Digitizing the Paper Trail

26 Apr, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Technology brings order, accountability to huge school system capital-improvement project

“Genius,” said Thomas Edison, “is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” In architecture, you might argue that conceptual design is the inspiration and construction management is the perspiration. Construction projects require tracking project status, managing RFQs (requests for quotes) and RFIs (requests for information), collaborating with contractors and handling all the other nitty-gritty transactions essential to realizing a design. Just naming the myriad tasks can leave you short of breath.

Schmidt Associates, a full-service facility design firm based in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, recently turned to technology to help keep the perspiration at a minimum. Schmidt faced the challenge of coordinating the work of 13 architecture and engineering firms, nine construction managers and scores of contractors and consultants involved in capital improvements for Indianapolis Public School System -- a 10-year-long project with a budget of $832 million. To digitally maintain order of all the details, the firm opted for Autodesk's on-demand platform, Constructware.

Increased Accountability

Debra Kunce, program director at Schmidt Associates, likes to say, “If it’s not in Constructware, it doesn’t exist.” The system tracks everything: RFIs, RFQs, submittals, how long it takes to respond to them, who has received them, who’s reviewing them and so on. “Whose court is the ball in?” That, according to Kunce, is the usual question with change orders. With Constructware, the answer may be just a mouse click away. “It provides high-level accountability,” she says.

Autodesk Constructware, a Web-based project-management platform, allows owners, architects and contractors to monitor project-related communications, such as RFIs, RFQs, submittals and correspondences.

“One of the unforeseen benefits,” says Kunce, “was the public outreach that we were able to do using a Web site we created with Constructware data. We post information [about the project] for the public. It really wasn’t one of our criteria [for purchasing the software] but it was a nice addition.” 

Sometimes Constructware can be used as a defensive tool too. “We have facility foremen who ultimately have to live with whatever is designed and constructed,” Kunce explains. “They’re not in the field, but they’re the managers responsible for oversight. So they appreciate the fact that if they ever need to show that they have given someone a set of instructions, they can always go back and find it in Constructware.”

Nobody wants to contemplate the prospect of litigation, perhaps the inevitable outcome of an onsite injury, but that's a reality of construction projects. Kunce points out that, should this unwelcome scenario arise, the legal team will appreciate the detailed documentation available in Constructware or programs like it.

At Schmidt Associates, the paper trail is now digital. What used to be scattered all over an Access database now lives in Constructware, a central repository all stakeholders can access night and day. Kunce credits the system’s ease of use and intuitiveness with its smooth deployment.

Platform Consensus

Kunce points out that project management software is most effective when the owner, the architect and the contractor agree on the same platform. For the Indianapolis Public School System, Schmidt Associates has an opportunity to lay the ground rules in advance. Part of those ground rules is the adoption of Constructware as a contractual obligation for all participants.

“As owner [for the Indianapolis Public School System], we’re dealing with 62 school buildings we’re renovating over a 10-year period,” Kunce estimates. “It’ll be impossible to coordinate if everyone uses a different platform. If the AE [architecture/engineering] firm is using its own system, when we get an RFI, somebody will have to input the information into our database. Since we’re using the same system, the contractor enters it into the system, the construction manager can either decline it or forward it to the architect and the architect can respond electronically.”

For its part, the Indianapolis Public School System offers software training at no cost to contractors and makes available a Constructware administrator available. Schmidt Associates helps the school system execute the Constructware training. 

Kunce realizes that if your role is AE, you might or might not have final say about which Web-based solution the other teams use to manage the project. “You might see value in [a common software platform] and you pitch it, but the owner might not buy into it,” she says. “But even if everyone is not on board, it still provides a dependable mechanism to warehouse the data.”

On some projects, Schmidt Associates functions not as owner but as AE. In such instances, Kunce says, “we’re going to warehouse the data anyway, because we want to know how many RFIs we get, and we want to know what our response time is.”

Constructware, Then and Now

At a shootout program in Texas in September 2000 in front of hundreds of architects, contractors, subcontractors, owners and project managers, a handful of veterans and newcomers stood up for their preferred project management software. Participants were invited by the Houston and Dallas chapters of the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association. Each team had 30 minutes to outdo the others by racing through a series of data entry and reporting tasks without stumbling. After surviving the live demo, they faced rapid-fire question and answer sessions.

When the dust settled and the smoke cleared, Constructware, a young Georgia firm, emerged as the winner. Second, third and fourth places went to Meridian, Primavera and Cephren (later merged with Bidcom to become Citidon), respectively. Buzzsaw, spun off from Autodesk in 1999, barely made it into the winners’ circle, clinging to fifth place. Buzzsaw eventually returned to the Autodesk family in 2001. In March this year, Autodesk took over Constructware and added it to its portfolio. Now it seems the one-time rivals Constructware and Buzzsaw will shake hands and set out to conquer the project-management frontier together.

Reflecting on the postacquisition experience, Kunce says, “The possibilities appear to be exciting, depending on where [Autodesk] plans to take Constructware. As far as day-to-day operations, we don’t see [any remarkable changes] in how Constructware works. And frankly, we thank Autodesk for that, because if we suddenly see a bunch of changes, I’d be very nervous.”

More Information

Information about the “Harvard Design School Study on the Value of OCPM Software and Services” involving Constructware is available online.

Interested parties also can download a case study (506KB PDF) discussing the project-management technology used by the Indianapolis Public School System.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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