Collaboration may be one of those buzz words—like paradigm or synergy—that, for the sake of clear communication—should be avoided. But a new kind of software that has emerged under the general description of project collaboration has features that make it worth knowing about.

Think of collaborative construction management software as enhanced project management software that pulls in all of the players on a project. Collaboration software keeps all project information in one place and controls who has access and who has made changes. Everything from bids to submittals to drawings and invoices are available to those who have been given permission and everything is routed to the proper people for approvals.

The various companies that have developed entries into this class of software have come at it from different angles. Dexter + Chaney’s Venture collaboration software evolved from its project management package. Bentley’s ProjectWise starts from the designer’s viewpoint, but gets to the same place. EADOC came from project management software and extends it to collaborate across a project. Gehry Technologies and its GTeam is more of a platform for sharing design models (BIM) than a complete collaboration package, but it is evolving in that direction. AEC-Sync is a web-based collaboration package recently acquired from Attolist by Newforma; it is now being marketed under the name Newforma Project Cloud and appears to be a full-service product. But if all you’re worried about is controlling your own company, these packages are probably more than you’re looking for and you might want to stick with project management software like Maxwell’s ProContractorMX (see bottom of the article).

Sharing documents

“The idea of collaboration software had been bandied about for years knowing that construction is not a do-it-yourself proposition,” says Wayne Newitts, marketing director, Dexter + Chaney, Seattle. “It’s hard enough to control one company’s workers let alone coordinate the work force for many separate companies. We realized that our business management software, our ERP software, wasn’t enough to manage the complexity of a project. We ended up deciding that what would allow a contractor to do that was document management. From project conception to the final punchlist there is a trail of documents attached. The documents may be owned or managed by a single entity but they have to be shared and modified by many different entities. Documents are something that can be managed and are tied to the workflow.” Venture allows the general contractor or project manager to stay on top of the project workflow including invitations to bid, subcontractor pre-qualification, submittals, RFIs, and change orders. It also maintains a complete list of contacts for a project and knows who has permission to review or make changes.

“There’s also an electronic plan room for managing bids which feeds over to the actual construction process. We had complaints from subs that after bid day, they get the job and the work started all over.” That is, that none of the calculations generated to make a bid transferred into the project management software. “We added applications to convert the bids to live construction.”

Other features include:

  • Information on vendors so the contractor knows who is prequalified and who to invite to bid.
  • A smart document filing feature where the software will suggest the proper folder to put them in and will learn as it goes along.
  • A version control function and an audit trail so everyone can see who made changes and when.
  • Ability to be customized without the need for a lot of IT support.
  • Tracking the submittal process to controls who’s responsible with its “ball-in-court” function.

Venture is owned by the GC and is free to the subcontractors and vendors working on a project.

Direct connection

There are a few things that true project collaboration software must be able to accomplish. “It’s a direct connection for the entire construction team to project information, design status, who can and has made changes, and the status of all equipment,” says Huw Roberts, vice president of marketing, Bentley Systems, Exton, Pa. Bentley’s ProjectWise collaboration software, “allows everyone to get the information they need and to keep private what they want to keep private. It manages all permissions and access, and makes sure everyone is using the right versions of drawings. It also provides dynamic feedback, so that any mark-ups are linked to the right source and document and person.” The software includes a dashboard indicating what actions need to be taken and who needs to approve what.

At the beginning of a project, the project manager would define the roles for everyone on the project team, assigning rights and responsibilities to an individual or a company. As the project status changes, this triggers changes in the roles and responsibilities. “It’s as simple as, telling the software that when a certain document changes, notify me and make me in charge,” says Roberts.

When ProjectWise sends notification to a project team member, it knows who has opened a document and when. The notification, via e-mail or just in ProjectWise itself, includes a link that takes the person to the document in question. All this allows the contractor (or subcontractor) to easily collaborate with the designers and also with the detailers.

Collaboration software isn’t needed for all projects but on large complex jobs it can create great efficiencies.

Web-Based Collaboration

With multiple buildings, permits, and subcontractors, the construction of the Washington Hospital Composite Central Plant & Center for Joint Replacement in Fremont, Calif., needed a way to keep the complex construction on track. When Swinerton Builders was selected to build the $115-million expansion, its goals were to successfully manage the complex project and to continue to be the premier green building contractor in the west. With cost savings, ease of use, and collaboration in mind, Swinerton chose EADOC’s collaborative construction project management software.

This large complex project was maanged more efficiently with collaboration software.
EADOC This large complex project was maanged more efficiently with collaboration software.

“The primary driver going into this [project] was knowing that it was going to be complex with five different buildings and five different permits,” says Eric Davis, manager of virtual design & construction, Swinerton Builders, San Francisco. “We needed a system that would allow us to collaborate with all parties so information could be entered once, and the appropriate users could view it.”

With many geographically distributed users (including more than 60 subcontractors), the project team could effortlessly exchange project documents. The ability to customize the system was key. “We looked at needs and made suggestions to EADOC,” says Davis. “They quickly accommodated us with adaptations to the system to help our workflow.” The team was happily surprised with the ease of customizing the system.

The biggest advantage to William P. Young Construction, the concrete contractor on the Washington Hospital project, was that inspection requests were submitted quickly and efficiently, allowing Swinerton’s quality control superintendent to review and forward information to the appropriate inspecting parties. Since the system issues email alerts, Swinerton Builders was always notified immediately of an inspection request and would initiate its own quality checks prior to forwarding the inspection request to the state inspectors. Robert Axton, Swinerton senior superintendent, says “If the inspector wants to know the location of every anchor bolt below the floor, I can get everything from the EADOC software.”

In addition to the inspection process, turnaround time for other workflows such as RFIs, submittals, pay applications, and transmittals was also reduced. “We could link RFIs easily, which was extremely valuable,” says Axton. “It was basically our workhorse, managing daily correspondence between submittals, RFIs, transmittals, and inspection requests.”

By integrating EADOC’s collaborative construction management software, Swinerton achieved its goal of managing this multi-million dollar project in the most effective manner, realizing time and cost savings of more than $400,000. Staying true to its commitment to green building, Swinerton estimates that the paperless system saved 1.3 million sheets of paper, or about 198 trees. Eric Law is the founder of EADOC, Oakland, Calif.