Hardhats Like This Software

May 1, 2000
Gx Bug Web

Despite the cost of excavators, dozers, and loaders, time can still be the most expensive component of excavation and grading operations. It is especially annoying if that time is spent on unprofitable rework or recalculations because the original work was wrong. Mention “rework” at a job site, and there is likely to be explosive language from frustrated contractors whose margin of profit was already small in today’s competitive bidding. Any technique or tool that saves time and prevents rework is worth consideration.

“My time savings using Precision Cut & Fill is extreme,” states Mike Hendrickson of Thamer Construction Inc. in Norcross, GA, talking about his preparations before putting any blade into the soil. “I can cut and fill a 13-acre site in an hour and have printouts showing the existing and proposed contours of the land to give it to the field.” Previously, the work could have taken two days. The software that achieved this success is from Timberline Software Corporation (www.timberline.com) in Beaverton, OR, a company with more than 20,000 customers worldwide. “We have two collections of software that would interest a grading and excavation contractor,” says Timberline’s Monique Mantha. “We offer the Precision Collection of construction estimating software and the Gold Collection of construction accounting software. Precision streamlines the estimating process from conceptual estimate to that final bill of materials. Apart from fast, accurate takeoff tools, it offers a variety of ways to view and analyze the estimate and provides reports of presentation quality.” The Gold program provides an integrated accounting system, automating everything from payroll and job costing to change orders and purchase orders. The two programs can be used integrated or independently, according to a contractor’s needs. Precision Cut & Fill used by the contractor in conjunction with digitizer software can produce quick, accurate earthwork estimates. The software allows the contractor to calculate cut, fill, and strip quantities by simply digitizing the boundary of work, contours, layers, and elevations for the existing and proposed surfaces. The software determines the cut and fill quantities and displays the results graphically. The contractor then transfers the quantities into Precision’s core estimating modules to continue the creation of an estimate.

Says Steve Warfle of InSite Software (www.insitesoftware.com) in Rush, NY, referring to the SiteWork program, “Our software gives the contractor the right tools to bid with confidence. It provides reports that prove your quantities and provides tools that let you revise and balance jobs with ease.” Many of InSite’s customers are contractors with annual businesses of less than $1 million. Warfle points out that instead of “computer jockey jargon,” the software contains familiar terms that estimators use every day at the site. “If dirt quantities involved just calculating the difference between the existing and the proposed, the contractor would have many software choices. With different strata materials, stripping, and different fill requirements under each subgrade, however, some light software is inadequate. InSite’s approach makes it the fastest takeoff package for doing the first-time takeoffs and all those revisions that show up at the last minute.” InSite also has software especially suitable for the trenching used in sanitary and storm-drainage systems, where the depth of trench will vary with the terrain even if the pipe runs from structure to structure in a straight line. Contractors will appreciate that calculations for utilities that remain at an even depth are simple enough, even manually, and there are basic estimating programs that can produce them well, but the situation becomes more complex when trench depths vary. That is when a more sophisticated program, such as InSite’s Terrain Link Trenches, will help the contractor be more accurate and productive.

HCSS (Heavy Construction Systems Specialists, www.hcss.com) in Houston, TX, has introduced Heavy Job/Manager job-control software. It contains all the data-entry and analysis features of the company’s Heavy Job/Foreman software, but it imports timecards, material transactions, and daily notes from that program, consolidates all of the job data into companywide overview files, and exports the timecards back to the company’s accounting system. Heavy Job/Foreman (version 1.3a) now includes material costing, a default pay rate for employees, more flexible equipment designation (where the equipment no longer needs a special starting character), and data export to HeavyJob/Manager.

A common (and expected) comment on the value of software for project management in construction projects is that it is fine for the big contractors but hardly appropriate for the many thousands of subcontractors whose income is perceived as being a small fraction of those multimillion-dollar projects.

“Prolog Manager [from Meridian Project Systems of Sacramento, CA, www.mps-inc.com] can be used with no problems all the way from owner down to subcontractor,” notes Theresa Brigden of Clayco Construction in St. Louis, MO. The company has used the software successfully for many projects. “Obviously there are areas of the software that are of more importance than others, based on the type of user. At a construction project, the more team members who utilize the software, the more valuable it is, especially when incorporated with Prolog WebSite.” Clayco Construction openly admits that its success (from a trailer-based company to $350 million in 15 years) has largely been the result of its commitment to a high-tech way of doing business. As Clayco expanded out of the St. Louis area-into 23 cities nationwide-project management became a challenge. “We felt like technology was going to change our industry,” states Bob Clark, Clayco’s president. “Many companies choose to throw a lot of people at a job and have four or five people relocated to that market. We rarely have more than the superintendent and the superintendent’s spouse at the site. The project manager uses advanced telecommunications technology to communicate with the superintendent on the job site and travels only occasionally to the site.” In addition to the Prolog system from Meridian Project Systems (MPS), the company uses onsite cameras and project-specific Web sites.

