Technology in Construction: Knowing What’s Out There

Sept. 11, 2012

Information is what makes some companies better than others. Information before the excavating starts is what makes many jobs easier than others, and more profitable. In just about every aspect of construction, from excavating and grading to the finished structure or repair, the location of the project, and what is to be found at the location, is of vital importance. That’s what a geographic information system (GIS) does. It locates and describes. You, like myself, were probably used to looking at paper maps (seeming on windy days to be about half the size of football fields and always trying to fly away), with different colored lines going here and there, and a little box at the bottom of the map to show what the little lines may mean. GIS does much more than that. It shows you a location and it offers you layers of information to show, for example, the layers of obstacles at that location.

On your computer, in the office or at the job site, you can use the layers you need, and only those you need. You could think of GIS as computerized mapping, with all those former reams of paper now stored in your computer in an easily accessible way. The layers can show you what is on the ground at a particular location, under the ground, above the ground, around the location, and even what your project building would look like at that location, the shadow effect of its size on the neighborhood, best access routes for workers or emergency vehicles, railroads, interstates, roads, and alleys. With the right information, GIS will show you everything about any spot in the country so that you, if you have a project there or plan to bid on a project there, can know exactly what you should find.

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GIS is not a new technology, and it is not something that everybody has to have in the back pocket. It is a science, with practical, helpful results. Its helpfulness will depend on the ability of providers to make the results available to virtually everybody, and those providers are doing an excellent job in making GIS information available on every laptop and computer that needs it. The amount of information available is mind-boggling, so don’t be surprised if I say you won’t need access to all of it. GIS is a technology of which we should be aware, a technology that could help us in many projects. Our first duty is to accept the existence of this amazing science, then to see how it may help us.

The first question I was asked by contractors with whom I spoke, and it was repeated frequently, was: “Will I need to hire a new

Credit: ESRI
A more general GIS, known as a low-distortion map projection

employee?” The simple answer is “No.” Working with geographical information, like working with an excavator or dozer, is not something you do with no training or no research beforehand. It’s not like going to the doctor, having a test (or two, or ten) to see what’s wrong, getting a pill, swallowing it, and believing all will be right. The people who prepare the information for geographic information science (GIScience) are trained experts; your employees will probably not be preparing the information. Those who analyze the information for your use should also know what they are doing and the significance of what they discover, its significance for your project. That’s not a computer skill but a contractor’s skill in interpretation of ground and location. Thorough training in any technology is not cheap, so it may be the most appropriate method for most contractors (especially if your need is infrequent) to hire a local expert as a subcontractor, just as you would hire a subcontractor to do those segments of construction with which you don’t feel comfortable using your own equipment and crew. First, let’s understand the value of GIScience. Let’s see how the technology may help us in our particular work.

Here’s some good news you may never have guessed. Some of the best GIS information has been compiled by public sources (the federal government, states, counties, and cities) and they are extremely cooperative with people like you. So you already have experts available, your own public employees. You have already hired them, now use them! Their resources are usually free to you and they can offer additional advice about local areas. Where is the flood plain? The flood way (much more likely to be inundated)? What does the map show you about the soil where you hope to build that house? It may part of the badlands or whatever the local name is for ground that is virtually unworkable; some terrain has never been built on, and you can see why from the clear information on a GIS printout.

Seeing the Future, Shaping the Future
Most readers of Grading & Excavation Contractor have been shaping and reshaping our earth for much of their lives, helping to build new homes and workplaces for thousands, millions, of people. What we may have been missing is that the pattern of living that most people in the world, on our continent especially, want has been changing quite dramatically. We have, in fact, been building the future and now we need to know the good and bad points of that future we have built. Where we live is changing. Today, about 50% of the human race lives in cities (not in the so-called rural areas of yesterday); before the end of this century, that percentage will rise to 75. No, you and I may not see the end of the century, but we must surely consider the future in a better way than those before us have done.

While you may see enclaves of huge houses built in places in your state where only the rich can afford to live and build, most people (and we’re around seven billion in the world now) will live in cities. Our excavating, dozing, grading, building, and maintenance are building the future. It may be time to look beyond the single project or single subcontract that we are doing and imagine where it will fit in with the society of tomorrow. GIScience will help us do that. It is a science that embraces much more than the new transmission for a machine or even the dimensions of the next trench. GIScience can look at our world as a whole being, with all the details included. An increasing number of owners (those who pay for construction projects) are looking at the future more carefully and they are making contracts with companies that agree with their philosophy.

