Common Data Environments (CDEs) are rarely ever delivered on a budget and traditionally procured as extranets, a controlled private network allowing customers, partners, vendors, suppliers and other businesses to upload and download documents to and from a third-party technology provider, typically in the context of delivering a construction project, and do so without granting access to the organization's entire network. To deliver CDE functionality to Gaunt Francis Architects, a medium sized commercial practice of about 45 people, with two offices – one in London and one in Cardiff - the practice had to become creative and smartly leverage its already existing intranet to provide CDE-like functionality. In this article practice director Toby Adam will share his experience to develop and deploy technology for the benefit of the business.
Gaunt Francis Architects started in 1997 and has since built a solid reputation, originally for commercial projects and more lately as an industry leader in the Retirement Living sector. We wanted to find a pragmatic rather than cost prohibitive solution to deliver better information management and project record keeping across all RIBA Stages, from inception to completion, on projects across the UK.
Like many architectural practices of our size, we sit in that awkward space where we are large enough to require some non-architectural support staff, but not big enough to make this an obviously clear decision. Our support staff therefore need to be flexible, take on multiple roles and operate with an expanded skill set.
This modus operandi applies to IT, as with any other support role. Our IT Manager works across an incredibly diverse spectrum of activity, from onboarding new recruits, managing software subscriptions, managing networks, physically maintaining machines, operating the 3D printer, managing the VR rig, etc. So, we try to wring every drop of efficiency from our support staff, to justify their position in the team. And this desire for value for money applies to our software too.
Like many small businesses, we have ended up with a plethora of off-the-peg software solutions and subscriptions to deal with the various workflow requirements that a business like ours will have – HR Management, Accounts, Visualisation, CAD, Email, Productivity, VOIP, Video Conferencing, etc. Usually, this happens via incremental growth – a problem is identified, a solution is found, and yet another subscription is added to the list. We are not large enough to afford bespoke software solutions as the economies of scale just don’t apply.
We want simple solutions to our business needs, but doing things simply often takes huge amounts of time and effort; things that smaller architectural practices don’t really have.
We had identified a problem in our organisation relating to information management, namely the identification, storage, and transmittal of formal project data in the form of letters, drawings, schedules etc. We had concluded that our historic system of data management, based on the use of files created in File Explorer – a replica of an old-fashioned filing cabinet type system – was no longer fit for purpose and that we needed to find a new solution.
We were aware of the growing use of CDE (Common Data Environments) in construction and we knew that there were solutions out there that combined data management, CRM, cost control, task scheduling and job costing. In fact, we had trialled several of them, and spoken to friends and colleagues in our industry about their experiences. But we typically found they were simply too expensive, offered too many services and functions, or sometimes locked up data in a bespoke environment that might be difficult to exit from later.
The question was therefore how could we satisfy a business need we had to better organise our project data, but without simply adding to the long list of extra subscriptions we already owned and to a budget we could afford? How could we squeeze value from the software and subscriptions we already have?
The answer, as it turns out, was to try and solve a completely different business need and stumble serendipitously across answers to the CDE question. In addition to the problems of information management, we also had a business need to improve our contact database so we could better manage our contact with clients and consultants. An especially tricky issue with data protection rules now in force. of 15,000 records and 27,000 revisions work just fine.
We were aware of the bolt-on options available with the CDE software solutions noted earlier, but they were just too expensive and too radical an overhaul of our business practices. Plus, we noted that typical subscription software for CRM solutions were incredibly function-rich and did far more than we would ever need. Plus, this would also just add to the already ballooning number of different software packages in daily use. we had even approached programmers to write a simple database type system for us to use, but without really finding the right answer.
It is critical that any software we commit to earns its keep by being easy to implement, easy to use, and offers clear benefits to my colleagues
This is when we came across a new entrant to the market, who said that yes, their system could offer a simple contact database, which would allow us to filter certain search terms such as GDPR acceptance, label consultant type and client type and allow us to export to CSV format for import to MailChimp – in other words, just what we needed and nothing more.
Another interesting thing for us was that this system would be built into SharePoint, part of our existing Microsoft 365 subscription. We had started off with a 365 subscription largely just for email and office apps, but we had been steadily growing our use of the other functionality available. However, SharePoint had largely escaped our attempts to find uses for it, so it was very appealing to find a solution that would overlay SharePoint and leverage all the power that comes with Microsoft’s back-end system.
SharePoint is one of the most powerful parts of the 365 offer, combining as it does Azure storage and search capability with the ability to customise and automate routines. However, this customisation is a specialist job and well beyond the capability (and desire) of an architectural practice to get to grips with. Partnering with an expert in this field therefore made good sense.
One less subscription to add, and another way to squeeze more juice from the ones we have already have. Adding exactly the functionality we were seeking based on an already existing ecosystem, resonated with our pragmatic approach to technology deployment.
However, the interesting part was that this Contact Database was not a stand-alone system and turned out to be an integral part of a new CDE system called Atvero, handily addressing another of our long-term business goals.
