Reconstructing the construction world

With the sector in a slump, some are looking to technology to drive future growth and profits [From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper]

If any industry has taken an economic punch in the gut from the current downturn, it's been the construction world. With projects large and small at a standstill, many building firms have not only endured long gaps between work, but have been forced to lay off employees due to the drought.

Today, many in the industry are optimistically eyeing the end of the summer, hoping the faint market signs of economic recovery that have been seen in recent weeks will begin to translate into new construction before firms are forced to shut down altogether.

But when the building world emerges from its current hibernation, it's likely to look different. With time and cost considerations taking the front seat for owners and developers, new demands are going to force builders to frame the construction process in terms of efficiency — historically one of the industry's weak points.

While the worlds of architecture and design have been rapidly evolving in recent years thanks to technological innovations such as building information modeling and sustainable development, actual construction has been largely following the same practices and paradigms, antiquated techniques that cost time and money.

According to a 2004 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the building industry annually loses $15.8 billion due to inefficiencies.

However, while the industry waits out the downturn, many firms and companies are rushing to develop new processes that can bridge on-site construction techniques with the innovations that have been emerging on the design end of the process.

Rethinking the traditional

Jason Panter is one such enterprising construction veteran who has taken it upon himself to rethink part of the traditional building process.

A field engineer, Panter has invented a process that will essentially cut down on the time and cost of getting a project off the drawing board and on the ground.

“We're just trying to show people that things can be done differently,” Panter said. “People are just so desensitized to the fact that [the process] can be improved.”

Panter's program and company, PointStake, grew out of his frustration with the inefficiency of the industry's general practice for plotting points on a construction site. Traditionally, a field engineer's job is to take the architect's plans and manually calculate the points, corners and distances one-by-one. The process is slow and equations calculated by engineers up all night in order to have points ready for the next day are plagued by human error.

PointStake works as an application to AutoCAD. Based on detailed equations Panter developed, the program takes the digital rendering of the design and immediately translates coordinates into real-world measurements and points.

Once loaded into a hand-held data collector, the PointStake measurements easily plot a building, so that instead of having to separately calculate the distances between, for example, one wall and another, the construction teams has the information on hand.

“It bridges the gap between the paper and the real world,” Panter said. “We can go out at once and actually put the building in the space, exactly as it's drawn by the architect.”

Panter was contracted to use his PointStake technology on the Rhythm and Icon developments near downtown, where developers were attracted to the cost savings the program's accuracy provided. The program is able to map not only the structure, but accurately locates all the additional system running through it, such as electrical, plumbing or HVAC.

For example, when electricians arrive to finish out a floor, they can immediately locate the electrical hook ups instead of snaking wire through the walls to find the line.

“We were really able to save them a lot of money and keep the job on schedule and get the manpower down,” Panter said. “Most of the time, our fee versus their savings, they're at least going to get a 200 or 300 percent return on their money using the new technology.”

Industry’s sea change

Innovations such as PointStake are part of a larger sea change of cost concerns the industry is getting to grips with — albeit with some resistance.

Construction has been historically adverse to new adaptations, largely because of the risk and liabilities associated with switching practices, according to Jamie Qualk, vice president of the Sustainable Solutions Group at SSRCx.

“In terms of contractors, the techniques they have that are profitable and work for their clients, it’s tough to get them to try something new.”

In the past, when the industry has adopted new technology, it has been known to narrowly apply new techniques instead of looking to see how solutions can be integrated into the entire construction process.

“You see a lot of fragmentation as they move to technology,” said Jim Inzeo, vice president of the AEC Division at Lellyett & Rogers Co. “They get spot solutions, they'll get a tool for a collaboration, but you don't see a lot of people integrating the tools they use in different systems.”

One radical change quickly taking over the industry is the switch to building information modeling, a digital three-dimensional advanced form of design. By building the structure once digitally, designers are able to work out issues that would later arise during the actual construction.

“It's better for us because they're finding the problems before we inherit them, so it's making the whole process more efficient,” said Harold Brewer, senior vice president at American Constructors. “They can actually take a building and subject it to stresses and see where the rivets start popping out.”

According to Brewer, BIM also is advantageous because it offers everyone involved in a project a single comprehensive model that contains all the information relevant to the development.

In the traditional paradigm, pertinent information is often segregated amongst the groups. The electrical team may need information about where plumbing lines are, but the details are likely left off the documents handed to them by the architect. A comprehensive BIM document avoids such gaps.

Widespread collaboration is the aim of the other major innovation emerging in the construction industry, integrated project delivery. In the older process, there is little idea exchange between all parties involves. Instead, owners, developers and architects make initial design decisions without the input of the contractors who will be affected by the choices down the line.

“The new way to do things is you get everybody in the room on the first day,” Qualk said. “The owner, the architect, the mechanical engineers, the landscape architect, any of the other sub trades, and you let them collaborate at a high level.”

The synergies resulting from IPD often end up producing creative and cost-effective approaches to the building process.

“Many times, we see when we're facilitating this process, whole design teams feel empowered and they're actually excited they have input and the communication level is much higher than normal,” Qualk added.

However, IPD is also responsible for some of the industry's growing pains. Contractual agreements historically have been based on the set time frames a contractor is involved with a project.

“When you fuse all of [the team] together and make it seamless, vis-a-vis what technology allows us to do, it blurs contractual arrangements,” Brewer said.

The American Institute of Architects, the group which structures such contracts, has recently begun to introduce new paperwork that accounts for the IPD mode.

Experts and insiders alike say that the American construction sector is taking on these changes slowly. Overseas markets have been much more ready to adapt innovated technology.

PointStake's Panter said he is currently seeing a growing interest from companies in India and Dubai looking to incorporate his technique into their work. But with budget considerations and questions of efficiency the new drivers of the industry, American builders have no choice but to leave behind the previous paradigm.

“There is so much pent-up demand, so much potential to be tapped into, the market will continue to go this way,” Brewer said.