Jerry Laiserin, FAIA AEC Collaboration

"True collaboration is more than just posting files and swapping messages. New collaborative software points the way."

Architectural and engineering projects typically are divided into phases for schematic design (SD); design development (DD); construction documents (CD); bidding and negotiation (BN); and construction administration (CA). The impact of computer technology on design client expectations has accelerated and blurred the transitions between these phases. Communication technology has facilitated faster and cheaper messaging, information sharing, workflow coordination, and similar sub-components of collaboration. Over the past six years, these techniques have been applied, with varying degrees of market success, to the CA phase (project-specific Web sites, project extranets, or project-collaboration networks) and to the BN phase (project exchanges, project marketplaces, or project-procurement portals). Online services for these late project phases are covered in my special report, "Project Webs Revisited" in CADscope on this month. However, such efforts generally fail to address the much greater collaborative requirements of earlier, more design-centric project phases.

Software Evolution
The history of software technology shows that most application categories start off by digitally enabling the end phases of a previously manual process and then, as the technology matures, integrating backward to earlier phases. Call it the path of least resistance or picking the low-hanging fruit, the pattern is repeated across many types of software. Financial-management software started with general ledger bookkeeping and payroll check writing, then morphed backwards through organizations to today's enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM). Following a similar path, CAD was applied soonest and most effectively to the two-dimensional drafting, output-oriented CD phase. With evolving user skill and software usability, CAD gradually migrated backwards and earlier into the DD phase, especially with integrated 2D/3D object-oriented programs such as Autodesk Architectural Desktop (, ArchiCAD (, DataCAD Plus (, Revit (, and VectorWorks Architect ( The emergence of effective CAD tools for the earliest design phase, SD, is heralded by developments such as Autodesk's Architectural Studio (formerly studioDesk, formerly Project Nora), which we can hope will soon emerge as a commercially available product.

Software for AEC collaboration is certain to repeat this trend. A quick analysis shows why CA-phase collaboration alone can't justify designers' participation in a project extranet. Construction accounts for about half of the total project value after subtracting the cost of land, financing, taxes, marketing, brokerage, professional fees, and so on. Architects' net fees average roughly 4 percent of construction costs (one third or more of gross fees typically gets passed through to engineering consultants). CA accounts for perhaps 15 percent of the net fee. Within CA, administrivia such as RFIs, submittals, change orders, and so forth amount to an estimated 30 percent of the effort. Thus, the theoretical direct financial benefit (excluding reimbursables) to an architect using a CA-extranet is about one-tenth of one percent (00.1 percent) of the total project cost to the owner. If an architect only benefits to the tune of one dollar out of every thousand project dollars, then it would take a $24,000,000 project for an architect to earn back two years of CA-extranet services at $1,000 per project per month. If the 00.1 percent of project value seems low, consider that it represents 5 percent of architects' net fees; empirical studies of architects' CA-extranet usage by vendors themselves and by the Center for Design Informatics at the Harvard Graduate School of Design ( show that actual savings range from 1 percent to 10 percent of architects' net fees-or 00.02 percent to 00.2 percent of total project value.

Data from McGraw-Hill ( suggests that the average value of all construction projects worldwide is roughly $4,000,000 per project. Putting these numbers together implies that an average architect's break-even point on a CA-only extranet for an average ($4-million) construction project would occur at an extranet price of a mere $167 per project per month (average expectation, with a range from $33 to $333). Not surprisingly, services charging less have garnered large numbers of smaller projects, with extensive A/E involvement, while services that charge more have won fewer, larger projects, with a greater contractor/owner orientation (again, see "Project Webs Revisited," in CADscope on for more details).

Clearly, megaprojects that justify architects' participation in big-ticket extranets solely on CA-phase benefits are proving the exception rather than the rule. Contrary to investor expectations-backed by several hundred million dollars of now burned venture capital-the early adopters designing $3-billion casinos and the like can now be seen, with 20/20 hindsight, to have represented an opportunity that could not scale downward to the mainstream market of average-sized projects.

This is not to say that Web-enabling CA-phase collaboration is of no benefit to anyone. For project owners and for building contractors such collaboration yields enormous benefits in shorter project delivery times, tighter control over project costs, and better management of project risk. Because these folks have the most to gain, they are taking responsibility for an increasing share of total project extranet costs. As the extranet sector enters an extended period of maturation and winnowing (through mergers, acquisitions, and simple failures), diverging trends are becoming clear. First, CA-extranet providers increasingly seek revenue opportunities downstream, with contractors, building owners, and building operators/managers. At the same time, alternative collaboration solutions are starting to emerge for earlier, upstream project phases-offering benefits more directly targeted at designers. In fact, some of these new solutions extend collaborative benefits back not only to the DD and SD phases, but all the way back to pre-design or project initiation.

