Supporting the Sustainability Agenda through the effective use of ICT

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What this page is all about hi This wiki page is the first attempt by the Institution of Civil Engineers' Information Systems panel to make use of Wikis to enacourage wider participation in the development of ideas and hence papers or ICE briefing sheets to be published by the ICE. Although open to the public to edit, specific ICE contacts have been invited to contribute to the development of the paper, which once it reaches maturity will be published on the ICE website. For those not familiar with wikis the "how to edit a wiki page" is particularly useful.

This paper argues that Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) play an increasingly important role in the delivery of projects in the built environment, and therefore also play a key role in supporting the delivery of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry's sustainability agenda.[1]

Executive Summary[edit | edit source]

ICT has poor 'green' credentials and the AEC industry can play its part by mitigating the negative impacts of ICT use. In particular, AEC professionals can:

  • adopt ICT tools and working practices which reduce energy use
  • promote efficient use of hardware
  • reduce consumption of consumables such as paper, ink and toner
  • use their buying power as major customers of some key software suppliers, to demand applications that are more fully interoperable with other tools

There is growing recognition of the key role ICT can play in delivering a more efficient AEC industry, particularly since the publication of Accelerating Change in 2002, and the AEC industry had already begun to adopt a wide range of ICT tools to streamline project design and delivery processes, to reduce its carbon footprint, and to improve the quality and sustainability of its finished outputs. This document identifies some key strategies (and outlines some of the benefits identified to date), including:

  • Designing for sustainability - the potential of new design tools and approaches, notably building information modelling (BIM), to improve how projects are designed with full recognition of their carbon footprint before, during and after construction
  • More efficient information and process management - use of electronic communication technologies (eg: email, 'extranets', etc) to:
    • reduce paper consumption
    • reduce resources involved in paper production, management and storage
    • reduce transportation, processing and distribution
  • Process improvements – including greater re-use of information
  • Better knowledge management
  • Improved mobility, productivity and 'respect for people'
  • Rationalising and centralising some ICT hardware and software, and related consumption of power

However, it is clear that the potential of ICT to support the delivery of the AEC industry's sustainability agenda also requires the industry to address some fundamental people and process issues. Improvements to existing technologies and investment in new technologies needs to proceed in parallel with the development of new structures and processes, and education and training initiatives, to equip the future workforce with the skills necessary to make full use of these tools.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Information and communications technologies (ICT) play an increasingly important role in the delivery of projects in the built environment, and thus play a key role in supporting the delivery of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry's sustainability agenda. However, there was only one mention of ICT in the BERR Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction (2007), a conspicuous omission, particularly considering the potential for ICT as an enabler to support the AEC industry in its efforts to develop, implement, manage, measure and report on sustainability initiatives.

ICT and sustainability - key issues[edit | edit source]

The AEC industry – sometimes erroneously portrayed as ‘technophobic’ – has been an enthusiastic proponent of ICT tools to streamline industry processes and improve productivity. Like other sectors, AEC professionals today routinely use standard office tools, and have adopted a wide range of specialist applications to automate activities that were previously undertaken manually, from drawing production, through structural calculations to visualization, for example, saving manpower and time.

However, the positive benefits of ICT adoption come with an environmental cost. ICT has poor ‘green’ credentials, and, like the rest of UK industry and commerce, the UK AEC industry can play its part in striving for a more sustainable built environment by being aware of the negative impacts of ICT and, where possible, adjusting its ICT procurement, use and disposal processes:

Production of ICT hardware[edit | edit source]

Production of ICT hardware places high demands on energy and natural resources (a UN study found that manufacturing a PC consumes 10 times the machine's weight in fossil fuels and chemicals).[2]

"When you look at the whole product lifetime of a computer 75% of the environmental damage is done before the computer is switched on for the first time. ... It is the production, the mining, the factories producing the kit and the use of toxic materials - that is where the environmental damage is done."[3]

Operation of ICT hardware[edit | edit source]

Operation of ICT hardware consumes high levels of energy – at remote data-centres, in-house data centres, in offices and at home. Many computer users have, of course, made some savings by replacing heat-generating cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with LCD flat screen technologies, personal computers’ power-saving features have improved of late, and measures such as server virtualisation[4] in data centres can cut their electricity consumption, but data-processing remains energy-hungry and the resulting heat often adds to the energy consumption problem:

"The year 2008 represents a watershed for corporate IT. While the costs of running the data centres that power most businesses has historically been dominated by the price of the IT equipment they house, from 2008, the cost of the energy required to power that kit will – for the first time – surpass the cost of the computer kit itself. [the most] significant factor is the rapid rise in the amount of power being drawn by today’s servers, networking equipment and storage systems, and the equally large quantity of electricity being used to keep that from overheating."[5]

