Sept/Oct 2012

Project teams working on construction projects for K-12 and higher education face a myriad of challenges, including budget constraints, disparate teams, and the need for accountability and visibility into the process. Tech can help on these points and more.

Podium Participants:

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Dexter Bachelder
Senior Vice President
Aconex, www.aconex.com
San Bruno, Calif.

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Ray Steeb
Founder and President
FASTTAC, www.fasttac.com
Pittsburgh, Pa.

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David Stadnik
Chief Operating Officer
Multivista, www.multivista.com
Phoenix, Ariz.

Let’s talk about the different factors that are shaping the term ‘collaboration’ in construction these days and how project teams should be viewing different technologies as being an enabler to this idea.

Stadnik: I would break down collaboration into a few components. These days, most technology is focused around the ability for information to travel in a fairly precise form to the right audience at the right time. Being able to coordinate that vast amount of information and do so in manner that helps people accomplish something with that information in a precise way will be important.

There is so much talk these days about the idea of “big data.” The enabler is not just technology that gets information to its intended audience, but also the right amount of information at the right time, as opposed to the overwhelming amount of data that exists today.

Steeb: When you start to realize what collaboration truly is, the industry has done a good job when it comes to the collaboration of professionals—i.e., construction managers, architectural and engineering firms, and even the higher level of the owner. But that collaboration also has to be included all the way down to the people that actually use this information to build the project. A recurring theme for us is that in order for any type of digital software to be successful, it needs to be usable by the least IT-capable individuals involved in the project. If you look at the industry as a whole, whether it is the facilities management professionals or construction professionals, the people that actually need that information to do their job on a daily basis are sometimes considered to be the least tech-savvy individuals. But to be fair, their expertise is not around the technology, it is around putting together what needs to be assembled on the project. Because of that, I think whenever you get to that collaboration point you want to be able to draw from that knowledgebase of everyone that will be involved and there needs to be a place somewhere in the solution, to get (that information) to where it needs to go.

David made an interesting point, and that was to create information in a way that it needs to be delivered. All too often the systems today are designed around the idea of ‘come and get the information.’ In other words, I get a notification, I need to download it, and then manage that information myself from that point forward. We need to be focused on the least IT-capable individual so that he or she can use digital information in the same manner that others use that information.

Bachelder: Obviously big data is a real issue for projects. In some regards, the technology is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. So we think the (solution) needs to have three components: the people, the processes, and the technology platform. We want to be able to deliver information on a screen, whether that is on an iPhone, a tablet, a computer in the architect’s office, etc. We see big trends around integrating all solutions to one platform. The industry needs to take a consolidated approach to integrating best-of-breed solutions and have that be acceptable by the people that are using the solutions.

In terms of collaboration, we see real trends in terms of why people are driving it. In the education space, departments are getting more complex. There is a vast amount of information out there that people need to be able to access and use. In many regards, that information needs to be (delivered) down to what can be considered the hard-hat level. But with regards to education projects, particularly in this economy, teams are concerned about the accountability and transparency of that information, so we want to ensure we are time and date stamping all of this information coming from all the disparate pieces.

I think there has been some confusion about what collaboration truly involves. To us, it means putting multiple parties, relevant processes, and all the information into a single platform. We think that most of the risk in activity on a project takes place outside your own organization and you probably have that pretty well defined within your own firewalls. Collaboration, on the other hand, needs to work across multiple parties, all of which need to come together.

What are the specific factors related to education that might further shape this concept of collaboration?

Stadnik: I think Dexter brings up some great points about what is driving the need to better collaborate in the education space today. An important point to mention about us as a software provider is that in addition to a software deliverable, we act as a subcontractor as well. We bid in a fairly typical way compared to other subs. In the education space these owners are in tight-budget scenarios. That is always the case, but it is amplified these days. A huge part of our value proposition is the ability to collaborate to keep accountability pristine. Companies that work in K-12 are in hard-bid situations, coming up with bare bone prices. Because of that, they need to be keeping everyone in check, understanding what is happening, having an excellent and readily accessible record of what happened and why it happened. All of this is becoming a huge driver for using technology.

All of us on this panel sell a technology product that I would argue is not considered a luxury item for construction teams; they are things you must have in order to improve efficiencies. The environment that currently exists in construction has validated that being the case. Not in the education space, where it tends to be an environment that is conducive to more problems due to complicated projects and higher budget concerns.

