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On-Line Learning Environments in Architectural and Construction Education.

Timothy O'Leary,

School of Building and Planning,

University of South Australia



Education in the built environment has had a tradition of lecture, studio and print based instruction, where the principal subject matter i.e. buildings under design and construction, cannot be brought physically into the classroom. This paper discusses significant uses of the new internet technology in the context of these architectural and construction studies. Whilst many of the pedagogical issues relating to incorporation of web based instruction into teaching programs are covered, if not hotly debated elsewhere, this paper can act as a guide to educators developing web learning resources in this particular field of undergraduate education.

The authors experience is related through research being undertaken into the creation of a dynamic construction project archive using the format and tools of the web. The main purpose of this real life construction project made 'virtual' is to exploit web technology to simulate the site visit experience and provide both visual and text information that can enrich the teaching process through experiential learning. Additionally, as the design and construction industry moves closer towards using the internet in project environments and exchange of information, students exposure to emerging web technologies can greatly improve their understanding of a technologically advanced design and construction workplace.

Keywords: Virtual Project, Simulated Site


The development of computers and computer aided learning has influenced many of the subject in architectural and construction studies, without altering the basic framework of lecturing, tutoring and assessment. In the past few decades we have witnessed an evolution from early mainframe and PC based Computer Aided Learning(CAL) programs, through to Authorware and Multimedia, and now in the late nineties to the technologies of the World Wide Web(WWW).

Andrews and Bowser (1995) have pointed out the tendency many teachers have to imitate existing familiar teaching situations and strategies when delivering instruction via new technologies, and the problems this approach causes in the successful adoption of the new technologies. Whilst there is a growing weight of argument to the benefits in flexibility, communication, economy and speed that web based learning can deliver, it is in the enrichment of teaching materials that the new technology can most improve learning outcomes for students.

As undergraduate courses in the professional areas of architecture and construction must also be responsive to new methods and processes in industry, the task for educators is not merely to utilise the new technology by putting existing course content onto the web. Rather, by the active participation of students in an internet based learning environment, to give students exposure to technological advances in the architectural and construction professions.

A WWW of Architecture and Construction

The growth of the Internet in Architecture and Construction

The use of the Internet is growing quickly in the architecture and construction industry as business and social trends create a period of radical change. The technology of the Internet is being used by industry for design and construction information exchange as projects in the construction industry are increasingly characterised by large numbers of actors working concurrently at different locations. On a global scale the industry is moving towards the integration of information formats and the concept of Interoperability with the formation of an International Association for Interoperability(IAI) which includes major companies and organisations with a stake in the design, construction and management of infrastructure. In conjunction, researchers have posed some interesting new challenges by considering the parallel use of several techniques for project information exchange (Turk, 1994).

There are many interesting services on the world wide web in existence now, and new ones are being added so quickly that giving a listing in this paper would not stand the test of time. Perhaps, the most exhaustive list of pointers to Internet resources for the architecture, engineering and construction industry (AEC) is Jeanne Brown's list at the University of Nevada, USA. .

Internet Design and Construction Information

Whilst, currently it is felt that Internet services do not provide the necessary security, locking and version control capabilities to be directly used in widespread professional practice, the Internet can be visualized as the future backbone of communications for design networks. Builders and designers can transmit drawings, sketches and specifications via FTP and WWW collaboration tools can be used for flexible, robust information exchange and communications.

The Internet can also assist the transfer of information about building codes as suggested by Williams (1993). Design standards are some of the most important and frequently referred documents that control and guide Architects and Engineers in any design. Standards are hierarchical in nature and consist of short sections, each of which outline the design requirements for a particular aspect of the overall project. Hypertext is regarded as a key technology in the passive representation of these building codes and regulations (Vanier, 1979; Vanier, 1990; Thomas and Worling, 1992; CCB, 1993).

At the Contractor level, whilst the most advanced construction sites in the world still use manual methods of business management and information reporting, advances in digital telecommunications bringing on-line access to remote sites can allow for access to the office project database and network, via Internet technologies.

