Online planrooms were one of the early AEC industry cloud offerings and it appears they’re still going strong. Early on they were an easy way to distribute documents and today they make it very easy to access files using any mobile platform. Some even have on-screen measurement and markup abilities. Pricing on these planrooms is all over the map but many have free versions that simply limit the amount of storage and charge add-on fees for more storage space and items such as scanning or printing.

There seems to be a gradual creep in features as seen for example with Buzzsaw from Autodesk. The company offered this originally as an application service provider, (ASP), but today refers to it as a SaaS, (software as a service), and includes many more features than simple document management. One reason for that is the close marriage between its CAD offerings and Buzzsaw, allowing users to share sophisticated BIM models without having to own expensive software. It also has integrated design review where people can markup and annotate plans, and version control features that keep everybody on the same page. Then too, there are functions that would be difficult to find in other offerings that aren’t tied to a company that makes CAD software. One of those is the capability to limit the particular layers and cross references to only those portions of the CAD drawing that a user would need.

Ideal.com offers its planroom as a “complete custom solution for project management” with the application hosted on its servers where you only pay for the space you use, or as a dedicated application running in your own data center, or in theirs. The dedicated option eliminates storage charges and makes the application fully customizable. The company also offers a cloud solution that includes document management, workflow automation, collaboration, compliance and certification using a “workbasket” approach. All relevant documents get assigned to a job workbasket and then the basket makes its way through the business processes with people interacting with the documents as necessary. As with Buzzsaw, Ideal is bringing a wider range of options to the planroom than simply making plans available to interested stakeholders and subcontractors.

Keep in mind there are companies that are more narrowly specializing in the planroom and document management process. ContractorsPlanRoom has been around since 2001 and it is a completely SaaS offering so there is no software to buy or host. It has a free plan with a limit of 250 MB of storage with other plans that increase functionality such as adding on screen measuring and markup capability. Planroom Direct becomes the repository for bid documents making those documents available for viewing printing and saving by those you select to have those privileges. Bidcenter Online Planroom takes the next step and allows people to actually submit bids based on the plans you upload. DC Reprographics also focuses on the bidding process and document distribution but it adds the option for people to order plan sets by leaving a deposit or by outright purchase.

The one thing troubling about planrooms today is they continue the same old silo effect that construction has dealt with for years. Even though they are cloud-based they still force users into proprietary spaces. For the issuer of the plans that is not a big deal because everyone will need to visit their little cloud space to view or get the documents. But what about the subcontractor who works for five different general contractors? The firm is left potentially having to navigate five different planrooms, interact with five different approaches to the online user interface and deal with five different levels of functionality.

What the AEC industry needs is NOT more silos, but fewer of them. A contractor, architect, engineer or subcontractor should only need to visit one cloud planroom to work with all projects. The cloud actually offers that functionality through interoperability standards. Now, if we could just get the silo builders to understand that, the true promise of increased efficiency offered by technology might come one step closer to being realized for the AEC industries.

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