Virtual Construction

Many architects and engineers believe that 60 to 70 percent of the effort expended on CA could be eliminated through better coordination in earlier project phases, especially if the contractor(s) can be brought on board early. The avoidable circumstances include such problems as field conditions that were impossible to fully describe in conventional 2D drawings; unforeseen interferences among structural, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical work; and constructability issues due to phasing and staging of the building process. While CA collaboration solutions tout their efficiency in expediting contractors' requests for information (RFIs), simulating construction via computer in advance can avert the need for many RFIs altogether. Avoiding one or two such problems on a typical project could save more time and money than the document sharing benefits of a post-and-host CA collaboration solution.

Simulating the construction process in four dimensions-the conventional three spatial dimensions plus time-exposes and allows for the resolution of problems while a design is still in the office, where solutions are less costly and less risky than in the field. As early as 1983, designers in the research and development group of engineering/construction giant Bechtel ( were exploring PC-based interference checking or clash detection for piping and structural components in plant and process design. By the mid-1980s, these explorations had evolved into an internal Bechtel product called Walkthru, which was spun off in the early 1990s and evolved into a Construction Simulation Toolkit (that was ultimately absorbed into Bentley Systems,, as Schedule Simulator).

Concurrently, work on 4D construction simulation, integrating 3D CAD with schedule and cost, was underway at Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE,, especially in work directed by Dr. Martin Fischer. Now, at a company called VirtualSTEP (, in a nondescript office building adrift in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Hayward, CA, a dozen young engineers are bringing collaborative 4D construction simulation into the mainstream market. Working with private angel-investor funding and an advisory board that includes Stanford's Fischer and Silicon Valley entrepreneurial legend Raj Reddy, company founders Yee Sue Chiou and Wen Huang have developed a Project Navigator that integrates 3D CAD models, schedules, and costs in an interactive Web-based environment. As shown in Figure 1, Project Navigator is an ActiveX control that displays and animates CAD files from AutoCAD 14, 2000, 2000i, and Architectural Desktop, or from Bentley's MicroStation TriForma. Models need to be subdivided into VirtualSTEP "standard building elements," with added attributes such as cost, trade division, and construction sequence. VirtualSTEP's interactive capabilities permit designers and contractors to work together collaboratively prior to construction to avoid constructability and staging issues. The latest release includes conflict resolution, as shown in Figures 3 and 4, whereby potentially costly interference between different trades' work can be spotted and resolved in the computer rather than on the job site. The system distinguishes between hard spatial conflicts, user-definable soft spatial conflicts, and time/space conflicts, and also tracks conflicts still open versus those resolved. In addition to CAD links, VirtualSTEP also connects to Microsoft Project (, with a link to Primavera Systems' ( Project Planner in the works.

Although considerable upfront planning is required in terms of 3D modeling of building elements and data, the entire investment likely pays for itself the first time one schedule or spatial conflict is discovered and resolved in advance of construction. VirtualSTEP already is in use in Japan and Taiwan, and in the U.S. by a major semiconductor manufacturer as well as at the San Diego Marriott Hotel.

A Stitch in Time

Meaningful project collaboration prior to construction includes not only a simulation of the construction process but a simulation of the project work flow and work assignments as well. Another CIFE-influenced startup, Vite (, also see "Collaborative AEC Design," CADENCE, November 2000, pp. 10-17) counts three professors and the University itself as initial shareholders, with an exclusive license to certain research work underway since 1988. Situated in a gritty industrial part of Mountain View, CA, just down the freeway from Palo Alto and across the street from an auto body repair shop, Vite's offices seem an unlikely perch for engineering professor and company founder John Kunz as he explains the company's mission to analyze and minimize risks and attain more predictable project behavior. Typical Gantt, PERT, and CPM project-charting methods all assume that every task will proceed as planned and every resource will perform as scheduled.

Maker's Mark

Keeping all hands busy on the right tasks and at the right times isn't the only way to improve team collaboration. Everyone with input into a design project needs to have interactive feedback through redlining and markup of project documents. For AEC, this viewing and annotation capability has been limited thus far to 2D drawings displayed in online view/markup formats, principally from U.S.-based Autodesk, Cimmetry (, Informative Graphics (, or ZoomOn ( However, Budapest-based Graphisoft has scored a stunning breakthrough in collaborative technology with its forthcoming Release 7.0 of ArchiCAD (see the full CAD Options review in an upcoming issue of CADENCE). Not only does ArchiCAD 7.0 include a basic level of construction simulation, as shown in Figure 8, but it also enables unprecedented redlining and markup in 3D with the same palettes of objects and tools used for design, as shown in Figure 9. In other words, rather than scribble a few lines on a floor plan to suggest moving a wall, a person reviewing a design can draw the suggested wall relocation in 3D with ArchiCAD's wall tool (these 3D annotations are in a separate ArchiCAD for Teamwork workspace, yet part of the project model; just as dumb 2D redlines in other CAD programs are on a separate layer, yet linked to the drawing file). ArchiCAD's new capability for 3D redlining of AEC models has the potential to revolutionize AEC collaboration.


