A FEW YEARS AGO, LARGER HOME BUILDERS paid consultants more than $100,000 to have project-specific Web sites built for them so they could interact with subs, suppliers, and buyers online. Next, a slew of service providers such as Intranets.com offered the same thing for a monthly per user or per project fee.

Now, with features built into Microsoft Office 2003 and Microsoft SharePoint Services 2003, the software giant has plugged into the next evolution of personal computing: collaboration that integrates a user's Microsoft Office applications with the Internet.

SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server (for larger companies) is perfect for builders because it lets average users and customers share documents and collaborate on projects without having to spend a lot of time and money on complicated Web sites.

Hosted SharePoint sites start at as little as $20 per month from Web hosts such as 1&1 Internet Inc. Builders running Windows Small Business Server 2003 can easily self-host SharePoint. All that's required is a high-speed Internet connection with a standard Internet Protocol address and an understanding of Microsoft's Web technologies.

The SharePoint approach is like the little wagon full of colored blocks many of us had as toddlers: Blocks can go in the wagon a hundred different ways, and they all still fit. With SharePoint, instead of wooden blocks, Web authors drag virtual blocks called “Web Parts” into a framework to display the items they want to show visitors. SharePoint provides many stock layouts and color themes to get users started, including a complete photo gallery, a document library, and a discussion board. From there, users can modify existing Web Parts, download or purchase Web Parts, or, for those with programming skills, create their own Web Parts and templates from scratch.

SharePoint lets users collaborate with nearly any kind of file, but it really shines when run over Microsoft Office 2003. The “Shared Workspace” task pane in Word 2003 lets users manipulate an online SharePoint site as if it were on the user's hard drive. Other Office 2003 applications have similar integration capabilities. For instance, a “task” entered in SharePoint can be pushed into an Outlook calendar.

Like everything else in SharePoint, if users don't like the stock workspace items, they can customize them or create their own from scratch. The builder can determine what the company's users will see and what they can access when they visit the site. Buyers could have access to all of the builder's contract documents and product literature, while a subcontractor might only have access to drawings and work orders for their particular trade. At the same time, everyone visiting the site could access general information about the company.

Joe Stoddard is a technology/process consultant to the building industry. Reach him at jstoddard@mountainconsulting.com.