Using Web Technologies to Teach Architecture and Construction

Virtual Design Studios (VDS)

The concept of the Virtual Design Studio has been demonstrated in both research and innovative teaching projects (Maher, Simoff & Cicognani, 1996), while increasingly using the Internet to teach in a VDS is becoming more of a reality as the technology improves. The development of internet collaboration tools as a channel of communication between learner and teacher (Pennell, 1996), and newer features in computer aided design software, allow publishing and transfer of lecture material on design and other project information across the web.

As a learning environment the VDS concept is a departure from the established teaching model where students learn about design as an individual activity and where each student works on his/her design project. Whilst in some cases, students will be grouped into project teams and learn about collaboration irrespective of the technology available, the VDS concept marries current web technologies with existing CAD teaching to provide greater possibilities and support for collaborative design.

Virtual Reality Modeling of Buildings

Using the Internet, Engineers and Architects can now model buildings in three dimensions using the part of the web that is Virtual Reality Modeling Language(VRML). Current research in the application of VRML in Construction Education is largely limited to basic simulation models of site processes. One such example is a collaborative research project being undertaken by the Departments of Civil Engineering of the University of Sydney and Stanford University, California, entitled VIRCON (A Virtual Construction Project Site). The aim of the project is to provide a computer model using VRML and object orientated programming which can compress the construction time from many months in the real life situation into a few minutes on computer. This includes the ability to 'walk through' the site graphically and explore the feasibility of a particular construction method or plan.

Aiken (1997) of the UK based Building Information Warehouse list details and examples of VRML sites of interest to students of architecture and construction. This selection of VRML sites concentrates very much on VRML used as a tool to model building design and construction on the internet within the categories of Urban Spaces, Stadiums, Interior Layouts, and Structures. An example is shown in Figure 1, where a buildings interior is viewed and manipulated in the VRML enabled web browser by the addition of a freely available plugin.

Figure 1. Sample VRML file viewed in Netscape browser. (Aitken B., Building Information Warehouse, UK, URL:

Simulated Site Visits

The most effective and stimulating way architecture and building students can learn about changing construction techniques is to visit and view buildings being constructed. Yet, safety, cost and time restrictions make regular visits by large groups of students to commercial scale buildings under construction impossible. Groups can sometimes be taken late in the day after construction activity has stopped or occasional unsupervised site visits made by individual students can be useful but do not exploit the full potential of this type of learning.

In Australia several prototypes are being developed using multimedia frameworks ( Newton, Finkelstein & Kenley, 1997) or in the case of this author using Internet applications to dynamically present a computer archive of building information with its large inventory of documents, drawings and site photographic record. The information gathered at intervals of site activity is made available via the Internet where students can revisit the site and learn about the process of construction.

A Virtual Construction Project - City West Campus, Adelaide.

Throughout 1996 and earlier this year, the author undertook the electronic archiving of a large scale construction project. This was the University of South Australia's new City West Campus development in Adelaide, South Australia. Project information has been recorded and converted to appropriate formats in order to establish a web based system of information.

A Dynamic Building Archive

Information generated from many of the professional disciplines involved in the construction of City West has been brought together in a dynamic archive of project information. The base information is archived in the following classifications:

Web Learning Resource

The archive provides the resources for a knowledge based tuition system delivered using Internet technology in a number of frameworks, creating links and relationships in different areas. The result is a set of web documents which provides an interactive learning tool which can be used over a range of subject areas such as design, construction management, engineering services, contract administration and construction economics (see Figure 2).

Hyperlinking Design and Specification

Documentation and drafting skills are important for both architecture and building students and will form a core set of subjects in each level of an undergraduate course. Additionally, the information contained within the drawings and specification provide a reference for studies in other areas such as the measurement and estimation of building works, services engineering and building control. The archive contains the full working specification based on the Australian National Standard(NATSPEC) in hypertext. The Trade based classification of the specification facilitates linking to the works program and bills of quantities which are also in Trade order.

Design drawings represent the blueprint of any project are generally produced to a high level of detail using expensive computer aided drawing(CAD) software. Web browser capabilities have been extended recently by the development of plug-ins which will allow design information to be viewed and manipulated within the browser application window. Using a common tool such as Netscape NavigatorÔ instructors and students can zoom, pan, show or hide layers or blocks, change viewpoints, measure distance, and also print design and construction details from within the browser. No expensive CAD software is required in the student computing laboratory.

