper-linked to yet further information held in other data sources.
Implicit in the BIM approach is an assumption of collaboration, with designers sharing data with the ultimate client, with contractors, component manufacturers and materials suppliers. This shared, jointly-developed data will be produced to higher degrees of accuracy, and poses new questions about contracts, data ownership, liability, and commercially sensitivity.
And as these issues are resolved, existing project roles and responsibilities are likely to evolve still further.
In some respects, the construction sector is following a path already beaten by the aerospace and automotive industries. Computer-driven design and manufacture created more certainty about what was required and when. Processes became progressively leaner, with greater precision, less waste, shorter supply chains and more just-in-time delivery. Off-site fabrication and modularisation demonstrate that construction is already changing, and some BIM commentators see this trend accelerating.
Ray Crotty, for example, has predicted that seamless BIM data ‘will help unify the industry’s supply chains, freeing construction from its craft origins, transforming it into a modern, sophisticated branch of the manufacturing industry.’ (Building Design review)
For the owner or operator of a built asset, this BIM-enabled, streamlined production process should see design and construction data flow seamlessly into information systems used for operation, maintenance and facilities management. Here it could also be connected to real-time data sources (from environmental indicators such as power consumption, temperature, humidity, light intensity, etc., to business productivity or other indicators showing how fit-for-purpose the asset has proved). Indeed, post-occupancy
evaluation by end-users could become a key building block for design collaboration on future schemes.
[This is an edited version of a contribution to the final chapter (‘Future directions‘) of a new book by Professor Stephen Emmett and Dr Kirti Ruikar of Loughborough University, and published by Routledge.]