"Modern data centres have become insatiable consumers of power. Server racks traditionally operating at two kilowatts of power per hour have been forced to accommodate more tightly-packed, power-hungry servers, eating up to 25 kilowatts every hour. These servers are also generating tremendous amounts of heat, which needs to be moved away from the equipment if it is to operate smoothly. The cooling adds further costs and draws more energy. According to computer maker Hewlett-Packard, for every kilowatt of energy consumed in processing, a further kilowatt is used for cooling. …

"IT departments spent 17 cents per dollar to power and cool servers in 1996. Ten years later, by September 2006, IT departments were spending 48 cents per dollar to power and cool servers, according to IDC research. IDC predicts that this cost will grow to 78 cents per dollar by 2010. The focus on green is as much about cost reduction as it is about the environment."[6]

"… A fully-equipped 30,000 square foot data centre … will consume enough electricity in a single year to result in 44,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere."[7]

"In the UK … there are approximately 10 million work PCs currently in active service. Research conducted by the National Energy Foundation … estimates that of these, around 1.7 million are routinely left running when not in use. For the UK business community, this equates to around 1.5 billion kilowatt of electricity wasted every year, carrying a price tag of £115 million. Nearly one sixth of all PCs are not turned off at night, or on weekends. … The majority of large organisations are forced to expend even more energy on air-conditioning – itself a notorious energy-hungry utility – in order to counteract the wasted heat generated by droves of unproductive PCs."[8]

ICT power and heat management[edit | edit source]

ICT's power and heat management requirements often mean substantial building services provision. Office building designers, for example, have already worked with ICT professionals to model the impacts of low-emission ICT and wireless technologies on cabling and air-conditioning needs – designing buildings with lower storey heights, fewer service risers, smaller floorplates and greater spatial flexibility.

ICT human resources[edit | edit source]

ICT support requires substantial human resources - adding further to the consumption of buildings, power, heating, lighting, travel, etc.

ICT hardware disposal[edit | edit source]

Disposal of ICT hardware can be highly polluting (UK companies dispose of around 1.5 million PCs, equal to 125,000 tonnes of IT equipment, in landfill sites every year).

ICT consumables[edit | edit source]

ICT consumables such as toner and ink are often supplied in wasteful cartridges and packaging. A billion ink and toner cartridges are thrown out worldwide every year; many printer manufacturers’ techniques make it uneconomic to refill, rather than replace proprietary toner cartridges – though some businesses (eg: Xerox, Danwood) are adopting 'remanufacturing' approaches to reuse cartridges.

ICT over-specification[edit | edit source]

Much hardware and software is over-specified and under-utilised, with manufacturers often encouraging premature obsolescence.

Paper production[edit | edit source]

Despite its potential to reduce paper consumption, processing, transport and storage (widespread adoption of email, for example, has reduced the volume of letters and packages sent by conventional postal and courier services), ICT has often encouraged rather than reduced paper outputs.

Although an estimated 9 trillion pages a year are confined to computer screens, the number of printed pages stands at between 2.5 and 2.8 trillion worldwide and is predicted to grow over the next 10 years. Office workers throw away 45 per cent of everything they print within a day. British offices print up to 120 billion pieces of paper every year, the equivalent of a paper mountain more than 8,000 miles high.[9]

'Information overload'[edit | edit source]

ICT can also create 'information overload', reducing individual productivity and efficiency.

Government information policies[edit | edit source]

Some government policies prevent efficient and cost-effective re-use of information. For example, data created by UK government agencies such as Ordnance Survey, UK Hydrographic Office and the Highways Agency is only available at a cost, with sometimes onerous restrictions on the data’s re-use.[10]

Poor software interoperability[edit | edit source]

Poor interoperability inhibits re-use of data, generating considerable re-keying and re-checking of duplicate information, duplication of software, expense of data translators, etc. In the AEC sector, poor interoperability adds an estimated 3.1% to project costs,[11] and costs the global industry an estimated $60 billion (£120 billion) a year.[12]

However, information duplication is only partly due to poor interoperability. Many individuals and organizations adopt attitudes, behaviours, policies and regulations that prevent sharing of information and/or promote local retention of copies (hard, soft and sometimes both) of all data (leading to the development of numerous, near-duplicate 'islands of information'). This is not surprising. In many respects, electronic collaboration systems and other ICT tools have simply replaced existing manual AEC processes with electronic ones; while some industry customers and their project teams have adopted 'partnering' or 'collaborative working' approaches that encourage transparency, sharing and re-use of information, these still constitute a minority of projects.

