E-mail has had some justifiably bad publicity this week with the havoc caused by the Love Bug. So it is a fortuitous time for Arup to be launching a system for improving the communications on a project, including cutting down on the ad hoc e-mails that fly around most jobs.
The system aims to capture every form of information needed for a project within an extranet - a closed internet site dedicated to the project and accessible wherever there is internet access.
One aspect of the system is to serve as a repository for drawings, project documents, procedures and so on - typically amounting to 5Mb on a £20M building. But it will also act as a communications hub.
Leading the Arup team is associate director Stuart Cowperthwaite, who says Integration is a way of keeping on top of the mixture of project information which floods in on paper, by fax and through the e-mail system.
Getting project teams to work better together has, of course, been an industry concern for several years, brought to prominence by the Latham and Egan reports. Latham was ahead of his time in promoting the use of the internet, Cowperthwaite believes, but now the time is right.
First and foremost, Arup's intention was to develop something to suit its own way of working. However, it also sees a business opportunity. It is actively marketing Integration, claiming it will account for between 0.05% and 0.10% of the construction cost on a major scheme. Clients already signed up include CIT Markborough, Stanhope, Stockley Park Consortium and Sainsbury's Egypt.
An extranet can immediately wrap up some 60% to 70% of the communications in a project into a single medium, says Cowperthwaite. Not only does this make it easier to access the latest information, it also saves costs over conventional data dissemination.
Arup went back to first principles to rethink the ways communications are carried out. The standard types of correspondence whittle down to four forms - memo, RFI, submittal and change order. Outstanding actions, latest documents, agendas, minutes, diaries and contacts are also held centrally in what looks to be an easy to use format - accessed via personalised web pages, with people notified when relevant data is posted.
Each project will have an administrator taken from its own team, who will tailor the structure of the intranet and decide who can access the various levels of information. This can be cut in many ways. The client or project director might not want to get bogged down by knowing every decision being considered, or some commercial details might not be for all to see.
One thing is sure - Integration will give the client an overview of what is going on, which might be a little nerve wracking for everyone else.