Ultimately, the greatest collaborative benefits will accrue to teams who can work more effectively from the beginning of a project, even before the Other PSA collaboration solutions are coming from Deltek Systems (, which recently acquired the RFP marketing-management system and the Harper & Shuman and Semaphore financial-management systems-a classic example of software functionality migrating backward from the output orientation of proposals and invoices to upstream parts of the project process; from Cosential (, an outgrowth of Web site design service DesignArchitecture (www; and from Ostara, Inc. ( The latter company, operating out of former banking space in Manhattan's financial district, was founded by engineers and architects with in-depth knowledge of the design process and design-firm management. Recognizing strong pent-up demand for an integrated PSA solution that supports AEC collaboration, Ostara is building what promises to be the most comprehensive platform for small-to-mid-size AEC firms to operate. In the interim, Ostara is spinning out numerous clever and useful tools to facilitate collaboration. For example, their Palm-and-desktop Field Reporter, shown in Figures 10 and 11, demonstrates that there truly is an AEC collaborative tool for every project need. design work starts. Most early-phase benefits derive from better management of the teaming experience among professionals, applying lessons learned in previous service delivery situations to more effectively collaborate on subsequent projects. This is the province of a new software category called professional services automation, or PSA. Essentially, PSA helps organizations staff projects, source consultants and partners, and establish collaborative networks for project teaming. Therefore, PSA is to service businesses as ERP and CRM are to manufacturing.

Originally targeted at IT consulting organizations, PSA is now available for AEC. Although some vendors opt for a hosted, or application-service provider (ASP) model, the method of software delivery is not as important as the collaborative benefits that can be achieved. One of the first AEC vendors to pursue the PSA path is VisionPlanner (, also see "Collaborative AEC Design," CADENCE, November 2000, pp.10-17), which approaches the staffing/teaming problem from the perspective of project initiation and project closeout. VisionPlanner, headquartered on the outskirts of San Jose, CA, uniquely occupies the intersection of the PSA and project extranet spaces and clearly is a company to watch.

Figure 1. By modeling standard building elements in 3D with attached data attributes, VirtualSTEP's Project Navigator can play animations of simulated construction over the Web.
Figure 2. Any part of a Project Navigator construction simulation can be zoomed for virtual walkthroughs, with work color-coded by principal trade and by schedule status.
This partitioning and attribute assignment can be done while the model is created, or outsourced to VirtualSTEP. All attributes for each building element, including attachable photos or CAD drawings, are stored in an Oracle ( or SQL database. Clicking anywhere on the project model within Project Navigator's browser display brings up the appropriate schedule, cost information, issue tracking, record of project decisions, or interactive walkthrough, as shown in Figure 2. Work is color-coded by trade and by status-completed, in progress, scheduled.
Figure 3. VirtualSTEP's construction simulations can be queried by item and date to identify phasing and staging problems before starting actual construction. (Courtesy VirtualSTEP)
Figure 4. VirtualSTEP performs interference checking or clash detection in three modes: hard spatial conflicts; soft spatial conflicts (within user-defined zones); and time/space conflicts.
Figure 5. SimVision differs from conventional project-management tools by including rework dependencies and other conditional criteria that support schedule simulations for assessing and managing project risk. (Courtesy Vite')
Vite's SimVision simulates the likelihood of alternative outcomes, with a complex network of assignments, dependencies, and rework dependencies, as shown in Figure 5. Reports from this network analysis can be analyzed by project phase, as shown in Figure 6, to identify the amount of actual work likely to be accomplished compared to rework, decision overhead, and simply waiting around. This knowledge improves collaboration by better coordinating a team's productive activities. Balancing team resource workloads, as shown in Figure 7, further enhances collaboration throughout a project by ensuring that the right mix of people are on hand for each task.
Figure 6. Vite' schedule simulations account for scheduled work, rework, decision overhead, and idle time--on a phase, task, or resource basis. (Courtesy Vite')
Figure 7. Unlike the resource-leveling histograms of conventional project-management software, SimVision allows project managers to deal with bottlenecks by focusing on backlogs for each resource position.
Figure 8. While not as sophisticated or detailed as a special purpose tool such as VirtualSTEP, ArchiCAD 7.0 does support construction simulation within the building model.
Figure 9. A true collaborative breakthrough, ArchiCAD 7.0 includes the ability to redline directly in the 3D model, using the same objects and tools used for design.
Figure 10. Ostara, representative of a new breed of software for professional services automation (PSA), includes advanced collaboration tools for managing such communications as field reports.
Figure 11. Ostara, representative of a new breed of software for professional services automation (PSA), includes advanced collaboration tools for managing such communications as field reports.
CADENCE Contributing Editor and monthly columnist Jerry Laiserin, FAIA, provides strategic consulting services to design businesses and their technology providers. He also is a contributing editor to and monthly columnist for Architectural Record, and a frequent contributor to many other technology publications. Reach him at
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