Land Development Gets SaaS-y

9 Jul, 2008 By: Heather Livingston

A new civil engineering software as a service promises significant savings in time and money.

Whereas BIM has yielded new efficiencies for architects, SITEOPS has created a software as a service (SaaS) that aims to do the same for civil engineers. SITEOPS Single Pad, a civil engineering program, promises to change the way real estate is bought and developed. Dubbed "CAD with a Brain," this solution gives land planners and civil engineers the ability to qualify several options, under a user-defined set of parameters, within hours instead of months. SITEOPS, which just received its patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on July 1, delivers options for multiple site designs and provides the optimal layout, grading and storm water drainage with accurate cost estimates.

According to SITEOPS president and CEO Mike Detwiler, developing a piece of land involves three major cost elements. First there is the land purchase; second is the cost to design and construct a building; and third is the cost of developing the land to support the building. That third cost element historically has been the hardest number to accurately predict. Unexpected and dramatic increases in the land development costs delay construction, disturb financing agreements, and lower return on investment, Detwiler said. With SITEOPS, civil engineers can run site simulations that consider as many as 10 billion combinations of layout, grading, and drainage design options — and deliver three to five detailed solutions, each with a CAD drawing and budget, within 24 hours.

The Specifics
If you're unfamiliar with the term, SaaS is a method of software deployment wherein the application is hosted by the vendor, not the user. In other words, it's not a memory hog that's going to require your firm to upgrade its server or hire dedicated IT personnel to maintain it. Software upgrades, service releases, and maintenance are all included in the subscription cost, and users have unlimited access to their project and the SITEOPS support team for a full year.

Click for larger image Preliminary design solutions for layout, grading, and piping are available for download in several CAD formats from the SITEOPS web application. (Click image for larger version)

After subscribing, users can upload a file with the site's topography and property line. A building footprint can then be imported or drawn. Default global project constraints are embedded in the program, but users will need to add their own local code information, a process that can be done within minutes, said Heather Palmer-Palavido, vice-president of product development. Once all site and cost information is reviewed and revised, the project is submitted to the SITEOPS optimization engine. In a real-time demo I was able to watch the optimization engine analyze a project layout for the most cost-effective building location; consider easements and landscape areas; generate the finished floor elevation (FFE); create basic stormwater drainage plans; auto-draw parking lots, curbing, and truck drives; auto-draw retaining walls; and produce an optimized grading plan with proposed finish and subgrades. Once the optimization engine completes its calculations, users receive an email alerting them that the reports, cost estimates, and preliminary site designs (in DWG, LandXML, and SITEOPS XML) are available for review.

In the traditional method of site development, it can take a civil engineer three to four months to deliver a site plan that evaluates only one building location. Because SITEOPS looks at potential combinations of layout, grading, and drainage with such rapidity, it gives owners the real option of evaluating several pieces of land before settling on a best choice. The efficiencies gained with SITEOPS can help the developer select the right property; designate the most cost-effective location and layout; and negotiate the land price up front if they know beforehand that land development costs will be high. In other words, SITEOPS gives them the ability to cost-optimize at the beginning of the design process instead of value engineering out important design elements later on in the project.

Click for larger image Detailed takeoff reports showing line-by-line estimated site development costs can be downloaded in HTML and Microsoft Excel formats. (Click image for larger version)

A Case Study
The Surry County, North Carolina, school district hired Little Diversified Architectural Engineers to design and evaluate two potential school sites before they purchased the land. Located in the northwest corner of North Carolina near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Surry County landscape is defined by its rolling hills. The two sites, one for an elementary school and one for a middle school, were located on different properties that each posed significant land development challenges. To help estimate costs early in the process and provide Surry County with critical decision support, Little engaged SITEOPS.

The proposed 15-acre middle school site "contained extreme terrain changes," said Little Land Development Studio principal David Powlen. The firm proposed a multilevel design that could step up and down with the hill, but the costs of grading and retaining walls were a major concern. The SITEOPS customization engine gave Little the ability to generate and quantify the grading, and provided critical physical data to explain and justify the high land development costs. Presented with an unexpected $500,000 retaining wall expense, Surry County chose not to purchase the site.

The 26-acre elementary school site had its own set of challenges. Although the parcel of land was ample, the developable area was limited by an existing farm pond and stream. Powlen was skeptical that the site would accommodate the necessary program elements without impacting the pond. "We didn't want to have to get into any kind of wetlands permitting through the state," he explained. He used SITEOPS to run six different layout scenarios to verify that the school, parking lot, bus lot, and playing field would all fit into the prescribed area without disturbing the pond. Based on the data provided by Little and SITEOPS, Surry County is purchasing the parcel and plans to open the new school in 2010.

"Surry County did it right," Powlen enthused. "They researched and obtained options to buy property before they actually purchased. Too often, decision makers don't realize that while the cost of land may be inexpensive, the cost to develop may be very expensive."

The Particulars
SITEOPS Single Pad came on the market last May, with version 2.0 released in December. At present, SITEOPS can process sites up to 500 acres, Palmer-Palavido said, but the company hopes to have the ability to process 100,000 acres in the near future. This February, the company launched a beta program for SITEOPS Multi Pad. CEO Detwiler said that while civil engineers have been very pleased with Single Pad, the forthcoming release of Multi Pad in August 2008 is greatly anticipated for its ability to cost optimize siting for properties with multiple building footprints such as large shopping centers, which constitutes the majority of its work.

The price for the SITEOPS SaaS is approximately $1,000 per acre, Palmer-Palavido said, and the average project savings is $15,000 per acre. According to the company, one Fortune 10 client saved nearly $1 million on a single site because of SITEOPS' grading optimization.

As for greening civil engineering, at present the biggest sustainable benefit SITEOPS offers is the real potential to do less grading, but other green features are being explored for future releases, according to the company.

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