ICT and sustainability in the AEC sector - strategies[edit | edit source]

While a growing amount of attention is quite rightly being paid to the role of the AEC sector in achieving a more sustainable industry, the potential impacts and benefits of ICT in this endeavour have largely been ignored. This is at least consistent with official assessments of the role of ICT in the AEC industry: ICT has only begun to feature in AEC industry change initiatives in this decade.

For example, there was no specific mention of the role of ICT in the 1994 Latham report[13] or 1998 Egan report.[14] However, four years later Accelerating Change[15] was one of the first AEC industry reports to explicitly describe how ICT could support integrated teams and collaborative working. In its vision (p.10), it talked about "Integrated teams, created at the optimal time in the process and using an integrated IT approach", and later in the report 'IT and e-business' was identified as a cross-cutting issue:

7.8 IT and E-business, as enablers, have already radically transformed many operations in the construction sector and there is still a vast potential for more. IT can deliver significant benefits for designers, constructors and building operators. Deriving the maximum benefit from introducing IT solutions will not, however, be easy. There is the potential to drastically reduce infrastructure cost behind the tendering side of the industry by adopting the wider use of the Internet and e-procurement specifically.

7.9 The widespread adoption of e-business and virtual prototyping requires the construction industry to transform its traditional methods of working and its business relationships. Key barriers to this transformation include organisational and cultural inertia, scale, awareness of the potential and knowledge of the benefits, skills, perceptions of cost and risk, legal issues and standards. Weighed against this, the potential benefits are:

  • Efficiencies and skills development from knowledge management
  • Economy and speed of construction;
  • Improved business relationships;
  • Product and process improvement; and
  • Technology and entrepreneurship.

Having put ICT at the heart of a modern, forward-looking AEC industry, it was gratifying that four years later when the 2012 Construction Commitments[16] were published, the signatories said: "IT-based collaborative tools and communication technologies will be exploited."

However, despite the clear role that Accelerating Change identified for ICT, there was only one mention of ICT in the BERR Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction (2007). Although it is recognised that ICT is not a means to an end in itself, rather it is an enabler, its absence is conspicuous.

In this first decade of the 21st century, the AEC industry has already begun to adopt a wide range of ICT tools to streamline industry processes and improve finished outputs. Industry professionals are routinely employing standard office tools (word processing, spreadsheets, email, personal calendar, etc), and an increasingly sophisticated range of specialist applications, eg:

  • CAD applications and, increasingly, building information modelling (BIM) software (taking design from 2D through 3D to 4D and beyond: nD), including cost, energy and thermal modelling that can be used to support assessment tools (eg: BREEAM) and performance indicators (eg: Environmental Performance Indicators, EPIs)
  • document and drawing management tools, also known as 'construction collaboration technologies' or 'extranets'[17]
  • project management tools
  • tendering, estimating and e-procurement applications

In addition to these existing tools, new applications and technologies are emerging that have the potential to revolutionise the AEC industry still further over the next decade and beyond:

  • search-related applications (including RSS and Google alerts to allow users to access existing data rather than 'reinventing the wheel')
  • online meeting tools (eg: Microsoft LiveMeeting, WebEx)
  • Web2.0 social applications (‘virtual’ worlds such as Second Life are already being explored by some architects as a way to show client 'avatars' around design concepts)
  • Mashups – online services typically created by combining data from two or more data sources (eg: linking real-time traffic data with Google Maps).[18]
  • Using RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags to help gather in-service data from assets providing a whole-life cost per m2 or similar metrics

But, in the meantime, as Accelerating Change (s7.9) anticipated, traditional methods of working and business relationships often still create barriers to efficient use of ICT. While many construction organisations are increasingly sophisticated at managing internal information (frequently creating considerable internal ICT departments in the process), they are often less good at sharing information with other project team members, and/or with the ultimate owner/operator/occupier/user of the facility they create. 'Whole life' information issues are rarely considered.

Fortunately, there is a small but growing section of the UK AEC industry that, even if it has not yet embraced the key messages relating to integrated teams and collaborative working, has recognised that real efficiency savings can be achieved by adopting a range of conventional and Software-as-a-Service (Saas) ICT tools. In many instances these tools can also contribute towards improvements in sustainability. While the full potential of new design tools has yet to be realised, some parts of the AEC industry have already begun to deploy information and process management applications, including those delivered on a SaaS basis, to good effect.

