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15 February 1999

Killer Apps!

Communication among construction team members is essential to successful project completion. From the first meeting between architect and owner, important information is continually created, transferred, saved, and used. Each time it changes hands, there is a chance that some of it will be altered or lost.

The two major components of the communication process are people and technology. Unless each performs properly, details may change and the original intent of the communication will be lost. The "people factor" is beyond our control, and we must rely on team members to convey information accurately and completely. Technology, in contrast, is something we should consciously manage to achieve the best results.

Existing communication methods have done a good job of addressing most of the information exchange involved in construction. E-mail and electronic file transfer are commonly used between owner and architect, and between architect and consultants. One conspicuous oversight has been the contact between the design professional’s office and the contractor in the field.

Several computer programs are now available to dramatically improve the exchange of information between office and field. This type of program is so powerful and compelling that it may well be considered the "killer app" for construction administration, just as CAD became a killer app for producing working drawings.

The communication provided by this new generation of applications is referred to by several names, including Internet conferencing, net conferencing, collaboration, data conferencing, and desktop conferencing.

Just why are these programs so important? Many problems discovered in the field are hammered out through a series of telephone calls, faxes, and documents sent by mail. The parties involved frequently proceed on insufficient information, hoping that they understood not only the answer but also the question itself. Consider a typical call from the field to the architect’s office:
"Hey, Bob, looks like there is a heat duct right in the middle of the door to the executive washroom! What should I do? We’re ready to start framing."

"I can’t believe it. Let me call up the drawings on my computer. Now, where exactly is this duct?"

"First look at sheet A202. Now go down the left margin about halfway, then to the right about a third of the way. Do you see it?"

"Where is the duct? I’m looking in a storage room; that can’t be the problem." "O.K., do you see the large area of windows? Follow that heavy line to the janitor’s closet, then up a couple of inches…."
Something that would be easy to see and discuss if both parties were in the same room becomes a hunt for an elusive solution.

Net conferencing programs allow the architect and contractor to look at the same document, even if separated by thousands of miles. In mid 1998 there were four major collaboration products: Microsoft NetMeeting, Netscape Conference, Vocaltec Internet Conference Pro, and White Pines Software CU-SeeMe. Each has its strong points, and a careful evaluation of your communication needs is necessary before choosing among them.

Real-Time Solutions

Net conferencing software provides several ways to exchange information: chat, whiteboard, file transfer, application sharing, application collaboration, audioconferencing, and videoconferencing.

Chat, a text-based tool, uses computers to allow real-time communication. Chat was made popular by on-line services such as America Online and CompuServe. Participants type messages on their keyboards and the results immediately appear on each person’s monitor. A visual record of the conversation is generated, which may be saved as a text file for future reference. When more than two people are involved, the results may become somewhat disorganized, as chat is not limited to one person at a time. Two people might respond to a question at the same time, while a third goes on to a different subject.

The virtual whiteboard, much like its real-world namesake, provides an area where participants can sketch. Like chat, all participants immediately see each person’s work. Each program offers a different sets of tools, but most have basic drawing, coloring, and text tools. Also, images copied from other programs can be pasted on the whiteboard. Generally, whiteboard "conversations" can be saved as a record of the work.

File transfer allows participants to send electronic files to each other. The files may simply be saved, or they may be opened by the recipient, assuming the correct application is available. Files may be sent to individuals or to an entire group.

Some programs allow one participant to share an application with others, even if all parties do not have the same applications. For example, an architect might be the only person in a net conference to have a CAD program, while a contractor might be the only one with a particular scheduling program. Even though no one else has the CAD program, the architect could make it visible to all other conferees, allowing the entire group to see exactly what the architect sees. Similarly, the contractor’s scheduling program could be made visible to the other participants.

A step beyond sharing, application collaboration allows anyone in the conference to not only see but control another person’s software. Using the previous example, the architect could specify that the contractor controls the CAD program. The contractor could then zoom in, pan, and otherwise manipulate the architect’s CAD drawings, even if the contractor’s computer had no CAD software of its own. Likewise, the architect could flip through pages of another party’s word processor. This type of collaboration is limited to one person at a time, but it is possible to change the person who controls the software at any time.

