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All for one and one for all

e-commerce Getting the support of clients has been the key to the strategy developed by e-procurement service Asite. Antony Oliver reports.

When an estate agent describes a 'period property retaining many original features' it is a reminder that standardisation in construction is not new.

Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian housebuilders all used standard building designs, often drawn from design catalogues. At a time when there was a lot of construction work going on suppliers and tradesmen found it very useful to standardise the range of products they offered.

There was of course some shoddy work but the fact is that the economies resulting from standardisation allowed a great deal to be built in a short time.

And many of these functional buildings are still standing one or even two centuries later.

Sir John Egan's 1998 Rethinking Construction report recommended a return to standardisation in construction for many of the same economic and quality reasons.

Three years on, internet based, online catalogues are ready to service this demand.

Asite is one of the newest of these. It has persuaded a clutch of major clients and project managers to invest and has even secured the services of Sir John himself as chairman.

'Standardising makes you do things properly and reduces the risk of cock ups, ' says director of strategy and development Alastair Mellon. 'We are investing on behalf of the industry to make this work.'

Mellon's research suggests that the average invoice in construction is only worth £250. This compares with the average invoice processing cost of £60 and shows, he says, that there are still clear opportunities for the industry to make savings. He wants to see 75% saved off procurement costs.

Asite will operate a subscription based service in a similar way to the catalogues of the past.

It already has more than 20 projects on the system and according to Mellon this involves 'industry insiders with a trusted track record of leading change.'

Getting clients on board early is felt to be the key. Eight months after its launch, Asite is backed by clients like British Land, BAA, Legal & General, Prudential, Tishan Speyer, AXA, Morley Fund Management and St Modwen.

But it also has the involvement of acknowledged industry experts like founder Stanhope and Roche Property Group, which have since been joined by the likes of Mace and Symonds Group.

Mellon describes Asite as enabling technology for the construction industry. Effectively it enables construction companies to work together using a single consistent set of management and procurement tools.

At the moment there are five main strands to its operation, all circulating around a central hub database.

Project collaboration tools:

Arup's Integration, Building Information Warehouse and Citadel are available for use.

Tendering on line: Operated through leading e-commerce operator Commerce One.

Procurement: Also operated by Commerce One, this operates a closed catalogue system to maintain individual commercial relationships.

Forward and reverse auction facilities Web enabled project programming.

A desire to quash many of the myths about business on the internet means that many of Mellon's key messages about Asite revolve around what it does not do. It does not, he says, aim to combine the buying power of its users to drive down prices.

'We are not trying to aggregate demand, ' he says, emphasising that the creation of a single marketplace does not require the destruction of existing buying relationships and discounts.

'We are trying to give better information about aggregated demand so that everyone can benefit from being able to plan their businesses better, ' he explains. 'It is certainly not about crushing anyone's margins. Every one has to benefit if this is to work.'

It is perhaps surprising that Mellon claims not really to have seriously used the internet before joining Asite. He has been on a full time secondment from Stanhope for the last 18 months and has become something of an evangelist - for its potential at least, if not for what is actually happening.

BAA's recent decision to sign up to the system was a major shot in the arm for Mellon and his team. In developing the system, Asite is starting at the top of the supply chain by getting clients to buy in.

The fact that BAA opted to take a shareholding was helpful, but is not intended to be seen as setting any kind of pattern. 'We are making a big push to get owners interested - the serial procurers of construction services, ' explains Mellon.

'The key is to get information to flow better so that all participants get value, ' he says. 'But, at least initially, owners will be better placed to pay for the tools.'

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