AEC Tech News #93 (Mar. 6, 2003)

5 Mar, 2003 By: Lachmi Khemlani

The last issue of the AEC Tech News (Issue #92: presented the first of three client-profiles capturing the usage of Constructware, a leading Web-based collaboration and project management solution for the building industry. We looked at Group2 Architecture, an architectural firm that bucked the normal trend by pushing the use of the tool on the contractor--usually it's the other way around. In this issue, we will look at two additional Constructware clients--Swinerton Inc., a general contractor and builder, and Vanir CM, a construction management firm--to learn about the projects they are using Constructware on, their reasons for choosing it, and their overall experience with it. These client profiles are a follow up to my feature review of Constructware in the Feb. 2003 issue of CADENCE magazine.

Swinerton Inc.

The Swinerton project for which Constructware is currently being used is the Swinerton Headquarters in San Francisco. The job involves renovating an old facility into the company headquarters. Since Swinerton Inc. is the owner as well as the general contractor for the project, the company decided to take this opportunity to explore the use of a Web-based project management solution. I spoke with the project engineer, Shao Hu. She tells me that Constructware was chosen and has been under implementation on a trial basis for this project since March 2002. The project team members--including the architects, engineers, MEP firm, owner, and subcontractors--are using it to keep track of drawings, RFIs, submittals, meeting minutes, and so on. Features that are not used at all include Cost Management, Risk Management, Business Development, and Bid Management, because these operations require all the company and subcontractor information to be in the system and Swinerton has not done that yet.

So far, the experience of the Swinerton team with Constructware has been mixed. While Hu finds it difficult to quantify the tangible benefits, there are some definite pluses. Based on her experience with competing products, Hu finds Constructware much easier to use, more instantaneous, and more accessible. The most popular feature is the time stamp, which keeps track of who opened what and when, increasing accountability. Another aspect that is very useful is the ability to zoom in on a drawing and clarify dimensions or construction details--an ability paper drawings do not have. The ability to search documents such as RFIs in different ways is also critical.

On the minus side, Hu reports that the upfront cost of implementing the solution is quite substantial, both for setup as well as training. Moreover, successful deployment depends on the cooperation, motivation, and commitment of the entire team: "If someone messes up, it drags the whole thing down!" And a lot of time is required to take full advantage of the application. Hu reiterates the flexibility problem Gulayets of Group2 Architecture has pointed out; she finds the inability to assign specific permissions to individual documents a serious drawback. Only generic permissions can be assigned at the entire document level in Constructware. Thus, a document category such as RFI can be assigned a set of permissions regulating which category of member (for instance, architect or engineer) can view it, update it, and so on. However, these permissions cannot be modified for an individual RFI. This leads to inflexibility and lack of control, making people secretive, as they cannot fully control who sees what. Hu also expresses frustration with the lack of standards in this area, as it often means learning a new solution for every project, which is impractical.

Some minor quibbles include small fields for data entry in the various forms, which makes Hu resort to using Microsoft Word for composing the text, which she then copies and pastes into Constructware. She would prefer to work on the forms in a more WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) format. Also inconvenient to Swinerton, based on the West Coast, is the time stamping which works only with Eastern Standard Time (the time zone where Constructware is based). Another drawback, common to Web-based applications to which new features are constantly added or updated, is that the printed manual gets outdated rapidly--often as soon as the product ships.

In general, Hu observes that only big projects such as the Swinerton Headquarters have the resources to allow the use of Constructware and similar solutions; yet, ironically, these solutions can be properly tested only on smaller projects, which do not have the resources to support them. Also, the adoption of Web-based collaboration technology will be driven, not by one-time owners, but primarily by repeat owners such as experienced developers.

Vanir CM

Vanir CM is currently involved in a $67 million, multi-year modernization project of 19 schools in Palos Verdes, CA. The use of Constructware was successfully tested on one school project, so the software is now being implemented on three more. I spoke with the project director, Bill Lacher. He tells me that Vanir evaluated Web-based tools for four years before settling on Constructware. Vanir found that most of the other products did not live up to their claims and had technical problems. The company also looked at more traditional project management tools, such as Prolog and Expedition (which were Web-enabled rather than Web-based), and found firewall-related problems that need resolving before project team members can communicate across distributed locations.

Vanir CM, a large company with close to 300 Construction Management professionals, is very happy with Constructware on a global level and has implemented it on many of its projects situated in various locations across the U.S., starting with a large $350 million healthcare project. It has been particularly successful on the Palos Verdes School District program. In contrast to the other clients I spoke with, Vanir has actually quantified the benefits achieved from the use of Constructware in at least one respect--the reduction of paperwork by as much as 80 percent. The other key benefits Lacher reports are paperless RFIs, automated tracking of paperwork that leads to better accountability (no one can claim, "I didn't get that!"), and having all the information in one place. In terms of adoption by the entire project team, there was the expected resistance to change, until the collaborative benefits of using the product became evident. Security and the fear of unauthorized access was initially a big concern, but eventually such fears were proven to be unfounded.

Lacher points out a fairly long list of Constructware features that could be improved: the change order process that is currently very tedious; the correspondence process that requires users to enter data in the old-fashioned manner in various boxes and fields, instead of in a modern and user-friendly WYSIWYG format; the omission of less common roles such as 'Program Manager' and 'Inspector of Record' from the participant list; the inability to tie in a schedule created in Primavera or Microsoft Project and account for scheduling changes; the inability to scan documents and attach them to change order forms; and the inability to store documents in different ways beyond the chronological order. Lacher finds that all the paper processes are not acknowledged by Constructware; therefore, every single detail of the project is not in the system and some amount of paperwork is still involved. Also, Constructware does not really accommodate the role of Construction Manager; Vanir does that on a piecemeal basis by using different modules.

As far as training is concerned, a four-day training is required for the contractor, while a single-day training is required for the architect or owner. Lacher finds Constructware's training falling short in teaching users how to customize the product and tweak features to suit the requirements of the projects; that has to be learnt by users on their own. The training provided by Constructware is very generic, focused on features specific to the product.


In summary, however, Lacher has found that the advantages of using Constructware outweigh any deficiencies in the product. Also, he has found the makers of Constructware very receptive to Vanir's inputs and requests for features.

Relevant Links


Swinerton Inc.:

Vanir CM: