Apple announced in January that since 2008 there had been more than 40 billion downloads from its App Store globally. Demand is exploding — almost half of these apps were downloaded in 2012 alone. Construction is being swept up in the trend, with a growing number of apps aimed at the sector. Erland Rendall, director of Atorus Consult, a business and project improvement consultancy, says: “Apps will become even more critical than websites for businesses. They are embedded in the digital approach that society is moving towards inexorably.”
Apps are a particularly neat fit for construction. In most cases they sit on mobile devices, allowing people frequently on site or in meetings to check or record information on the hop. And there is a whole range of services and data that the construction industry would like to have at its fingertips: such as the need for collating and interrogating past project data on everything from costs to energy efficiency. With a suitable app, you could easily calculate trends and spot patterns. Or how about instant access to the Building Regulations or health and safety rules?
There is the possibility of delivering training such as Toolbox talks through a tablet or iPad app. The contractor’s various interactions with the supply chain — such as tendering, information and drawing exchange, or post-completion snagging — could all be enhanced through apps, as could the management of human resources. For instance, a company’s in-house app could identify when a CAD technician has a period of downtime, which could then be outsourced.
For construction companies, then, launching an app seems like an obvious and even essential step. Or perhaps you’re dreaming of building your own app and retiring on the profits.
Rendall, whose company’s services include app creation, advises that the first step is to identify a genuine need. “Look for something that any construction industry participant would find useful. Think about the kind of information you find in the back of a diary. For instance, an app containing the surveyors’ rules of measurement would be fantastic,” he says.
But before you embark on building an app, it’s worth knowing that neither income nor even marketing benefits from apps are guaranteed. The number of apps on the App Store topped 790,000 at the last count in February. But according to research by Canadian developer Streaming Colour Studios, a third of revenue comes from just 1% of apps, while 80% are responsible for just 3% of the store’s revenue.
Whatever job it does, the first rule is that an app should be simple. James Crowson is an entrepreneur who created an app at university to help runners and cyclists track their distance, which has had more than 20,000 downloads. He recently launched an app called SnagList, to support site surveys. He says: “The biggest mistake people make is over-complicating apps. An app should do just one thing.”
Too many features makes the app more difficult to build and maintain, leaving you exposed to a higher risk that parts of it will fail. And users will also be put off by complexity. Crowson says: “An iPhone only has a 3.5 inch screen, so lots of different functions will be messy.”
Another common pitfall to avoid is creating an app that is not compatible with other systems used in the construction industry. Conor Moran, managing director of construction software firm MobileReport, says: “A big problem with many apps is that they don’t connect with anything else. This means if you’ve got data on your tablet, you can’t transfer it anywhere else — say into an email, Word document, PDF or BIM model.”
Once you’ve got a killer idea, unless you have the programming skills, the next step is to find a developer to build the app. A popular choice among those we interviewed for this article is Near Pixel, which specialises in construction sector apps. Developer Woobius was set up by former architects and is also developing an industry app portfolio.
But a freelance developer can be cheaper. Alexander Siljanovski, an engineer who founded start-up BlueRonin to build apps for the construction industry, suggests finding a reputable freelancer through Elance.com, a website listing freelancers and ratings from their clients.
Costs and the time it takes to build will depend on the complexity of your app. The building process can take anything from one to 18 months, and costs run from a few hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands. Try to enlist a few target clients to try out the app before launching it, you should expect testing and further development to continue after the launch.
Whether — and how much — you charge for your app and the benefits you reap from it will determine whether the development costs pay off. If the app is a marketing tool, it may make financial sense to offer it for free. Rendall says: “If a contractor is about to spend £1,000 on branded golf balls, it’s worth considering whether the money would be better spent on developing a free app.”
This was the strategy behind The Building Centre’s product guide app. Michael James, information resources manager at the organisation, says: “Our app is free because we want to reach as many people as possible and give them a reason to visit us.”
A free app can also lead clients to take part in a specific activity or sign up for a paid-for service. Consultant Turner & Townsend, for example, plans to launch an app that will provide clients with free assistance in making projects and programmes more efficient. The Commercial Performance Diagnostic app asks clients to complete a questionnaire on their project and programme management practices.
Will Waller, consultant at commercial assurance at the firm, says: “The app crunches the responses and creates a graph showing how the client’s organisation is performing in terms of efficiency against the [unnamed] lowest and highest performers. T&T then issues a report, which is automatically emailed to the client, on the implications of the findings and suggestions for improvements. The firm follows up with a call to customer.
“The idea is to get clients to take part in our annual commercial performance study and help aggregate industry learning,” says Waller, adding that the process is designed to highlight the benefits of sharing information — although no doubt it helps promote the firm’s services too.
GoReport allows you to compile reports on site
Once launched, the app itself should be marketed. Crowson says: “I’ve learnt that 5% of the process is building the app, the other 95% is marketing it. You can have the best app in the world but people won’t buy it if they don’t know about it.”
The advice is to make sure the app itself is downloadable wherever you refer to it online — on Twitter, LinkedIn forums, blogs — whether that’s directly through your website or by posting a link to the online store you’ve chosen.
Construction companies will usually have the advantage of being able to advertise an app on their website and in marketing materials. Where possible, marketing strategies should also involve contact with customers directly. Francine Wickham is global marketing director at water treatment products manufacturer Fernox, which launched an app in March. She says: “We contacted all our loyalty club members and customer database to say the app was available. The emails to customers also contained a YouTube video showing how the app works.” So far the app has been downloaded 4,183 times.