Figure 2. The City West Campus Virtual Project Home Page.

Stand alone applications which CAD vendors have recently developed also provide a ready means to take detailed CAD drawing information on a project and link it with other web pages. A useful tool for educators building a set of web drawings for instructional purposes is the ability to annotate or redline DWG/DXF files or hyperlink to other files or web pages. The ability to add text, bitmap images, headers and footers as watermarks in drawings at the desired location or to navigate through a set of drawings or launch another application using hyperlinks are generally what authors of architectural and construction web learning resources have needed for some time. An example of using this type of application to add notes and hyperlink a drawing from the City West archive is shown in Figure 3.

Hyperlinking Construction Management

The aim of any syllabus in teaching construction management is foremost to introduce students to the organisation of the construction industry. This leads on to studies at a micro level in the actual building process and the operation of a construction company. The archive provides a detailed record of on-site activities throughout the construction of a major project and can also describe the roles, duties and relationships of various members of the building team. As mentioned previously, providing site access often presents difficulties when introducing students to construction management. Here the archive is used as a visualisation tool based on photographic images which can be used to familiarise students with a variety of construction environments and practices. Image editing software allows for annotations to the photographs for instructional purposes.

The contractors detailed programme of works can be converted to hypertext format in order to embed links from descriptions of site activities. In the example shown in Figure 4, details of the activity for constructing the stub columns and pile caps are linked to the actual photographs taken of their construction.

Hyperlinking Contract Administration

The financial administration of a construction project begins at early design estimate stage and is completed with the final account, post construction and defects liability period. An issue here is whether to include in the archive sensitive and confidential commercial information that would be contained in the project financial record. Nevertheless, as an example of a real life project with drawings and specifications the archive can be used by the lecturer in demonstrating the techniques of project feasibility and building cost planning. The voluminous bills of quantities(unpriced) form a separate section of the archive that contain a detailed description of plant requirements, labour and materials requirements and the quantities involved within various sections of the buildings and associated works. The bills are marked up in hypertext in the same trade format as the specification.

Figure 4. Programme of work activity with hyperlinks to photos of activities.

The various documents in the archive can be used as a set of reference points by the lecturer guiding students through the process of tendering, contract negotiation, selection and administration throughout the construction phase. Changes to design and the operation of clauses that vary the contract for such risks as inclement weather can be highlighted by linking to those parts of the archive which indicate what actually happened on site (see photograph inset).

Web Learning Environments for AEC Students

Choices of teaching strategy will ultimately determine the degree of web use amongst a particular school or department and its associated students, however the influence and expectations of students in this area can not be overlooked. The university is a place where students seek an expression of their ideas through different media and interaction with technology.

For university students who are now becoming increasingly computer literate the web has opened up a richer medium for chat, collaboration, presentation of work, research and enhancement of their whole experience of higher education. An example of student web space, where students of architecture and construction use the new web technology to express their work and ideas or create their own virtual projects can be viewed at MIT's Design Studio of the Future collaborative design project, The Kumamoto-Kyoto-MIT Collaborative Project (URL,


This paper has examined current developments in the creation of on-line learning environments in the discipline of architectural and construction education in which the author teaches. Computer literate academics in this field are engaging with new tools and techniques for teaching, using the distributive and interactive capabilities of the Internet and applying simulation technology and electronic archiving to the design and construction process.

Of course, there are many technical, cost, administrative and pedagogical issues to be addressed. Clearly though, the way ahead is leading to an increase in the need for hypertext, image and graphics content in our courses, either within university networks or on the Internet. This demand for well-designed easily accessible digital content can be answered by the application of such concepts as the virtual design studio and virtual construction site or the thoughtful creation of web resources relating to building design and construction.


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Vanier, Dana J. (1990) Hypertext - A Computer Tool to Assist Building Design. The Electronic Design Studio: Architectural Knowledge and Media in the Computer Era, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 273-300.

Williams, F. (1993). A Design Standards Document Server. Unpublished Master's Thesis, Department of Engineering, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


(c) Timothy O'Leary


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