Ripping out the foundation for a new building because someone miscalculated by a few feet apparently happens more often than one would think. The mishap is one of a multitude of costly errors that can occur in the professional construction industry.
So, a few years ago, PCL Construction invested in a team of technologists to correct the errors that often are made when different contractors hand off a project to one another. They tweaked a popular 3D modeling tool used by architects, electricians and other contractors. PartsLab, its app for Autodesk’s Revit software, saved PCL employees and contractors countless hours of extra work and money since laborers didn’t have to repour, reframe or redo.
Then the Denver construction company gave it away to competitors for free.
The Engineering News-Record called it “a bold business strategy that is raising eyebrows across the industry.” It named Brown a 2017 newsmaker and ranked PCL at No. 7 on its Top 400 contractors list that year.
“PCL has had a big impact recently on the U.S. construction industry through its technological innovations and collaborative approach to developing and sharing technology,” said Mark J. Shaw, an Engineering News-Record senior editor, in an email.
PCL’s move wasn’t entirely altruistic. The construction industry is challenged with attracting new talent, and its old-fashioned, low-tech reputation wasn’t helping. And there’s been a reluctance to adopt technology, not because it doesn’t exist, but because of scattered solutions and no industry standard. By advancing existing tech platforms and startups, Deron Brown, its president of U.S. operations, felt he could help solve those issues.
“We could have kept it ourselves, but we want the industry to progress. If you think about how technology has changed every industry, it’s really only been in the last few years that it’s changed construction. We still have to lay concrete,” Brown said.
PCL is building a business using technology — but don’t call it a tech company. Made up of a group of independent construction firms, it just wants to improve the bottom line. Nevertheless, the 4,000-person firm, which is 100 percent employee-owned, is often described as innovative.
“PCL isn’t satisfied just ‘keeping up’ with the digital evolution occurring in the construction industry, but rather to demonstrate leadership in the industry’s transformation,” said Brian Farber, senior public relations manager at Autodesk. “PCL represents the future of work because while PCL is a recognized construction leader, they are taking on tasks most often associated with tech companies, including the development of free apps available for use by anyone.”
On a recent morning at PCL’s U.S. headquarters off Colorado Boulevard, the toys were on display. A robotic total station — one of those tripod-mounted tools road construction workers use to survey the street — is linked to software on an iPad.
A lot of the tech is off-the-shelf products like DJI drones, used to scan sites and get 3D images, or Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, for workers and clients to look inside the models. All the tools tend to interact with software touched by PCL, which is then widely distributed — or could be soon — to others in the construction industry.
There are some proprietary PCL tools in the works, like one to help clients see what a new building would look like and the cost — before a client commits. Another one is PCL’s Issue Manager, which can detect problems in the project model before it’s built (“Are the pipes going in the wrong way or are they going to hit duct work,” Brown offered as examples.). That’s saved close to 1,000 worker hours last year just on two projects, Brown said.
“We’re not having the problems anymore with where walls are being located and foundations being placed. That happened a lot where people put foundations in the wrong place and you’d have to rip them out and put them in the right place,” said Nick Kurth, PCL’s manager of virtual construction. “We’re not only delivering projects faster but starting projects faster.”
The construction industry is still fragmented, so technology often gets developed to meet the needs of one company, said Stephen Jones, senior director of Industry Insights Research for Dodge Data & Analytics, a construction industry market research firm. That’s changing as the major players move to cloud-based software so the service is available to more users and it doesn’t matter if workers are on an iPad, phone or PC.
More accessible software and technology should help contractors limit errors, stay on budget and wrap up projects on time. Dodge surveyed 81 companies about their best projects vs. their typical projects. Of typical projects, 61 percent took longer than expected and 49 percent were over budget. Even the best “rock-star” projects had a less-than-stellar record — 20 percent were over budget or over schedule.
“There’s going to be errors but nobody wants to acknowledge it,” Jones said. “… There’s no construction czar in our government. It’s left up to companies like PCL and PartsLab to solve problems.”
Kurth, 36, credits Brown for pushing the company to invest in tech to make it a more exciting place to work, which is critical if the industry wants to attract younger workers. A report by the National Association of Home Builders found that the number of unfilled jobs in the construction sector was on the rise. And in Colorado, the construction sector had the greatest employment growth, after the natural resource and mining industry, according to the 2018 Colorado Business Review.
“When Deron came in, everything broke open,” said Kurth, an architecture major who joined PCL eight years ago. “It’s like now everyone is looking at how do we leverage technology. And if you’re not doing it, you’re going to be a dinosaur.”
At PCL’s headquarters, there’s also a wall being used as a giant computer screen. Three overhead projectors are used to display work schedules, notes and other information so teams in different locations can view, adjust and change anything instantly. The goal? Get rid of sticky notes.
“In the old days, people would use sticky notes. People would move them around to get the schedule right and then someone would open the door and the wind (blows in) and sticky notes are all over the place,” Brown said. “And only the people who could see it were people in the room. You can’t take that to the field with you.”
For the giant display, PCL found Nureva, a Canadian company with roots in education. The two began working together to customize the hardware and software and helped open Nureva’s eyes to the potential of the construction industry.
“We see PCL as thought leaders in this regard as far as adopting new technology,” said Alan Boykiw, senior designer with Nureva. “…They’ve been playing with (Nureva technology) for a year now and we’re in a serious partnership with them to hone our product. They see our product as one not just for their needs but the needs of the construction industry.”
Nureva is just one of several tech companies that PCL’s team works with, Brown said.
“I bet we partner with more than a dozen software firms. They’re great at building software, but they’ve never built a project, they’ve never built a high-rise tower. We’re partnering to help them build a tower,” Brown said. “We want these software companies to succeed because if they succeed, we succeed.”
By offering solutions that are readily available to the industry or rely on off-the-shelf products, it’s not as difficult a leap or financial investment for other contractors to follow suit. Jones, with Dodge Data, hopes more companies follow PCL’s lead.
“I give them a big thumbs up,” Jones said. “They’re not waiting on manufacturers to come up with solutions. They took the bull by the horns, which is good, and they’re making it an open platform on a popular app. They’re not trying to invent something of their own in a silo that only their people could use. That would be a disaster.”
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