IT was supposed to transform the construction industry. Over the past few years there have been incredible technological advances – but for every firm that's using online collaboration and intelligent objects, there are dozens that are sticking to tried-and-tested methods. So how did construction get stuck in the slow lane on the information superhighway? Building assembled five of the industry's top brains in a locked room and asked them what went wrong. Discussion chaired by Marcus Fairs.
Building: You're all working with pioneering technologies, but where does the industry as a whole stand in relation to IT?

Peter Rogers: There's a big problem with technology take-up in the industry, partly because of the cost and partly because most of the big contractors burned their fingers. They were very enthusiastic five years ago and got into their own bespoke drawing management systems and basic IT systems.

All the big names spent tens of millions on IT that's already outdated and now they're very nervous about replacing it.

Mark Dodds: I get the feeling construction has been fairly slow to adopt IT. It's not so much about buying new technology because many companies use plenty of technology; they're just not using it properly. They can get more benefit out of the systems they already have without buying new kit.

Richard McWilliams: It's like using a Pentium PC as a calculator. Quite a lot of the industry is doing that. They use 10% of the potential of Word, CAD or any other software.

Stephen Solt: That's slightly simplistic. Nowadays firms have one PC per person and they've got fairly sophisticated intranets. But what we haven't got is Sheppard Robson's system communicating with Whitby Bird's system. People like Asite are saying it's possible but it's not practical yet. The technology isn't there; the internet hasn't been fast enough.

RM: At the moment we can't even get 2D CAD drawings right between us, or any other document, apart from a few instances when it actually works.

Building: There are concerns in the industry over the legal implications of sending information electronically.

PR: Part of that's an excuse. Some professional practices are very nervous about information transfer. If data gets corrupted as it goes down the line – if a figure 3 gets changed to a figure 8 – who's responsible?

SS: It's more complicated than that. The version of MicroStation we use runs as a database that continually updates design changes, and therefore a drawing is just a snapshot of what's happening on a project. You could design a beam that goes with our wall but we're still moving the wall. How can you ever be certain of anything? At least if you receive a drawing through the post you have some certainty. I'm not talking about professional indemnity …

PR: But you are. It's about protection. It's people saying: "How can we make sure the information that goes out doesn't get us into trouble?"

SS: You don't want people to do abortive work. You want to collaborate on design development without people wasting time.

PR: Making sure information is up to date isn't that difficult. You just "cloud" it; you draw a cloud around the part of the drawing that is being held back for a reason. It's easy to mark up a drawing – on paper or electronically. I don't think that's an issue.

Alastair Mellon: It's a question of trust in the system.

PR: It's no different from the programs that engineers have been using for years to do calculations. When those programs came out, there were huge worries. Yes, there are risks and there will be mistakes, but you have to work through them. The thing is to be alert to it and get on with it.

RM: The legal argument on sending information electronically is a red herring. It's got to be groups of people developing trust to get over the issues so they can innovate to get more value.

PR: We do it by partnering. We try to take as much of the risk out of the argument so people don't run to their corners.

AM: When information passes across organisational boundaries, you encounter a whole range of legal and technical difficulties. In the oil and gas industry they have integrated constructors – one company that owns all the process. In construction, the supply chain is fragmented into a whole series of trade contractors; multidisciplinary design firms are still a rarity rather than the norm.

PR: Clearly if Sheppard Robson and Whitby Bird were the same practice, there wouldn't be a debate about legal responsibility of the transfer of information between them. That's what BAA's doing: they're saying that they are the client, contractor, architect and engineer. The more you can bring the industry together, the better chance you have of making things happen.

AM: Yes, but if that information could be passed seamlessly and reliably between different organisations, those issues would start to dissolve. IT itself isn't the point; it's just an enabler to drive efficiency. The question is: what is the most cost-effective way of delivering it? Should everybody go out and buy their own IT? That creates more of the same barriers you're trying to remove. You saw that 100 years ago when electricity first came out. Every company went and built their own electricity generating plant. It was only when they had confidence in the grid that they abandoned them and started to rely on external providers. The internet gives us the infrastructure – a national grid – and people are looking to see how confident they can be in providers like Asite.

PR: We have no problem persuading people to come in and use Asite. They say: "Fine, we'll use Asite, but we've got another job where they're making us use another system." They don't want to train people to use six different systems.

MD: Why train someone to use one system, when the next job they do will use a different one?

PR: That's a killer for any organisation.

BAE Systems can design an aircraft on a computer in 20 minutes. In 10 years, we could be doing that

Building: Are construction firms giving their staff adequate IT training?

MD: There is very little funding made available for training. Giving people technology and then not training them is a waste of money.

PR: There are very few IT-competent people out there in the industry. The average guy you meet is pretty poor. An awful lot of organisations appoint someone part-time; someone who's got a bit of spare time. They don't have the depth of understanding.

AM: There aren't enough technically adept people in organisations, so we're saying let's take the responsibility off your hands. I'm sure in 1910 when everyone had their own power stations, everyone was scrabbling around to find power engineers to support manufacturing plants. I'm sure there was a shortage of trained personnel in those days as well.

