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Tech Builders

Technology driving useful innovation in northeast Wisconsin’s construction industry

Story by Rick Berg

April 2018

Construction technology paid off for Fond du Lac community development officials when Kaukauna-based Keller Inc. presented them with a planning solution that would take most of the speculation out of spec building. 

Rather than constructing a multi-million-dollar facility and then hoping for a buyer, Fond du Lac was able to develop a “virtual spec building” that can be used to attract potential tenants without substantial financial risk to the city.

Dyann Benson, the City of Fond du Lac’s community development director, said there are other advantages to creating a virtual spec building. Because the plans for the proposed 79,000-sq. ft. facility in the Fox Ridge Industrial Park are already approved by the city and state, the project is “shovel-ready” and can be operational in six months or less, rather than the more typical 9- to 12-month timeframe. And, because the facility is only virtual at this stage, it can be customized to the buyer’s requirements, with minimal additional approval time required by the state.

Bob Poch, corporate manager at Keller who headed up the virtual spec building project, said the virtual plan allows potential buyers all the advantages of viewing a bricks-and-mortar building.

“You can fly around the exterior at different angles, you can walk through the building as if you were physically walking through an actual building,” Poch said. “You can get just about any view you want, inside or out, and you can import furniture and equipment to see how that will look.”

Poch, who previously served on Fond du Lac’s economic development organization board, said he believes architectural virtualization like that used on the Fox Ridge project can offer great appeal for other economic development groups that want to stimulate buyer interest without incurring the upfront cost of constructing a spec building.

More than that, he said, technology in general has improved the design and construction industry’s ability to serve its clients.

“I believe the biggest impact has been that the software we use today helps our clients better visualize what the project will look like when it’s all said and done,” Poch said. “It also helps us and our clients make better decisions in the planning process. The model is so real, it brings the building to life.”

Enabling collaboration, efficiency

Most design and construction professionals would agree with that assessment, likely adding that technology has also enabled them to work more efficiently. Pamela Talavera, chief operating officer at Appleton-based Consolidated Construction Company, said the merger of existing and new technologies has created efficiencies that would have previously been impossible. There’s a potent set of tools when you take a mainstream technology like videoconferencing, mix it with industry-specific applications like construction management software and building information modeling platforms (see “Technology at work in construction,” page 20).

“Technology has given us the ability to work with clients and suppliers in multiple locations, to work through plans and drawings without having to leave the office and still be able to maintain really good communications,” Talavera said. “Building information modeling, for example, definitely helps in working with suppliers to model the building and identify conflicts pretty early in the process.”

Talavera recalled a recent project in which the modeling process identified that a proposed dust-collection system would conflict with the facility’s operations. Without the modeling, she said, construction would have progressed much closer to completion before the conflict was identified, resulting in cost overruns and project delays.

On a current project, Talavera said, “the architect is in New Jersey, the owner is in Arizona, we’re in Wisconsin and the building is being constructed in Texas. But with the technology we have available, everyone can stay connected and work efficiently without having to be onsite together all the time.”

At Green Bay-based Bayland Buildings, leaders on the operations and engineering sides agree that technology breeds collaboration and efficiency, which allows companies like Bayland to provide better outcomes for clients.

Chad Calmes, chief operating officer at Bayland, said the ProCore construction management platform used by the firm has streamlined processes throughout a project.

“All of our construction documents and field reports are funneled through the ProCore system,” Calmes said. “It helps our guys in the field do what they need to faster than they could before. It keeps all our project information current and available to anyone who needs access to it, including outside architects and suppliers. We’re all on the same platform and the information is at everyone’s fingertips.”

Additionally, the Revit software Bayland currently uses as part of its building information modeling platform is a significant upgrade from the software it previously used, said Roger Thiel, vice president of engineering services at Bayland.

“When we communicate with clients, subcontractors and material suppliers during the planning and construction process, being able to do that with 3D modeling is a huge benefit,” Thiel said. “We can share building plans in real time so that clients have a better understanding of what they’re getting and we are better able to respond to their changes.

“During the process, we can give a 3D model to the HVAC subcontractor, he can put his product into our model and send it back to us. We can see if there is a beam in the way of their ductwork or vice versa. We’re all working off the same plan, the same model, in real time. You’re solving problems on paper instead of out in the field, where it is much more expensive.”

As an example of how the technology benefits building contractors as well as clients, Thiel cited Bayland’s recent completion of the Menominee Nation Arena in Oshkosh, home to the Milwaukee Bucks’ development league team, the Wisconsin Herd.

“That was a fast-track project,” Thiel said. “From start to completion, that project took only about a year, which for a project of that size is impressive. To do that, a lot of things have to go right, the process has to run smoothly, and you have to be able to make changes quickly. Without the technology we use now, that wouldn’t be possible.”

Technology evolves

Most industry professionals expect that technology innovations will continue to improve the way the design and construction process works.

“I would expect to see continued changes, because in just the two years we’ve been using ProCore, for example, it’s become much easier to use and much more robust in functionality,” said Calmes. “We’ve just recently been able to add mobile timecards and real-time payroll reporting, tracked right to the job.”

Calmes believes the move toward mobile applications will continue, “so that eventually everything that’s available on desktop will also be available on hand-held devices” at the job site.

Talavera believes robotics will play a greater role in the construction process, especially as the supply of skilled construction labor dwindles.

“In hotel construction, for example, I can easily see more use of modular systems, built in manufacturing plants with robotics, rather than being built in the field,” Talavera said. “You could have complete bathroom systems constructed in the plant, then transported and put in place at the hotel. You would be reducing the hands-on work required in the field. That can be critical, because already we don’t have enough resources in the field. That’s definitely a challenge we’re facing as an industry.”

In terms of design and engineering, “we’ve seen a lot of change in the 25 years I’ve been doing this,” said Thiel from Bayland. “When I started, AutoCAD was still an emerging technology and we were still doing a lot of design manually. AutoCAD eventually became common, but now even that has been overtaken. With the technology we have now, we’re able to do much more sophisticated projects much more quickly than in the past. What I expect to see is more ability to use hand-held devices to create renderings in the field. The technology is all there. It’s just a matter of making it connect.”

One thing that won’t change is the human element, according to Talavera.

“The technology can improve your efficiency,” she said, “but you still have to put in the correct data and you still have to be able to analyze it correctly.”

Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.