Designing for sustainability[edit | edit source]

Architects, engineers and other designers have an increasingly sophisticated array of tools at their disposal to help them design new built assets more efficiently. These tools can often also be deployed to:

  • support more sustainable planning, design and construction (this can extend to the very earliest consultation stages where stakeholders might discuss the suitability of early 3D concepts to their immediate and future local needs, and extend through the design process to allow users to ‘walk-through’ or ‘fly-through’ the proposed asset)
  • provide ‘carbon calculators’, albeit too often focused on the asset – its materials and its energy performance - rather than the processes employed by the designers, contractors and suppliers involved in its construction
  • after handover, to reduce the carbon footprint associated with operation and maintenance throughout its working life
  • recycling of materials following demolition/dismantling of the asset.

For example, building information management (BIM) applications are being used during design to provide architects, engineers and designers with feedback about the impact of their design decisions on the BREEAM or EcoHomes ratings of a project.[19] Such tools allow design teams to continually assess the sustainability performance of their proposed designs, including:

  • embodied energy in construction materials, including transport to site
  • off-site fabrication, just-in-time delivery to site, and construction sequencing
  • energy use (particularly in lighting, refrigeration and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning), including use of renewables (eg: solar power, wind turbines, etc) and solar gain
  • water use (including ‘grey water’ reuse)
  • storm water run-off
  • recycled material content
  • carbon footprint
  • daylighting

However, the UK AEC industry is still some way from adopting BIM approaches across a significant number – let alone the majority - of projects. People and process issues (including professional education, legal, insurance and contractual issues) remain a considerable hurdle to be overcome if the full benefits of BIM are to be realised.

More efficient information and process management[edit | edit source]

Traditional project planning, design and construction management processes have historically been heavily reliant upon paper. Fragmented project teams based in geographically dispersed locations with no or poor telecommunications, and working in a highly-contractual, risk-averse commercial environment, have generally focused on the exchange of information in a tangible, paper-based form.

From the 1980s onwards, substantial amounts of this information were generated electronically, but only latterly have project teams begun to use distribute, discuss, document decisions and then archive this information electronically. The emergence of de facto standards (eg: Microsoft Office) for office software has been a factor, as has the adoption of internet-based tools (including email, websites and – during the past 10 years – locally-hosted and SaaS-delivered web applications) and the development of various data standards and viewer technologies.

While there is still much to do, some parts of the UK AEC industry (like their counterparts in north America and some European countries) have begun to address paper-related issues. The following three sections briefly describe, through examples, how the industry has:

  • reduced paper consumption
  • reduced resources devoted to paper production, management and storage
  • reduced transportation and distribution

Reduced paper consumption[edit | edit source]

For example, adoption of construction collaboration technologies ('extranets') has reduced the amount of paper produced and disseminated within project teams.

BIW Technologies is one of the UK’s leading providers of collaboration technologies and, according to its own internal research, a typical construction drawing or document is copied and distributed to eight recipients. From January 2000 to October 2007, BIW users published 3 million original construction drawings, which were potentially distributed via 24 million copies. Similarly, 1.7 million original documents, plus 13.6 million copies, were also published.

Electronic publication and dissemination does not eliminate paper altogether; some items will still be printed out – but around 60% will not. So far as the BIW user community alone is concerned, this equates to a paper saving of around 16 million drawings and 9 million other documents – equivalent to a pile of paper 4.3km high, weighing 1700 tonnes.

Note: this is just the paper saving arising from the paper items themselves. It does not include associated transmittal notes, printing cover sheets, packaging, etc.

(BIW is urging fellow members of the NCCTP to collate figures for their users to improve understanding of the potential paper savings arising from employing such technologies).

Reduced paper production, management and storage[edit | edit source]

Reduced production of paper-based drawings and documents has also led to reductions in the requirement for hardware, consumables, personnel and other associated overheads:

  • fewer plotters, printers, photocopiers, scanners, faxes, etc – for example, teams may require fewer (and/or lower-specification) printers
  • lower overheads - being less heavily-used they break-down less frequently and require less maintenance
  • reduced energy consumption - using fewer, smaller devices will also reduce an organisation’s energy use for power and heat-reduction
  • reduced consumption of consumables, ie: ink, toner
  • fewer filing cabinets, suspending files, archive boxes, etc
  • lower ‘warehousing’ requirements - for example, on one traditionally-managed project, an airport operator collated enough paper to fill an entire Portakabin full of filing cabinets
  • reduced personnel – producing less paper and producing what little is required more efficiently can both result in lower manpower requirements, with a corresponding environmental benefit in terms of building-related costs (floorspace, furniture, heating, lighting, etc)

Reduced transportation and distribution of paper[edit | edit source]

Looking at the expenses associated with processing and distribution of project paperwork, substantial quantifiable transport and manpower savings can also be achieved. For example, US research[20] found

