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Building Foundations for Builders' Collaboration
Online collaboration helps the construction industry to break ground on new projects.
Posted Nov 16, 2000
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Dan Stephens and Kevin Scott share a devotion to finding better, faster ways to put up buildings. Stephens, a project manager for the Wisconsin department of administration, has spent 10 years working on a variety of large-scale government-backed building projects, from a maximum security prison that opened in September 1999 to currently restoring historic buildings in downtown Madison. He knows what it's like to coordinate multiple project teams from around the country.

Scott, a former architect who is now director of product development for Dallas-based Centex Homes, also has experience in gathering scattered team members. His projects are single-family homes and condominium complexes. But these dwellings--approximately 20,000 new homes in this fiscal year alone--are being built in 64 local markets across the U.S. and will involve more than 600 contractors, architects and designers.

Instead of dealing in structures or materials, Stephens and Scott focus on something much more basic: communication. In an industry that is seen as stubbornly paper-based, both are vocal proponents of using the Internet and online collaboration to streamline the processes of designing, coordinating and creating physical structures.

Exchanges Spring Up
Like many industries, construction is exploring online commerce in an attempt to streamline the business process. Vertical exchanges such as Buildpoint.com and Cephren allow general contractors to perform project bidding online. Bidcom.com, as the name suggests, also has a presence in electronic bidding.

On the building and planning side, San Francisco-based Buzzsaw.com--whose founders came from CAD software vendor Autodesk Inc. in nearby San Rafael, Calif.--and e-Builder of Gainesville, Fla., have put their energies into collaborative services that streamline the multiparty design process. Both say they plan to provide materials and equipment marketplaces in the coming months, e-Builder through a partnership with Buildpoint.com and Buzzsaw.com by building its own.

Each of these players hopes to make construction projects go more smoothly and economically by centralizing communications, thus eliminating the flood of faxes, overnight packages and couriered plans that accompany building projects.

Centex Centralizes
Centex Homes was among the first businesses in its industry to actually try Internet-based collaboration when it established a series of sites on Buzzsaw.com in early 2000.

According to Scott, the impetus for using such a system was purely a matter of efficiency. Centex Homes is divided into six regional branches and 50 largely autonomous divisions, covering a total of 20 states. "Each division was reinventing the wheel for almost every project, instead of reusing work that had already been done in another part of the country," says Scott.

For Centex, a Web-based solution that could centralize the initial phases of the construction process made sense. Centex's IT department opposed the initial suggestion of an extranet for exchanging blueprints and proposals because of potential security problems associated with opening internal systems to outside individuals. That's when Scott decided to research Web-based services.

He ultimately chose Buzzsaw.com over others such as Buildpoint.com and Bidcom.com, largely because it focused on collaboration and design, which was where Centex was having the most problems. Using Buzzsaw.com's ProjectPoint service, Centex can post drawings on a central server, which Buzzsaw.com hosts as an application service provider (ASP). Those drawings can be accessed, annotated and commented on by anyone who has been assigned access rights. In a simpler manner than the typical paper-based system of marking up hard copies of drawings and faxing around the changes, the online service creates a centralized record of all activity related to a document. Also, the service is tightly integrated with the AutoCAD product line, which the drafters and designers within Centex Homes were already using as their design tool.

According to Jason Pratt, director of product marketing for Buzzsaw.com, many of its customers, like Centex, are weighed down by cumbersome paper-based communications and frustrated by trying to coordinate workers in different time zones. Most of them also happen to be AutoCAD users attracted by its integration with those applications.

Taking Baby steps
Centex Homes is not rushing into e-business. Currently it is in the first of three deployment phases, which Scott calls the "crawl stage." About 150 in-house draftsmen and designers as well as 30 outside architectural firms are posting to Buzzsaw.com drawings created in Architectural Desktop, a new AutoCAD product. Online meetings are then held to discuss changes and updates to the plans, and changes are tracked on the electronic drawings.

