Object software will soon be taking some of the donkey work out of specification. Just imagine having every single bit of information you need at your fingertips …

Project architect John is having a bad day. It’s 4pm on Friday and he has just had a call from the client complaining about the chairs specified for his office development. He wants to see a new specification by 8.30 on Monday morning and John is at his wit’s end. He wanted to get off early to meet his mates for a drink but it will take hours to leaf through the catalogues and CD-ROMs to find more chairs. Miserably, he picks up the first catalogue …

The scene is probably all too familiar – a tetchy client playing fast and loose with the designer’s time. But there is hope. At the Construction Products Association’s e-commerce conference three weeks ago, the talk was not of portals and how they would revolutionise the industry but about how existing “intelligent object” technology could benefit the specification process by encouraging teamworking, cutting costs, reducing the need for repeating design work, and, in John’s case, making changes to specifications happen at the click of a mouse.

An intelligent object is a 3D representation of a building element, say a door, with a database of essential information attached: its weight, width, what it is made from and what it costs.

The advantages of using intelligent objects are many, as CPA chief executive Michael Ankers points out: “It’s the way we should go and it’s the new age for efficient construction. Because it can work globally, it offers a wider choice of products, so we can move more easily to value construction rather than lowest price.”

The industry is some way from being able to download an intelligent representation of a Parker Knoll chair from a web-based directory to place into a design, but the basic object technology is in place. What is preventing its take-off is the lack of definitions and standards to ease the transfer of objects from one software program to another. Which is where the cumbersomely named International Alliance for Interoperability comes in. This global organisation is trying to build up a library of definitions, known as Industry Foundation Classes, for as many building elements as possible.

To define, say, a duct, user groups and manufacturers meet regularly to thrash out the necessary data. That information is then tested by CAD software manufacturers such as Autodesk, Bentley and Graphisoft, which incorporate the object into the libraries in their 3D CAD software. So far, all spaces and objects used to enclose spaces, such as walls, have definitions.

Meanwhile, specialist system integrator Cadac has launched a web site with 3D models of products ranging from furniture to lighting. The site, www.3dmodelwarehouse.com, will register any item required for an interior design or construction project in 3D. These can then be used in visualisations in a CAD program. The site will also register object models.

Super-consultant WS Atkins is also working on a library of objects, known as DesignBase, using data gathered on some of its designs. The information is being collected slowly so not all the definitions are complete. “It works because you don’t have to collect all the data at one time,” explains Mike Russell, manager of design systems development at Atkins.

DesignBase is more than just a library of doors and windows. Once fully developed, it will contain 3D, intelligent blueprints of some of the formula-built projects that Atkins designs, such as petrol stations. The blueprint contains all the components, including the pumps, the canopy, the forecourt and the shop.

This means that when you drag and drop the 40 m2 shop into CAD, it comes complete with an items list and the formula for construction. Because the constructed model is a database, it also holds details for cost and facilities management purposes. “A lot of people forget that only a small percentage of the cost of a building is construction. Where FM comes in, you can see the cost of using the building efficiently,” says Russell.

The objects in DesignBase can already interface with virtual reality tool VRML, AutoCAD and spreadsheet Microsoft Excel. “We have ploughed our own furrow,” says Russell. “But if somebody came along with a catalogue in Industry Foundation Classes, we would add it to the database,” he adds. WS Atkins aims to have DesignBase ready in three to six months and in Atkins’ design offices within one year.

In the mean time, says Chetwood Associates project architect Russell Curtis, “even trying to get manufacturers’ details off a web site is difficult. We tend to get these things on CD-ROM with 100 different window types. If it were produced on the Internet, it would be helpful.”

This will happen, especially when programming language XTML becomes more widely used. It allows data held in different formats, such as CAD images and object databases, to be downloaded in one go.

When all these technologies converge, John’s Friday afternoons will never be the same again.