  • on a single three-year project in the US, e-collaboration saved $160,992 [c. £80,000] in FedEx courier costs
  • processing 807 RFIs saved $13, 457 [£6,700] in manpower costs and a further $694 [£350] in printing, fax and mailing costs
  • RFI turnaround cut from average 14 days (paper-based system) to 5.44 days for e-RFIs
  • E-tendering of 20 work packages instead of traditional paper-based tendering saved $23,520 [£11,750] manpower costs and $29,000 [£14,500] printing and mailing costs

Based on an analysis of some five million paper items distributed during 251 projects since 2000, UK collaboration vendor Cadweb has calculated that it has saved distribution of 140 tonnes of paper, saving 87,000 litres of fuel and 407 tonnes of CO2 emissions.[21]

Automating official processes involving central or local government and/or statutory agencies can also reduce travel requirements. Allowing online completion and submission of forms has been shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; web self-service has also been found to be more cost-efficient than conducting administrative tasks in person.[22]

Process improvement[edit | edit source]

Reliance on some paper-based documentation has already begun to decline as project teams expand their reliance on electronic tools to manage certain processes such as compilation of the project Health & Safety File (see following example). Such tools also encourage re-use of data within projects and for post-construction purposes:

Under the CDM Regulations, project teams are obliged to produce a substantial Health and Safety File for each completed project. Once comprising paper-based as-built information, this would typically be contained in a large number of ring-binders. It was normally produced retrospectively at the end of a project, was time-consuming to produce, repeated information in different sections, and was usually out-of-date by the time it was delivered. Using an electronic collaboration platform, however, the Health and Safety File could be compiled progressively during the project, and comprised a single indexed instance of all relevant data. Managed online or saved to a hard disk drive, the electronic health and safety file is quickly searchable and provides a powerful online ‘whole life’ information resource from which data can be extracted for repair, maintenance, extension, refurbishment, due diligence during asset sale, etc, and then updated.[23]

Of course, some information may need to be reused across a range of projects, perhaps by several different project teams all working for the same customer. For example, corporate standards (ie: standard designs, branding, contracts, specifications, etc) may need to applied to a succession of projects for a particular client. Again, online collaboration tools are already being deployed to manage such cross-project reference.

There are also, of course, opportunities to use online collaboration platforms to manage AEC project processes which are specifically focused on sustainability. For example:

  • site waste management plans became compulsory from 6 April 2008 for all projects in England over £300,000, and - like CDM requirements – involve creation and periodic updating by different team members of a shared repository of information
  • supply chain delivery logistics could also be managed online via browser-based programs[24]

Better knowledge management[edit | edit source]

Similar efficiency savings can be achieved by using intranets and/or extranets for knowledge management processes where information needs to be created and stored for later reference, re-use and update.

Many AEC firms have invested in intranets to manage communications and both general and specialist knowledge within their organisations: Arup, for example, has created numerous ‘communities of practice’ within the firm, where a combination of face-to-face and ‘virtual’ meetings – facilitated by the company’s intranet - are used to develop the firm’s intellectual capital in a wide variety of specialisms.[25][26] Similarly, Bovis Lend Lease has ‘ikonnect’, a web-enabled information-sharing service that provides staff with quick and direct access to the best available knowledge anywhere in the company.[27]

Wiki technologies also have potential. For example, architects Fielden Clegg Bradley and Edward Cullinan Associates have both deployed intranet-based wikis to manage knowledge within their practice, allowing authorized users to add, edit and update information at any time via a standard web-browser.[26]

As already mentioned, the explosion of electronic communication and the proliferation of web-based information sources can create 'information overload', reducing individual productivity and efficiency. Yet, tools exist to help AEC users find key information more quickly, whether it is on their own PC, within a community of practice or project team group, or available on the worldwide web. For example:

  • Desktop search applications help users find information stored on their own personal computers more quickly
  • Most intranets and extranets incorporate powerful content search engines

Tools also exist that allow users to be automatically notified when new information relevant to their interests appears on the web; for example:

  • ‘feed readers’ deliver content from RSS ("Really Simple Syndication") ‘feeds’ of updated content such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts
  • Users can create and configure their own ‘home pages’ featuring feeds from regularly used information sources (newspaper headlines, blog entries, weather information) and simple desktop applications (eg: currency converters, clocks, maps, puzzles, etc) – iGoogle pages, for instance, can be populated from a choice of literally hundreds of linked feeds and gadgets.
  • Google alerts are automated searches conducted at defined intervals which generate emails to the user highlighting information on specified keywords or phrases
  • Many online discussion forums and special interest websites feature alert functions that notify users when new information on a particular topic has been published or when a particular webpage has been updated.

