By Steve Zurier. The future--at least the one that has collaboration over the Web with 3D presentations--is finally here. Today's products let builders and designers exchange and annotate 3D CAD images in real time. They make it easier than ever for home buyers to select options over the Web. And there's even new video software that lets home designers build 3D CAD drawings, develop full-motion videos, and post them on a Web site.

Some of the collaborative design products are hosted by third parties on the Internet and cost several thousand dollars. A few are shrink-wrapped products priced around $1,000 or lower, well within the reach of small builders. Demand for Web-based 3D tools may be unclear. But home builders who have jumped in report significant time and labor savings from some of these new collaboration products.

Take Dominic Maleno, vice president of Maleno Development, a builder in Erie, Pa., that develops about 50 units a year. Maleno uses eZ 3 from New York-based Sigma Design to exchange 3D images with Bill Moses, senior designer at Loc, an Erie-based manufacturer of wall panels, trusses, and floor systems. The software, which costs $399 for a one-user license, lets Maleno and Moses run remote conferences in which they can view the same 3D image and make real-time annotations.

"As time moved on and everybody became so busy, I got tired of tracking down plans and having files upon files in hard copy folders," says Maleno. "I asked Bill if there was a system that could let us e-mail plans back and forth. Now, he'll e-mail a print, I'll make the changes, and ... we'll have it done in one hour and neither of us left the office. We can also conference and make annotations online--sometimes we talk on the telephone, sometimes we just use instant messenger."

Maleno appreciates being able to conference over the Web. He also uses eZ 3 to save all his 3D images to his laptop, so when he's on the road he can e-mail changes back and forth to the office, designers, and customers. For now, Maleno still faxes prints to most of his subcontractors. "I don't think it's needed for subs; they are typically looking at a finished copy of the plan and not making changes," he says, adding that he recently started using eZ 3 with his kitchen suppliers, mostly because there's so much detail that goes into building a kitchen.

A new frontier

New Frontier Cos., based in Springfield, Ill., uses BuilderFinish to let customers select options online. Peter Robinson, director of construction, says New Frontier runs BuilderFinish for its University Village Project, which is rebuilding Chicago's Maxwell Street Market neighborhood near the University of Illinois. Robinson heads a team of three developers building 930 units--a mix of condominiums, townhomes, and mid-rises that sells from $165,000 to $700,000.

Robinson credits BuilderFinish with letting the company run its design center with one less person. Here's how it works: New Frontier gives customers a passcode; they enter the BuilderFinish site and look at the overall floor plans, individual rooms, and a 3D rendering of the kitchen. New Frontier has 53 floor plans for the 930 units and roughly 4,000 selections for each floor plan type. As the customer makes selections, the system calculates a mortgage payment, to help stay within budget. Robinson says New Frontier uses 3D renderings mostly for the kitchen, where the customer selects floor colors, cabinets, countertops, and appliances. "The kitchen makes the most sense to do in 3D because there's so much you have to put together and color coordinate," he says.

Once the selections are made, a hard copy is printed, the customer then meets with a design center staffer to sign a contract and write a check, and the job moves forward. One of Robinson's goals is to integrate BuilderFinish into the company's Primavera Expedition construction management system software. One roadblock is that Expedition needs more detailed information than BuilderFinish provides right now.

"If we're putting in a listel on a ceramic tile, for example, we need to tell Expedition how high off the floor it goes," says Robinson. "But BuilderFinish is putting that feature in, so once we get to that point, we can go from BuilderFinish into Expedition. The idea is to go from the design specs to ordering to paying subs, but we'll do that later this year."

Another system that lets prospective home buyers make options selections and view project amenities over the Web comes from Toronto-based Aareas Interactive. Jim Ritchie, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Tridel, one of the largest high-rise condominium and townhome developers in Toronto, says AareasInteractive's Web-based 3D rendering system benefits Tridel in at least three ways:

More qualified leads. Tridel e-mails home buyers all the black lines, pricing, and 3D renderings of the project's exterior, lobby, and recreation center. Sending this information up front gives customers a better understanding of the project before coming to buy.

Reduced number of model homes. Ritchie says Tridel has moved away from building model suites, except for a model kitchen every so often. Instead of models, Tridel puts a workstation in each sales office and gives the prospect access to the AareasInteractive system.

Streamlined design. Ritchie says Tridel now makes numerous changes well before customers ever see the design, by taking CAD drawings and placing them into AareasInteractive's 3D system.

Builders may also want to check out what David Porter, president of David Porter Associates Architects in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is doing with DataCad and Camtesia Studio from TechSmith Corp., based in Okemos, Mich. Porter says for a little more than $1,000 in software he can now post full-motion videos on his Web site.

Porter, a DataCad user since 1986, builds a model in DataCad and saves it as an O2C file, DataCad's file format for viewing 3D files. Then he puts it into Camtesia--software which lets him add titles and captions and build a full-motion video. DataCad lists for $995; Camtesia Studio sells for $349. Although Porter admits that getting the products to work takes a certain expertise, the price is affordable to many builders and designers.

"The message to builders is that going through this 3D process may assist them in closing the deal," says Porter. "A lot of my clients are not adept at understanding a 2D piece of paper ... but putting a 3D model on the computer is as close to virtual reality as you can get."

At the higher end, larger builders are using Autodesk's Buzzsaw collaboration tool. Amar Hanspal, senior director of Autodesk's Building Collaboration Services, says Buzzsaw is an outsourced solution that starts at roughly $10,000 a year. The product takes builders and designers through the entire building process, from design, bidding, and construction to the management of the facility. The system lets builders run 3D renderings from CAD drawings and build virtual walk-throughs of new projects.

"Our customers have gone from experimentation to everyday use," says Hanspal, who adds that companies like Centex opt for Buzzsaw because they do business all over the country and need a way to manage all their documents.

Jeffrey Terrell, a principal at Robertson Miller Terrell, an architectural design firm based in Avon, Colo., says using Buzzsaw is a great way to bridge the gap between architect and home buyer. Terrell e-mails his clients a link to a special URL which lets them access project information. Clients can review and annotate Word documents and standard CAD drawings over the Web and e-mail them back. "They can review all the information at their own convenience,'' says Terrell. "It's much less of an imposition."

A great affinity

Another software product builders might want to keep an eye on is Affinity 2.0 from Houston-based Trelligence. It offers builders a structured way to obtain information from prospects and make changes before the design goes into a CAD system. The idea is to obtain as much information up front as possible so designers can move away from tracing paper. Trelligence also plans to build a Web interface into its software. This spring it is introducing a Web-based version of its requirements questionnaire.

Skeptics may say that the average builder or designer is satisfied with his older 2D CAD system and that the 3D options-selection applications are overkill for most builders. That may be true today, but it won't be two or three years from now. The younger generation coming into the industry understands the technology and isn't afraid to use it. The same can be said for today's customers--many demand that builders do business on the Web. The idea is to sift through what's out there, pinpoint how the technology can make your company more productive, then set a realistic budget and get it done.

Online Collaboration Tools
A quick snapshot of some of the leading collaboration tools for builders
Company Product Description Cost Web Address
AareasInteractive Options selection, virtual site tours, and per module 3D design online Starts at $3,000
Autodesk Buzzsaw Hosted collaboration Starts at $10,000 tool for 3D design and construction management
Sigma Design eZ 3 Peer-to-peer collaboration with 3D designs Lists for $399
Trelligence Affinity 2.0 Design management software Lists for $599