AEC Tech News #92 (Feb. 27, 2003)26 Feb, 2003 By: Lachmi Khemlani
At the height of the recent Dot-Com boom, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in scores of AEC Dot Coms, several of them offering different flavors of Web-based project collaboration solutions. Now, only a handful of these Dot Coms remain. Despite such a gloomy track record, the case for online collaboration in the AEC industry is actually quite strong.
Online Collaboration in AEC
A large number of diverse professionals are involved in the design and construction of a building, and the number of drawings and documents that they need to produce and exchange, even for a relatively simple project, is astronomical. Since the advent of computers, most of these drawings and documents are being produced electronically, but in the pre-Internet era, they were still being maintained and exchanged the traditional way: as paper copies that were filed, faxed, and FedEx'd. The Internet, with its revolutionary ability to make communication instantaneous, has made it possible to maintain this data in a centralized location from which all interested parties can have access to it, ensuring that everyone has access to the most up-to-date information. In theory, therefore, online collaboration can lead to substantial savings in time and money, and a few companies have succeeded in building and delivering on this potential.
Constructw@re is one company providing a Web-based collaboration and project-management solution for the building industry that managed to survive the bust and actually thrive. It was founded in 1994 by construction industry professionals and released the Web-hosted version of its collaboration product, also known as Constructw@re, in 1997. Since then, it has charted a steady growth curve in its sales figures as well as number of users, the current count of which is close to 20,300.
I reviewed Constructw@re in detail in the February 2003 issue of CADENCE magazine. The next two issues of the AEC Tech newsletter follow up on the review by profiling three Constructware clients who each represent diverse roles in the building industry: Group2 Architecture (an architectural firm), Swinerton Inc. (a general contractor and builder), and Vanir CM (a construction management firm). I spoke at length with project leaders from these client companies about the projects they use Constructw@re on, their reasons for choosing Constructw@re, and their overall experience with it. In this issue, Group2 Architecture is profiled, while Swinerton Inc. and Vanir CM will be covered in the next issue.
Group2 Architecture has been using Constructw@re for about a year now on a $100 million hospital expansion and redevelopment project. Jon Gulayets, the Project Manager heading the implementation of Constructw@re, told me that Group2 Architecture's use is primarily focused on the Design Collaboration module; this lets the company upload the project drawings and share them with the rest of the design team, which includes another architectural firm, an MEP firm, and a civil-engineering firm. Ironically, the idea of using a Web-based collaboration tool for this project originally came from the contractor, who then rescinded when it came to actually adopting it. In that respect, Group2 Architecture is distinctly different from the average Constructw@re customer, which typically is a contractor trying to push the use of the tool on a designer, rather than the other way around.
The project team evaluated a number of Web-based design collaboration tools before settling on Constructw@re, including Bidcom (now Citadon) and Evoco. It is commendable that Constructw@re came out on top of its survey, considering that it has hitherto been seen more as a contractor's tool than as a designer's tool. In fact, its Design Collaboration module was introduced only about a year ago. What tilted the scales towards Constructw@re was its perceived stability as a company (it had been around for a long time, unlike its Dot-Com competitors), its seemingly better foundation (it was started by construction professionals who understood the AEC industry), and the onsite training it offers as a part of the service. The team also briefly looked at traditional EDM systems as an alternative to a Web-based system but found that such a system required at least one person full-time to manage it, which was not affordable, so Constructw@re finally won out on all fronts.
The project team is, on the whole, quite happy with the tool, although it still runs into the odd hiccup when using a new feature. The biggest difficulties came in the beginning, during set up of the project site and training everyone on usage; the learning curve was understandably steep and there was the usual "heartache" that comes with the adoption of any new technology. Gulayets estimates the setup cost, invested as a team, to be as much as $50,000 and hopes that this cost will be recuperated by the end of the project. He doesn't expect to actually save money by using this technology, which wasn't the motivation for deploying it. Instead, the benefits that were sought were related more to efficient information management and a smoother work process--keeping all the project data up-to-date in a central repository, ensuring that all the necessary parties have access to it, and increasing accountability among the team. These benefits have, by and large, been achieved.
As site administrator, Gulayets does encounter some limitations in the product, most of which have to do with lack of flexibility. Each module of Constructw@re has its own root documents and document hierarchy; there is no flexibility in creating your own module or your own document categories. This is especially a problem when there are differences in terminology, not an uncommon situation--one person may call a certain document a "change order" while another person may call it "supplemental information." How, then, should that document be categorized? This problem also brings with it the concomitant fear of security, of someone having access to something they should not be seeing.
The Group2 Architecture project team has not yet used eReview--the latest feature of the Design Collaboration module. In fact, even the redlining capabilities of the older Brava viewer weren't used much, as most team members were more comfortable with using pen and paper for mark-ups. Such information, as well as faxes and other paperwork, were then re-scanned and updated into Constructw@re. In that respect, the technology and benefits of the product are not being exploited to the fullest, but that makes Group2 Architecture more typical than atypical--those who adopt new technology, but at a gradual pace, without completely abandoning the more traditional modes of working.
Watch out for the other two client profiles in the next issue of the AEC Tech newsletter. In the meanwhile, be sure to check out the review online, which provides an overview of Constructw@re, its hits and misses, and my conclusions based on the review and client feedback.
Group2 Architecture: http://www.group2.ab.ca