A significant risk for us at this point was that the programme was still in Beta, and we would be one of the first customers. However, we knew that the software was being supported by one of the largest architectural firms in the country, and the opportunity to steer the development and potentially “bespoke” the outcomes to our needs was also attractive.
We also recognised that implementing this system would require a big cultural shift within the business, as well as the time involved in running-down existing projects already using the older systems in place. So the development time that would be required to get the product to a “market-state” would also allow us to implement training and bring our staff on the journey with us.
Atvero is an extension to SharePoint and presents a more attractive and more user-friendly interface. It does not require any local infrastructure to run, as it operates at the Microsoft 365 tenant level, and is therefore accessible via an internet connection, not local networks.
The system uses SharePoint as the storage medium, and the filing structure, and uses its interface to present the filing structure in a simplified manner to the user. Importantly, this also means that behind the overlay is a fully user-accessible standard SharePoint filing structure with files named in clear formats that match the expected titles. Exiting is simple, without the interface, it won’t look as nice, but the data is still meaningful and logical – dramatically reducing the risk of exit.
There is no local servers or complex VPN connection issues required – all this is delivered “in the background” by the 365 tenancy, freeing up our overworked IT Manager to deal with other more pressing problems.
This means that there is an app on your mobile, because there is a SharePoint app. There is Teams integration, because SharePoint links to Teams. There is remote access from anywhere, because SharePoint does that. There is cloud storage and enterprise level security and backup, because that is what SharePoint offers.
We found ourselves with an enterprise level, remote access, cloud based, always-on, CDE. Sounds impressive, and we are just a medium-sized architectural practice with a small IT budget.
We started by ignoring the “how to use it” questions and stuck to explaining “why we should use it”. Architects are generally keen on the big concept, so we felt if our staff understood the idea behind it, they would be able to get to grips with the technicalities later.
Of course, using a CDE is a real cultural and mental shift for many people – our old-fashioned File Explorer system is very much based on a “where it is” model of data retention, rather than worrying about “what it is”. If the data are filed in the right place, then they can be found – which is of course the Achilles heel of the system.
We used to waste time trying to find the most current version of issued information, but that problem has completely disappeared
The CDE we use is designed to make use of the much more powerful and rapid search abilities of SharePoint, but also the use of “metadata” that goes beyond just the title of the drawing. In other words, this system knows what the data is, so where it is matters less. You can keep all your files in one “big bucket”, and just use the search and filtering functions to bring what you are looking for into view.
Thus, the problem of placing the data in the right location turns into a problem of naming and classifying the data correctly, but this is an excellent discipline for us to have to employ. After all, we want to make a good impression with our information being correctly labelled and revisioned, this helps develop confidence in our output from clients and contractors alike.
There is no denying that the system requires a much greater degree of planning, organisation and discipline than the old way of working. And whilst that may be attractive to the management team, it is perhaps not so appealing to the notoriously free-thinking architect types at the coalface.
However, it turns out that those very same free-thinking architect types we were worrying about, also really like it when their files are organised and when they can have confidence in the record keeping process. That little (sometimes not so little!) bit of OCD that may have helped lead our colleagues into this profession is deeply satisfied when everything is structured and planned.
I can have confidence in tracking transmittals and issued information, which in turn gives our contractor clients confidence in my team.
In the same way that using Revit has brought us all an understanding that more effort at the beginning can pay dividends later, our CDE operates in the same way. We just need to recognise the same productivity curve is happening as it does with BIM modelling – slower initial output, faster over the long term.
Time spent at the outset planning the drawing numbers or adding metadata can save many times that amount later in easier searches, tracking document history more easily, or simply outputting an accurate current published drawing list.
Our experience is that there have been considerable upsides by embarking on our evolving Digital Transformation journey and it’s the users of technology in our architectural practice and the managers maintain the technology who provide the ultimate litmus test of success or failure.
“As a web based application having remote access to project files is invaluable whether working from home, the office, or on site.”
“The increasing speed of communication and information exchange at all stages of construction procurement requires the use of robust document management systems. By defining numbering / titling & metadata to documents, Atvero allows for revision control and ease of document retrieval and tracking of document issue.”
“Being able to easily access all revisions of drawings in one location has proven invaluable when comparing one against each other. It has made reviewing others’ drawings so much quicker. Atvero has formalised the process of reviewing drawings by the project architect so that nothing leaves our office without a quality check. That gives me so much reassurance and confidence when issuing.”
“Atvero makes naming and organising files much easier as a new starter and finding the information you need is simple as the system is so clear.”
Gaunt Francis Architects is a creative commercial design studio that equates business acumen and technical excellence with design creativity. Formed in 1997, the practice has delivered award-winning projects throughout the UK and abroad, from its offices in London and Cardiff. It celebrates collaborative working and has no single designer or design style but rather a collective enterprise that values collective endeavour.
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