A decade ago, nobody would have identified builders as cutting-edge technology users. Not anymore. Increasingly, designers and builders are relying on technology to cut costs, save time and provide better service to customers. “The basics of the business are still about craftsmanship and hard work,” says Andy Frankl, president and founder of New York-based IBEX Construction. “But using these tools really improves our efficiency and our ability to function.”

Some contractors have to be pushed to see the light. Denver-based RAS Builders, for example, was certainly behind the times. A year and a half ago, employee Internet and email access wasn't even universal. RAS recognized its shortcoming and created an IT department, but not without some pressure from outside. “Construction is probably one of those industries that is behind the technology curve in general, but our clients are demanding more and the industry is demanding more,” says Chris Ott, director of information technology at RAS.

Since then, RAS has executed a quick 180 in incorporating new technologies into business operations. The firm now provides laptops and digital cameras to superintendents on job sites so that they can link to the Internet and send updates directly to the company's own office network. “We're trying to get information flowing better,” Ott says.

Streamlining communication

Getting information to more people, more quickly is one of the obvious pluses of embracing technology. In some cases, achieving better communication is as simple as P-D-A. The RAS Pro program, adopted this fall, enables all 10 of the company's offices to collaborate on projects. A project manager in Dallas who is experienced with a particular client, such as The Limited, can collaborate on a store that is being built in Boston by viewing all of that project's data, such as drawings, project status information and RFIs.

Little Rock, Ark.-based contractor Vratsinas Construction Co. (VCC) also uses a Web-based project management system, called Star Projects for Notes, to connect employees in its four offices, as well as job sites in 20 states. Star Projects features all the necessary tools needed to manage a construction project with functions such as scheduling and budgeting. “It gives our management people — even when they are not on site — an idea of what is happening on site every day,” says Gus Vratsinas, chairman and CEO of VCC. “All the data and information that we as contractors need such as RFIs, daily diaries and those kinds of things are all maintained electronically today.

As both upgrades show, technology plays a vital role in improving internal dialogue at construction and design firms. With these and other tools, professionals can also quickly communicate from the field with all other members of a development team. “The technology allows us to communicate instantaneously within our company, with clients and designers,” Vratsinas says. That real-time communication is important for national firms such as VCC, which is licensed in all 50 states. Online connections also reduce the costs of doing business by eliminating printing and mailing expenses. In the past, Frankl notes, sending a purchase order to a subcontractor required sending copies to seven or eight different departments. Now that process is automated by submitting purchase orders via email.

Web meetings are also emerging as an important technology for construction firms. Software developers such as TeamBuilder, WebEx and eZ Meeting have packages that manage online meeting forums that can include voice, data and video. And, regardless of location, the different parties can look at the same drawing together and make comments and revisions that the participants can approve and print simultaneously. “It allows you to communicate drawings in real time without too much overhead,” explains Steve Phillips, an associate and director of technology at Long Beach, Calif. architecture firm Perkowitz + Ruth.

Dorsky Hodgson + Partners utilizes WebEx to work on project drawings online in lieu of face-to-face meetings. “We can have five people on the phone and looking at the same document, discussing various pros and cons and reaching a consensus quickly,” says David Parrish, a partner at the architectural firm, which has offices in Cleveland, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Washington, D.C. In addition to the efficiency of getting everybody on the same page, web meetings cut the time and cost of travel, increasing productivity. And by automating print communications, firms can save even more.

The ability to electronically transfer drawings alone is responsible for significant cost reductions associated with printing and shipping documents. Architects can electronically send drawings to contractors, who in turn forward the documents electronically to subcontractors and vendors. “That is a huge savings in time and money because we send out hundreds of drawings each week,” says Frankl.

Design Tools

Technology continues to assist architects to streamline the design process and produce higher quality documents. “Every part of our business is visual- and output-oriented. So advances in tools that enable architects to better portray that end product are immensely valuable,” Parrish says. “The technology has created a much easier, less expensive tool to produce an image that communicates our design.”

Perkowitz + Ruth, for example, uses 3-D modeling software that allows architects to create virtual “solid” models. From the models, the architect can take certain measurements and then create a two-dimensional drawing. “In the future, we are looking at doing design parametrically using parametric modeling,” says Phillips. The parametric system allows the architect to start drawing in 2-D and 3-D while the building is being designed — essentially creating a 3-D model and the 2-D drawings simultaneously, thereby reducing the time it takes to design and develop construction documents.

In addition, falling prices for high-speed and high-resolution printers and plotters has made it feasible for architects to have that equipment in-house. In the past, architectural drawings were sent out to specialized printers. But now it is common for architectural firms to own the equipment to print color renderings for clients. A client can look at the 3-D design of a project on the architect's computer screen, and within minutes the architect can print a hard copy.

Evolving technologies

Contractors and designers are increasingly dependent on high-tech tools in day-to-day operations. “Technology over the years has grown exponentially,” says Steven Ruth, AIA, executive vice president and co-founder of Perkowitz + Ruth. “Five years ago we were dependent on technology only to a minor extent. Now it is a prevalent part of the way we do business and communicate with clients.”

Given that central role, design and construction companies are now putting greater efforts into continually improving their technology. In VCC's case, its custom-designed Star Projects for Notes, which it developed in the mid-1990s, keeps evolving. Recent improvements include web pages for each project under construction, which means at any given time the company has 30 to 35 web pages linked to its home page at www.vccconstruction.com.

However, one of the challenges for contractors and designers is finding the right balance between the benefit technologies offer and the dollars required to support those technologies. Obviously, firms want to invest in technology that will produce value for themselves and their clients, Ruth says, but “we don't want to get so far ahead of clients that they can't use the technology along with us.”

Beth Mattson-Teig is a Minneapolis-based writer.

E-BUILDER DELIVERS WEB-BASED PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS

The popularity of web-based project management technologies has spawned a crowded field of competitors. e-Builder is one firm that distinguishes itself with its focus on implementation.

“We're constantly coming up with new strategies and ways to implement our system,” says Jon Antevy, CEO and co-founder of Fort Lauderdale-based e-Builder. “We make sure that whatever we sell to clients, they are using 100% so they get a full return on investment.”

TeamBuilder is the flagship product for e-Builder, The Internet-based application allows team participants — architects, engineers, contractors and owners — to access project data using a web browser. TeamBuilder organizes, stores and tracks construction drawings online, and online redlining tools can be used for plan revisions and check-in/check-out capabilities to track revisions. TeamBuilder also offers online meetings, team discussions and a project calendar.

TeamBuilder is no cookie cutter software. E-Builder customizes the software to meet the individual needs of its clients. The first step involves working with clients to learn what it is that they want to accomplish such as cutting costs or saving time, Antevy notes. The second step is implementing and setting up the system, which typically involves customizing aspects such as forms to meet client needs.

The third step is training, and E-Builder develops instructions specific to an individual's role within the team. So the architect, project manager and owner, for example, will all receive separate instructions based on how they use the software. “We believe in getting the system tuned to exactly the way they do business,” Antevy says.
— Beth Mattson-Teig