Paving the Way for Preconstruction

This article was written by Stewart Carroll and published in the February 2016 edition of Construction Business Owner Magazine.

Walk into any contractor’s office in the United States and you can see immediately that it is definitely not your father’s construction business. On a recent trip to see a customer in Florida, the lobby had total stations, laser scanners, 3-D printers, drones and a hodgepodge of other “toys” greeting guests. The days of manually laying out a project or starting a project with 30-year-old drawings is becoming a distant memory. Unquestionably, our tools and processes are changing.

However, the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is late to the technology table. The way other industries align design and scope with budget and production is by collaborating from the very beginning of the project. Our industry’s contractual models and business models have historically kept the disciplines apart. However, we have recently seen the contractual models requiring more collaboration, more give and take and more insight into the impact of a change on the scope, schedule and budget before the change in question is actually implemented. Projects are complex, and the logistics of collaboration can be overwhelming. However, the advancements in construction technology have led to innovative solutions. As the value of project insight earlier in the process has become more valuable to project owners, and as design and construction firms react, the role of preconstruction has increased.

Despite often being brilliant at conceptualizing and providing insight into the cost and schedule of a project, estimators are not generally known as an outgoing, gregarious breed. Both the personality traits of the estimator and the technology being used to prepare and communicate estimates for the project owner and the project team are in the process of changing.

Where once a delay in the answer to the customer’s question could be delivered in a week, sophisticated firms realize that this is a real-time world and having an individual with enough experience to answer the question immediately and clearly communicate the ramifications of the answer adds value to how their firm is perceived.

The preconstruction technology landscape is fairly old, with many of the vendors’ products dating to the 1960s and 1970s. Other than assisting in assembling a cost estimate, the technology does not align with what many in the preconstruction world are faced with today: communicating assumptions behind the estimate; communicating what changed between design iterations; what the ramifications on the constructability, scope, schedule and budget of changes are; and being able to determine all of this in real time.

More millennials are entering and impacting the AEC workforce. This new generation of professionals, unlike Generation X and Generation Y, are looking for the shortest path between two points and are not willing to use antiquated technology when they know there is a better way. Companies embracing the changing world, innovation and technology are benefitting and attracting the brightest and best talent available in the industry.

Technology will continue to be the enabler for collaboration and innovation. Changes in the industry cause changes in technology, which foster industry growth. In other words, they are symbiotic. Technology to support contractors engaging and adding value at the very beginning of the life of a project is here. Benchmarking and historical comparisons, virtual project planning with integrated estimating, scheduling and analysis are no longer futuristic wants.

Today’s preconstruction technology is less about quantity takeoff and more about carrying a complete project cost based on assumptions that can be communicated and changed so that the impact on the project can be understood by all stakeholders. And this type of technology has been driven by the target value design process.

Again, this circles back to collaboration across the AEC industry. Once upon a time, there were tools for different aspects of preconstruction. Copying and pasting from one technology to another was considered the norm, but this is becoming a thing of the past. Technology will continue to integrate the various point solutions into an integrated preconstruction solution.

Change is never easy and will always take time. For the AEC industry to see true progress, firms should not focus on the shiny, new technology toy. Rather, firm leadership should focus on what business challenges the company is trying to change. That long-term focus will drive the company’s technology. The following are more helpful tips on how to implement process and technology changes.

  • Others are going through the same/similar changes —Talk to peers about what their business challenges are and what they are doing to address them.
  • Look for success stories —Don’t be on the bleeding edge. Someone has to be the first, but not everyone has to keep making the same mistakes.
  • Implementing technology is not dissimilar to building a construction project —Develop a plan, identify who is responsible for implementing the change and empower them to make it happen. Agree on achievable milestones and metrics for measuring success.
  • Evaluate the vendor based on their ability to collaborate —The way that every company works is unique to them and, as such, just because a product works for one company, it does not guarantee it will work for all. Vendors are your partners and should be willing and able to work with you to configure, customize and enhance their products to meet your needs.

Like it or not, change is here. The winners in the future will be those who embrace change and leverage new workflows and technologies to defeat their own business problems.