Construction benefits from paperless systems

Time is among the precious commodities on construction sites. Rarely is there enough time to complete all facets of a project on deadline.

Under constant pressure to complete projects on time and on (or even under) budget, construction managers also face difficulties communicating with all of their contractors, subcontractors and managers. Technology can aid the process by providing construction managers with communications tools, Web-based systems and other time- and money-saving devices.

"For owners, the technology really helps speed up the decision-making process," says Jon Antevy, CEO of e-Builder, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based technology firm that develops Web-based construction management tools.

E-Builder's TeamBuilder allows users to communicate about construction through a secure, online system. They can manage schedules and calendars, examine CAD files and drawings, and track specific work assignments.

Users can send and receive files between their TeamBuilder projects and their PC. Authorized users can remove files from the system, rather like checking out a library book, edit drawings or make changes to the files and return them to the system, where other users can view the changes.

Antevy developed TeamBuilder after spending some time on construction sites. "Working on construction was like babysitting," he says. "The work needed to be better organized and better managed."

Keeping files and records online has eliminated paper from much of the construction process, and shaved precious time off the work as well. In fact, construction at the Staples Center Arena in Los Angeles was completed two weeks ahead of schedule through TeamBuilder. That allowed move-in to start that much sooner, Antevy notes.

Most construction management software is best suited for large projects that have $10 million or more in construction costs or a large group of players, according to Marc Walch, vice president for PBS&J in Orlando, Fla. Walch has used e-Builder for about a dozen projects, each with 40 to 50 individuals involved. "With a large group of team players, conventional methods of construction management are too cumbersome," Walch says. "Just getting 40 people together for a meeting is impossible."

Construction still requires face-to-face periodic meetings, but the technology has eliminated extraneous meetings, thus saving money on travel costs, Walch adds. It also makes the project accessible to the interested parties inexpensively, because the work can be viewed by anyone who has access to a Web browser.

Metin Negrin, CEO of iScraper, a New York-based online construction management company, agrees that the software is most cost-efficient for large projects. However, some clients are using the tools for $3 to $5 million projects to get their feet wet with the new technology, and they will use it for larger projects once they are comfortable with it.

Construction management software aids with financial management as well. For example, Carrollton, Texas-based RealPage's ChannelTECH software helps keep track of labor hours and budgets.

Time Caddy software eliminates manual time cards and time sheets because hours are tracked in the system. That speeds payroll processing and helps manage labor costs.

The company's Job Caddy software also creates a paperless environment. Users do not have to spend any time filling out paperwork, and they can make remarks or changes within the system. Both tools work on Palm connected organizers, pocket PCs, wireless pagers and cell phones. "It makes for a mobile project manager," says Dean Schmidt, senior vice president of product management.

In addition to all the convenience aspects, construction management software saves money throughout the life of the project. For example, the communication tools help to reduce construction-related errors that occur onsite. For architects, their drawing, faxing and shipping costs are reduced because, once they upload drawings to the system, they can make changes, and then upload their amended drawings.

The fees for the technology vary among providers, but many, such as iScraper, charge a flat monthly fee based on the total construction costs. E-Builder charges $1 per day, per user for its system access. Costs could be around $50 per month, depending on the number of authorized users in a company or on a construction team.

Despite the benefits of online and other construction management tools, some potential users have been resistant to change. Others may not have a choice and may be forced to remain in paper-based systems because they do not have easy access to the Web.

Still, the obvious benefits of construction management technology - convenience, 24-hour access, communication and accountability - will propel the industry to incorporate those tools into their construction projects so that they can enjoy those time and financial savings.

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