Technology is converging that promises to sharply reduce construction’s endless printing, scanning, copying and transmitting of paper plans, specifications and documents.
|(Photo by Tom Sawyer, Illustration by Guy Lawrence for ENR)|
A whirlwind of advances is making electronic plans increasingly practical and is creating an industry-wide hunger for access to plans online. Technology vendors are vying to become the providers of that service. One source at the Associated General Contractors reports more than 50 Internet plan room companies have been courting AGC at the national and chapter levels to gain access to the market.
Among the advancements propelling the issue are improved efficiencies in file handling that speed access to plans, and refinements in estimating and project management software that are enhancing the value of electronic plans. The pressure to more widely disseminate the plans is not coming from architects and engineers, who often create plans in electronic form only to distribute them on paper to the industry. It is coming more from contractors who say electronic plans can help them find, bid and perform their work more efficiently. In response, contractor associations and traditional commercial plan operations are forging ahead to build libraries of scanned plans and distribute them over the Internet.
Some contractors are still frustrated with the pace of change. "We are working with fellow contractors to try to accelerate the distribution of electronic plans," says Cecilia Padilla, project manager with Marek Brothers Systems Inc., an interior finishes contractor in Houston. Marek finds electronic plans so useful that it bought a large format scanner to do its own conversions of blueprints into electronic files. "We use them for estimating and quantifying our costs and communicating with our people in the field through color-coded drawings," Padilla says.
Padilla uses the markup features of On-Screen Takeoff, an estimating program from Houston-based On Center Software Inc., to track job progress on electronic plans. On Center also has an electronic plan room called Virtual Plan Room.
Padilla says dissemination of plans electronically would be in everyone’s best interest because it would reduce costs. "It just seems kind of silly to us to keep scanning drawings when the reprographer down the street has already done it and the architect probably already had them as .tif files on his server all the time," Padilla says. "Everywhere we go, people are talking about this and think that five years from now it will be the norm, but no one seems to be leading the charge."
Architects and engineers are not exactly out front. "Talking to architects, they’re not sure about all of this," says Richard Thevenot, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He says architects are worried about design theft and intellectual property rights but are more concerned about security against modification and the quality of scanned plans, which sometimes can be so bad that digits can be confused. "An eight might look like a three," Thevenot says. Scanning would be unnecessary if designers released secure, uneditable versions of their CAD plans in read-only formats, which is what the electronic plan room vendors want to persuade them to do.
"The plans need to get out," Thevenot acknowledges. "We’re looking at this transition to online plans. But...our confidence level is fairly low because we don’t have any experience with it. There is not a lot of motivation for architects to give anybody their electronic plans."
In the long run, many in the industry hope design professionals will upload their plans electronically to speed the process. Thevenot says his group is studying the issue to see if available vendors can meet the designers’ key concerns, or whether designers should form their own Internet plan company and control what happens.
MOVEMENT ISN'T WAITING. All around the country, contractor organizations are feeling the pressure to help their members search for and acquire plans online. From the standpoint of contractors and subs, the first and perhaps most critical step in bidding is to learn about work and get enough information quickly to decide whether to bid.
"The contractors need to see more work so they can get more work, and they need to be able to do that more efficiently," says Leslie Bloom, vice president of business development for AGC’s Carolinas chapter. It inked a contract May 1 with iSqFt, an Internet service of Construction Systems Technologies Inc., West Chester, Ohio, to create an electronic plan room for members.
With 3,400 member firms and 11 plan rooms, Charlotte-based Carolinas AGC Inc. is the largest AGC chapter in the country. It joins chapters in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, which also recently have signed up with iSqFt for its Internet Plan Room service. "The whole Internet plan room question has taken root in the last year. It’s a natural for adaptation to this industry," Bloom says.
Bloom says distributing electronic plans via the Internet makes particular sense in the bidding phase of projects, when contractors are trying to find work.
The online services that are competing for contractor groups are using new software techniques to present searchable catalogs and crisp images of plan sheets that quickly deliver a wealth of information about jobs over the Internet, even via relatively slow modems. Bloom says the process can be broken down into either negotiated-bid work, where plans are circulated privately by designers to contractors or subs, and publicly bid work, which is generally awarded by law to the low bidder and is required to be open to any qualified contractor. Plans and specs for public-bid work are the stock-in-trade of plan room operators.
"I try to do the grunt work and find out what is out there," says Theresa New, plan room supervisor for the Louisiana AGC’s main district office in Baton Rouge. She chases down plans the way reporters chase tips: "This is harvesting: Just getting out there and finding them."