However, this is perhaps a need to educate many AEC computer users about such tools.

Improved mobility, productivity and 'Respect for People'[edit | edit source]

Using electronic tools can lead to dramatic increases in personal productivity, partly arising from the automation of some previously laborious or routine clerical processes – creation and management of RFIs, transmittals and other forms via extranets, for example, or faster searches for information via extranets, intranets, the web, etc.[28] Some organisations have found that a single document controller using extranet technology can manage two or more parallel projects without having to be based on-site (as previously mentioned such reduced manpower requirements can lead to lower building-related costs).

Moreover, the automation of repetitive clerical tasks has resulted in an improved quality of work for some staff. Instead of being focused on inputting and recording paper processes, document control staff become local experts in using the collaboration platforms, performing first-wave helpdesk, training and trouble-shooting functions (one major contractor has devised a career structure that retains competent document controllers within the company instead of releasing them at the end of a project-related contract, reducing staff ‘churn’ and recruitment costs in the process).

Mobile ICT solutions can also facilitate reductions in construction time and capital costs.[29] Using hand-held devices to capture data on-site, for example, eliminates re-keying of information and, combined with GPS (Global Positioning System) capability, can provide certainty about the physical location where the data was retrieved. Network Rail have successfully deployed such technologies for earthworks inspections,[30] BIW Technologies has developed a mobile, PDA-based defects management solution which is integrated with its web-based collaboration platform,[31] and there is clear potential to develop mobile solutions incorporating bar-code readers and/or RFID tags to manage the logistics of components and materials deliveries and to manage efficient use of these items - ie: the elimination, or at least reduction, of on-site waste.

The capacity for mobile ICT to support flexible working should also not be under-estimated. While some face-to-face meetings will always be necessary, it is not always vital for individuals to be based in a particular office in order to work. The new generation of web-based collaboration tools make project-related data accessible anywhere, anytime, on any PC, meaning team members can sometimes work from home or other locations – useful if individuals need flexibility to manage their home/work balance.

Similarly, some meetings can also be ‘attended’ virtually, using online meeting applications (eg: Microsoft LiveMeeting and WebEx) – perhaps in parallel with telephone calls, and/or in combination with webcams or video-conferencing – to eradicate travel time and cut costs and carbon footprint. Even if individuals cannot attend the meeting in real-time, they may still be able to review a recording of the event via a streamed video or downloadable podcast.

Rationalising and centralising ICT hardware[edit | edit source]

Software-as-a-Service (Saas) is the term used to cover software applications (and associated data) that do not reside on the user’s own computer or network, but are hosted remotely by the software vendor and are accessed via a standard web-browser. In the AEC industry, construction collaboration technologies tend to be delivered on a SaaS basis; there is no shrink-wrapped software to transport: no disks to load, no packaging, no bulky manuals. Externally-hosted, web-based solutions also mean no, low or lower in-house IT hosting, support and storage requirements – widespread use of SaaS applications could dramatically reduce the scale of in-house ICT resources, with a corresponding reduction in hardware, data storage, personnel, energy use and other overheads.

Of course, some may argue that out-sourcing application and data-hosting to a SaaS provider simply moves overheads elsewhere. However, in-house technology is often only replaced and updated infrequently and is reliant upon existing, often energy-inefficient hardware and systems. By contrast, SaaS providers centralise the operations of multiple customers in single data centres, managing customers’ software and data on a multi-tenant basis (ie: sharing a common but scalable infrastructure, usually in a dedicated, secure, purpose-built facility, with multiple back-up systems). Rather than project team members running several separate hosting environments, all consuming power even when the systems are not fully utilised, the SaaS approach concentrates all the hardware and software in industrial-scale facilities that makes optimum use of energy to power the hardware, provide cooling, etc - “economies of scale”. Thus, while such server-farm facilities are demanding in their use of power,[32] they will consume less energy than the multiple end-users trying to maintain their own separate ICT infrastructures. Market forces will also help ensure such data centres remain efficient; faced with rising energy costs, data centre owners must invest in energy-efficient equipment and techniques (including consolidation, workload balancing, server virtualization and use of ‘blade’ servers) to remain agile and competitive.