Steeb: I cannot agree more with the idea of keeping a solid record. But another thing to consider, which is sometimes hard to see, is that the procurement requirements in K-12 and higher education seem to be outdated. So whenever you can record information with the right time and date stamp and it is completely independent of any contractors that are there and can easily be validated … that provides enough clarity so that the owner in the end isn’t the one that keeps getting dinged all the time. The owners are the ones with least representation and least ability to defend themselves. By providing the right solution, you are allowing a better process and reduced risk for the owner in the end.

Project teams have invested heavily in technologies that enable BIM. What improvements can we expect on the part of IT providers to help facilitate this flow of information?

Stadnik: On the whole, I would say that BIM seems to have somewhat of an identity crisis. That being said, everyone would agree that it is the standard and will be the future. About 10 years ago, BIM efforts were centered on the ‘M’ portion, but today the focus is more on the ‘I’ portion. You have this utopian vision where someday everything I want to know about a building can be queried; an environment where I can Google my project, if you will, and it will show me cut sheets and pictures and everything I might want to know. That requires the model to have all sorts of data.

Our role as the technology provider is to be the data gatherer, but beyond that it is about giving information back. Being able to take what we do and get it into a section of the model so that there is richer and robust data is important. This is very complementary to our services. The tricky part is how that information can be used. The challenge becomes how to integrate with the model, but also, as was stated earlier, deliver it in a way so that the least IT-savvy person can apply it in a way that is useful.

Steeb: Data becomes a two-way trip. You want to get information out to people that need it, and in order to deliver a model to people who can use it, that data has to be created in consumable bytes. Likewise, getting information back has to also be in consumable bytes; i.e., refeeding the model, if you will. No one will be changing the model in the field, so you have to get information back to someone that can. As much as technology has been focused on getting information in, it also needs to be focused on collecting it, gathering it, and making sure it does not get lost.

The model has its place, but the focus needs to be that when it is created, you have to be able to create relevant information at the end of the project, because it is the trade contractor that is putting materials specifics or equipment data in place. They are the ones that know the brand name of the model number. The designer was only (guessing) when they created the model, so you need to be able to collect information and get it back into model. Owners know they want a model, but don’t know what to do with it at times.

Bachelder: I think we all agree that BIM is quite revolutionary to construction. But each model can be somewhere in the range 500 GBs of info, so the question becomes how do you move that around, and more important, how do you get it to the right person at the right time? We have done things to aid this process, like adding a BIM viewer into our product so that you don’t have to download a whole model. Again, it goes to back to what we have been talking about, which is to provide tools to the lowest interface so people can get what they need.

We want to help enable BIM across the entire project lifecycle, out to even the facilities-management portion of the job. That is where the real benefit will begin to emerge; teams can start to access information across the whole project and collaborate on the model. Currently this is not happening due to factors like files being so large, or people trying to figure out how to archive, or how to work around the concept of the audit trail of the model, or how to link other information to the model. It is all about how we can reduce cycles.

That brings us to an interesting point about integrating information through maintenance of a facility. Talk about the importance of storing data throughout the lifecycle.

Bachelder: It is no secret that 25% of a building’s lifecycle budget is connected to the design and construction efforts. The rest is spent on operations and maintenance. There are currently huge amounts of inefficiencies now with sharing info across the construction cycle. That is extending now out to the handover process for purposes of long-term operations and maintenance. If we can link as-built drawings, O&M manuals, etc., we are then providing a real asset to owners. That is one of the reasons we see owners more involved in facilitating collaboration; they are looking at total cost of an asset and how they can minimize risk. There are huge productivity gains to be had if we can get everyone to collaborate on one platform and have that model become a part of the platform.

Owners are looking at new ways they can work with integration, how they can use things like connectors or APIs to bring things together; they want an audit trail to facilitate this idea of accountability and transparency. When schools are going through budgets they need to be accountable for projects and ensure they are running as efficient as possible and there are no delays on projects due to the mismanagement of information.

Stadnik: It is not just long term, it is forever. Campus buildings are going to evolve, they will be renovated and campus buildings are one of the longest-living product types on the planet and always will be. So it is about getting that information right, making sure it is designed right, making it easy to redesign and renovate, understand what is there, having living documents that can live with that project is critical, and of course that ties to the model data.

These projects will evolve over time. Over time, facilities-management tasks will be handed from team to team to team. The person that might be solving a problem as simple as a valve that seems to be turned off, the person might not have had anything to do with the original construction process and might even be coming into the facilities-management role years later. So it goes back to accessibility of information; you don’t want that person to spend an entire day trying to dig up information. It is up to us as technology providers to make systems that are intuitive and accessible so that anyone can just go in and access information both now and 20 years from now.

