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Is Preconstruction Technology Paying Off? Measuring its Impacts and Returns

By George Watts, Leadership in Facility Development and Program / Project Management, HPM

Is Preconstruction Technology Paying Off? Measuring its Impacts and ReturnsGeorge Watts, Leadership in Facility Development and Program / Project Management, HPM

For construction project teams, proper use of technology can determine the difference between success and disaster. This is particularly true for fast-track projects where time constraints require construction to start before the design is fully completed. Construction firms invest more than one percent of revenue in technology each year to speed up processes and improve predictable outcomes. Here, we will explore technology’s advancing role in preconstruction, and in­troduce efficacy measurement to aid those responsible for man­aging project data, identifying risks, and predicting outcomes.

To set projects up for success, many industry organizations have established best practices for preconstruction. Such groups include the Lean Construction Institute (LCI), Construction Managers Association of America (CMAA), and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Each group provides guidelines for team building, collaboration, communication, contracting and delivery methods, scheduling and estimating methodology, document control, and more. Yet, none of these “established best practices” provides specific standards for technology implementation with regard to BIM, data analytics, AI, and project controls.

Technology improves both the speed and accuracy of the information accessed by every team member. IPD teams are co-located in Big Room settings where it is easier to manage and share up-to-the-moment information. However, conventional project teams are often geographically dispersed. These groups need a platform for fast, accurate communication so they can all share a common vision of the information and align on the required outcome. Fortunately, many of technological solutions are readily available.

In recent years, the number of construction technology products has steadily increased. Despite this growth, there still is room for improvement in connectivity and integration. In a 2018 survey, construction technology consultant JB Knowledge, Inc. reported that 29.1 percent of the surveyed firms have software solutions that do not integrate if they are using more than one. Some larger vendors offer system integration apps at an additional cost.  

More often, smaller apps do not integrate with other systems. For construction firms whose solutions do not integrate, the question remains: How do they disseminate project information across their teams? About 61 percent of firms said they do it manually, while around 44 percent reported using spreadsheets (still requiring some manual entry and QC).

JB Knowledge also reported that 27.9 percent of survey respondents said they do not bid on projects involving BIM. Their reasons included a lack of technical experience, proficiency, or rigor; software platform limitations; and a lack of standards to support repeatable and scalable results.

No doubt, technology will continue to be increasingly more important in construction. Now is the time for emerging industry leaders to move toward a model where industry best practices embrace the rigorous implementation of technology throughout the project continuum. This should be done in partnership with software providers, so that all team members have simultaneous access to updated project information, including design and constructability data schedule details, pricing and cost models, site logistics, and more, creating a “connected tool kit.”

Today, we are just scratching the surface of construction technology. Industry leaders foresee a transition to 5D projects where BIM 3D models are intrinsically linked to schedule data, as well as quantity and cost information.

The power of connected tools cannot be overemphasized. In May 2019’s Advancing Preconstruction and Estimating Conference in Dallas, Stanford University Professor Martin Fischer presented a case study showing dramatic performance improvements for preconstruction teams that use connected tools over those who do not. Both sides were allowed 200 hours to evaluate the steel structure of a 67,000-seat soccer stadium in the Middle East. The team using connected tools evaluated more than 12,000 alternative designs and ultimately saved $4 million more than the team that did not. The monetized results are impressive, but the time savings perhaps are the more revealing. The team using connected tools took an average of three seconds to evaluate each design alternate, whereas the team not using connected tools took an average of four hours to study each alternate.

Apart from yielding faster and more comprehensive results, construction technology also enables a more sustainable approach to information management. 

In addition, the use of electronic media significantly reduces the amount of paper consumed throughout a project’s lifespan. In 2016, Power Design, a national electric contractor, published impressive results proving this assertion. Two years after implementing construction productivity software PlanGrid, Power Design teams uploaded 430,000 sheets to the Cloud, equating to a 47.6-percent reduction in total paper sheets printed. Similarly, online meetings are frequently preferred over face-to-face meetings for their ability to diminish the carbon footprint, as well as the time and cost of the team travel to onsite meetings.

When asked how contractors can best leverage technology, Barton MallowVice President Neal Morton said that company leaders should carefully manage their firms’ investment in technology by ensuring that their products should enable all trade partners and designers to connect fully. In the absence of a fully automated process, Barton Mallow’s solution dedicates an individual to provide quality control for details every time a new project data is uploaded for the team.

Brent Pilgrim, the chief cost estimator at the Beck Group, emphasized that construction software providers have an economic incentive to deliver what the market wants and needs. If providers are expected to deliver necessary tools and provide full connectivity, their impetus should come from end users.

Outside of those working on a project, it also is important for owners (or end users) to understand how construction technology can benefit their capital projects. The benefits include:

• Competitive bidding on capital projects.

• Document management for all capital projects, whether in planning, underway, ongoing, or completed.

• Management of “as built” drawings and records for all facilities.

• Assemblage and management of project closeout information, including equipment information, i.e., model number, installation date, and performance data; O&M data; attic stock inventory control; and FF&E control.

Today, we are just scratching the surface of construction technology. Industry leaders foresee a transition to 5D projects where BIM 3D models are intrinsically linked to schedule data, as well as quantity and cost information. The goal is to convey project scope, scale, design intent, cost, and time in a single digital file, thus enabling entire project teams to share a unified understanding of the project’s end state. Technology is the way to achieve it.

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