All the above programs also provide audio communication among participants. Although this could afford substantial savings over intercontinental telephone calls, the quality is substantially less than what telephones provide. Conversations may be limited to two parties at a time. This limitation increases the value of chat, which allows everyone to take part in a conversation, though its speed is limited by keyboarding skills.

Some of the programs also provide video communication, which is typically used to transmit images of the participants. Unlike audioconferencing, which uses inexpensive and ubiquitous speakers and microphones, the hardware required for video can significantly increase the system cost.

Collaboration in Practice

Taken as a whole, the above capabilities offer a solution to the problem of office-to-field communication. The typical call from the field might now go something like this:
"Hey, Bob, looks like there is a heat duct right in the middle of the door to the executive washroom! What should I do? We’re ready to start framing."

"I can’t believe it. Let’s go into a net conference; I’ll call up the drawings on my computer. Now, where exactly is this duct?"

"But I don’t have your CAD program!"

"That’s okay. I’ll give you control of my CAD."

The contractor takes control of the architect’s CAD program, flips through the drawings, and zooms in on the problem. "There it is. What do you propose?"

"I’ll sketch something out on the whiteboard." The architect copies part of the drawing, pastes it onto the whiteboard, and begins to sketch. Both the architect and the contractor work on the sketch at the same time to agree on a solution. They save copies of the sketch, and the contractor prints a copy and goes back to work.
Application collaboration is a significant component of net conferencing. Although control is limited to one person, the whiteboard provides an area where two or more participants can work on a sketch simultaneously.

Video features would probably be used initially to establish face-to-face contact, then set aside to allow concentration on documents. Another use for video, apparently not foreseen by the software developers, would be to let the architect see the site or a particular part of a building.

Product Evaluation

Only Microsoft NetMeeting offers all of the collaboration tools described above, and it is the only one that allows one person to control another person’s computer.

Only NetMeeting and CU-SeeMe offer video support. NetMeeting accepts video from only one source, while CU-SeeMe shows multiple images.

Although some data transfer standards have been established, the programs generally will not communicate with each other, so all net conferencing participants must use the same conferencing software.

Not all products work on all platforms. NetMeeting runs only on Windows 95 and NT machines, while other programs are available for other operating systems. The costs ranged from a high of $150 for Internet Conference Pro to free for NetMeeting.

Compatibility issues must be resolved before collaboration will become widely accepted. Until then, it is possible to reduce those office-to-field problems by assigning a computer to the field office. Given the relatively low cost of powerful computers, this is an affordable solution for most offices. Another approach is to specify that the contractor provide a particular combination of hardware and software, much as we now commonly require the contractor to provide telephone and fax service in the field office.

NetMeeting had the strongest combination of features and the best price. Other programs lack at least one conferencing feature. In addition to CU-SeeMe, White Pine Software offers several other conferencing features and allows communication with some of the other conferencing programs. White Pine also has announced a licensing agreement with Microsoft that will allow White Pine to incorporate Microsoft NetMeeting and Internet Explorer 4.0 into some of its products.

Although some of the programs require only a 486 or its equivalent, Pentium-class processors are recommended. The most important component is the modem—the faster the better, as data transmission speed limits overall performance. With all the information being sent back and forth, a 28.8 kbps modem is essential. I have used NetMeeting with a 28.8 kbps modem and found performance acceptable. On some occasions it will be possible to use ISDN or even a T-1 line, which will make "real-time" mean something!

When comparing features, remember that some are less valuable than others. Even though all the mentioned programs offer audio, a standard telephone will provide much better quality, at the same time letting the computers concentrate on other work.


Some people include net conferencing with videoconferencing, but for the purposes of this discussion there is an important distinction. Where videoconferencing emphasizes visual and audio capabilities, collaboration focuses on a group’s ability to simultaneously view and work on a single document.

The information provided under "Product Evaluation" was accurate as of late 1998.

[This article appeared in the February 1999 edition of the Construction Specifier, and in the December 1999 edition of Doors & Hardware Magazine.]