Chapter 2. Current state of communication in the building and construction industry


Lies, damned lies and project estimates

Table of Contents
Usage of communication technologies in the building and construction industry
Existing solutions for electronic communication

This chapter is a survey on the current state of communication in the building and construction industry. A comparison with other industries clearly outlines the specific problems present in the building and construction industry. This chapter zooms in mainly on electronic communication, the subject of this project.

First, the characteristics of the industry are outlined. This is followed by three current solutions to the electronic communication problem. They haven't gained widespread acceptance in the building and construction industry because of the specific industry characteristics.

Usage of communication technologies in the building and construction industry

This section outlines the nature of the industry, because this nature brings about specific problems which have a large impact on the kind of communication. A definition of the communication at hand and the current state is also provided.

The nature of the industry

The nature of the building and construction industry is best described by noting the differences with other major industries:

  • There are no players large enough to drive and prescribe certain technological developments. Even the big players are small compared to the combined size of all small 1-to-10-men companies and especially when compared with the Volkswagens, Unilevers and Nokias of other industries.

  • The profits generated by the industry generally aren't high, so no large investment to solve big generic problems is available[1].

  • The supplier and subcontractor relationships are manifold, ever changing and diverse, resulting in more complex communication and supply chains than in most other industries.

  • Though many who work in the building and construction industry are highly skilled, most of them are not highly educated[2]. Most of them are blue collar workers with a few white collars working at the company's office. Especially the large amount of very small companies consists almost solely of blue collar workers. For the blue collars, using modern computer equipment and it's possibilities will, probably correctly, not be the first natural thing on their mind.

Communication defined

To prevent confusion, we first need to define communication technology. This is basically the use of technologies to communicate with other people, thus, everything from the postal service to wireless phones and Internet. This report restricts itself to the electronic kind of communication and specifically the indirect way of communication. Telephones and such are not considered, because they are just a different way of talking directly. So it is about electronically exchanging information that is normally communicated on paper.

Written information is very important in building and construction. Many things have to be explicitly stated on paper because of the following reasons:

  • One needs to be able to verify the safety of a construction. For example the structural strength of a building, the fire resistance, the resistance of a stadium to supporters jumping up and down in unison. This verification cannot be performed without specific, written data.

  • The legal system, government regulations and the current building practice need verifiable information, specifications, written deadlines, etcetera. Legal reasons in this case mean both commercial legislation (enforcement of contracts, agreed-upon standards of work) and building legislation (regulations for building safety, strength, etcetera).

  • The complexity of construction projects and the multitude of partners co-operating makes it impossible to rely on just a few people's minds to store all the required information.

In the building and construction industry, there is a huge amount of information that needs to be communicated. Technical data is needed by the subcontractors. Also the safety checkers need to be able to verify exactly the correctness of all technical data. The project planning must be communicated to every worker, taking the form of work orders. Also suppliers need to know when to deliver which goods. To stress it again, all this has to be done in writing.

Current practice in the building and construction industry is mainly paper-based. If an electronic way of communication could reach the same level of trust and - also important - the same legal status, it could replace much of the paper-based communication, with it's advantages of speed and accuracy.

The current state of electronic communication

For electronic communication (also: using computers) between partners, the only two presently viable options are the following:

Standardise on a specific platform and one specific set of applications:

This option leads to enormous costs for firms, because they practically need to buy every major program in existence since most building firms take part in multiple projects. Every project may standardise on a specific solution, but for every project this will be a different choice, hence the problem.

Use the lowest common denominator between various platforms and applications:

The problem with this option is that the common subset supported by all available programs is too small. If you strip off every program's functionality that isn't supported by all other programs, the functionality drops enough to render the program unusable.

As both options are entirely unattractive, the effect is that the communication is not done electronically. It is not feasible either because of the costs involved, or because practically no sensible communication is possible. The majority of communication is done on paper. Because the distribution of paper based documents is slow (using a fax is the fastest method) and takes effort, getting the right information to the right persons on time is difficult. This lowers the effectiveness and efficiency of the building and construction industry when compared to other industries. Electronic communication can counter this by allowing for an automated distribution of information with unprecedented speed, provided that a suitable way of communicating electronically is found.

Specific problems for European communication

Communicating in a European setting poses two additional problems, the language problem and the classification problem.

The language problem is quite straightforward. A door in English is a deur in Dutch and a Tür in German. The problems are much bigger when it is no longer just a case of translating one word into another. Different languages (and countries) often attach different meanings to concepts. A concept can be something that is easily understood, like a door[3] . But when you talk about the first floor, some languages mean the floor situated at street level, while other languages use the concept first floor to indicate the first floor above street level, basically counting from zero. Also, when talking about foundation and superstructure, one country indicates everything mounted upon the foundation poles with superstructure, while another country includes the bottom floor when talking about foundation.

Communication across borders requires a mechanism to provide a mapping from one concept onto another, which is a sizable job in Europe.



An exception is when a specialised piece of equipment is needed for a large project. Or that the project itself requires a huge and expensive planning effort. See the storm surge barrier in the Scheld estuary in the Netherlands, where a few vessels were purpose-build for that single project and were not used ever since. These huge investments are normally covered by the project's price tag. The incentive for the one paying the constructor for a specific project also to pay for the costly development of a solution to a generic problem that persists across the entire industry will be low. The conclusion is that there are no large investments available to solve big generic problems.


By highly educated I mean those who have studied civil engineering, management etc. as opposed to those who learned to be masons, road builders, etc. The distinction is important, for (in most cases) the first group will have had much more contact with computers etc. than the second group.


Even with an easy concept like door, you have the problem of whether or not you just mean the actual door or also the door frame, the lock and the paint work.