Yet all these attempts to bring together design and construction inevitably ran into basic physical limitations - construction teams didn't have the time to visit the design team studios as the design took shape, and designers rarely had the ability to follow the progress on the construction site.
Even in today's high tech world, most communications still take place in person or on the phone, and the main record for discussions and change orders remains pen and paper. The general manager at the construction site acts as a project manager, coordinating information and activity with the architect, the structural engineer, and the customer. Information flows are tightly controlled, and usually bottlenecked. Even e-mail simply adds to the problems, generating a blizzard of old messages and out of date file attachments - the electronic equivalent of the overstuffed briefcase in the cab of the general manager's truck.
But a new breed of high-tech collaboration tools are breaking down the boundaries, physical and mental, between design and construction. For example, PBworks, a "SaaS" (Software-as-a-Service) provider of hosted collaboration tools, offers architects, designers, engineers, and construction teams a shared online environment where they can work together from the design phase through final construction, managing tasks and milestones in an online environment, with e-mail and RSS (really simple syndication) notifications to keep everyone informed. By providing organization and transparency to designer, builder, and customer, these tools can alleviate the disconnect between the three parties and improve the efficiency of the design/build transition.
Wikis are simple web sites that allow multiple people to edit their content. They can be public (a la the Wikipedia online encyclopedia) or private. Wiki collaboration has several characteristics that make it ideal for allowing designers and builders to work together.
First, wiki collaboration tools are extremely simple to use. The Wikipedia famously includes contributions from millions of different authors, none of whom ever needed to attend a training class or read a manual in order to know how to use that Web site. PBworks hosts several times as many pages of content as the English-language edition of the Wikipedia. And even though PBworks is secure enough to be trusted by organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, FedEx, and the Department of Homeland Security, it's also easy enough to be used by thousands of grade school classrooms. Architects and contractors are busy; they already spend enough time dealing with complex 3-D software; the last thing they need is to have to learn a complex new tool.
Second, hosted collaboration provides a permanent record of interactions. Each and every change and edit is time stamped, and the identity of the person making the change is stored for audit trail purposes. This can put an end to the endless "he said, she said" arguments that can result from informal verbal agreements and discussions.
Third, online collaboration solutions are searchable. Rather than being forced to search through mountains or e-mail or reams of forms (or through the dreaded overstuffed briefcase), a general manager or architect can simply type in the words he or she is looking for and see the best matches in less than a second.
Fourth, collaboration keeps everyone up to date. The general manager, architect, and customer can all subscribe to notifications that alert them whenever a change has been made. This provides a very simple way to make sure that changes and issues are distributed to all the relevant parties in near real-time, rather than relying on weekly or even monthly face to face meetings to surface important issues.
Fifth, some collaboration solutions incorporate actual project management tools, such as tasks and milestones. These tools allow project managers to see the status of the project at a glance, and help all the parties involve collaborate on specific tasks, rather than trying to untangle long e-mail chains or unwritten conversations.
Finally, hosted collaboration tools are accessible to any of the interested parties as long as they have an Internet connection. This means the system does not require designers or builders to download any software or operate any servers. They can even be accessed via mobile phones such as Blackberries and iPhones.