Subcontractors sound off: 5 ways to improve job site tech adoption

At $600 million, last year's completion of the 600,000-square-foot Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research campus in Cambridge, MA, wasn’t incredibly mammoth by Skanska USA standards, considering the company recently closed on a $2.8 billion bid to rebuild Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport, in Queens, NY.

Still, the Novartis project was intense enough to pull in more than 40 subcontractors, not counting additional engineers, the architecture team and front-line workers.

Skanska's solution to keep everyone on the same page? Issue iPads to the key subs and foremen, train them to use Autodesk BIM 360, and leverage the application for what Skanska superintendent Lance Borst calls the primary role of modern construction technology: to create project transparency that leads to efficiency.  

The company's approach to unilaterally implementing job site tech isn't uncommon. Especially when it comes to project management and close-out software, subcontractors are often at the mercy of their GC's system of choice, even if that means multiple applications. To speed adoption — or simply to integrate job site technologies successfully — subcontractors point to new ease-of-use standards, improved training and system design to streamline on-ramping, and purpose-built solutions rather than a one-system-fits-all approach.

Below, subs explain the factors that will determine whether job site technologies hit the mark or hit the road in 2017:

Expect feedback — and pushback

Whether you're an IT vendor, a design-build owner or a GC with a preferred job-site software, subcontractors are going to battle-test your systems, and they likely have exposure to competitive solutions. Taylor Precourt is the ‎IT release manager at St. Petersburg, FL-based Power Design, Inc., a national electrical engineering subcontractor working on high-rise multifamily projects in 19 states. She visited more than 40 job sites to determine what kind of project management software would work best as the firm looked to adopt a mobile solution. The company wasn't necessarily driven by what the larger AEC community thought was best.

"We’re hyper-focused on improving our internal plan management process, to allow for real time communication on any and all changes that can emerge on an hourly basis in the field," Precourt said. "This would allow us to sustain high quality results for our customers."

Think tablet-first

The paperless revolution is in full swing in AEC, but to provide job-site subs with the level of detail they're used to from construction drawings, the screen size and usability of smart phones hasn't proven ideal. John Whitcraft is the president and founder of San Diego-based Whitcraft Engineering Solutions, which provides Title 24 compliance and electrical engineering to projects across California. He questions whether job sites will ever be entirely paper-free. If they are, he said, it will be because of tablet technology.

"It’s going to be a tough thing to get subcontractors to entirely depart from documents," Whitcraft said. "An iPad is the closest thing to having a print set and still having the tangible ability to look at the plans and compare as-specified to as-built." He added that tablet OEMs could advance the hardware's use on the job site by making the units more rugged and dirt- and debris-friendly.

Make it 'Apple easy'

Being tablet-ready alone doesn't guarantee a construction technology's success. Indeed, subcontractor adoption versus rejection of job site technologies is most often where the rubber meets the road for AEC software implementation. GCs can play a front-line role in vetting systems for simplicity. "As a bigger company, (we) have the ability to take the time and investigate technologies before we throw them out to the masses," Borst said, adding that Skanska's integrated services team tests new technology before distributing it to workers on the job site. 

At Power Design, Precourt said her primary focus during any new software demo or test-drive is the quality of the user interface (UI) and overall user experience (UX). “We really want to revolutionize the way that technology is leveraged within our industry, and part of that is looking for technologies that are Apple easy for the thousands of men and women in the industry who are still most comfortable with pen and paper," she said.

PlanGrid software tablets usage on construction sites
PlanGrid software being used on a job site.
Image Source

Train to retain

For a software to stick, front-line subcontractors and superintendents must be trained in how to use it to resolve daily job site challenges. As part of a coast-to-coast implementation of PlanGrid project management software on the iPad, Power Design IT staff booked conference space at regional hotels to train superintendents on what, Precourt said, was already an intuitive system. "Training is huge," Precourt said. "If you have too many applications doing a variety of things, that effort can quickly become confusing and is part of the reason why we’re like other firms in looking to keep our technology footprint small."

At Skanska, training subcontractors on the firm's project management and BIM systems offers an immediate go-no-go decision on the technology's return on investment. "At the end of the day, if the subs can't use it, the technology won't be helpful to us or the entire project equation," Borst said.  

"At the end of the day, if the subs can't use it, the technology won't be helpful to us or the entire project equation."

Lance Borst

Skanska superintendent

Solve (at least) a single problem

Contractors are steadily paring down their software portfolios. In 2012, most construction companies were using more than six software applications, according to the latest construction technology report from JBKnowledge. By 2016, that number had dwindled to two. Consolidation speaks to the broader effort toward integration, but subcontractors nevertheless want tech to perform one or two functions extraordinarily well rather than providing satisfactory or rudimentary functionality across a broad set of job-site applications.

"Technology has to satisfy a clear and present need," said Whitcraft, who has rejected 3-D modeling software because it couldn't render a 2-D construction document and has similarly passed on a CAD system because it forced his team to use square bundling blueprint icons instead of the firm's preferred ellipse icons, reaffirming the need for vendors to pay particular attention to user interface and user experience when it comes to system flexibility. "So many people still think, 'This is construction, no one cares what anything looks like,' and that’s not true," Whitcraft said, noting differing preferences among AEC sub-sectors around drawing presentation. "You have to take the extra time to make my drawings look pretty and not be restricted in design."

Luckily for subs everywhere, the tech community seems geared to respond to the need for tailored, efficient design, ease of use and certainty of execution when it comes to completing project tasks.

"We need to think more broadly beyond technology to best-of-breed business processes. That’s the real difference-maker," said Bassem Hamdy, executive vice president of marketing and enterprise strategy for Carpinteria, CA-based construction project management software company Procore Technologies. "Whichever software a company chooses, the reality is that no one works on an island in construction. It's one of the most collaborative industries in the world, and it's not just about the software they run, it's how the company can enable that software for more efficient business processes."

Filed Under: Commercial Building Residential Building Technology Infrastructure Products
Top image credit: Skanska USA