The long wait is over. Intelligent objects, the smart design tools that are set to revolutionise the way buildings are constructed and operated, have materialised in the UK – in the rather unexpected form of communicating airport loos.
The Next time you pass through a London airport, be sure to check out the new loos: those ordinary-looking facilities may turn out to be as significant to the construction industry as Dolly the sheep was to genetic science.

Don't laugh: the lavatories really will be special. Airport operator BAA is about to start replacing every washroom in its terminals using "intelligent object" technology, which futurologists in the industry have long said will revolutionise the way buildings are designed.

The £30m job is the first in the UK to make full use of these objects – digital components that replicate their real-world counterparts, complete with details of their size, cost and maintenance requirements (see "Designing the smart way", right).

"This is definitely the way forward for the construction industry," says Mace's Mike Healy, project leader on the BAA project. "It's a very powerful tool that can be used at the design and costing stages and throughout the project's life."

Last week, programmers at construction portal Asite began creating the first of the objects – including hand driers, urinals and sanitary disposal units – required for the toilets programme. The objects will then be stored on Asite's online catalogue, so that designers will be able to drag and drop them into their plans instead of drawing them from scratch each time. "Layouts can be done in a matter of hours, at the touch of a button," says Healy. By October, all of the 250-odd objects will have been created. Then, BAA will start to roll out the first of the new generation of washrooms.

BAA hopes that the experiment will lead to greater speed, fewer mistakes and huge cost savings. "You don't want the design team to start with a blank screen each time," says Tony Douglas, group technical director. "Up to 14%

of a project's cost is taken up with project management, architects' fees, cost management and so on; I would expect that to be halved."

Douglas' background is in the car- and aircraft-making industries, where object technology has been used for several years. Aircraft designers, for example, use it to configure plane interiors from catalogues of standard parts. As Douglas puts it: "Design once, use many, many times."

According to Asite managing director Alastair Mellon, the fact that intelligent objects know how they fit together eradicates costly mistakes caused by designer error. "Why are cars more reliable? The parts only go together one way on screen. You physically can't put them together wrongly."

Mellon admits that the technology is still in its infancy and says it will be several years before it becomes commonplace in construction. At the moment it is best suited to projects that involve a lot of repetition – such as BAA's washrooms, which all use standard parts and the only variables are the floorplan and ceiling height.

Object modelling is a very powerful tool that can be used at the design and costing stages and throughout the project’s life

Mike Healy, Mace

Steve Race of IT consultant D'Arcy Race says the BAA project represents a halfway stage towards the holy grail of construction technology: full interoperability. This involves the entire supply chain working from a single building model – a complete digital representation of a project, hosted on the internet, which all team members can work on simultaneously.

Within a decade, Race believes, architects and engineers will be able to configure entire building systems with just a couple of clicks.

"You could copy and paste a steel frame or an HVAC system from one project to another," he predicts.

There are two barriers to this happening. First, different disciplines have traditionally used separate, and incompatible, software packages. This could soon change, however. The International Standards Organisation is working to ratify a set of protocols that would allow all software packages to recognise intelligent objects. According to Chris Groome, business manager at the International Alliance for Interoperability – an industry umbrella body that has developed the protocols – this could happen as soon as this autumn.

The second barrier is cultural. The industry is used to having rigidly demarcated disciplines working on different stages of a project and has traditionally been somewhat reluctant to embrace technologies that would melt the boundaries between these disciplines. "Technologically, true interoperability is possible now," says Race. "But the cultural issues are far greater than the technological issues."

This, too, is changing, Race believes. "A younger generation is coming along who are far more enlightened about IT; they're getting involved in designing the software the industry needs rather than put up with the software the vendors are pushing on us."

  • Intelligent objects and interoperability are among the advanced IT processes being showcased at Teamwork 2002 – a live, week-long workshop being held at the RIBA in London, ending today (Friday). For details, log on to

    Designing the smart way
    An intelligent object is a digital model of a product, such as a toilet, that can "talk" to specifiers, installers and maintenance teams. It consists of a 3D model tagged with reams of verbal and numeric information about its physical properties (weight, size, and so on), details of its performance (how much water it requires per flush, how often it needs to be inspected), how much it costs and how it relates to other components.

    A toilet, for example, knows that it needs to be connected to a certain type of outflow assembly in a certain way – and it will automatically align itself correctly with related objects as soon as it is imported into the layout.

    The object can do other clever stuff, too: for example, it can check with the factory that a loo is in stock, place an order and find out when it can be delivered. Facilities management teams can download maintenance schedules from the model. "It could tell people to, for example, change the light bulbs in toilet seven," says Mace's Healy.