Steeb: The disconnect that exists today about what is truly needed in a model and what we as software providers think they need in a model needs to be connected. The intuitive part to find info is essential. In our system we have reduced it down to proximity, so rather than making it a process where you are trying to find a piece of equipment by name or number, I can instead use proximity to find what I am looking for. This is key because over the years you can change the type of equipment in one spot 30 times, but as long as you are searching by proximity, you will have no problems. If I can press a button and can be connected to information, it makes it simple. I want to suggest that the intuitive aspect needs to come down to proximity. We start to see things like GPS coming into play and (proximity) could be the best way to find information in a model.

Stadnik: A huge aspect of our deliverable is this wealth of information. As a reference point, we did a project that produced roughly 350,000 digital images of every wall, ceiling, both progressively throughout the project as well as at certain milestones on every section. With that many images, if you put them in a shoebox and just hand them over to the owner, that obviously won’t be very useful. So we employ (proximity) as well, indexing by time and location when we deliver the images on a project.

To wrap up, how would you emphasize the need for technology in the education construction space going forward?

Bachelder: The idea that the projects are getting more complex, there is a need for more information to access, and more accountability being needed (are) all factors driving the use of technology. Owners are getting more engaged in a project and looking at the overall lifecycle between design, construction, and facilities management. Smart teams are making collaboration a part of pure project-delivery systems. We need to help the industry pull all disparate applications and data together and integrate that into a useable format.

Stadnik: Again, it is important to note that these projects will live on the order of “forever,” so getting the technology right is essential. So some might ask what can project teams themselves do in order to manage their own documentation. I would argue that they should be doing nothing. Instead, project teams of today will increasingly need a brand new team member for projects in the future—new sub-trades specializing in information and documentation, the same as others that specialize in concrete or studwork. These new trades will be able to integrate into the team and provide solutions that can be delivered along side the traditional team, without the latter having to learn new skills or change behavior. The efficiencies the education sector can then achieve long term in managing these campuses full of massive, high-tech projects will be immeasurable.

Steeb: Higher-education groups need to take a leadership role in (dictating technology). They need to lead project teams into using technology they want to use. Sometimes that requires a contractual requirement, sometimes it takes a bit of coercion. We all know that the AEC industry will not change unless told to do so, but the moment they are told to change they will.

Another point to make is that an awful lot of these research universities have other attributes that they can leverage in the process. Any type of technology they believe in, they can also provide resources to prove out what they think is happening. For example, maybe get someone in the construction-management department to do their thesis on (the technology) they are trying out. This could be very beneficial in determining the cost benefit, both short term, as well as over time.

What type of impact do you foresee mobility having at the construction level going forward? Such technologies have already made it easier to capture and store data, but what other true benefits do you see these technologies bringing to project teams?

Steeb: A lot of times mobile devices are operating off of a grid, because they are on sites that are disconnected. A good example of this comes from a project at the University of Pittsburgh. This is a project site which you would think would have the highest level of connectivity due to the fact the campus is in the middle of a large city. But the best connectivity they were able to get was DSL, believe it or not. So when you try to use a Web-based system, it tends to bog down completely because you have all of these members trying to work through DSL. So you need to provide a system that helps people work, whether it is in a connected or disconnected manner. When you work disconnected you have access to information you need to have access to, but it only becomes real (time and date stamped) when you share with others. Otherwise it does not exist; therefore, if you are looking at how to make sure you have collected a very accurate set, it has to have some credibility more than just the device it was created on, because we all know you can manipulate the time and date stamp.

Beyond just the focus of risk management associated with mobile, another area of importance is centered on the fact you need to be able to walk around with the information you need in order to do your job better and more effectively. I think that if you are looking at software, it needs to have the potential to lower the cost of construction because of the way it provides information and keeps everyone on same page. In the end, this will eventually lower the cost of construction for customers.

I think in the higher-education space, owners want to cause a positive change to how things are being done. In the end, the cost can be more competitive and people can be more effective on a day-to-day basis.

Stadnik: The one thing I would emphasize about mobility is being able to reduce the technology down to certain workflows. For example, a plumber might not necessarily need the entire BIM model delivered to his iPad in order to do his job. A big part of the mobile app world is being able to reduce the technology down to a workflow that is useful for the specific user.

For instance, perhaps I need to generate an RFI (request for information). Am I accessing the model and information in it in order to get information in a discrete and finite way in order to generate that RFI? We need to make sure the mobile apps apply to things that are done every day. That very well could be an office workflow such as the head of construction needing to answer budgetary questions, or it may be around a superintendent in the field trying to coordinate tasks.

I would say the huge enabler in mobile is that ability to narrow the technology down to a useful daily, weekly, monthly task list without overwhelming the user with data they do not need.

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