Keeping track of nearly 6,000 school improvement projects at once was a tough assignment for education officials in Arizona. So they turned to a handy educational resource–a large Web-based extranet that now links the state's 228 school districts with architects, contractors and statewide supervisors to promote design and construction collaboration and ensure a transparent management process for Arizona's $1.1-billion upgrading program.

(Illustration by Guy Lawrence for ENR)

Schools in many parts of the U.S. are straining to keep up with population growth and states are earmarking billions of dollars in new funding to build, expand or renovate facilities. Projects are proliferating and management can be daunting. Extranets are becoming a key tool to link myriad project participants and ensure that facilities are ready to open on the first day of school without busting often tight budgets.

"Without the extranet, we would be inundated with paper and unable to maintain any serious control or accountability. We would likely be at the mercy of all the field clerks and hope it would all work out," says Philip E. Geiger, executive director of the Arizona School Facilities Board. "Each district would run its own project with the likelihood of increased costs to the state, and significantly extended timelines."

Arizona's program, which will involve work at 1,210 schools, began in 1998 and must be completed by June 2003, says Geiger. Local school boards can select their own architects, but ASFB issues bids and has hired nine project managers to assist them. To keep parties linked, the board selected Sacramento-based Meridian Project Systems' ProjectTalk software. "We didn't want customized software, just the best off-the-shelf product available," says Geiger. The $400,000 package provides real-time project history, drawings, mark-ups, meeting minutes and correspondence.

Although school districts use more of a read-only version, ProjectTalk allows all parties timely access to project-critical information, which eliminates surprises and helps facilitate decision-making–critical elements in publicly funded construction. "We need to monitor expenditures daily or costs can get out of hand. And we also have to keep schedule," says Geiger. P.J. Benson, Meridian implementation consultant, notes that the program is accessed through two separate project interfaces, one for collaboration involving districts, superintendents, architects, engineers and general contractors, and another for the board and project managers. The collaboration area provides daily reporting, punch lists, submittals, meeting minutes and drawings. The management portion includes cost data, field administration and document control.

REPAIRS Cracked masonry is among many fixes Arizona is making to statewide schools. (Photo courtesy of Arizona School Facilities Board)

Having the right kind of system is important. Steve Setzer, marketing director for Constructw@re, Alpharetta, Ga., breaks down industry service into three categories: client server, Web-enabled client server, and true application service provider. "Because of their lower costs and better efficiency, we started an Internet ASP in 1997, while others were still using local area networks," he says. "More and more school boards now use it because they can get a top-down look at their project in seconds. It also helps them generate updates for constituents and better documentation which, practically speaking, reduces litigation."

Hartford, Conn., officials have yet to sign a contract for an $80-million high school remodeling, but project architects and engineers have already agreed that San Francisco-based Inc. will become the extranet application service provider with its ProjectPoint software. "We are a small design firm and were using Buzzsaw for a previous renovation project on the school," says Z. Jan Wojas, project architect at Clarke-Tamaccio Architects PC, Hartford. "Then, the city decided to do a complete renovation instead of a series of spot renovations and made us project architects. We're now using 35 consultants located all over the East Coast. Running a project with Buzzsaw saves...on printing and coordination."

Bob Flowers, director of facilities planning for Fulton County, Ga.'s schools, was pleased that its extranet provider, Boca Raton, Fla.-based e-Builder, could scale up its system as the district scaled up its construction program. "It was originally designed as a single project version," he says. "We liked the features but needed to expand it." The county is soon to wrap up a three-year, $100-million upgrade of 60 schools. (The McGraw-Hill Cos.' Construction Information Group, ENR's parent, is a minority owner of e-Builder.)

The projects were divided into five clusters, each managed by a construction management firm assisted by a phalanx of architects and contractors. "In working with five teams, it would have been difficult to manage from my desk without this system," says Flowers. "All documents, specs and drawings are posted on line. As designs come in, they're posted and reviewed as well." The system provides a central repository for project information but also insures that an individual team can view only data relevant to its work.

The ability to work online was a condition of winning work on district projects, says Flowers. "There was quite a variety in the capability of teams to use the product," he says. "We had to help some get up to speed." Flowers says e-Builder is working on expanding the site to allow more participation by the district's many "owners," including school principals and PTA presidents. But the system already generated enough savings to allow the district to fund a $5-million light replacement effort that had previously languished.

ISSUE Small school had linking problem. (Photo courtesy of MMP Architects Inc. )

e-Builder is crafting an even larger system for the Miami-Dade County public school system, the nation's fourth largest. The county is in the midst of a $150-million-a-year new construction and renovation effort that includes 100 to 200 projects at any given time, says John W. Pennington, the school board's administrative director. "Systems are now sufficiently adept at document tracking to use," he says. Pennington adds that the e-Builder system will automate tracking and analysis of construction claims, something now done manually. The system is being piloted on two school projects before it is scaled up district-wide. "This is very much an owner-driven thing," says Jon Antevy, e-Builder CEO. "That's who we target–the top of the food chain."

While education market users are learning a lot from the tools, they are also teaching vendors how to improve products. And it's not always the largest users. Robert A. Wrublowsky, a partner at MMP Architects Inc., Winnepeg, Manitoba, had some difficulties with Buzzsaw's ProjectPoint system in designing the $7.5-million Sapotaweyak Cree Nation School in Pelican Rapids, a remote Manitoba site.

Wrublowsky's concerns center around Buzzsaw's inability to easily mark up drawings and maintain discussion threads well. "We need a forum to post questions that would notify all team members and allow us to troubleshoot bottlenecks," he says. He notes that Cree officials spent a "fair amount of time marking up drawings" and it did not work well. "So basically we're spending about $5,000 a year for a service that doesn't work all that well."

Jason W. Pratt, Buzzsaw's director of product strategy, says the firm is working on fixes to the discussion threads and will soon introduce integrated messaging with external e-mail notification. And he acknowledges how "involved people like Bob are shaping our future product."