In the 30 years leading up to 2010, the average size for all housing units grew by 95%. That includes single-family, multifamily, and mobile homes. The energy efficiency of those new units was better than previously, about 3% per household unit. But…because of the large number of new homes and their size, the total energy consumption for US households increased by about 40%. People who look at the costs of owning and maintaining a household (and this could also apply to commercial buildings) are justifiably worried by the dramatic increase in the cost of owning. That’s not the initial purchase price; that’s the cost of keeping your house. There’s more to a building than the initial investment. In one California city, the true cost of owning the house from 30 years ago was compared with the cost of a house built in 2010 to meet the same requirements. The difference was about $200,000. It wasn’t the original cost but the (hitherto neglected) cost of ownership. The public seems to be blaming the original developers, designers, and builders, because they were obviously looking at short-term profits and seemed to ignore, or pay little attention to, long-term impacts. Using advanced technologies at the design and constructing stages (one of which would definitely be GIS today) could have made better buildings and costs of ownership easier to afford for the owners. Too late now, you say, but what about your children and grandchildren?

In this Spring’s issue of ArcNews from ESRI (probably the leading company in all GIS programs and thinking), founder Jack Dangermond  mentioned the growing importance of cities. “Cities are places where most of us now spend the vast majority of our lives,” observes Dangermond. “They have, in fact, become man-made ecosystems-vast assemblages of interdependent living and non-living components-the primary habitat for the human species. The recognition of cities as a habitat for modern man is leading to new approaches to their management and design. GIS technology has long been used to map, study, analyze, and manage natural ecosystems. It only seems logical to manage, model, and design our new man-made ecosystem with the same tried-and-true tools used for traditional ecosystems.”

Jack Dangermond goes on to explain that as our cities are growing in size and complexity, so, too, are the buildings that compose much of the fabric of the city. “In effect, many buildings and facilities are becoming small cities themselves, and they need to be designed and managed as such.” GIS tools, which have been used successfully for many years in fields such as environmental analysis and landscape planning, can also support a broad range of applications inside and outside buildings and facilities. The benefits of GIS can be enjoyed throughout the life cycle of a facility, from the design, siting, and construction through the facility’s use, maintenance, and adaptation. It may also serve through a facility’s closing, repurposing, and reclamation; that’s the long-term value of GIScience. “Cities are our new man-made ecosystems,” says Dangermond. “It’s time we start to think about them, manage them, and design them as such.”

Getting Help
Many states have excellent GIS information about the geography of home; the emphasis may vary according to the current main industry. In my home state there is unprecedented activity in “the oilpatch.” This has bred many construction projects, especially those related to the great challenge of finding somewhere to live when you have been offered a great job. Rental properties have increased in price beyond anybody’s expectation, and existing homes are being bought at prices far higher than ever known. All this means there is plenty of construction going on for motels, apartments, homes, and commercial facilities, apart from the specialized construction for drilling and hauling contractors. This activity could last for decades.

Contractors have found that a most useful source of accurate information are our chambers of commerce. “We have excellent GIS information for our local contractors and wish they would call on us more often than they do,” comments Amy Deines, executive director of the Dawson County Economic Development Council. “We have helped developers and others who wish to invest in the opportunities in this area. We can provide useful information to construction contractors, too. We have data about individual buildings, street access, and all the infrastructure involved in our community. The GIS information starts with the highly-praised material from the State of Montana, and we have developed more local information from there.” There is a certain hesitation, in many places, it seems, for contractors to believe that they can get useful information from a public source! That is not the case with GIS information. States, counties, and cities can be your most helpful resources when you begin. They can help you get started. They can help you avoid the need to hire an extra employee.

The emphasis of the layers of information will vary from state to state. Based in Houston, TX, TractBuilder has been especially busy with data related to the energy industry, all of which depends most heavily on the accuracy of boundaries. “Our customers have varied from one-man shops to huge oil companies,” notes Kyle Souza for TractBuilder. “The first step for a potential user is to decide what he wants to do, what he wants the GIS data for. An honest vendor of product and services will tell you what you need and what you don’t need.”

The advice by Mr. Souza that you should first decide what you want to do with GIS information is a perfect way to approach this subject. If you think of it as just another clever technology, you could end up finding it almost useless to you, and certainly frustrating. It would be like learning that your favorite manufacturer has just made a huge dump truck and believing you must have one…even if your projects would never fill it and it would stand idle for most of the time. For which projects will you need GIS? Which available layers of information about the location do you need to see? Do you have somebody already on staff who can negotiate the computerized mapping to make it helpful to the whole company? (It’s not that difficult.) Will you need GIScience often enough to justify a full-time employees or would it be more practical to outsource your needs to an experienced subcontractor?