PR: Here's another frustration. Once you've got a new computer up and running, you start using it more and more and all of a sudden it clogs up. Either the internet links aren't powerful enough or the machine itself isn't powerful enough. We overload our computers in the office within about a year of buying them.

MD: No machine should be redundant after a year. If you were using the IT correctly, you wouldn't have that problem.

This shows there is a fundamental need within your industry to educate people on how they use what they buy.

PR: There's a pile of crap on our machines; I absolutely agree.

Building: A couple of years ago, people were saying IT and the internet were going to revolutionise the industry. Is it happening?

PR: Revolution implies dramatic and sudden change and this sure as hell isn't. IT's been around for 15-20 years, maybe longer. What we're seeing is change, exponential change, but the industry's too widespread for a revolution. There may well be a revolution between the 20 or so top clients, but that's a very small piece of the pie.

AM: Let's use another analogy: I think there could be a seismic shift happening. One of the opportunities the internet offers us is the ability to make up for the lack of investment over the past 20 years compared with other industries. I think IT's going to be a catalyst for the standardisation of processes, but I don't actually think it's going to be a revolution.

MD: You can have a revolution without using new technology. I'll give you a small example. Take an organisation; let's say we take the diaries of those working for the organisation and put them up onto a server, so that they can all see each other's diaries. They could book time, book meeting rooms, do everything in an automated way. Most people you meet would say that would be a pretty big step, but that's technology that's been around for years and can make a difference to people's lives.

SS: That's what I do. It's not rocket science but people appreciate it.

RM: It's the same point we keep making. There's plenty of technology out there – if we just used it properly, it would be fantastic.

Building: Let's look to the future. How do you expect IT to change the industry within the next five to 10 years? What new technologies would make your lives easier?

SS: The gadget I'm waiting for is the A4 screen that you can use like a pad. The big brother of that would be the A0 digital pad so you could mark up drawings. I have a dream of something that's like a drawing board.

MD: Strangely enough, I'm on the launch team for the Microsoft Tablet. It's essentially the thing you're describing; a PC with a screen you can write on and look at drawings on. You can synchronise the pad with your laptops and take notes in real time. We'll see that launched this year.

SS: What I would really like within five years is the ability to do a drawing issue and send it seamlessly to Whitby Bird or whoever with no further intervention, just like email. I don't care how it works; what I don't want is teams of people retyping information that's already been typed.

AM: You'll be able to do it in significantly less than five years. I remember when Ian Eggers was made building manager of the year in 2000, he said in five years' time people would be walking round sites with hand-held PCs looking at drawings. We're doing that now. Stanhope and Bovis Lend Lease are using them on a project in the City of London.

PR: We need to get to the stage where the architect and the engineer put their drawings together and they fit. This morning I was on a site where we're digging up roads to put cables in for lights that somebody forgot. In five years I want the drawings to flag that up automatically. The drawing tells you you've got a light standard over there, but there's no power to it so you need to put a cable in.

AM: We're increasingly going to see the use of virtual objects to build a virtual building that you can walk through.

SS: What happened to virtual reality? It never really took off but that's got to come back, surely. You'd be able to walk through full-size models.

Car engines are designerd using intelligent web objects. They put the components together anf they work first time.

RM: You'll be able to walk around a virtual building, conduct design reviews, option reviews and site progress, construction sequencing, the whole shebang. You'll be able to knock a few components out on a rapid prototyping machine.

AM: In the car industry, they build working prototypes, but clearly in construction we can't do that, so what we have to do is build a virtual building using intelligent objects. The car industry's been doing that for years. At Jaguar, they put together engine components made by manufacturers from all over the world on a test bed at their research plant. The components have never been put together before but they fill the engine full of petrol and oil, turn it on and it works first time. That's possible because it has been designed using intelligent objects. Each one understands how it relates to the next object, it knows its dimensions and all the friction coefficients it has to face. It can only go together one way, and that's the right way.

RM: In five to 10 years, we'll have design by specification a lot more than now. Your client wants an office building of a certain number of thousand square metres, with a certain BREEAM rating, or to house a certain number of people for a certain kind of use. The software will pop up standard options for a whole building including fully integrated structure, building services and architectural design.

In the housing area you could have consumer-based specification, where the customer sits down with the housebuilder and they design the house together on screen. I don't think that's unrealistic at all.

PR: Ikea are doing it now.

RM: So are MFI. You go to MFI, you give them the shape of your room and you ask for a cupboard there, a bed there and a window there and they show you what it's like.

PR: Can I tell you a nice story? I went down to BAE Systems to have a look at the technology they were using. They model the interiors of their ships on computers and they can move people around inside them. You can see the guy reaching between two pieces of plant with his spanner – can he reach down, does it fit? You can sort out the ergodynamics of the plant so it's actually maintainable. The way they design is even more fun. They literally designed an aircraft carrier in front of us, on screen. Then they phoned up an air base station in the West Country and asked them to put a pilot in one of their simulators, and the pilot then flew out and landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier they'd just designed. This was a 20-minute process. Great fun; you can watch the whole thing in 3D. Within 10 years I think we could be doing it.

