It was the easiest sales call Autodesk Inc.'s Amar Hanspal ever made.

After a prospect had kept Hanspal waiting a half-hour, he told the vice president of Autodesk's collaborative services, “You're going to have to follow me around if you want to talk to me, because I've got to get these construction changes out ASAP.” The potential client, who worked in the construction department of a restaurant chain, proceeded to the copy machine, where he made 70 duplicates of a 40-page document that then had to be stuffed in envelopes and delivered to all collaborators. “If I don't get these right out, expensive mistakes could be made,” he told Hanspal.

Hanspal's response was to chuckle to himself. “I couldn't have made a better sales pitch myself,” he says now. With Autodesk's Buzzsaw project management software, he explains, the changes could be made once online and immediately be available to all involved. “Meanwhile,” Hanspal told the prospect, “you could have been doing something more productive.”

Managing a retail construction project involves juggling thousands of pieces of information from architectural drawings and material orders to schedules and bids from subcontractors. One slip can lead to significant delays and added expenses.

Enter Web-based project management software. “It's the new way of doing business,” says Mike McBride, chief operating officer of Fort Worth, Texas-based Westwood Contractors Inc. The national contractor builds more than 200 stores each year for major retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Limited Brands and Coldwater Creek.

Westwood uses Santa Raphael, Calif.-based Autodesk's Buzzsaw to post everything related to a project online, from construction drawings to punch lists. Each client can access his or her own project information by going to the Westwood Web site, clicking the Buzzsaw link and logging on with a secure password. Multiple copies are a thing of the past.

Westwood says Buzzsaw has vastly improving efficiencies related to paperwork and communication flow. Another advantage is greater accountability. The systems track who is logged on, when and for how long. “It is easy to check that my project management staff or field superintendents are staying on top of the project,” McBride says. Westwood uses Buzzsaw to manage all its active construction projects, which involve roughly 25 different developments at any given time.

The technology is not cheap. Project management software starts at about $10,000 per year, and increases depending on the capabilities, number of users and volume of data a system supports. Westwood expects to spend between $30,000 and $40,000 on Buzzsaw for the first year. However, McBride says the software can be amortized rapidly by saving time and helping to avoid costly mistakes. “If this tool is used properly, it can save us $30,000 if we avoid a major problem on one job,” McBride says. For example, if some aspect of the project is overlooked, such as the approval of a shop drawing, significant project delays could occur. “We think it will prevent surprises that will cost a lot more than the cost of the technology,” he says.

Getting Connected

Project management tools on the market today include software from Autodesk, IronSpire Inc., Bentley System Inc. and ProjectEdge.com Inc. These are communication and collaboration tools that create a central location for the thousands of pieces of data a project generates. The software tracks a myriad of documents including contracts, architectural drawings, change orders, requests for information, bids, surveys, budgets and schedules among countless other components. The information is readily accessible to all members of the building team at any time from anywhere.

One of the biggest challenges of any retail development is connecting all the parties to ensure that everyone has the right information at the right time. An architectural change, such as moving a wall, can impact a number of other people on the building team. That change needs to be conveyed to an entire network of people instantly across different formats using these tools.

Retail project management software provides a “first-class, foolproof” method of ensuring that the entire building team is using the latest drawings, says David Meadows, a spokesman in the distribution centre construction department of Woolworths Ltd. of Australia. The Sydney-based retailer operates about 1,700 supermarkets, general merchandise and electronics stores throughout Australia. Woolworths has been using Buzzsaw to manage construction projects in its supermarkets division since April 2003.

The software provides a common server for the team, and it ensures that there are never two versions of the same drawing in circulation at any one time, Meadows says. The technology also has been key in eliminating the time and expense related to circulating printed copies. “It used to take days to print out copies and send to other cities for their markup before we got them back again,” he adds.

Recent Innovations

Although project management software has been around for more than a decade, the focus in recent years has been on using Web-based systems. “It is a very natural platform from the standpoint of connectivity and ease of use,” says Hanspal. Buzzsaw and competitors — chief among them, Exton, Pa.-based Bentley — provide a platform for sharing documents and communications, such as change orders and submittals, on the Internet.

Recent releases of ProjectEdge include a “portal” for individual projects. Essentially, it's a Web page that provides a single point of entry to projects based on the rights of users. A user can see only those projects within the system to which they have access rights. For example, a subcontractor could log on to receive bid information, but access to other information would be limited.

The portals are “smart” enough that when a user logs on, the information that pops up is customized to that individual, notes W. Gary Craig, president of ProjectEdge.com Inc. in Liverpool, N.Y. If the architect logs on, a separate window will pop up with information or questions directed specifically to that individual related to anything from drawing changes to requests to review samples of building materials. “The portal would arrange things that need their attention,” Craig says. All the user has to do is click on the item to get more details.

As more users try the software, they are discovering more tasks they would like to be able to do. Tech firms are responding by constantly upgrading systems and offering new features. Innovations to Bentley's ProjectWise software include a PDF composer.

“What that does is allow you to automatically publish on demand any drawing or collection of drawings into PDF without having the author do it,” says Huw Roberts, global marketing director for Bentley. So CAD drawings can be viewed by using tools such as Internet Explorer or Adobe. Bentley also has introduced 3-D viewing capabilities for its PDF files that let viewers see a rendering in 3-D or even a movie format.

Project management software also is continuing to emphasize integration of functions, so that users can go to one place for information and work processes such as scheduling and budgeting. Oftentimes, the design, construction and facility management are separate components. But now people are beginning to pull those components together as a “life cycle management” type of issue, Hanspal notes. “The innovations that we're seeing have to do with connecting the dots of various phases of store rollout,” he adds.

Gradual Evolution

Users agree that project management software saves time and keeps great records. “It's wonderful, because it keeps all your correspondence in one place so you wind up with a good historic record,” says Scott Thomas, president of Scott Thomas Construction Inc. in Williamsburg, Va. The firm builds stores for August Max, Discovery Channel and Starbucks, among others.

The system is not without challenges, however. One problem is getting all participants on a building project up-to-speed on the same technology. “If you are doing a $20 million project, you have relatively sophisticated participants,” Thomas says. But it might not be worth the time and effort to use the program on a smaller, $500,000 project where the subcontractors — or even the client — are not familiar with the technology, he adds.

The biggest hurdle is getting firms to adopt the new technology. It is still a story about getting people to move to software and a more systemic method of managing development. “We are still at the early stages of the adoption of the technology,” Hanspal says. “What you can do with the products is a little bit ahead of what people are doing.”

One upside is that getting in is relatively easy, because most of the software can be accessed on the Internet. Even small firms have some Internet connections, whether it is logging on to AOL at the kitchen table or walking into a cyber cafe. “I think the major issue with most of the smaller contractors, and even smaller architects and engineers, is seeing value from this,” Craig says. The real estate industry needs to recognize that they are saving time by getting answers faster, spending less time chasing people and getting more work done, he adds.

Although project management software has barely begun to tap its full market potential, the retail building industry is becoming more interested in changing the way it does things and embracing the technology that is available. For example, Buzzsaw has increased its user base by about 50 percent each year for the past two years. Currently, it has more than 105,000 users from 750 companies. “Adoption is definitely under way,” Hanspal says. “So it is not a question of if people will make the switch, just when.”