This month, outside takes a fly through websites and housebuilding technology
Expert eye
Tom Hopkins, managing director of website designer RareDigital, looks at how well property websites are doing their job

Property is now the largest online sector, with more websites devoted to selling houses, promoting developments and letting commercial space than any other subject. But just how well executed are these sites and what criteria are being used to judge their success?

The first generation of promotional property sites often seemed to disappear under the weight of their own cleverness: dazzling the customer with the latest technology, rather than helping them to make informed choices. But the industry has matured and we're starting to see some very effective work.

When planning sites, the key question for property developers is usually simple: "At what point in the buying cycle will the customer be looking at the website and what are they trying to achieve?" The answer is two-fold. Before the critical site visit, the customer is looking to research a shortlist of appropriate properties; after the visit, the site becomes a reference tool.

Of course, the task is bigger when the development is yet to be built. Sites such as must bring the vision of development to life before the first brick has been laid.

Indeed, even with commercial developments, an emotional element can be very important. As well as providing vast amounts of detail, for example, must make the quality, aspiration and excitement of this development palpable, even over the web.

In essence, judging success should be easy: developers simply need to count the number of good quality sales leads the site has generated, and how many of them could be converted to sales. Sites that are doing that and delivering sales leads (or other objectives) can count themselves among the best on the web.

So where next? Whatever the content, one thing is certain, and that is that there will be more property sites. Within the next five years, we expect every development with more than 50 residential units and all major commercial projects to have a dedicated website.

They will also become more a part of a linked-up strategy, serving as the starting point for recruiting a database of interested customers who will be kept up to date with news, phased releases, price changes and, eventually, the after-sales service site.

Housebuilders can now apply the same software technology as NASA used to show 3D tours of Mars on the web. A giant leap for the industry?

Housebuilders' show homes are kitted out with the latest all-singing, all-dancing home cinema sets and sound systems for their customers to buy, but housebuilders' own offices are often peculiarly low on technology.

But when firms do smarten up their act, the difference is immediately apparent. Pegasus Retirement Homes' offices in Cheltenham are spookily empty and free of overflowing in-trays, because the staff only come into the office when they need to, whereupon they set up their laptop on one of the clear-surfaced hot desks.

Design practice has changed radically too. Sales departments' traditional "artist's impressions" are being replaced with high-quality computer images. No self-respecting planning proposal is complete without a computer visualisation. Firms can even apply the same software technology as NASA used to show 3D tours of Mars on the web. BlueSky is the firm behind the new 3D visualisation service, which combines computer imaging technology and aerial photography, and can generate interactive fly-throughs on the web.

Model behaviour
For more fundamental design functions, IMSI has released the latest version of its TurboCAD package. Version 10 offers a suite of tools giving the capability to design in 2D and 3D simultaneously. Eleco has launched the latest update to its ArCon CAD package, a product that is popular with small builders and self-builders. ArCon +7 allows users to prepare 3D house plans, drawing on a library of more than 3000 fittings and furnishings. The updated version includes an enhanced window and door editor, allowing users to add such features as grills, shutters and blinds to windows and doors. The improvements have been made to increase the package's appeal to architects, although the ease of use and low cost of the software give it broad appeal. Eleco says customers include Birmingham council, which uses ArCon for planning. And several London boroughs supply laptops with the software to their occupational therapists so that they can design home adjustments on the spot when visiting their clients.

Virtual timber frames
Eleco's Consultec subsidiary has also launched its Whole House Engineering module, which allows timber frame manufacturers and designers to generate structural and engineering calculations. There is an increasing amount of software dedicated to facilitating timber frame design. Alpine Automation recently held a series of customer road-shows to showcase its View Version 7 software, which comprises roof truss layout and design software, an upcoming timber frame package called PanelView, and a Twin I-beam system.

Alpine Automation