Web-based project management tools promise to liberate retail building teams from the massive paperwork, unproductive phone tag and costly delays associated with traditional approaches.

The tools allow owner/developers, architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and vendors to share project information and communicate by using a central database that is accessible via the Internet. The database can be used to store all documents and communication related to renovations, expansions or new constructions.

In logical modules and in a single spot, this approach slashes costs, reduces delays and helps to track and manage retail projects by storing the reams of paper - spec books, memos, requests for information, and so forth - associated with the process.

Out with the LAN, in with the 'Net Phil Ogilby, CEO of Old West Chester, Ohio-based Construction Services, describes his company's system, iSqFt.com, as a network of virtual offices, from which the various players involved in a project can run their businesses, publish and distribute bidding documents and conduct real-time collaboration.

"People have managed projects successfully for a long time, but the wrinkle to this is you can get on the Internet and see what's going on with a project immediately," says Steve Setzer, director of marketing communications with Atlanta-based Constructw@re (www.constructware.com). "The earlier wave of this was using a Local Area Network (LAN), but a company has to have an information technology person to keep that private system going, and it's expensive to maintain. The Internet makes that approach obsolete."

LANs are geographically limited data networks. They have the advantage of providing an easy interconnection of terminals, microprocessors and computers within adjacent buildings. Chicago-based Pepper Construction Co. recently switched from a LAN to Constructw@re's Internet-based approach. Pepper recognized the benefits immediately.

"Both the resources and the learning curve needed to support a LAN are huge," observes Howie Piersma, Pepper's director of information systems. "When you go to an (Internet-based) application service provider, you get all the meat and potatoes you need, but the interface is simpler, cleaner, and the learning curve is less than with other approaches."

To access and use web-based tools, users don't need to load special software or other whiz-bang technology onto their computers. Essentially, all that is needed is the ability to dial in and reach a website. The cost associated with using such a system can vary widely, depending on the company used. Some providers charge an initial set-up and training fee that can be $2,000 to $5,000, plus a monthly fee that can range from $100 to $600. Others charge just a monthly fee.

Time compression One of the benefits of web-based tools is their ability to compress the time required for decisions, which helps team members manage projects efficiently and quickly. "What used to take you sometimes weeks before, you can now do in a day or two, depending on how available the people are who have to react," comments Gary Craig, president of Liverpool, N.Y.-based Edgewater Services, which offers a web-based project management tool called ProjectEDGE (www.projectedge.com).

"Questions come up, and they can all be handled electronically now," Craig notes. "We don't have to be in the same space or at the end of a phone wire at the same time."

Craig offers the example of a contractor working on a retail renovation whose office is the glove box of his pickup truck. He may not have a laptop and Internet access in his truck, but he could call his office, ask someone to submit a request for information, and wait for answers to his questions through his alphanumeric pager or cell phone.

Or he could input the information himself using a handheld device. "Before, he had to get to a fax machine and send documents back and forth," Craig observes. "The information exchange happens more quickly now."

Each soup-to-nuts product offers different features and may be slightly skewed toward, and more beneficial to, one building team member or another. But some of the components users can expect include:

* Communications: storage and creation of communications, including letters, faxes, mailing labels, as well as meeting minutes and comments and clarifications about meetings from team members.

* Contracts: tracking and execution of contracts, purchase orders and change orders.

* Drawings: a place to store and view drawings and specifications, order plans, markup drawings, and store revisions.

* Photos: visually track construction progress and site conditions.

* Reports: create, collect and save project status reports on all aspects of a job.

* Requests for Information (RFIs): create, post, modify and respond to RFIs, and measure response time on RFIs.

* Security: users are given a password that allows them access to some or all of the project areas. Logins can be designed to provide some people read and edit privileges and some read-only privileges.

Everyone wins Here are some ways various team members can benefit from Internet-based project management tools:

* Owners: the overall benefits to building owners are an ability to clearly see all aspects of their project and anticipate problems before a job starts hemorrhaging money.

