Building a New Level of Success

Delays can cost commercial contractors serious money. Now enabling technology is transforming project management for the construction industry: improving efficiency, increasing accountability and saving money.


[From iSource Business, January 2001] There's nothing like a $50,000-a-day fine to keep a project manager's desk drawer filled with Rolaids. That's what PCL Construction, along with NBBJ Sports and the Arena Development Corp., faced in building the $400 million Staples Center Arena in Los Angeles.

With more than 150 team members collaborating daily on the million-square-foot basketball and hockey arena, the project required precise coordination. At the first Request for Information (RFI) meeting, everyone brought their logs. They were all different.

"That's when I knew we needed a system to track RFI's," says Bob Hayes, the former project scheduler for PCL Construction Services who is now with Mortenson.

The Staples Center was on an 18-month schedule; the contract included a $50,000 fine for every day the project went past deadline. Even with the prospect of heavy fines, PCL was 28 days behind schedule, due largely to the RFI load. (By project's end, a mind-boggling 3,468 RFI's had been logged.)

Hayes wanted a system that would allow all the team members access to the information they needed, and a clear method of accountability that would keep the project from bogging down. He found his solution in e-Builder, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based company that uses the Internet for commercial project management. Providing management to such major projects as AOL's campus expansion and the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, e-Builder has helped contractors slash the turn-around time for RFI's and submittals by 60 to 80 percent. On the Staples Center project, RFI turn-around averaged nine days; the industry average is 21 days.

e-Builder started as the master's thesis of Jonathan Antevy, who received both his architecture degree and his master's in building construction from the University of Florida. He started the company out of his apartment with his brother Ron and their partner, David Gruber, in 1995. Unlike many dot.coms, the partners put their own sweat equity into the business, which has been profitable since 1998.

Today, more than one in five of the nation's top commercial builders are using their service to manage large-scale projects, and the company has attracted an infusion of investment capital from McGraw Hill, owners of Construction.com, the largest construction Web site on the Net. With the help of e-Builder, PCL not only made up the 28 days it was behind schedule on the Staples Center, they signed off on the job two weeks early.

"What gets measured gets done," Antevy says simply. "It will be measured and tracked within the system, down to the second. It's made people conscious of meeting deadlines, doing what they said they would do."

Sold on a "per registered user" basis, e-Builder's cost varies by project. For example, a small project with five registered users is priced at under $42 per user per month. If a client has 200 construction projects and 1,000 registered users, the cost per user drops to $12.50 per month.

In a survey of their users, e-Builder found the systems cut communication costs by 20 to 60 percent, with an average savings of $400 to $1,000 a month. Site visits by users drop by anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, the time spent on administrative work is cut by as much as a third and employee productivity skyrockets by as much as 75 percent.

Building Accountability

That's certainly been the case at RM Shoemaker, which is using e-Builder to manage construction of the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, a $52 million long-term health care facility. Construction manager Scott Frank said the average turn-around for RFI's dropped from two weeks to three days on the project, time that allowed the company to make up precious time lost to severe weather and blasting problems.

"I know e-Builder helped us catch up that time," he says. "Had we not had those delays, we would be ahead of schedule. This is the most efficient job site I've ever been on, and that's saying a lot."

Best of all, Frank says, is that excuses are a thing of the past.

"It offers a whole new level of accountability," he says. "Nobody wants this stuff sitting in their lap. You can't say your secretary never gave it to you or you didn't get the fax because it shows how long each and every person has had it. When you work with all different kinds of companies on a project, you can narrow it down to an individual to find a clog."

Plus, if one person in a team member's office is gone, the entire office has access to handle a question quickly.

In addition to RFI's, Frank also uses e-Builder for the other most important piece of information-gathering on a job mechanical, electrical and plumbing coordination. A job that once required extensive phoning and faxing is now handled completely online.

"We use it as a clearinghouse for CAD (computer-assisted design) files," he says. "That's the slickest thing e-Builder has going for it. I don't have to call anybody. It's like going to a filing cabinet. We've cut our coordination by 20 percent."

Frank also posts all of his owner billings on the project site, along with correspondence and meeting minutes. He can pull up the information anywhere he has access to a computer. Next, he'll add punch lists for each trade.

"You just pull them up," he says. "We don't fax very much anymore."

While Frank says the system still has some bugs to work out, he can't imagine running a project any other way.

"We've gotten spoiled by e-Builder," he said. "We wouldn't be able to function without it. The most difficult thing the only difficult thing is taking the initiative to set it up. If you have a PM or superintendent who doesn't want to set it up, it's useless."

Keeping an Eye on Things

In addition to the private Web site all the team members can access, the Philadelphia Geriatric Center project makes use of two other e-Builder products a public project site and Constructor CAM. The public project site essentially serves as an online brochure for the 430,000-square-foot center and can be accessed by anyone interested in learning more about the project. Constructor CAM is a digital camera that shoots images from the same location each day to mark the progress of the job.

Frank uses Constructor Cam for exactly the purpose e-Builder intends keeping the project on track even when the boss is called out of town. "If I can't come in, I can just dial up the Web site and see what's going on," he says.

Designed to withstand the rigors of construction, the wireless Constructor Cam is popular with owners, Antevy says.

"They can move the camera, zoom in or reposition it from the Web," he says. "It gives them a real-time indication of where things are. They feel they're being communicated to, even though it's just the outside of the project. We have owners who feel it's the only way to check the true percentage complete. There's nothing like seeing it with your own eyes to get a nice, consistent view."

While the ROI is easy to map by cutting communications costs and RFI delays, Antevy says the greatest value may come from the extra time it gives contractors to develop new business and strengthen ties with existing customers.

"People like to say technology is removing the relationships people have had, and in construction, it's all about relationships," Antevy says. "If you play this right, it will give you a lot more face time with your clients."

Based in Athens, Ga., Pat Curry is a freelance writer who has covered residential and commercial construction topics for more than a decade.

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