There are always new words and phrases with technologies that are new to us. TractBuilder, for example, offers tools used with ArcGIS (from ESRI) that address metes and bounds, a quartering tool, auto-quartering tool, and well-spotting tool. The last one gives it away, doesn’t it? Much of that program applies to energy companies, so you would probably not need that part of a program. The tools mentioned allow users to create polygons, polylines, and points from legal descriptions, using ArcMap. TractBuilder’s tools work with ArcView, ArcEditor, and ArcInfo; they are proven programs but you should discover what they provide first, before indulging. “Not everyone has time to use the great tools available, although we have developed the best software and processing for GIS data creation and maintenance,” advises Souza. “That’s not a problem. We can do the work for you, creating and maintaining data, wall maps, databases, and more.” What TractBuilder has done is partner with the USGDR and purchased data to be able to distribute via a service, with no downloading required. In this way, companies can have instant access to basemap data from all over the country inside their desktop GIS application. Companies can also host data on TractBuilder’s server for secure remote usage. Many contractors may find it more convenient and affordable to hire somebody like TractBuilder to do the necessary GIS work before a project. Check your local sources.

Does This Mean More and More Clutter?
The speed with which technologies are developing is amazing. What concerns many contractors is that they will have to have employees hauling around complicated, sensitive equipment to the job sites, and that there is so much technology available that it would take an expert (that extra employee) to decipher everything to make it useful. Have you ever seen a professional photographer at work? Some of them seem to carry big bags of easily damaged equipment; they look heavy and awkward. In the world of GIS, that is something that the developers have avoided. First, they are trying to make sure that all programs are compatible, for the benefit of the customer. Second, they are trying to design devices that are portable and rugged.

Trimble has recently introduced some new devices for working with global navigation satellite systems (GNSSs). The Trimble Juno series are handheld devices small enough to carry in one hand or put on your belt when you are in the field or at the job site. The Juno 3B has an integrated GPS, a 5-MP autofocus camera, and Windows Mobile software. The Juno 3D includes those features plus 3G wireless technology, and that allows users to transfer data faster and stay connected to the office with an integrated mobile phone. “This new Juno series is the latest innovation from Trimble,” advises Daniel Wallace, general manager of Trimble’s GIS Data Collection Division. “Redesigned from the ground up, these handhelds will help users get more out of the field and into their GIS.” Field workers can collect GPS data, capture and link photos to features, and send and receive data from the field using a single device. Combining the benefits of a GPS device, camera, PDA, and mobile phone, the Trimble Juno 3D handheld provides mobile workers with the tools they need in a compact package, with no more need to manage multiple devices, batteries, and connections. The Trimble Juno offers a long-life battery for all day use (typically 10 hours using GPS), as well as increased memory and a powerful processor for large GIS applications.

We can expect other manufacturers to develop devices that are truly practical for use at the job site. GIS is not just another technology. Because it has so many uses for so many departments of a community (e.g., emergency services, law enforcement) you should consider your contracting business as a department of the community in that you will have access to all the information the others have. That’s what working with the cloud will achieve. Huh? The cloud mentioned is everywhere. It’s worth looking up what “the cloud” means today. There are many definitions and they don’t all agree, but, basically, the cloud means that you use your computers for virtually unlimited processing and storage capacity, so you get all the GIS you need on your computer. Cloud computing delivers information technologies as a service and is a self-service, on-demand way of getting information. Check with your computer and software manufacturers to see what they recommend as suitable for your applications.

Is all this for contractors who have excavators, graders, and dozers? “Geographic information systems have many benefits, but those benefits are often overlooked by contractors,” observes Michael Jakab, executive vice president at Wireless Matrix, a company whose main success (plus several awards) has been in providing GPS tracking solutions to improve fleet delivery metrics. Users consistently report increased productivity and lower total operating expenses. “Generally, contractors think GIS or GPS asset tracking solutions are for large fleets of construction vehicles, but the same ROI can just as easily be achieved on a much smaller scale,” explains Jakab. “Consider the main concerns or challenges that contractors face while working on grading and excavation sites-equipment downtime, unauthorized use of equipment, locating equipment and/or vehicles, and verifying payroll hours and overtime. Not to mention fuel and maintenance expense or asset theft! Tracking technology allows contractors to gain greater visibility into addressing these issues.”

GIS and GPS have similar attractions. Many readers will be familiar with GPS already, at work and home, but GIS also offers practical help to those who use it, once they realize the potential for its profitable use. Both sciences offer contractors actionable intelligence to increase productivity significantly, to reduce costs, and to impact that project bottom live positively. Perhaps the best way to see what may be relevant to your situation would be to look at a website like ESRI’s and go through some of the facts and demonstrations you’ll find there. You can try it. Why not? With this approach to potential users the website is a virtual GIS 101, and more.