"They can take a 30,000-ft. view of their projects or get a closer look, as detailed as individual RFIs," says Setzer. Edgewater's Craig sees these tools as well-suited for retail chains that have two or three people handling construction and renovation of, say, 50 stores. "It's a way they can greatly leverage their time and ability because the tools take a lot of the administrative tasks away."

* Architects and engineers: one design team member can quickly communicate design changes and problems to owners and others. In addition, team members can work collaboratively in real time, regardless of where they are in the world.

"Real-time collaboration is a big deal for architects," says Ogilby. "It saves a tremendous amount of time, and architects love the ability to post changes that take effect immediately, and have change notices distributed automatically to everyone in the chain," he comments.

* General contractors and subcontractors: contractors can examine blueprints and create complete cost estimates on screen. During a project, they can communicate with owners, the design team and others to clarify issues, report problems, and update the team on construction-related issues, and keep subcontractors and vendors abreast of project changes and scheduling issues. Moreover, both contractors and subs can use some systems to generate new business.

"When a new project comes out, the invite-to-bid feature automatically sends out a notice to subs saying, 'This project is available for bidding. Log in here to see it.' There's a minimal cost to subs - $100 per year to access the system - and they can search across the network for projects that other general contractors have available."

Banish the lawyers Technology-based project management tools are also enormously beneficial in slashing costs associated with paper-based methods of doing business. Ogilby points to a client who last year spent $1 million reproducing and distributing plans to the approximately 8,900 subcontractors in its database. "Their cost this year will be far less than $300,000 for plan distribution, because subs will have access to contractors' virtual office. That's the kind of impact being made with tools like these."

According to Setzer, the tools create savings in ways that are often difficult to quantify. "Sometimes it's the stuff that doesn't happen - communications delays, for instance - on a project that saves money," he says. One Constructw@re client had a full-time staff person whose only job was to keep track of the insurance status of the 400 to 500 subcontractors on each job. By automating the process, the company was able to plow that money into more productive activities.

"The system manages by exception, so that anyone without up-to-date insurance pops up," Setzer says. "There's no paper chasing anymore."

Big savings often add up in dribs and drabs - a few hours shaved off site selection here and there, weeks reduced on the design side, and speedier communications for the duration of the job - and all aid in delivering a project and getting it occupied more quickly. Delays often become more of a problem when the parties involved in a project are in different parts of the country. On the web, however, differences in geography are all but erased, allowing project managers to save considerable time. Piersma points to a Minnesota retail mall project his company is building, and whose team members are geographically dispersed.

"The architect is in the East, we're here, and we were able to set up a conference to review drawings and make changes together on the website and update the project in real time. Before, we would've had to wait for drawings to arrive by fax, e-mail, or snail mail. With the new technology, problem resolution occurs a lot faster."

In addition, in this litigation-happy age, where a missing document can have serious legal consequences in the event of a dispute, building team members are pleased to have a place to store all documents relating to projects once they're completed. "All the information - daily reports, safety records, job site photos, and so forth - are all logged to a CD-ROM upon completion of a project," says Ogilby. "It gives owners a way to archive a project and also have a real paper trail in terms of who did what when, and what issues were raised during construction."

Contractors, too, appreciate the electronic paper trail. Piersma thinks this will improve dispute resolution. "Legal disputes can happen years after a project completion," he notes. "With a record of every aspect of a project date- and time-stamped, you have a record and timeline of what happened, which can work in people's favor to reduce risk."

Proponents of web-based project management say the shopping center industry hasn't been terribly quick to adopt new computer technologies. They note that commercial real estate executives tend to be a conservative bunch. But most believe that the approach soon will be as common as other techno business tools, such as pagers or cell phones. Eventually, the new dot.coms predict, Internet-based project management will become the norm.

"People are pretty averse to change, but these things are definitely here to stay, and in the next five years, everyone will be doing it because it saves everyone money," predicts Setzer. "Right now, you still have the theory of saving money, but the practice of 'I'm comfortable just doing it the old way.'"