The team building Glaxo SmithKline’s headquarters in west London uses more than its fair share of data exchange technology. Its IT system combines CD-ROMs, an extranet and a technical drawings network.

The Internet revolution is taking hold in construction and the majority of prestige projects now rely on some form of e-communication. But that still leaves most of the industry managing the bulk of construction output on a tried-and-tested combination of CD-ROMs, ISDN links and even plain ink and paper. Projects such as the £200m Glaxo SmithKline headquarters in Hounslow, west London, demonstrate that an IT system does not have to be web-enabled to work, but it also shows that the old methods have their drawbacks.

Construction managed by Mace, the scheme, known as Project Bridge, involves the fast-track construction of 85 000 m2 of office space. The steel frame is currently going up, involving 7000 tonnes of steelwork, to be followed by 4500 cladding panels. Although there is little fancy design work in a project like GSK House, its sheer size generates problems of scale for architect RHWL/Hillier, structural and services engineer WSP and the hundreds of trade contractors. Co-location of some 600 individuals from these firms in a complex of site huts on the edge of the site was part of the solution.

The rest is an IT system that, rather than attempting to integrate all team members under one Internet umbrella, offers them a choice of communication routes best suited to their information needs and IT capabilities. Tender information is distributed to trade contractors on CD-ROMs, and drawings – in the form of plot files – are circulated for review and approval via a bespoke system called Technical Document Management. The aim, as with most of these systems, is to minimise the project paper chase.

There is also a CAD file exchange area that allows designers to download and modify each other’s CAD drawings and creates a record of design information that can eventually be handed over to the client. The project server handles digital photographs showing site progress, while static information such as meeting schedules, health and safety information and room bookings is posted on a project extranet.

Ray Crotty, whose company C3 Systems developed TDM, believes that “horses for courses” should be the maxim in determining the type of IT infrastructure needed on different projects. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he says. “For every site, you’ve got to consider the media to be used. Everyone’s getting hyped up about the Internet. It’s good for some things, like publishing information to a wide community, but it’s simply not fast enough for industrial distribution of drawings. For one-to-one communication of large batches of information, CD-ROMs are the way to go.”

Indeed, the team at Project Bridge considers it a virtue that its IT system allows for a certain amount of individual choice in the way information is accessed. Although trade contractors are encouraged to use TDM to pool and view drawings, ordinary e-mail is an option some have taken up. They can also fall back on hard-copy printouts. Mace document and control manager Dawn Hartley argues: “We’re very aware that not all of our contractors are at the same technical level.”

The resulting system no doubt functions well enough, but perhaps not to optimum efficiency. The sheer number of A0 drawings draped across desks around the Project Bridge office suggests that the message about cutting down on printouts has not quite got through. One WSP director has refused to get to grips with TDM and insists on a package of printouts on his desk every morning. “He can’t check on TDM because he’d have too much to look at – it’s just his personal preference,” says Hartley. “We need the project up as soon as possible and if that means someone has to buck the system, so be it.”

For those who can use it, TDM handles the 16 000 technical documents – unalterable plot files, specifications and method statements – generated so far in the project. The system is run over a local area network, with off-site project members linked by ISDN. Commercial information on bids, prices and contracts still travels through the post in time-honoured fashion. TDM registers each of the 100 to 150 incoming documents per day and creates a transparent audit trail as they progress from review to approval.

Once a drawing from a trade contractor arrives in the global in-tray, document control managers check that it is viewable and has the correct orientation using a viewing tool called RX Highlight. Once accepted by the system, the drawings are electronically posted to each member of the construction team who needs to view it. The trade contractors can then track the progress of their drawings: the letter “A” beside a file number means it has been approved, “B” means comments have been attached. Once the team leader responsible has approved the drawing and the review has been completed, the contractor can go ahead and build it.

“Everyone can see the drawings at the same time – it doesn’t have to be passed from designer to designer,” says Rupert Noton, a WSP associate working on the superstructure. However, he also highlights some inefficiencies: drawings files originated in Stru-CAD software by steel fabricator Wescole are e-mailed to WSP rather than going through the TDM system, and he finds that sometimes only one-third of the drawings he receives through TDM are relevant to him. Nevertheless, he has to open them and flag them “D” for no comment before they can complete the process.

He also finds a 21-inch monitor too small for viewing some files. “It doesn’t stop me printing off drawings, usually A0 general arrangements for coordinating all the sections and details that can be pulled up on screen.” Hartley’s document control team files all drawings in a scaled-down A3 format, but she admits that “the design teams do keep A2 and full-size copies; it’s started to creep back in”.

The flexibility of the IT set-up so highly prized by Crotty and Hartley could be seen as a ragmatic response to how projects are run in the real world. On the downside, it seems the system has cracks that some team members either fall through or exploit to the detriment of overall project efficiency. Integrated Internet-based systems may not offer 100% reliability, but at least they have the advantage of channelling all project communications down one information highway.

Even Crotty admits that the system used at Project Bridge has a limited shelf life. “When we get 3D modelling systems, all this paper will go away. Products like TDM will cease to be of use. Everyone will share a computer model and have high-speed access.”