Oct 02 2015

The three ages of collaboration – Part 1

Paper Based Design

Part One – Before the Internet

The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is nearing the end of a 30-year transition from paper-based communication towards purely digital exchange of construction information. The industry is often charged with being outmoded and slow to adapt new technologies, and whilst this is often true, older professionals who have worked through all the phases of this transition, will be aware of the huge changes that have already taken place.

How the industry has changed is the subject of this series of three blog posts, looking in turn at the three ages of collaboration in the AEC industry:

  • Part one – Before the Internet – The shift from paper production to creation and exchange of electronic information
  • Part two – Leveraging the Internet – Using Extranets for Internet-based exchange of documents and drawings
  • Part three – Data-based collaboration based on models


Collaboration before the internet

Construction has always been heavily information-dependent, for those who learned the essentials of design and project delivery in the 1970s and 1980s paper-based communication was very much the norm, with no construction software let alone collaboration platforms to lighten the workload.

Project delivery in the mid-late 20th century was a largely sequential process, involving several distinct, consecutive phases. A client might commission an architect or engineer to help in preparing some initial plans to meet a perceived need, and to satisfy relevant planning processes. A bigger, often multi-disciplinary group of designers might then be engaged to develop the outline concepts to a more advanced level of detail. These drawings and specifications would then be used to invite bids from contractors (and their supply chains of subcontractors and suppliers), and after the tender decision was made, construction of the built asset would start. And upon completion of construction, the built asset would be handed over to the client, who would then become responsible for its operation and maintenance.

There was little flow of information from beginning to end, partly due to how projects were delivered, and partly due to how information was managed.  Collaboration between stages of a project was limited for several reasons:


Document Management

Paper document management = silos

‘Silo’ working – Planning, detailed design, construction and operation tended to involve different professionals at each stage, and – apart from clients – in-depth involvement of key individuals from inception to beyond handover was rare. Designers dealt with the design, constructors built the project; clients operated it. Specialist sub-contractors, suppliers and manufacturers rarely contributed to design development, buildability, or to future operation or maintenance of the asset. Project team relationships were often transient: teams might be assembled only for a specific project (or phase of a project); teams also tended to work in ‘silos’, rarely being co-located; and at the end of a project, the participants often disbanded and moved on to their next client or project.

‘Silos of information’ – Project briefs, concepts, designs, specifications, contracts and other project-related information deliverables were largely paper-based, with issue and receipt of documents and drawings carefully managed. Designers, for example, would work by hand at drawing boards (dexterity with Rotring pens, scalpels and Letraset was prized in the 1980s), and firms employed numerous clerical and administrative staff typing project documentation for onward transmission by post of courier (or, if urgent, telex or telegram). Design collaboration would then tend to involve exchange of written or hand-sketched comments and amendments, followed by time-consuming manual production of new versions of drawings or documents.


Embracing technology

However, by the start of the 1990s, electronic communication was beginning to make itself felt, even in the conservative world of construction, starting profound shifts in our capacity to collaborate that continue today. Manual typewriters were replaced by electronic ones, then word-processors; fax machines and then email sped up written communication; meticulous production of successive versions of design drawings was accelerated by the introduction of computer-aided design (CAD); and once-laborious design, visualisation, analysis and scheduling tasks were increasingly being computerised.

Nonetheless, information exchanges on most projects was still achieved through exchange of paper-based communications – a root cause of much inefficiency. Many projects were late, over-budget or fell short of client expectations. Clients, contractors, consultants and the supply chain would then engage in protracted and expensive litigation as they sought to blame each other for wasted time, cost overruns and/or defects: issues which could almost always be traced back to poor co-ordination caused by late, inaccurate, inadequate or inconsistent information.


Partnering, integration and collaboration

During the 1990s, the UK construction industry began to tackle these problems. Sir Michael Latham’s 1994 report Constructing the Team made 53 recommendations to change industry practices, to increase efficiency and to reform the bureaucratic and adversarial nature of most construction projects. This prompted new, less siloed and more integrated approaches to collaborative working (“partnering”), steps which were accelerated when Sir John Egan’s 1998 report Rethinking Construction was published.

But the AEC industry’s IT tools initially did little to improve integration. Most were stand-alone, with limited scope to share core data seamlessly (“interoperability”), and while email had started to replace conventional mail and couriers (particularly once attachments could be made), internet connectivity was often slow or unavailable. Paper-based communication remained the norm.

However, the 1990s also saw the creation of the worldwide web – with project team members often widely dispersed and mobile, finally we had a potential platform for collaboration – helping us to communicate, centralise and share information quickly and efficiently.

Part 2: Leveraging the internet will follow next week

About the author

Michelle Mason

Michelle Mason leads the UK and MEAP Marketing team, with far too many years in B2B marketing to mention. A CONJECT newbie, Michelle is eagerly climbing a steep learning curve.

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