MD: My vision for the construction industry would be to drive up use of very basic IT. It wouldn't really be about the introduction of leading edge technology. Success in five years will be having the contractors driving around in the white vans using machines to do some very basic things like online invoicing using the technology that exists today.

RM: If everybody's doing what [the people around this table] are doing today, that's a good target for five years' time. I hope that collaboration – using portals like Asite, BIW, Bidcom, or whoever – is completely mainstream and is used on all but 1% of projects. 3D modelling, intelligent object modelling and its integration with procurement and logistics is realistic within five years.

PR: Within five years you should have them on every major project.

RM: I think that's realistic.

SS: It should be possible for any competent company.

PR: Housebuilders are probably 20 years away.

Building: OK, let's look even further ahead. In 25 years' time, how will technology have changed the industry?

RM: 25 years? I'll be retired…

PR: In 25 years everything will be wireless, including recharging and stuff like that, so you will be able to have the virtual company because you won't need a fixed base.

MR: Miniaturisation: you'll be able to carry a PC around in your mobile.

SS: There won't be many people on a building site in 25 years' time. A lot of sub-units of a building will be constructed elsewhere. The building will be capable of change.

Modules can be slotted in and out: buildings will be reskinned, services will be slotted in and so on.

PR: You'll have different technology in 25 years' time. Look at some of the research that's being done on materials; I think you'll be building out of different materials. The self-healing, self-growing materials driven by bio-technology; intelligent materials.

MD: I think the whole question of the construction industry in the UK will become academic because there won't be one. Changes in the way people are able to travel, bring in skills, design things and so on will mean that this very inefficient industry will disappear. You'll just bring in some very high-powered foreign workers to put up a building in half the time at a fraction of the cost and that'll be the end of it.

AM: And the final thing is that robots will get frighteningly smart. In order to keep up, either we'll be genetically modified ourselves or we'll have some sort of memory chip or aid to help us process all the information in the environment around us. And glasses will have head-up displays as well. Real Joe 90 stuff.

What was that again?

When one of the panel mentioned something called Bluetooth, it sent Peter Rogers into a fury over IT jargon … PR: Can I make one plea? If the IT industry was to speak English, it would make a dramatic difference to uptake. What the hell’s Bluetooth? SS: Bluetooth is a chip that enables … PR: Yes, I know what it does, I’ve got it on both my gadgets. But why “Bluetooth”? What the hell’s that got to do with anything? AM: Why call a mobile phone system Orange? PR: That’s different, that was pure marketing. Anyway, you are the worst, Alastair. I’ve gone to meetings where you haven’t spoken a word of English. I find it a complete switch-off, as do most people. Most of this technology is invented by 20-year-olds who speak their own language, which does not help the 40- and 50-year-olds who have to invest in it. MD: You can very quickly get caught up in the terminology, in any industry. I think that’s something the IT industry can address. RM: Buying IT is so complicated. We don’t buy a car by saying we want a propulsion system with a certain number of wheels; we don’t start talking about the cathode ray tube when we buy a TV. IT is aimed at well-educated users. PR: To use technology well, it has to be easy to use. I want to be able to switch my machine on and not have to think. If I’ve got to start programming it, it isn’t worth my while. I’ll scribble on a piece of paper instead. RM: You want it to be hidden, intuitive technology. We developed business management software so there’s a big button that says “press”, and we do all the complicated stuff behind the scenes. So the user does what they’re paid to do, instead of spending brain time wondering how to do fancy IT stuff. PR: I don’t want to have to think. On my pocket PC, I press a button here and I get my address book. I press another button and I can write something. But the manual that comes with it is scandalous. Clearly it needs more than a manual; it needs someone to train me. SS: You’re probably only using 10% of what it’s capable of. PR: I can’t even use 1%! I can’t understand what it does. It’s a nonsense.

The whizz-kid

Richard McWilliams is an associate at engineer Whitby Bird & Partners. He runs the firm’s e-shop: a division that develops 3D design software and other clever goodies. Richard talks very fast but, thankfully, doesn’t use too many complicated words.

The visionary

Alastair Mellon is managing director of Asite, a construction portal that allows firms to design and procure buildings over the internet. Alastair believes the web is the salvation of the industry – but can anyone understand what he’s talking about?

The realist

Peter Rogers is a director at Stanhope. He’s happy to use advanced technology on his building projects but won’t have a computer in his office because he finds it too complicated. However, he’s just bought himself a flash pocket PC – and is rather chuffed with it.

The boffin

Stephen Solt is a technical co-ordinator at architect Sheppard Robson. He’s in charge of the firm’s office systems and in-house IT development programme. He loves technology but secretly wishes he could go back to working on a drawing board.

The outsider

Mark Dodds is a senior manager at Microsoft UK. He’s studied the way the construction industry uses computers and isn’t very impressed. Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t want to sell firms expensive new kit: instead, he says they should make the old stuff work better.