MPS has just released Prolog Manager 5.0. “We are excited to be the first company to come out with a project-control system that manages a project from purchasing to cost controlling, to document control and field documentation, all in one database,” remarks John Bodrozic, president. “Combine all these features with the power of the Internet, and construction professionals can tremendously increase the proficiency of all team members, as well as significantly minimize the risk associated with projects.”

Nancy Gendron at Costanza Contracting in Cherry Hill, NJ, praises the advances in the new MPS program, saying that it’s now easier to understand and manage. She is at the heart of the management process for her company’s projects, which are typical of general contracting: nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and building renovations or extensions. “There is a secretarial aspect of this software that is most important,” Gendron points out. “It condenses all the information we need into one database. We can find whatever we need in the way of drawings and specifications, and we know it’s accurate. The bonus we perceive is that, when we need to send, say, five or six letters to architects, the program will pull together all the necessary data and send it to all five without somebody having to collate the information for each recipient. MPS Prolog Manager 5.0 even tags each letter so that we know if somebody has not replied and requires a reminder.”

Fundamental to many of the software programs available are products from Microsoft, which are for all those companies where there are already people using hardware and software as readily as they used to operate typewriters and manual ledgers. MPS and Timberline, for example, are described as Microsoft Certified Solution Providers. An illustration of this alliance in action would be an MPS project management program chosen by The Haskell Company, a pioneer in the design/build construction delivery method. Running under Microsoft’s BackOffice technologies, including a Microsoft SQL Server 7.0, the software solution has allowed Jacksonville, FL-based Haskell to standardize communication and project management for multiple construction job sites. The construction company replaced a series of “low-technology” tools and processes based on paper manipulation, which lacked the precision and automation to manage the large amounts of project information generated as the company grew. Among the benefits mentioned by Haskell’s staff are standardization, effective growth management, customization for special projects, and an improved ability to be profitably competitive.

We have heard several definitions of project management, but they all imply that it is the bringing together of information from experts in a timely and understandable manner so that a planned project can proceed and be completed with the appropriate benefits to all parties concerned: the owner, the prime contractor, the subcontractors, the vendors, and the workers. A construction project is not a competition among professionals; it is the opportunity for multiple talents to cooperate and succeed.

“In the construction industry, you have many different professionals from various backgrounds sharing an enormous amount of information,” observes Mark Majidzadeh, vice president of information technology resources for Resource International Inc. in Columbus, OH. “They speak different languages and they need to focus on different aspects of the same information. Resource’s new collaboration tool basically brings organization to an incredibly complex environment, ensuring everyone has access to the information they need without delays or complications.” Resource’s project collaboration Web site was designed for the Ohio School Facilities Commission (www.cmw.osfc.state.oh.us/), which provides funding, management oversight, and technical assistance to local school districts for the construction and renovation of school facilities.

How do those other contractors win the bids and manage the work so that they still come out ahead despite what looks like dangerously low estimates? Good project management might be the answer. Resource’s ProjectGrid.com addresses many of the aspects of everyday projects that can cause unnecessary costs for owners and contractors. Readers will recognize these aspects from their own work experience. The software, for example, provides instant notification of project changes; can reduce travel costs and eliminate site visits with online photo logs that let you be at the site-without being there; reduces or eliminates paperwork, including printing, copying, and delivery charges; and cuts down the time required for approval processes. With Resource’s ProjectGrid.com, you will see the change orders, design drawings, contract invoices, file downloads, contacts for the whole project, bid calendar, project schedule, details of work in progress, site-visit reports, and a complete archive of the project.

Understanding where your subcontracting expertise fits into the complete picture of a construction project for, say, a new shopping mall or a highway extension, is not as simple as many aspects of projects that involve work inside one building, one office, or one bank. One of the perceived major advantages of software of construction project management is that it not only tells you what work you have to do and when, it also places you with deserved importance in the total panorama of activity and scheduling.

