The team building Foster’s fencing mask – also known as the GLA headquarters – has a new weapon to fight inefficiency: a secure extranet that holds documents and drawings.
The beauty of a project extranet is that it allows the members of a geographically far-flung team to exchange documents and drawings instantaneously, using the technology and software on everyone’s desktop: a PC, a modem, a web browser and whatever CAD, word-processing and spreadsheet software each team member happens to run.

The harmonious combination of standard kit and construction’s needs is now being put to use by the team building one of the most complex projects in the capital, the Greater London Assembly building. As they trial their new system, construction manager Mace, architect Foster and Partners and engineer Ove Arup & Partners are discovering how an extranet can become a vital part of the team.

“It’s very visual and user-friendly,” says Mace’s project director Ian Eggers. “If an IT muppet like me can pick up a system and use it, it’ll work for everyone.” Once the project goes on site at Easter, the team anticipates that the vast electronic bookcase of files and documents on the extranet will save time in the tendering process, aggravation in the office and friction between the teams.

Since the core team was appointed by developer CIT late last summer, building the extranet has been an important precursor to building Foster’s complex design. The team hopes that, by giving everyone instant access to the documents, co-ordination will vastly improve. “It brings the information to everyone’s desktop, and it’s always the latest info,” says Andy Pye, a structural engineer at Ove Arup.

The extranet is hosted on Ove Arup’s servers, but the firm does not have a co-ordinating role. Instead, each participating company is responsible for ensuring that the information it posts on the extranet is current and accurate. Each firm has delegated the job of uploading, downloading and then distributing files to one individual – usually a member of the support staff – in order to simplify co-ordination.

The necessary pages, templates and links to other sites were put together by Ove Arup in five days. The home page features a side-bar menu that includes team directories with photographs and e-mail links, followed by reports, meeting schedules, programme diagrams and drawings. “The whole process of running a construction management project can be accessed here,” says Eggers.

Security is ensured by a system of tiered access and accompanying passwords. For each company participating in the GLA project, there are up to four levels, ranging from non-sensitive open access to director-level hush-hush. Dedicated system users can even log on to the site during a meeting abroad or at weekends. However, Internet surfers who happen by will, of course, be unable to enter it.

“Publishing” a document or drawing on the site, or transferring it from an individual’s word-processing or CAD package, is easy – the user simply has to drag a file icon from one program directory to another. CAD working drawings – originated using AutoCAD, MicroStation or any other software – can all be posted on the extranet, then viewed using Swiftview, an American software tool Ove Arup discovered on a net trawl.

If a new drawing is added, it joins the drawings menu and a path to its location is provided; if a drawing is revised, the earlier version is overwritten. “But we’ll have to ensure that the design team highlights changes,” adds Eggers. This will be done by drawing dotted line “bubbles” around the modified area. Finalised drawings that have been issued to trade contractors are available as read-only files.

Although the consultants are already using the system, it will come into its own once the trade contractors are appointed and introduced to it. “The real test will be when the building is under construction, and instructions and change orders are flying left and right,” says Foster’s architect David Kong.

Although many specialist contractors will be fully geared up for electronic document exchange, the likelihood is that some will be, in Eggers’ words, IT muppets. But the extranet has been designed to make life as easy as possible for them: trade contractors can print off standard forms, such as requests for information, and skeleton formats for their extranet area have already been created.

Ove Arup does not anticipate a problem with system overload, even when dozens of users from different firms are logged on simultaneously. “If the system gets slow, we just have to increase the bandwidth,” says Pye. Currently, users at Mace and Ove Arup are connected to the server with a 256k line, but other users achieve respectable file transfer speeds with standard 56k modems.

As far as the design team is concerned, the biggest advantage of the extranet is that it eliminates the need for hefty drawings files.

“It’s a step towards the paperless office. For putting the cladding drawings out to tender, we’d normally have 45 A0 drawings to print off, and two to four copies for each contractor. But this time, we just did one hard copy and one back-up,” says Kong.

He estimates that his role in preparing the tender documents took just half a day, compared with two days in normal circumstances. Overall, the team says it will be difficult to estimate the amount of time saved, because the complexity of Foster’s design makes benchmarking impossible. “And it has slipped in so well we take it for granted anyway,” says Eggers.

Communicating by way of the extranet rather than face-to-face might risk fragmenting the project team, but it can also bind them together with shared jokes. On the team pages, for instance, anyone who fails to scan in a photo of themselves will find a mug-shot of a monkey in their slot, a fate that has befallen Davis Langdon & Everest’s entire team. The users also have ideas for useful add-ons, such as a link to the site canteen for desktop deliveries, a get-it-off-your-chest comments page, and a web cam that is controlled from PCs.

The GLA extranet is a communication tool to facilitate project management and, therefore, has some limitations. As Eggers points out: “You can’t approve drawings across the net. And it’s no substitute for getting the designers and trade contractors around a table and scribbling over the drawings with a red pen.”

And compared with some of today’s commercial web sites, where animated graphics and even virtual characters such as newsreader Ananova are becoming more common, the pages look fairly utilitarian. But, of course, it’s not about cutting-edge technology. The extranet is meant to be a simple, cost-effective and robust project management tool. And it fulfils its function very well.