The general contractor and subcontractors communicate in real-time over the Web using an Internet-based application service provider.
Airplanes sail above Kansas City International Airport (KCI), where construction crews are managing a $250 million, three-year renovation project. Inside one of the gray jobsite trailers, Lee Turner checks on his requests for information (RFIs) through an application service provider (ASP). With a laptop and T1 connection, he can answer subcontractors' questions online, track changes, and file correspondence electronically.
Turner, a project manager for Walton Construction Co., Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based general contractor, says his company required all 35 subcontractors to purchase a $400 license for Constructware, an Internet-based ASP, as part of their scope of work. ASPs manage and distribute software-based services and solutions over the Internet or a private network. The construction team has used the ASP to improve communications, streamline the RFI process, and track changes ranging from asbestos removal to installing blast-proof glass after September 11. The attack caused dramatic changes in the design and scope of the project, which began just one month earlier. By using an ASP, the construction team could better handle these changes, and improve the turnaround time of the RFIs.
“This renovation project has had a phenomenal amount of changes and paperwork — more than anyone could have ever conceived,” Turner says. “Right now, we're probably in the tune of about 1,400 different change-oriented documents. We've had to double our number of filing cabinets out here.”
Not only are thousands of documents stored in the Walton trailer, but they're also accessible on the Web through the ASP. Subcontractors can log on with their user name and password and check on the status of the RFIs anytime, day or night. Tom Kelly, a project manager for Kansas City, Kan.-based R.F. Fisher Electric Co., Inc., recalls logging onto his home computer at 10 p.m. and discovering a new owner change order in the system.
“One of the main advantages is that you have all of these documents in one place,” he says. “You could be on vacation, and as long as you can get to the Internet, you can check for new RFIs.”
R.F. Fisher Electric, which has a $13 million contract to install the line-voltage power and the paging system at the airport, was the first subcontractor to submit an RFI into the system. Kelly says his firm always tries to have the latest equipment and keep up with technology. Eight years ago when R.F. Fisher Electric was renovating Arrowhead Stadium, home to Kansas City's professional football team, Kelly became the first electrician in his company to have a computer on a jobsite. Today, the subcontractor uses the ASP extensively to manage the electrical subcontract for the KCI project. Other subcontractors, however, aren't as comfortable with the Internet-based system and prefer more traditional methods of communications.
“Different contractors are using it to different extents, but we've encouraged all of our contractors to use the system,” Turner says. “If it gets to a point where we are doing all the work, it's too overwhelming. We just don't have the personnel to handle it. If a subcontractor is going to take the time to type out an RFI and fax it, doing it in the ASP will save the effort.”
Walton prefers that the subcontractors use the full functionalities of the Internet-based ASP, but at the very least, expects them to submit, track, and receive RFIs online. Turner says one of the prime advantages of the ASP is that it makes everyone on the project team — from the general contractor to the electrical contractor — accountable. Rather than waiting for a change order to come across their desks, subcontractors can check for RFIs, requests for proposals (RFPs), and work change directives (WCDs) online.
Because one change order from the owner can translate into more than two dozen subcontract change orders, it's essential for all the documents to be available online, Turner says. This renovation project has generated close to 8,000 different documents, including 1,000 RFIs, 3,600 letters, 2,500 transmittals, and almost 400 WCDs. Each time Walton answers an RFI online, the general contractor also sends a hard copy of the reply to the subcontractors, who also print out many of the documents. R.F. Fisher Electric, like Walton, has invested in extra file cabinets to store all the paperwork.
“We print everything out in a hard copy just as a matter of course,” Kelly says. “I learned a good lesson when I lost electronic information that I thought I had stored. If you have it in hard copy and it's over in your file cabinet, then you can go and get it. I'm pretty much a paper hound. Anything that comes through our door, we can usually find the hard copy.”
ASPs can help eliminate the paper trail, but many construction teams, such as the one at KCI, aren't ready to get away from faxes, hard copies, and file cabinets. By using an ASP to manage the project, however, the general contractors and subcontractors can track RFIs and store all their documents online so they're easily accessible and well organized. Rather than rummaging through a file cabinet to find a specific document, contractors can log onto the ASP, enter their user name and password, and search for the file online. It's sometimes difficult, however, for Kelly to get connected to the Internet from his jobsite trailer.
“We're parked out in the middle of this field, and during certain times of the day when the Internet traffic is really heavy — like right after normal quitting time at 4:30 or 5 p.m. — we can't get onto the Internet,” he says. “If I have a hot RFI that I need to post right away, then I can't get into the system.”
Turner says the speed of the system depends on whether the trailer has a T1 line, dial-up, broadband, or DSL cable connection. R.F. Fisher's trailer, which is about a mile down the gravel road from Walton's trailer, doesn't have a T1 connection, which has presented a challenge.
“During the first several months that we were out here, we had big-time problems,” Kelly says. “Once we got this line set up and connected properly and our office IT department came out here to set up our computers, it was really speedy and it worked 95% of the time.”
Walton invested in a T1 line, but it can also go down from time to time. To maintain continuous access to the Internet, the Walton trailer is also equipped with one dial-up line. That way, if the T1 line goes down, the project managers can still hook up their laptops and dial in. Although it takes a little longer, Turner says it's one way to overcome the problem.
On a company-wide basis, technology can be a hefty investment, but Turner says laptop computers, T1 lines, and project management software can help a general contractor and its subs streamline the communications process and standardize documentation. Although Walton has only been using an Internet-based ASP for a year, some general contractors first started using them in 1997 to manage their jobs, reduce paperwork, and improve communications. The next wave of adopters, the owners, not only used the software internally, but also mandated that their entire project team use the ASP. Today more subcontractors are learning how to manage their projects online and gain a competitive edge with the ASPs.
