Remote Control

Remote Control

With construction management software, district administrators can remain in control of building pro

In the grand scheme of business, school districts who jump onto the construction management software bandwagon are hardly pioneers. Not when Nicholas Johnson, business development executive for education at Constructware in Alpharetta, Ga., estimates 95 percent of the country's top 400 contractors use some systematic software solution to address their communication and collaboration needs.

They may soon have lots of company, however, from the ownership side of a construction project. Roughly 80 percent of contractors told the Construction Management Association of America that they ought to be taking advantage of this tool. For districts, it could mean, for example, better planning during the early phases of a construction project and more realistic ongoing schedules reflecting specific project conditions.

It turns out, according to industry estimates, that about 30 percent of design and construction project costs--excluding hard-dollar bricks-and-mortar materials--are wasted due to poor communication and inefficiencies within and between companies. In June 2004 the National Institute of Science & Technology calculated the communication breakdown cost at $15.8 billion per year. That's extra money no district can afford to lose.

The contractor community drove the technology behind construction management software; internal efficiency pays off in hard dollars for an industry that borrows its capital funds from the bank as they go.

It's just the opposite for school districts. Bond issues mean the money is in the pot from the beginning, so the sooner districts pay vendors, the more interest dollars they lose. Administrators find value instead from the control this software hands them on a silver platter.

At a recent college of architecture meeting, Johnson reports, the construction coordinator for Forsyth County (Ga.) Schools stood up and said, "We've got to stop accepting what's given to us by [those] we hire. We need to specify what we want, and demand that kind of information flow. We've been paying for this all along, so why don't we set the expectations?"

Basic Instincts

That goes for choosing the software program as well. When Deb Kunce, associate and program manager with the Indianapolis-based architectural firm Schmidt and Associates, was asked to take on the city district's 10-year plan to improve all 79 of its school buildings, she began an exhaustive search of construction software offerings. Her top criteria: the ability for staff in the district to use this tool with minimal training. In February 2005 her list of companies involved in the Indianapolis Public Schools' project numbered 91, so the idea of loading software onto individual computers didn't appeal.

Kunce settled on a Web-based solution, popular among buyers of this software because there are no servers to buy, no firewalls to maintain, no client applications. In essence, it's a single repository for all official information related to each construction project. All the contractual data; payment information; schedules; communications between players like architects, engineers, construction managers, project managers and consultants; contracts, change orders, submittals, meeting notes, drawings, specifications, cut sheets, operations and maintenance manuals. If it's on paper, the team members store it here.

"The information is still in a file cabinet, just an electronic one," says Steve Young, the chief facilities manager for Indianapolis Public Schools' $832 million capital improvements program. "Now when I want something, I have every file cabinet for every project for the last four years on my desk."

"I can take a snapshot of our project at any point in time. We depend on someone to run our projects, but we don't depend on them to tell us how our projects are running." -Dan McKechnie, manager of construction programs, San Juan Unifi ed School District, Fair Oaks, Calif..

If he wants to data mine for the average turnaround for an RFI by a particular architect, or for how many change orders a contractor tends to create, or for the buying price of a cubic yard of concrete last year, the answer is as easy to get as in a Google search. Previously, construction team members faxed or mailed paper copies for everyone in the group to sign off and return the paper to a central point.

Imagine the communication nightmare under that paper shuffle scenario if Dayton (Ohio) Public Schools hadn't switched to construction management software for its four-phase, $170 million project. Because the Ohio School Facility Commission chipped in 62 cents of every dollar for the construction, that group bought the right to hire the team: four construction firms that had never worked with each other or the district to that point. "Even if everybody agrees on every issue, you still have disparate companies thrown together, and a relationship with a school board that is tenuous at best because it had originally picked somebody else for the job," says Johnson.

The price for this peace isn't penny ante. Constructware, for example, sets a minimum entry of $10,000 a year, with a minimal yearly renewal at $5,000, basing its charges on the number of users needing access to the system. Young made the decision for IPS's pocket to foot the bill for vendors' use of the system, so the cost didn't become a barrier to anyone wanting to bid on jobs.

"It was going to be enough of a challenge to get everybody to participate without saying, 'You have to pay X number of dollars to do this,' " he says. "And while this has been an excellent tool for us, we're doing a very large construction. A district needs to evaluate whether its program is of a significant size to warrant the kind of investment this takes."

Software in Action

Robert Abendroth, president and CEO of FMSystems.biz in Minneapolis, admits management software is a tough sell to the K-12 audience. "You need to hold their hand and really show them a clear benefit," he notes. "You can't just sell product and promise the sky."