TRADITIONS WILL DIE HARD. Plan rooms are regional libraries of paper plans for projects coming up for bid. Contractors and subs send their estimators in to pull plans and calculate bids for jobs, sometimes on a daily basis. They are hubs of activity and many have the social character of local diner or a rural post office. To some, they are also part of a huge construction inefficiency.
"Delivering plans and specs is a painful process. It’s cumbersome, costly and takes resources. Then there are change orders and new sets have to go out. It’s always been a bottleneck that screamed for more efficient tools," says Chip D’Angelo, vice president of business development for the McGraw Hill Companies’ Construction Information Group. F.W. Dodge, a unit of the Construction Information group, is the country’s largest operator of commercial plan rooms. McGraw-Hill is also the parent company of enr.
Dodge is competing for the affection of AGC chapters, local builders’ exchanges, contractors and architects as it builds its own online plan service, the Internet Plan Room. D’Angelo says Dodge expects to announce June 17 that its Internet plan room, Dodge Plans, will go live on its affiliated Website, Construction.com, with a service designed to let general contractors and subcontractors set up private electronic plan rooms for negotiated bid work. Plans for bids of this type seldom are found in the racks of traditional plan rooms, but are distributed directly from designers to contractors. But D’Angelo notes: "Paper-based plan rooms are still here. It will be two to five years before the industry is truly Web-enabled. And even when they can download them electronically, people still want a hard copy to work on."
Many contractors also will continue to want their traditional plan rooms because they like working from paper plans. And the rooms themselves are gathering places for people in their professions.
"That’s something you’d miss out there on the Internet," says Tom Klock, an estimator with Phoenix Floor and Tile Inc., Phoenix. "I really like coming in here," he says as he runs a wheeled measuring tool around the perimeter of a bathroom on a plan for a school at a Dodge Plan Room in Phoenix. He says he prefers paper plans, but admits he has not had much experience with electronic ones. "It’s easier for me to get it straight in my head when I’m looking at it like this," he says.
Competition for contracts to create electronic plan rooms has heated up dramatically. Competitors include young companies such as iSqFt; long-established construction information companies such as The Blue Book, CMD (Construction Market Data) and Dodge. Also launching e-plan rooms are reprographic houses and chains and Web-based collaboration services. The latter includes Buzzsaw.com, whose Plans & Specs plan-room function will be built in to the next release of Autodesk’s AutoCAD Architectural Desktop. Autodesk has been a financial backer of Buzzsaw from the Web company’s inception, but this is the first direct functional link between the products.
National AGC has been studying the field. "Forty-five to 50 of our chapters run [paper] plan rooms. We’re pretty familiar with plan rooms," says Marc Pursell, AGC’s senior director of business development. Pursell says there is no national AGC plan room, but the national organization was asked by members and chapters to find the most "comprehensive chapter-based Internet plan room solution available." AGC ended up recommending iSqFt’s service to its chapters.
"We don’t dictate what software they use. But we would like to see some standards and reduce the learning curve," says Pursell. "And if we can help some software platform that we know works well become a standard in the industry, then we think we are doing a good deed."
AGC chapters in Florida have gone in another direction. Several have either signed or are negotiating deals with Dodge, not only for its Dodge Plans Internet service, but to build as joint venturers physical plan rooms with AGC office space included. "We are building a new building," says Len Mills, executive vice president of South Florida AGC, one of three chapters in the state that have signed similar arrangements with Dodge. "We should be open by Nov. 1."
Mills says the office will include scanners and plotters as well as computer terminals for clients. He predicts the electronic exchange of plans will become as integral a part in doing business in construction as the cell phone and fax have become. "The potential is so great for the collaboration that can be accomplished," he says. "I think people see the future...or there wouldn’t be this heavy competition."
Although the vision of the future is clear to many in the industry, they acknowledge that it will take a while for the old habits to die. Dodge’s D’Angelo says the industry’s shift to electronic plans is under way. "The technology, the bandwidth, has started to come on to handle these files," he says.
Recognizing that the death of paper plan sets is not at hand today and may never be, iSqFt, Dodge, Buzzsaw, and reprographic companies such as arc–the American Reprographic Co. and its online plan service, PlanWell–are reinforcing the links between their Internet plan rooms and print shops. With the exception of Dodge, they are forging relationships with local reprographers so that their subscribers can, with the click of a mouse, order sets from local printers.
Dodge has moved in another direction by partnering with Plan Express, a high-volume Memphis-based reprographer whose shop is down the street from the national hub for Federal Express. In an effort to provide service nationally, orders placed over the Internet as late as 8 p.m. are promised for delivery to the customer anywhere in the country as early as 8 a.m. the next day.