It is also worth considering the potential impact of web-delivered applications and data on what type of devices are used by end-users. With software and associated data sitting ‘in the cloud’ (ie: hosted on a remote server and accessed via the internet), there is less requirement for users to have large numbers of applications and related files sitting on their hard-drives. Assuming the availability and capacity of broadband connections – especially wireless (3G, GPRS, WiMax) - continues to grow, then users may start to employ simpler, smaller, lighter and more portable devices requiring less power and maintenance and which become obsolete less quickly. Such ‘thin-client’ alternatives are already less material-intensive and more energy-efficient (even allowing for the power to run the remote central servers) than conventional PCs.[33] A case study on adoption of thin-client technology (plus consolidation and virtualization) by recruitment firm Reed Managed Services showed that this strategy reduced power consumption by about 5.4M Kilowatt hours (and reduced annual IT spend by 20%).[34]

Many SaaS solutions are also simpler to implement, requiring less face-to-face consultancy and training, and so reducing travel requirements. SaaS providers also frequently provide a centralised helpdesk service that can be contacted 24/7, and which aggregates experience and knowledge across multiple customer and end-user organizations to deliver a faster, higher quality support service; such a service obviates the need to establish and maintain an in-house resource.

Concluding remarks[edit | edit source]

Sustainability is the major challenge facing the AEC industry, and ICT has a key role to play. Electronic construction collaboration systems and other ICT tools have already begun to deliver quantifiable benefits to the AEC industry. Emerging and future ICT developments have the potential to extend these benefits still further. Yet, many of the benefits remain relatively modest due to an industry tendency to replicate existing manual AEC processes with electronic versions of the same processes. The AEC industry needs to address some very fundamental people and process issues to unleash the full benefits.

For example, ICT is a potentially powerful tool to support industry customers and project teams who want to adopt more transparent, collaborative ways of working, with early and full involvement of their supply chains. A vision of how this might work was created in the final report of the ICT and Automation working party for the National Platform for the Built Environment (2007): the vision was dubbed Built Environment 2020:

Clients work with a multi-disciplinary team to use existing knowledge about their activities, anticipated future requirements, and industry knowledge about similar client needs to agree a brief - describing the organisational need for future facilities, and working on the principles of best whole-life value. As the brief is developed, additional team members are brought into the team as early as possible, and begin to use a virtual environment to prototype or model solutions which meet all the various dimensions of the brief – functionality, aesthetics, logistics, ease and safety of construction, operation and maintenance, whole life cost, sustainability, etc. Regardless of their location, all authorised project participants can interact with this virtual environment using various different computer hardware/software combinations, with the latest model version being readily available online, and over time being progressively populated to increasing levels of detail.

Once a consensus is reached about the finished form of parts of the facility, manufacturers and suppliers (already involved in the design process) reuse model information for offsite fabrication (perhaps extensively automated) of the required components in the optimum sequence for just-in-time delivery to the correct zone at the facility’s location. Each component has an embedded device that carries all relevant information about its manufacture, material, service requirements, etc, and its arrival on site is, of course, automatically recorded. Once delivered, each component is swiftly and safely installed in its precise position by skilled site operatives - supported, where appropriate, by robot devices.

All site operatives, project managers and other personnel wear small devices that monitor their exact position, giving warnings, where necessary, regarding the individual’s safety and security. These wearable devices can also provide data about individuals’ immediate surroundings (drawing on the embedded data in installed components and data stored in the virtual model), helping, for example, operatives to undertake site activities, with context-sensitive viewing tools (e.g. VR glasses) providing audio-video installation guidance. Those with managerial responsibilities can interrogate the online environment to get real-time updates on schedules, projects costs and other performance parameters – the same data also being available simultaneously to, for example, a client representative sitting in a remote geographic location – perhaps in another time-zone.

As on-site processes are completed, the virtual environment is populated with as-built data that can be seamlessly reused for operation and maintenance purposes. The building model thus becomes a powerful asset management tool, linking the facility owner/operator with relevant suppliers or maintenance contractors, with all repairs or replacements automatically recorded. The actual in-service performance of building components is logged and can be interrogated by the owner/operator, manufacturers/suppliers, and by authorised professionals tasked with designing and delivering similar facilities for the same or (subject to confidentiality limits) similar clients. Similarly, any extensions, alterations or changes of use of the facility are also recorded for feedback purposes, and to inform future developments.

Sustainability is just one dimension considered in this vision, but the scenario described above shows how radically the industry could change, supported by ICT and automation. The AEC industry must embrace opportunities to:

  1. overcome existing regulatory and technological hurdles – such as constraints on reuse of public data, and interoperability
  2. research, develop and implement new ICT tools and technologies
  3. develop new structures and processes that allow it to take full advantage of new ICT, and
  4. perhaps most importantly, educate and train users in these new processes and the associated technologies.