While it's now possible for an entire team to collaborate online, it doesn't always happen on jobsites. At KCI, which is about a half hour north of downtown Kansas City, Mo., the trailers for the general contractor and the program manager are less than 100 ft apart, yet the two are using completely different software systems. While the general contractor and the subcontractors signed up for an Internet-based system, the program manager subscribes to a server-based ASP.
Burns & McDonnell, a Kansas City, Mo.-based engineering, architectural, construction, and environmental service firm, designed the airport 30 years ago. The firm is now using an ASP to manage the first major renovation in the airport's history. Bret Pilney, vice president of the aviation and architecture division for Burns & McDonnell, says the general contractor and his firm are using the software for two different purposes.
“We're using Primavera to manage the day-to-day activities of all the general contractors, and the general contractor is using Constructware to manage the day-to-day details of their subcontractors,” Pilney says.
Burns & McDonnell has been managing the overall airport project with Primavera Expedition since early 2000. Pilney says his firm used the software for a year-and-a-half before Walton was awarded the general contractor package.
“One option is that we could have required Walton to use Expedition,” he says. “We discussed that possibility during the design process, but we decided that the general contractor should use the tools that they are used to working with.”
Burns & McDonnell, which has a construction volume of $250 million a year, has been using Expedition for the past eight years. Brad Hammes, an electrical engineer and project manager for the Walton contract, is a day-to-day user of the server-based ASP.
“You have one database that many people can access so all the information is at everyone's fingertips,” he says. “You don't duplicate documents. Everything is nice and neat and filed in one location. If you ever need to go back and find anything, it's all right there.”
While a server-based system offers some advantages, Hammes says it would be easier if everyone could access the ASP online.
“If the program management team, along with the design team, were all on a Web-based ASP, they could type their answer right on the system,” Hammes says. “Instead, the design team has to write out their answers and the program management team ends up typing their answers into the system.”
Although a Web-based version of Expedition is now available, the team plans to stick with the server-based version for the present time. Because Walton doesn't have access to Burns & McDonnell's server, the general contractor has to communicate with the program manager through faxes, e-mails, and hand-delivered documents. Not working in the same project management software often leads to a duplication of effort, Turner says. To speed up the process, Walton e-mails its RFIs to Burns & McDonnell, which can then cut and paste its questions into the database. The program manager then e-mails an answer to Walton at the same time that they send over the paperwork. Hammes has access to Constructware, but prefers to reply to the RFIs through e-mails or faxes.
“It would obviously be a lot easier if they interfaced somewhat, but there are always issues of contractor vs. program manager being in the same database,” he says. “It probably isn't the best solution when it comes down to it.”
With a Web-based ASP, however, program managers and owners can limit the viewing rights of general contractors and subcontractors. The entire project team can then collaborate online and work in the same database without sharing sensitive information. While the KCI construction crew may not all be using the same ASP to manage the renovation project, Pilney says technology has come a long way since Burns & McDonnell first designed KCI three decades ago.
“There were no computers back then, so everything was done manually,” Pilney says. “The biggest difference is the real-time nature of the information. As the project unfolds, there are always changes that are either generated by the owner or an unforeseen condition. This gives us the ability to more quickly identify what the impact may be to the schedule and the other packages that are involved.”
Sidebar: Project Snapshot
Construction crews have made several basic improvements to the Kansas City International Airport over the years, but the facility hasn't been completely remodeled since it was built 30 years ago. Lee Turner, project manager for Walton Construction, says the teams strip the building down to a bare concrete structure, and then install new electrical and HVAC systems. Although the job is like a new construction project, the team has to deal with the complexities of working in an existing building.
“One of the challenges we have all faced is that because it's an old building, you really don't know what you are going to find until you actually walk in there and pull everything out,” he says. “We may take down a wall and find something that's completely different from what we expected to find, which is typical in a remodel job.”
Bret Pilney, vice president of the aviation and architecture division for Burns & McDonnell, says the project has been under construction for about a year and a half and has two years to go. The three terminals span about 1 million sq ft, which is divided between the passenger level and the underground Apron level.
“Each terminal is somewhat run independent,” Pilney says. “They each have a Phase 1, a Phase 2, and a Phase 3. Terminal C has a Phase 4 because of the balancing act that we had to do to maintain the airline operations. One of the project goals was to not impact the airline operations so we can still maintain the same flight activity out of Kansas City.”
Sidebar: Managing a Project Online
HITT Contracting managed a high-profile project — the expansion of America Online's Dulles, Va., campus — with e-Builder, an Internet-based ASP.
“Since AOL was a high-tech client, we thought we would try some high-tech software,” says Christopher Lukawski, a senior project manager for HITT, an Arlington, Va.-based general contractor.
The team stored all of its job correspondence in a file library so the client could access the project information anytime and anywhere. The project owner could simply visit the ASP's Web site, download job photos, and check the construction schedule. The construction team scheduled meetings with an online calendar and answered questions in a discussion area, similar to a chat room. At the end of the job, HITT burned all the project files on to a CD, which was distributed to the construction team.
“As more people become comfortable with the Web and computers, and adopt more of the new technology, the use of ASPs will be more widespread,” he says. “The nice thing about an ASP is that all the information is remotely hosted. If something were to happen to a jobsite trailer, all that information would not be lost because it's Web-based.”
For More Information
Here are some companies offering Internet- and server-based ASPs.
Bentley Systems Inc.