Young didn't have much doubt the tool would help him. But he wasn't sure about how it would translate at the working level, he confesses. Would vendors be able to adapt to it? Would they skip using it whenever they could? Chalk it up to a harmless case of the newbie jitters. The list of benefits to using the software has justified the purchase decision:

Accountability. Kunce has one golden rule: If it's not stored in the software program, it's not official. That alone requires the vendors to stay up-to-date, especially since a request for additional monies won't be honored any other way.

And thanks to a tracking device that records when someone opens a message, folks don't let correspondence pile up untouched, either. "So if a contractor says, 'I read that but it came too late to do anything,' I can check that out. All those excuses you used to have to put up with--'That fax didn't come to me. Something must be wrong with your machine'--are gone now," Young grins.

Honesty. Facility managers know the drill: A designer spells out details like "I want this" and "Don't let the contractor do that" in a meeting, and sometimes she includes them in the specs. Sometimes she doesn't. It's the first round in the he said/she said game.

Young hardly blames the players. "Their thing is building, fixing, maintaining. Paperwork isn't their forte," he notes. Construction management software means never having to settle a dispute without the hard facts in your hand again. "Nor do you have to search through 25 files of paperwork to find those meeting notes," he adds. "It's helped everyone understand that they have to pay more attention to the process. You can't just casually say something, not follow up and expect it to be done."

Timing. Districts know well in advance if they're not making milestones, so the administrators can raise a red flag six months before a move instead of three weeks. Young knew by January that one of his elementary schools scheduled to open while students were on spring break in March wouldn't be ready in time. At least staff hadn't packed their supplies in boxes already. "They can adjust their mindset now. It's a psychological issue," he says.

The software also helps ensure important questions get answered immediately. "A lot of times, a contractor will ask a question [of an administrator, architect or anyone else involved in a project], and if they get an answer that day or the next, it usually doesn't impact anything. But if it's a week later, they've already moved beyond that part of the building, so now the answer causes delays and impacts two or three other contractors coordinating with them," Young points out.

William Parrish, director of the office of design and construction in Newark (N.J.) Public Schools' facilities management department, used the software data to rearrange the order of work on its Belmont-Runyon School of Visual & Performing Arts/Science & Technology project. Despite two of the worst winters on record in New Jersey, he kept a six-vendor contract arrangement--which can be wrought with the blame game when delays and other challenges arise--on track to meet a mandatory July 2004 completion date.

Management. In a paper-based system, Young found himself either too involved reading paperwork with trivial details or left out of the loop completely. Thanks to the software version, he can glance at an e-mail and determine whether he needs to open the attached letters or memos for more details. On a typical day, he whips through 300+ e-mails before lunch.

Dan McKechnie, manager of construction programs for San Juan Unified School District's $350 million building program in Fair Oaks, Calif., had never worked with such a techno-animal during his construction career. But when he joined the school district with the software already in process, he saw the logic immediately. "It's like a centralized server. Our RFI documents not are residing on a CM's server that no one else can get to if the CM is sick or on vacation or on the job site."

He was tickled pink at the control, too. "I can take a snapshot of our project at any point in time. We depend on someone to run our projects, but we don't depend on them to tell us how our projects are running," he adds.

In his case, simply eliminating the four or five different change order form versions was a welcome pay off.

Kristi Blandford, accounting analyst for the district, agrees. She gladly gave up pouring over hundreds of sheets of paper and juggling spreadsheets to track funds. "It actually stops you from making a transaction if you are over that budget amount," she says of San Juan's program.

Real-World Warnings

But these users also are quick to point out what construction management software is not. It's not effortless, for starters--the PM must commit to quite a bit of administrative work to launch each project.

"There's a huge human element," McKechnie says. "Software will never think for you, it will never put in data by itself. So it's only as good as the people entering the information, and if you don't have a commitment from the top, you're on course for more failure than benefits." Take his word for it. He currently stores details on 375 projects in his software program.

It's not a substitute for accounting software; someone must still generate payments and balance the books. And it doesn't eliminate paper. Most of the correspondence does exist somewhere as paper. Administrators just don't need to track down its location to read the contents.

"It's not the panacea," Young says, "but it does have a lot of value in my opinion. If you're willing to make a commitment to using the system, you can't have some info here and some not. I think it would be very effective for anyone doing a medium to major size building project."

Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor who frequently covers school construction and facilities issues.

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