When discussing investment in information technology, owners of architecture, engineering and construction firms often cringe. IT spending is up and systems and tools can cost a bundle.

WIRELESS LAN Networking without cables can be quick, easy and inexpensive.
(Photo by Tom Sawyer for ENR)

Once just a blip on company balance sheets, IT spending rose from 3.3 to 4.1% of annual revenue at AEC firms between 1996 and 2000, according to a recent survey by consultant ZweigWhite Inc. (ENR 5/28 p. 21). But some firms are finding they don’t have to break their bank accounts to remain technologically viable and have found cheaper alternatives to state-of-the-art solutions. In some cases, quality is surprisingly high.

A number of products, ranging from freeware or shareware to full-fledged design packages developed by universities or government agencies, are available at little or no charge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has been developing public-domain hydrologic and hydraulic software since the 1960s at its Hydrologic Engineering Center in Davis, Calif. Originally developed for mainframe computers, much of the HEC software has been updated to run on PCs and can be downloaded for no charge from the HEC Website. Enhanced versions with additional documentation and technical support can be purchased from Corps-approved vendors listed at www.hec.usace. army.mil.

CONNECTIONS Cards are begining to link computers (above) and BUDGET SERVER (below)-Set up for small firms. (Photo top courtesy of 3 COM, photo bottom courtesy of ESOFT.COM)

Whether or not a firm can get by with free, public-domain versions of the HEC software depends on the firm’s needs and capabilities, says Samuel L. Hui, manager of hydraulics and hydrology for Bechtel Group Inc. in San Francisco. "The key is how much support you want," he says, noting that Bechtel generally uses the free versions of the HEC software.

Another source of public-domain software is the Center for Microcomputers in Transportation (McTrans) based at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Established by the Federal Highway Administration in 1986, McTrans (www-mctrans.ce.ufl.edu) offers transportation software ranging from free utility products to sophisticated traffic modeling tools such as HCS2000 and TRANSYT7F, which are available for $500 each. "We try to provide a service and keep costs down as much as possible," says William Heitman, assistant director.

Firms also are finding inexpensive software from private sources. Gannett Fleming, Harrisburg, Pa., has found at least a couple of useful, inexpensive products on the Internet, says James Popielski, computer applications developer. The company occasionally uses structural modeling software from Dr. Software, a Seattle-based company that offers products ranging from $19 to $400. The products, such as Dr. Frame, provide real-time displays of member behavior under various loading conditions, and are used at Gannett Fleming for "brainstorming and conceptual design," he says. For final design, the firm sticks with conventional structural packages. It also uses a freeware program called Convert from www.joshmadison.com to convert units for virtually any measurement or quantity, including English and metric units. "It saves a lot of time" for engineers and technicians, says Popielski.

BRAINSTORMING Low-cost structural tool and mathematic converter can speed dial ideas. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Software)

Networking is another area where new technology can save money. "The difference between setting up a networked office today and five years ago is night and day," says Kristine K. Fallon, president of Kristine Fallon Associates, Inc., a Chicago IT consulting firm. Much of the change is due to expanding Internet needs and capabilities. "Many small firms start out with modems in each computer, but at some point they want to share a single connection to the Internet," she notes. KFA resells a device called Instagate, developed by eSoft.com, that provides shared Internet access and acts as a network server and firewall for less than $1,000.

Wireless network solutions, once considered a luxury, also are becoming affordable to small firms. Charles White, CEO of New York City software developer Sigma Design, uses a wireless networking solution from 3Com that can be purchased for just over $1,000, which includes one wireless hub and two to three network cards. With a range of 300 ft, additional hubs may be required for larger offices.