If well marketed, an app that is simple, useful and compatible with other software has a good chance of meeting your goal, whether it’s to make money or boost your corporate profile.
Costs: Depending on the region, freelance developers charge from as little as £12.75 an hour up to £320 a day. Specialist construction app developer Near Pixel suggests on its website that you budget for £15,000 to £20,000, although an app that is essentially an interactive brochure could be £7,500 to £12,000.
Charges: Apps that do cost money are rarely priced above £5 — SnagList, for example, costs £1.99. But if the app offers a more complex and desirable service, you may be able to charge considerably more. MobileReport charges a monthly fee of between £15 and £180 for its sophisticated GoReport app. It’s fairly easy to change the price in line with demand.
Choosing a store: If it is going to be for Apple products specifically, including iPhones and iPads, it will need to be designed for these devices and sold through Apple’s App Store. With other mobile devices gaining ground rapidly, it’s probably worth designing another version of your app for devices using non-Apple software.
The most popular alternative is Google’s Android, installed on devices made by LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony, among others. The most popular Android app store is Google Play, which already has almost as many apps as Apple’s App Store. However, both the App Store and Google Play take a 30% commission from every download, so think about others with lower commission such as the Amazon or Samsung stores.
Web-based apps: An alternative worth considering is to build a web-based app, which users can download from your website, with most types of device, whether iPhone, BlackBerry, tablet or conventional PC. These apps run in the web browser of the device, whereas apps designed for specific operating systems, known as native apps, such as Android, are downloaded on to the device. For example, Gmail, Google Maps and Facebook are available as web apps. But when using a web app, the device needs to be connected to the internet.
Updates: It’s not a case of launching your app, then forgetting about it – users will expect regular updates and upgrades. Entrepreneur James Crowson recommends offering a way for users to contact you with reviews and suggestions. Of course, the cost of each update depends on your developer’s fee and the complexity of the job.
Extra costs: If you decide to set up a dedicated website to host and market your app, you will need to pay a web hosting company. Fees start from around £2 a month and should not go beyond £10 for simple apps. You will also pay a small annual charge for the domain name.
The basics of environmental design and construction are set out in this well-designed app created by architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS), engineer Max Fordham and the University of Westminster. Sections on light, air, heat, carbon, power, materials and landscape explain key sustainable principles and provide technical information.
Richard Priest, architectural software engineer at FCBS, says: “The app summarises what FCBS has learned over the last 25 years. Drawing on research and experience from practising engineers and academia has enabled us to compile up-to-date methods as well as tried-and-tested solutions to environmental design.”
Content is continually reviewed and updated in response to changes in design methodologies and user suggestions. The app is free to download from Apple’s App Store and from a website www.theenvironmentalhandbook.com. Launched in November 2010, it has been downloaded more than 8,000 times.
Cost data according to location and building type are provided by consultant Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) and property agent Savills. The app offers access to RLB’s database of global costs, including price movements and regional differences. It also includes rents and yields by building type and analysis of construction market conditions in various cities.
The app is aimed at clients and all construction industry professionals. It can be downloaded for free via your web browser or from Apple’s App Store. Launched in May 2011, the app has been downloaded more than 5,000 times.
This simple app supports the snagging process. It allows you to take a photo of a defect on site. The app then invites you to type in a short description of the problem and save it. The information is collated into a list and emailed to you or a colleague automatically as a PDF. It is aimed at contractors, project managers, architects and surveyors.
SnagList was launched last year by entrepreneur James Crowson. It costs £1.99 and is available from the App Store, although Crowson is planning an Android version. At the time of writing it had been downloaded 2,269 times.
SnagList is not unique but Crowson says: “If an app has been created to do a task, that’s not a reason to make a similar one. You can succeed by doing it better or with a twist.”
An online product directory based on The Building Centre’s www.specifier.com database, including case studies showing products in action. This is combined with information, including videos, on all past and planned events and exhibitions at The Building Centre.
The app is aimed at all specifiers and has been downloaded more than 3,400 times since being launched a year ago. It is available for free from the App Store, although The Building Centre plans to create an Android version.
The developer was Near Pixel, and The Building Centre said the development costs were about £10,000. The app has been updated three times since launch. The Building Centre is holding an event to share app-building experiences on 11 July 2013 [Correction March 18 - sorry, this event has been cancelled.]
This app from water treatment products manufacturer Fernox is aimed primarily at plumbers and is designed to calculate the size of a traditional central heating system and then recommend the amount of chemical water treatment needed to clean and protect the system.
Fernox’s Francine Wickham says: “It’s to help plumbers on the move comply with Part L of the Building Regulations requiring proper cleaning, flushing and treating. It takes the guesswork out of calculating the dose, an idea that came from plumbers’ feedback.”
Launched in March 2012, the app is free and available for Apple, Android and BlackBerry products, from stores including the App Store and Google Play.
Although GoReport is another tool for making site inspections and the paperwork attached more efficient, it produces much more detailed reports.
The user creates a bespoke inspection sheet, complete with their corporate logo and lists of predefined responses. The app then produces complex reports of up to 30 pages long, including a contents page and subheadings. The data recorded can include videos and voice recordings, which the developer, MobileReport, sends to its transcription team. The app provides the opportunity to review, edit and email reports.
Launched in December 2012 and available on iTunes, the app is aimed at construction and insurance professionals. The service is paid for monthly and the cost depends on the number of reports made. The monthly tariff for one report is £15, moving up to 12 reports per month for £180.