The BRE's on-line information service aims to reproduce all the world's information on construction – free. Will it be the most useful web site in the world?
Type “lean construction” into an Internet search engine and it could come up with a web site selling figure-hugging clothes. Most people in the construction industry are not interested in tight outfits and unfortunately, search engines do not filter web sites according to the requirements of the searcher.

Robert Amor, a senior researcher at the Building Research Establishment, was directed to a site on tight clothing and thought he would do something about it. He decided that there was a need for an Internet-based encyclopedia of the construction industry. It would take the form of a search engine devoted to construction that would allow the user to access the latest publications on fire sprinklers and post an advert asking for second-hand bricks. Amor will officially launch the Construction Information Service Network, or Connet – – in January 2000.

His plan only became possible a year before, when the BRE won a grant from the European Commission to set up an easy-to-use site containing all the world’s information on construction. The project was carried out in conjunction with the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and the Finnish trade organisation for material producers. The funding is part of the European Technology Transfer Initiative, which aims to establish Internet-based services to encourage the digital transfer of information across Europe.

Accessing industry bodies and advice

The first step was to entice publishers to the site. Amor began by negotiating with all the publishers of construction-related material to find out who was interested – an arduous task that involved contacting hundreds of trade bodies, publishers and professional institutions. So far, his success rate has been high. In January, the site will include data provided by 90% of publishers that produce relevant material. That includes the British Standards related to construction, all the professional organisations, such as the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Building Services Research and Information Association, and a large number of trade organisations, including more obscure operations such as the Fire Sprinkler Association.

As Robert Amor points out, the problem with information about a subject as specific as fire sprinklers is that it can be difficult to source: ”Their information is very valuable and they are the only organisations that publish it.”

Amor is particularly proud of a little device that alerts the user to the release of a new publication in an area of particular interest. Users can tell the site that they want to hear about the latest literature on door handles. Every time a new pamphlet is released on the matter, they will be sent an e-mail outlining the basics. They can then turn to Connet for more details. The idea is that users will not have to wade through the site on the off-chance that there will be something new. Instead, they will be e-mailed a weekly or monthly summary of new books and leaflets in any requested area.

But the site is more than just a collection of publications. At the moment, it is trialling a compilation of Finnish manufacturers’ products of potential interest to British purchasers. If it is successful, the database will be extended to other European countries, including the UK. The products will be classified as in the Barbour Index, but about 200 products will have more details, such as dimensions and characteristics.

The Connet project also includes and expands other available services. For example, a DETR-funded project to resell waste material over the web will be accessible from Connet. This will also be extended to the rest of Europe. If a British builder is looking for a batch of second-hand bricks, it can post a message on the site for any broker that happens to have a consignment of them. Similarly, should an Italian firm be looking for waste bricks in its area, it will be able to do the same thing.

3500 programs listed and counting …

To provide a truly comprehensive service, the University of Ljubljana is compiling a database of all civil engineering software. It sounds an impossible task, but to date the university has listed 3500 programs with price and what machines they operate on, as well as manufacturers’ contact details. “The things that are likely to be missing are the very specialised national products. If you have a product in English they will find it, but if it is in another language it is more difficult,” explains Amor.

Amor eventually wants the web site to offer an e-commerce facility. At the moment, the Finnish manufacturers have product listings but the goods cannot be purchased on-line.

It seems Amor will have to wait until more manufacturers gear themselves up for the electronic age.

Of course, many manufacturers are unsure of the technology. So, a small and simple database has been created to encourage them to get on-line. They simply enter their details and information about their products. Unfortunately, British manufacturers are holding back on, apparently waiting for someone else to do it first.

The big question is how much it will cost to use. The answer is nothing for the user. “The principle is that everything is free for the user,” says Amor. “It is to help the industry, so there is a bit of altruism there.” But the BRE has to make the site commercially viable. Amor is still putting together plans on how it will pay for itself, but it should not need to carry advertisements for figure-hugging clothes.