The basic business-management principles are covered in most programs, but there are those that address specific industries. The Contractor NGS 2000 by Maxwell Systems Inc. (Norristown, PA, www.maxwellsystems.com) claims to be a construction and service management system. It offers 15 integrated modules and is said to be appropriate for companies with 20-2,000 employees. It includes a module called Subcontract Control whereby a subcontract may be established that involves multiple tasks and line items, with quantities and unit prices for each. Does it not seem reasonable that subcontractors, too, should have some reliable means of establishing their rights and responsibilities? One consultant says that many of those interested in acquiring project management software for the first time were doing so because they had suffered as subcontractors. Some of them had been forced to pay penalties because they could not supply acceptable evidence of their work and contract management.

goal of Primavera Systems, an international leader in project management systems, is to make the management of projects simple, even for novice project managers. “Primavera has developed some huge systems, but our SureTrak Project Manager 3.0 [new this year] has the small contractor in mind,” points out Nancy Allen of Primavera. “Not all construction projects are like the Interstate 15-corridor reconstruction project in Salt Lake City.” Most producers of project management software understand that for every super construction project worth a billion dollars or more, there are thousands of smaller ones, all just as important to the contractors involved. As new technologies are developed and as intelligent feedback comes to the manufacturers from the field, the project management software becomes more appropriate to the smaller contractor. Even though it is designed for small projects (including those that may be part of much bigger works), SureTrak can easily manage those involving 300-400 activities.

“At first we were intimidated by the new programs for our company,” admits Beth Christie, project coordinator at Evans, Mendel & Alison in Avon, CO. “Ours is MPS’s Prolog 5.0, and it is so much better than what we were using before. The people at MPS have been most helpful, so our initial anxieties were soon dispelled. The format is user-friendly and more practical.” Some contractors have been worried that they will purchase project management software and then be left to fend for themselves without any computer knowledge and with no help from the vendors. This may have been the situation when they bought other construction-related equipment, and their concern is understandable. The availability of understandable help has been a significant benefit in the introduction of the software to users’ businesses.

The aforementioned I-15-corridor reconstruction project uses Primavera’s Expedition Contract Control. You could almost call this the extreme of project management software because it coordinates the activities of more than 350 people and tracks everything from the minutes of job meetings to design submissions. At the project’s anticipated conclusion in 2002, the owner of the project, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), will have a complete record of every contractual event that has taken place since the project’s beginning in mid-1997. The responsibility for design went to Wasatch Constructors, the firm that won the entire design/build contract. UDOT, then, does not approve designs in advance, because the design activities take place in parallel with the construction activities. The consultant for the project is Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, and its supervising construction engineer, William Reeves, P.E., made this interesting comment about the design/build aspect of the work: “This lessened our activities up front, increased the activities and the responsibilities of the contracting firm, and changed the whole dynamic of traditional relationships among owner, designer, and contractor. The contractors are calling most of the shots, and the designers-rather than working for the owners-are now working as subcontractors to the contractors.” Design/build contracts with a wide range of dollars involved are growing in popularity. It would seem impossible for a contractor without a good project management system to be involved.

One of the main reasons why contractors might be leery about new software programs is because they have been burned before. There are contraptions and programs collecting dust on the shelves in many contractors’ offices; solutions that were well sold but poorly serviced. Consultants in Data Processing Inc. (CDP), based in Charlotte, NC, represents some of the software companies mentioned in this article, but it also provides training and support services to its clients. For training, CDP goes anywhere. “Project management software is not a commodity,” says Paul Riesenberg of CDP. “It should not be promoted or sold as a piece of equipment. The software is a tool that the user can customize to his or her own specific business needs, and it is essential that he or she be taught how to make the best use of what is available.” Riesenberg also made the point that the programs are as good as the information that is fed into them. If, for example, you have an estimator who has his own excellent technique, that technique can be put into your estimating software so that it becomes the standard for your company, the style that new employees learn and use. In other words, good software allows you to replicate the best of what you have already. It is not something that comes into your company and changes everything that you have worked years to perfect. None of the users we spoke to felt that the software programs had “taken over” their companies in any way because they were simply advanced tools to support good work already being done.

It is practical for contractors considering the purchase of software programs to speak with experts in the field of software and with fellow contractors who already have experience. Although software is not just a commodity, contractors could approach its purchase with the same thoroughness they use when researching their next excavator or loader. What reputation does the manufacturer have for after-the-sale support? Is there help readily available? Should that help be physically local to the contractor’s headquarters, or is telephone or even online help acceptable? Who is the best person to run the software? It may not be the boss, it may not be the foreman in the field. Is this something that a good secretary would manage and coordinate best of all?