IT: E-commerce Causeway Technologies boss Phil Brown has spent the past year pulling together all the different services he needs to lure customers to his e-marketplace,
The battle for e-construction is hotting up. Two weeks ago, five major contractors held a beauty parade to see which specialists could deliver the ultimate prize – a drop-dead gorgeous paperless supply chain. One of the consortia parading down the catwalk before Laing, Balfour Beatty, Bovis Lend Lease, Kvaerner and Amec was software specialist Causeway Technologies, which will launch its e-marketplace in the spring.

Causeway’s site,, aims to be the first portal to offer a comprehensive service, providing everything from labourers to estimates. Phil Brown, chief executive of Causeway Technologies, expects 10% of construction’s annual output of £56bn to be handled via the net by 2003 – and wants to grab a big slice of the action. Brown says heavyweight clients such as Transco, the Highways Agency and Rail Link Engineering, which already use Causeway software, are keen to do business using the portal.

Unlike recent launches into e-commerce, which have mainly been for ordering building products, Brown is focusing on estimating as a way to cut the paperwork generated by tendering. Although the mathematics of job pricing is done on a computer, the documents are largely sent to bidders on paper. Brown believes firms will want to dispense with all this sooner rather than later and go electronic.

Brown started out with a company called Siteman, which supplied software for estimating, and succeeded in owning 60% of the sector after buying a number of firms, including Kestrel and Esti-Mate. But one year ago, to convert his vision into reality, Brown called on IT consultant Arthur D Little. Little pointed out that he would have to provide some kind of bait to lure visitors to the site. This was how the idea of a construction database was born.

“Every time I went to a construction company, I was struck by the fact that its biggest job was controlling a huge database of suppliers. It made sense to have a central hub or directory that could be kept up to date,” says Brown.

To compile the database, he bought the firm that owned Construction Guide. This directory of 160 000 specialists gives contractors basic information on any subcontractor they might require. At this very minute, 20 women are working in an office in Maidstone, Kent, to ensure the directory is up to date, checking contact numbers, updating turnovers and deleting firms that have ceased to exist.

After potential customers have swum into reach, the next step is to persuade them to carry out their tendering and project document management on-line. To run this document management side, called the Project Centre, Brown bought project management software firm Insite. Then, Causeway Technologies merged with Interlock, a consultancy that has six years’ experience of providing information to the construction industry on electronic trading.

Setting up standards for data exchange is Interlock’s forte. “If you are going to manage product data, it must be structured data or the whole exchange process breaks down," says Interlock managing director Tim Cole. Random information flying around a system creates chaos.

Of course, it is no use offering electronic services if those further down the supply chain don’t use them. Some large specialists have high-tech systems, but an awful lot do not. But Brown has thought of this. He intends to lure smaller specialists into the portal by offering them an on-line estimating service for £100 a year (this software would usually cost £350-700 on a PC terminal). “The nub of the whole thing is getting the subbies to play ball,” says Brown.

One bugbear for subcontractors is finding labour. A chance meeting gave Brown an opportunity to form another merger. While he was visiting one of his financiers, Chiltern Financial Corporation, he was introduced to David Lean. Lean was also setting up a web site to put workers in touch with contractors. Brown and Lean put their heads together and will be accessed (from April) via

Chippies, brickies, plasterers and so on can register as being available for work through A contractor or housebuilder can log on to see who is available and contact them using text messages on a mobile.

It is all very well having these services, but does anyone actually want to use them? Housebuilders admit that the industry is moving this way, but it could take time to filter through the supply chain. “It is happening, but the average plumber needs to go up a notch in technology before he can take on electronic tendering,” says Tony Carey, managing director of housebuilder St George.

Geoff Irvine, managing director of Irvine Whitlock, Britain’s largest brick contractor, is lukewarm about the portal. Irvine Whitlock already sends estimates using CD-ROM and the firm has its own database of reliable bricklayers, although Irvine admits that it could be useful in an emergency. “If for any reason we were struggling and there was such a service available, we would be stupid not to use it,” he says.

Brown might have a battle with the smaller subbies, but his plans on how can evolve are ambitious. Interlock’s Cole is working on setting up the capacity to download 3D object models direct from the manufacturer. In practice, a designer will be able to download a door from a database and drop it into a CAD file.

Brown thinks there will be room for only two construction portals in the UK. With the backing of major players such as the Highways Agency and Rail Link Engineering, he believes his will be one of them.

How much is it?

  • Managing project documents on the Project Centre will cost about £80 per user per month on an £80m project.
  • Contacting the construction database for basic information will be free.
  • Using is free for tradesmen for the first six months after its launch, then it will cost £50 a year. Contractors in search of tradesmen will pay £100 a year.
  • Downloads