Exploiting the benefits of project collaboration

Peter Baxter
The days of architects and engineers living on different planets are numbered — Pete Baxter
Building models that incorporate design data and online collaborative management are just two ways of enabling professionals in the construction industry to work more closely together, as PETE BAXTER explains.Collaboration is one of those words that has come to mean almost whatever anyone wants it to mean. However, industry commentators have been saying for years that we need more of it. And, the fact that the number of design/build projects in Europe is predicted to rise to 60% by 2010 suggests this is exactly what we are going to get — with all professionals needing to work more closely together to get the job done in time and on budget. By the very nature of the job, building-services engineers have always had to work closely with architects and other engineers. But what is really meant by collaboration is more sharing, more co-operation and, therefore, more synergy — all of which result in better designs and faster delivery. The need for closer collaboration is becoming more acute as projects become increasingly complex. It is said that every CAD user creating design data shares this information with up to 10 other team members. At the same time, the whole industry is coming under closer scrutiny as the Government and public alike demand better quality and more sustainable buildings. Services sector Software vendors such as Autodesk have given the issue of sharing data considerable thought over the past few years. Most recently, the focus has been on ensuring the services sector has reliable and current information earlier on in the process so that they can work more closely with architects and do their job as efficiently and quickly as possible. To support this trend, Autodesk has introduced not just new technologies, but also a new methodology called Building Information Modelling or BIM. At the same time, it has continued to strengthen its project collaboration services to enable the actual physical sharing of data online. So what are these new developments and will they really help improve the way we work? Traditionally engineers have relied on conventional drawings or 2D digital data from architects. However, designing in 3D is rapidly becoming the norm across the architectural world. We know this because of the exponential rise in the number using Autodesk Revit Building 3D building-design software over the past 12 months. Revit Building is essentially a BIM tool, which means that when a 3D model is developed, the software automatically creates a comprehensive database behind it. Every drawing sheet, 2D and 3D view and schedule is a direct representation of information from the same underlying building database. As the architect or engineer designs, the underlying database — the central core of the software — manages change across the whole project. Single model As a result, it is possible to create a single central model that represents exactly the current state of the design. The data is always current and reliable, enabling those designing the services to be involved at a much earlier stage. But now, there are also new 3D solutions available specifically to put services engineers on the road to BIM and closer collaboration. For example, Autodesk Building Systems (ABS) enables engineers to work both in a familiar 2D environment, as well as in 3D — so they can choose the most appropriate way of working for each project. Designing in 3D entails a shift from working with arcs and circles to using 3D library components Instead of simple 2D graphics, extensive standard equipment libraries of UK-specific components such as ducts, grilles and pipes now enable quick assembly of 3D models. If the project is being carried out in a BIM environment, this data will be transferred to the architectural model. Consequently, any clashes or interferences can be dealt with in the virtual world rather than on site. However, there still remains the actual physical challenge of getting information from A to B quickly and securely. Online project management Many building-services engineers will have had experience of online project management or collaboration services. However, we still find that many projects are wasting time, money and effort on sending drawings in large e-mails that crash, burning CDs and relying on the post or expensive couriers. Using the right collaborative project management can help eliminate these costs — and the worry that documents haven’t arrived. For example, the IT director of Broadway Malyan, Simon Johns says: ‘Buzzsaw [Autodesk’s online project collaboration service] has saved us tens of thousands of pounds in just two years, it has undoubtedly paid for itself several times over. ‘It’s a cross between Microsoft Outlook and Windows Explorer, so it quickly becomes very familiar. Everyone here finds it intuitive and, in fact, from a user’s point of view, very little can go wrong.’ There are other substantial benefits — not least an increase in accuracy by ensuring that all team members are working on the most current documents. It also speeds project timescales and increases accountability by providing detailed activity logs. Importantly, it eliminates duplication of work, time wasted waiting for documents to arrive and, ultimately, construction errors caused by mis-communication. The criticism of many older project collaboration services is that they can be quite difficult and slow. But a service being used by a complete cross section of professionals needs to be straightforward. More involvement It is clear that the days of architects and engineers living on different planets are numbered. It is good news for those on the services side, as it could mean a greater say and more involvement in projects — and, probably, better quality buildings as a result. Pete Baxter is with Autodesk Building Solutions Division, 1 Meadow Gate Avenue, Farnborough Business Park, Farnborough, Hants GU14 6FG.
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