Construction Productivity Software: Bringing Tech to the Job Site

Structural Engineers, PlanGrid, Bay Area, Apple, Skanska USA, Cambridge, Procore, BIM 360, CREW SF, Structural Engineers Association of Northern California
PlanGrid being used during construction of 181 Fremont in San Francisco. Courtesy of PlanGrid

This article also appears in The VIEW, the quarterly publication jointly curated by the three Bay Area chapters of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)—CREW San Francisco, CREW East Bay, and CREW Silicon Valley. CREW is a nationwide business networking organization dedicated to the advancement of women in commercial real estate. For chapter news, events, and membership information, visit the Bay Area member organization websites at crewsf.org, creweastbay.org, and crewsv.org.

By Angie Sommer, ZFA Structural Engineers

Technology has brought increased productivity and efficiency to nearly every industry in the US and around the globe, with many exciting advances occurring in the last few decades. With the advent and proliferation of the internet, technological solutions are widely available and being used for an incredible array of services, from food delivery to home security.

While the construction industry has seen improved productivity from recent technology (for example, specialized equipment and prefabrication), many processes are still rooted in the ideas and tools of yesteryear. It’s still quite common to see construction trailers filled with countless stacks of paper plans or learn about contractors having to rebuild parts of a project due to not having the most up-to-date information. While these types of occurrences can pose significant inefficiencies on modern-day job sites, some view these challenges as opportunities for improvement, including Tracy Young, the CEO of PlanGrid.

Sommer Tracy Young, PlanGrid CEO – Courtesy of PlanGrid

PlanGrid is a construction productivity software aimed at streamlining workflow for contractors and all members of the design and construction teams. Started in the Bay Area in 2011, the company leveraged the invention of the Apple iPad to create software that can communicate information in real time, remove the burden of paper plan sets, and streamline management and communication during construction to allow teams to run more efficiently.

“We’re not changing the way builders build; what PlanGrid does is eliminate all the unnecessary time wasted chasing down paper and information,” Young says.¹

And everyone loves more efficiency, right? Well, yes and no. One of the struggles for,  new software (of any type) is getting people on a team to learn and use it effectively. “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,” says Lance Borst, a superintendent at Skanska USA, regarding the company’s recent use of the Autodesk BIM 360 software on a $600 million project in Cambridge, MA.²

This is one of the main challenges of new software being inserted into antiquated processes; many people are not quite ready or able to make the shift. PlanGrid refers to this challenge as “addressing the human factor.” To assist with this, PlanGrid employs “customer adoption specialists”—people whose job it is to teach and guide new clients to their most effective use of the software.

In discussing the human factor, Gina Sloan, a customer adoption specialist, notes that new users “need to understand why the new technology is an improvement, the benefits of using it, and how it will impact their specific work.” She goes on to note that “some people are more averse to change than others, and technology can sometimes seem a particularly intimidating change.”³

PlanGrid’s solution to this? Don’t just tell users the benefits, show them. “Start by identifying the way main user groups will interact with the system in their daily work. Find out how your staff uses their system, and how the new solution can improve the way they work.” Once people understand what a new technology or system can do for them, they’ll be much more motivated to put in the effort to integrate it into their work.

PlanGrid being used during construction of 181 Fremont in San Francisco. Courtesy of PlanGrid

Someone who has been on the frontline of this evolution since the beginning is Tooey Courtemanche, the CEO of Procore, which is another company that connects construction teams, their applications and devices via a cloud-based software platform. Started in 2002, Procore was around before many contractors were even using email in their daily work. “I saw the opportunity, but the market I wanted to serve wasn’t ready yet,” says Courtemanche.4 Through steady perseverance and a number of early adopters, Procore now boasts that they are the most used construction software in the world, with over two million users managing billions of dollars in projects annually with the software.

What PlanGrid, BIM 360 and Procore all have in common is a vision of construction’s future—one that spends less time fixing mistakes that happen as a result of poor communication and more time creating processes that build efficiency and productivity. And while there is a huge range of tech solutions developed to solve one problem or another, these all-in-one platforms are focused on offering a single service that can be used for all aspects of the design and construction process: document sharing, building information management (BIM) coordination, requests for information (RFIs), submittals, finances, safety and more. These companies see the need for this type of technological intervention in today’s construction sites, and watching the merger of these two very different industries—tech and construction—is certainly interesting, if not inevitable.

About the Author
Angie Sommer is an associate at ZFA Structural Engineers, a 70-person engineering firm with five Bay Area offices, with a broad range of experience in the commercial, educational, residential, retrofit, and hospitality sectors. In her spare time, she volunteers with a variety of industry organizations, including CREW SF, the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California (SEAONC), and the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA), where she is currently the co-chair of the Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3) Committee. In her spare time, she co-owns a wedding writing business, Vow Muse, which helps people craft unique wedding vows, speeches, and ceremonies.

Sources:
1 https://www.usbuildersreview.com/case-studies/plangrid-greenprint/
2 https://www.constructiondive.com/news/subcontractors-sound-off-5-ways-to-improve-job-site-tech-adoption/433248/
3 https://blog.plangrid.com/2017/08/4-barriers-to-construction-technology-and-how-to-overcome-them/
4 http://www.procore.com/about