Singapore is going to be the first country in the world to do all its building control with intelligent object technology. Soon, checking a design against regulations will be the work of a few seconds. Victoria Madine wonders when the UK will do the same
Imagine a software system that could interpret building plans and, within a matter of seconds, flag up items that break a building regulation. Imagine the donkey work that would be taken out of the planning process, the time saved by doing away with paper-based building control submissions. The good news is that soon, you won't have to imagine: it is about to become a reality. The less good news is that you'll have to go to south-east Asia to see it in action.

Within two years, all building plans in Singapore will have to be submitted electronically so that sophisticated software can check them against the island's 900 or so building regulations. Both building and services plans will be included in the new so-called "integrated plan-checking systems".

Also known as ePlanChecking, the system is part of a wider IT initiative led by Singapore's Construction and Real Estate Network (CORENET), which aims to electronically integrate the main phases of a building project's life-cycle – design, control, build and manage.

CORENET's aim is to boost efficiency levels in the building process. Cheng Tai Fatt, a senior officer at the Building and Control Authority (BCA) in Singapore, says the government wants to achieve a "quantum leap" in turnaround time, productivity and quality in the city's construction industry by using ePlanChecking and other e-applications.

And then there's the grand plan: Singapore intends to become a world leader in the provision of e-services to construction.

"We intend CORENET to provide high-value electronic services such as integrated architectural and engineering design, project management, procurement operations and the ePlanChecking model to other countries in south-east Asia. All of the services would be hubbed in Singapore," says Cheng. The public sector will be the first to use the system – its deadline is the end of next year, and the private sector must be up to speed by the end of 2004.

Here in the UK, the DTI is keeping a close watch on the performance of the system. After all, building regulations in Singapore are derived from those in Britain, and any productivity lessons we could learn would be gold dust for UK construction.

The Singapore system will begin with the use of intelligent object technology to create a 3D electronic representation of the planned building. Object technology software simulates a real building much more comprehensively than a CAD drawing. In effect, it produces a 3D copy of every object used and tries to fit them together. It's as if the computer has actually built the structure, so that if anything wouldn't work on site, it won't work in the computer model.

Object technology is not new, but what the Singaporeans have done is to create an object-orientated CAD system that can also apply building plan and services codes in a consistent way across a range of CAD applications. This is a crucial point, because the designers submitting their designs for inspection will not all be using the same CAD software. To accomplish the feat, the technology experts appointed by CORENET have had to solve one of the central problems in IT – the creation of an electronic language that can be recognised across a range of applications – in this case, CAD systems such as MicroStation, Autodesk and ArchiCAD (see box above).

The scope of the system is extremely broad. Because the object technology – IFC 2x, as it's known – also holds spatial information, the system can calculate, for example, optimum fire escape routes, sewerage and drainage requirements, the energy saving capacity of the building and so on.

BCA has spent £1.5m on developing the system and expects productivity saving to be tremendous, although it has not yet hazarded a guess about the amount of wasted work that will be prevented. Jeffery Wix is a consultant with EPM, the software consortium developing the ePlan software. He explains: "Designers, engineers and other construction professionals will be able to check their schemes against the model as they go along, as they will have access to the ePlan program. So, rather than waiting for the BCA to tell them to change something when the design is finished, they can correct their work bit by bit."

The aspect of the Singaporean system that will most impress their counterparts in the UK is the speed with which it is being implemented. Chris Groome, business manager at the International Alliance for Interoperability, has worked closely with Singaporean officials on the project. He says the project has been made achievable by the government's financial support and the cohesive nature of the Singaporean construction industry: "Singapore has a population of just 3.5 million. The private and public sectors work very closely together and there is a strong sense of community within the industry. Nine years ago, when the Singaporean government first conceived the idea to automate more of construction's business processes, the private sector was immediately consulted for its ideas. The result is an innovation that has evolved with both industry and government support."

Training is the BCA's first priority. The government is meeting half of the cost needed to train professionals to use object technology applications, and private industry is paying the rest. As Groome says: "Private companies understand the potential value of the automated checking system and its wider benefits. I don't think it has been a struggle to raise the training costs in the private sector, especially as it's the government that has taken on the risk and payment for actually developing the technology."

The potential design use for object technology is huge, according to EPM. Although the integrated checking system is not a CAD package – you cannot change building plans with it – you can check designs for compliance with regulations. "Used as part of the design process, as well as part of the checking process, object technology allows for specification changes to be made at the click of a mouse. If you are using drawings and a change is made, then the drawings need to be redone and dispersed to the different elements of the project team. But if everyone has access to an electronic representation of the building, then once a change is made everyone can see it immediately," says Wix.

The UK government is researching how the object technology model backed by Singapore could benefit British construction. Safety standards have been earmarked as a priority area. The Health and Safety Executive wants designers to be more aware of the risks that can result from design decisions. This means health and safety guidance needs to be readily available to designers. Jeffery Wix Consulting, IAI UK and National Nuclear Corporation – the three firms that make up Singapore's EPM consortium – are using the software technology developed for Singapore's automated building code checking system to demonstrate a prototype system that can check building designs against health and safety requirements.

This software model could provide an automated assessment of a planned building's safety level during the construction phase. The focus of the pilot project is rooflights, as their installers have a high-risk task. Jeffery Wix's software model analyses the arrangement, design, installation and maintenance of rooflights, then generates a safety report. The Scottish executive is looking to develop a similar software model.

Private companies in the UK want to tap into the potential benefits of object technology. Contractor Taylor Woodrow is working with IAI UK and Jeffery Wix to improve software applications so that all the information needed to maintain a building is available electronically. The idea is that at each stage of the design process, all the materials' specifications are stored. This could be an exhaustive list of costs, availability, dimensions, colour and so on. Because the package uses object technology, the software can indicate what elements in the building will be affected if, for instance, a pipe is changed. The result is a powerful electronic facilities management tool – and another example of object technology's potential application to everyday construction.

The prototype projects are happening, but will the UK ever get to the stage where object technology tools are used as standard? Most technology experts agree that the common application of the technology is hampered by the fragmented nature of UK construction. As Nick Nisbet, a consultant at Jeffery Wix, says, "There is no single driver for change in the UK like there is in Singapore. For a step change to happen, we would need clients to realise how much money can be saved using these systems. They could then force change." In the meantime, British designers will have to look east for a vision of building control Utopia.

How the technology works

EPlanChecking is driven by a powerful combination of database technology and object modelling systems. A vehicle, called industry foundation class, enables the smooth transport of information from one software system to another (such as from the designers’ CAD to the building control official’s software package). Within a 3D representation of a building, every element within it, such as a door, a light, a window, a wall and so on, is called an “intelligent object”. Each intelligent object has a number of attributes including dimensions, price, colour and availability. An IFC is a protocol or language that allows different software packages such as AutoCAD or MicroStation to recognise these objects and their attributes. Singapore’s Building Control Authority is using the latest IFC system called IFC 2x, which was developed by the International Alliance for Interoperability, to underpin the automated building control system. A consortium called EPM, which is made up of three specialist IT consultants, is writing the database of rules and building codes in a format that can be interpreted by the IFC model. So, when the ePlanChecking system receives a package of building designs as an object model, it checks the data in that model against the database of rules in the ePlan system, which “understand” IFC language. The systems’ user is then notified of any violations.