Clearly, the successful development, introduction and deployment of new technologies and new ways of working will require very different skills of the future workforce. With the future of the planet’s resources at stake, the AEC industry cannot afford to prevail with existing project delivery processes. It needs to be prepared to develop and implement new ways of working alongside the new generation of ICT capabilities.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. This document is a development of a paper written by Paul Wilkinson (BIW Technologies), with contributions from Sarah Bowden (Arup), that was submitted as a response to BERR’s Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction in November 2007.
  3. Tony Roberts, founder of Computer Aid International, quoted in The Guardian, 6 May 2008, Breeding toxins from dead PCs
  4. Virtualisation helps improve server utilisation. Research by GDCM and Quocirca (March 2008) showed that almost half (47%) of organisations did not measure server utilisation levels. Among these, almost half of data centre managers and CIOs (46%) believed their servers to be over 75% utilised - even though the industry average is below 25% ( Server utilisation rates are often as low as 10 to 15%, a huge waste of power and money. By right-sizing their IT, businesses can make substantial cost savings, enhance corporate reputation, and make a positive difference to the environment. In terms of the measures businesses already have in place to reduce emissions from IT infrastructure; consolidation (76%) and virtualisation (73%) are most popular, with only half using more energy efficient hardware such as blade servers (50%) (IBM Research September 2007 -
  5. Taking the heat, Information Age Business Briefing No 62, October 2007, p.24
  7. Hannah Prevett (2007) Right on? Information Age, January 2007 – see
  8. Powering down the PC problem, Information Age Business Briefing No 62, October 2007, p.20
  9. Britain's trillion-page mountain stacks up, Observer, 14 October 2007.
  10. See The Guardian newspaper’s Free Our Data campaign - For example, a University College London project, 'Virtual London', offering maps of air pollution, congestion and tall buildings, foundered on the difficulty of licensing OS data.
  11. Interoperability in the Construction Industry, McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket Report, October 2007, p.5
  12. M. P. Gallaher, A. C. O'Connor, J. L. Dettbarn, and L. T. Gilday (2004) Cost Analysis of Inadequate Interoperability in the U.S. Capital Facilities Industry. NIST GCR 04-867. see
  13. Latham, M. (1994) Constructing the Team, London: HMSO.
  14. Egan, J. (1998) Rethinking Construction, Report of the Construction Task Force, London: HMSO.
  15. Egan, J. (2002) Accelerating Change, Consultation Paper by Strategic Forum for Construction, London: HMSO.
  16. Strategic Forum for Construction (2006)
  17. 'Construction collaboration technologies' is the term preferred by the UK vendors' organisation, the Network of Construction Collaboration Technology Providers (NCCTP)
  18. See for examples of mashups. Overcoming UK Ordnance Survey constraints on reuse of its mapping data would dramatically increase the range of mashups relevant to UK projects.
  19. In the US, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings.
  20. Becerik, B. and Pollalis, S.N. (2006) Computer Aided Collaboration in Managing Construction, Harvard Design School, Department of Architecture, Design and Technology Report Series 2006-2.
  21. See Cadweb's emissions figures, formulae, calculations and methodologies are taken from the Vehicle Certification Agency (, and assume an average issue of information contains 6 files, the average distance for a reprographics delivery is 3km; calculations are based on the use of a Ford Transit Connect Diesel 1.8 Van travelling one way (it is assumed that the return journey would usually be taken up with another delivery), and that 10% of the information is still printed and delivered.
  22. Council cuts CO2 with web services, Information Age, 21 January 2008 (
  23. This example is based on a BIW Technologies case study with Sainsbury’s – see
  24. Experience at the London Construction Consolidation Centre (see Building magazine article, Here’s one way to cut traffic, February 2007 - identified the need for an IT platform – highlighted by Adrian Blumenthal at Constructing Excellence’s sustainability conference, July 2007.
  25. Dominique Poole & Tony Sheehan (2005) Using Communities to Drive Performance and Innovation in Arup -
  26. 26.0 26.1 David Bartholomew (2005) Sharing Knowledge, DBA -
  28. The average worker spends 30-120 minutes searching for documents each day.
  29. Sarah Bowden, Alex Dorr, Tony Thorpe, and Chimay Anumba give a fuller account of the potential benefits of mobile ICT in their paper Mobile ICT support for construction process improvement. See also the case studies at
  30. S. Bowden, Network Rail. Case Study 1. (2004). London, Arup. see
  31. See
  32. It has been estimated that 14 1-Gigawatt power plants would be needed, five in the USA alone, to run the world’s server and internet web farms. Forrester Research estimates a data centre with 2,500 servers will use enough electricity in a month to power 420,000 homes for a year.
  33. Morgan, Gareth (2007) IT takes responsibility, Information Age, December 2007 – see
  34. Haven, John (2008), The thin green line, Sustainable Business, May 2008, pp.46-47.