So you’ve squeezed every last minute and penny out of the construction process. But what about all the frustrating to-ing and fro-ing with the drawings? Stephen Kennett meets a man who thinks he has an answer to that

If you are a contractor who has spent the past 10 years embracing off-site construction, adopting the latest techniques and generally improving site activities, you might think there is nothing else in the process that can be streamlined. This is clearly a problem if you are desperately trying to make every efficiency saving that you can. One good place to look is the bit before construction begins.

In the social housing world alone, there are between 500 and 600 regulations that govern design. The sheer quantity of drawing revisions needed results in a process that is a long way from being streamlined. It goes something like this: the architects produce the drawings and the design co-ordinators check them. When they find something wrong they are sent back to be revised, returned and rechecked. More mistakes mean more redrawing until they are finally passed to the procurement teams, where they go through another round of changes. Finally, they go to site, where subcontractors begin looking for all the mistakes that have been missed …

This is clearly a problem that is crying out for an innovative solution, and Brendan Ritchie, managing director of innovation and sustainability at social housing specialist Inspace Partnerships, reckons he might just have found one. What is more, if the trials prove successful, the benefits could stretch way beyond the housing sector.

Help from Norway

According to Ritchie, Inspace began looking for a solution three years ago. “We wanted something radical, a real step change in driving up efficiency.” Improving construction and site operations was not going to deliver this and so Ritchie and his team decided to look at design.

An obvious move was to put in place building information modelling (BIM). This is the process whereby everyone on the project team shares the same 3D CAD model. The use of a common model has many advantages: for example, it allows everyone working on the design to get to know the job, make early inputs and get to grips with the detailed design as soon as possible. “This looked to be our radical change,” says Ritchie.

However, BIM was never designed to cope with the plethora of regulations that govern social housing, and cover everything from quality standards to the layout of furniture. While he was at a conference on BIM, though, Ritchie came across another software package called Home Designer. This had been developed by the software arm of Selvaag, a Norwegian construction company, and was designed to help check that plans complied with the Norwegian building and social housing regulations.

“We liked this idea of being able to bundle up all the prescriptive rules that are important in our sector,” says Ritchie. “By knowing that the design complies before it goes into the model, you know you’re putting the right information in first time.”

By knowing that the design complies before it goes into the model, you know you’re putting the right information in first time

Brendan Ritchie, Inspace

Inspace has spent the past 12 months recoding the Norwegian version of the product to incorporate the UK’s standards. However, it has also taken it a step further and built in its own in-house rules for best practice design and construction, along with standard details and preferred ways of building.

So how does it work?

One of Inspace’s technicians takes the CAD plan from the architect and redraws it using the Home Designer. This uses object-based design, so when you draw a room and allocate it a name, such as “kitchen”, it then assigns all the rules that apply to a kitchen.

When the plan is drawn up, it is a question of selecting what needs testing, for example Part B of the Building Regulations, Lifetime Homes criteria, NHBC standards or even the Housing Quality Indicators needed to help secure funding. It can also be used to check if enough space has been allowed for M&E service risers and distribution. Once the button is hit, any areas of the design that do not comply are flagged up with a hazard triangle and details are given of what the problem is and what rules it relates to.

The ideal time to use the tool is early in the design process. However, it will also be invaluable when bidding for competitive tenders. “We can use the tool to test compliance and help us understand the risk of the project,” says Matt Keen of Inspace.

Innovation, of course, costs money. Buying the licence to use the software exclusively in the UK and developing the package, which Inspace in the UK is rebranding Think-Space, has taken over a year and cost close to seven digits. However, as big IT projects go, it has run relatively smoothly.

It is difficult to put a figure to the benefits of using the system, says Ritchie. It will avoid additional cost and by using the object-based drawings early on the design is more exact from day one, so costing can be done more accurately. The biggest hurdle has been making sure people understand the benefits and the different way of working. The next stage will be to try it on some projects …

The bigger picture

Compliance-testing software like Inspace’s Think-Space can save time and money, but the concept could have wider implications. In 2002, the government in Singapore launched its e-submission system, which enables planning applications to be submitted over the internet. The system was developed to enable designs to be automatically checked against building codes and to flag up potential problems.

Norway was so impressed by the idea that it decided to copy it. Its state building agency is developing a system for checking building regulations compliance, and its state planning agency is looking at a version that checks the design’s compliance with planning regs.

In 2005, the US also began work on a system for compliance testing energy and accessibility regulations. The project is on hold because of a lack of funding, but is expected to start up again next year.

The Netherlands, France, China and Japan are also looking into automated compliance testing. But what about the UK? So far there are no plans, although Jeffrey Wix, director of construction information consultant AEC 3 UK, who was involved in developing the system elsewhere, says they have shown that it works. Surely it is a matter of time before we adopt it (see pdf below)…