Besides eliminating the cost and hassle of sending overnight packets of drawings, Buzzsaw.com's system lets participants access a digital library of Centex drawings and records when changes were made and by whom. Centex Homes is also using Buzzsaw.com to streamline training for the latest upgrade of AutoCAD Architectural Desktop.

The construction industry in general is not a leading-edge implementer of technology. Although Centex is out in front of others, stages two and three of its deployment, focusing on construction and bidding management over the Web, are still being planned.

Scott says he and his crew are pleased for the most part with the results of the decision to go online. He would not assign a dollar figure to the savings from the new system, but he says real gains are being seen in project-completion times.

Scott says he sees room for improvement in Buzzsaw.com's offerings, such as its calendaring and scheduling features. But overall he's positive about what online collaboration can do for his industry. "Home building isn't a real sophisticated industry," he says. "The secret to success is all in the execution, and tools like Buzzsaw.com's help us better organize the execution."

The state of Construction
Execution is also crucial for the state of Wisconsin's division of facilities development, which is responsible for all state government construction projects. Experience and know-how are keys to the successful completion of these compounds, buildings and renovations, according to Dan Stephens, although information technology is an important tool.

The division began experimentation with an Internet-based construction service nearly four years ago on the SuperMax Prison located in Boscobel, Wis. This $44 million compound, completed in summer 2000, was the first state-sponsored project to use an online service during both the design and building processes.

"Communications was always a major problem on these big projects, because meetings were held remotely and some group was always out of the loop," says Stephens. He saw a solution in the Internet.

The only service provider available for the Boscobel SuperMax prison project in 1996 was e-Builder. Founded in 1994, e-Builder allows architects and engineers to post drawings to a central server for review and markup. The service provides project management features so contractors and project managers in the field can log in their progress from the construction site.

Use of the e-Builder system on the SuperMax project produced mixed results. On the design side, architects and engineers around the United states collaborated on how to put the prison together. But the field managers on site in Boscobel were used to accessing a project database to run various types of analysis, Stephens says, and e-Builder's analysis capabilities were limited at that time. Also, field managers saw the service as redundant, since they were already calling in, faxing and e-mailing updates and changes.

"The field guys just did not like it and refused to use it, so things started to fall apart somewhat," Stephens recalls.

Nevertheless, the state of Wisconsin considered the SuperMax project and its Internet elements a success, especially in terms of speeding up the initial design of the project. The state decided to go a step further by tying together the collaboration, bidding and paying components of its construction projects. Fearing the security implications of handing this task to a third party, the state built its own extranet application, called WisBuilder, which integrated a Web site with back-end financial systems. It was launched about nine months ago and is currently being used to manage nearly 1,000 projects.

As for getting contractors, architects and others to use WisBuilder, the division writes minimum computer and connectivity requirements into every contract, along with a clause stating that the signing party agrees to use the online system throughout the project. But the real incentive for outsiders to use WisBuilder is its connection to the state accounting system. All payments to contractors are now processed electronically, which cuts down on requisition time and consequently the bid price.

What To Do
If these cases are an indication, online construction services have promise, particularly for design and project management. But pulling project teams online takes time and patience from both cultural and technological standpoints. In the case of Centex, scattered and independent divisions coupled with an IT department resistant to Internet-based project management complicated the situation. The state of Wisconsin also had issues in getting project participants to use the online system.

Such obstacles should not deter construction companies from Internet- based collaboration and project management, of course. But businesses should carefully consider the goals they are trying to accomplish, whether in speeding up the design process or centralizing tracking of construction projects, and assess the current state of internal technology adoption. If the core group is averse to or unfamiliar with the Internet, education will be a time-consuming part of any initiative. However, if those efforts ultimately save time and money over the long term, they will be worth it.

"The construction industry... is incredibly fragmented. There are lots of self-employed subcontractors involved in the process who don't necessarily use computers," says Dan Garretson of Forrester Research . "There are tremendous enablement and education issues to get online services to take off. That doesn't mean it's impossible--it just means it could take a while."

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