Seeing the chain of project communications breaking down, with subcontractors e-mailing questions to architects and responses going to everyone in blizzards of chatter, Chris Ross, an electrical contractor in Sacramento,Calif., decided to restore order.

Clouds and iPads Have Inventors Rolling Out Tools
Photos By Tom Sawyer
Mobile Plan Room, an iPad app that works in tandem with the BuilditLive site, provides access to the documents folder so that plans can be opened and viewed while users are out in the field.

He created the project collaboration portal, which launched in late June with one major twist. “We are not the only collaboration tool. The main difference is that we are truly web-based,” Ross says. “There is no software to install, no license fees. It is hosted in the cloud.”

It costs $35 a month to host a project on the site and share documents, with no additional charge for anyone you invite. You can set up an account immediately with a credit card, online. “All you need is a computer with a Web connection and a browser,” Ross says.

If you have multiple projects, a single log-on accesses a dashboard that links to them all.

There is another twist: the site’s documents folder is accessible at any time with Mobile PlanRoom, a free iPad application that Ross designed for contractors, architects and engineers working in the field. The iPad’s touch screen lets users browse, open, read, and zoom-in on drawings. The documents are pulled live from the project’s document folder when users log on via the iPad’s wireless connection. The app is only compatible with iPads.

The BuilditLive portal, from Construction Connect Inc., Folsom, Calif., where Ross is CEO and founder, has features common to other hosted collaboration tools—like an e-mail notification system and the project dashboard—but it requires no support from users. They simply log on from any device with web access. It is construction oriented, with folders organized around building disciplines, although the folders can be renamed by the site owner. The storage capacity of each account is two gigabytes.

The site can be used as a giant FTP site, with all the latest drawings, specifications and information requests organized and available at any time. It has an integrated e-mail notification tool so that project participants can be alerted when new documents are posted.

The site owner pays for the service and can invite as many participants he wants, using names and e-mail addresses to sign them up. The owner controls permissions for users to upload, download, review and collaborate on documents and schedules. Permissions range from “managers” down through settings appropriate for sub-contractors, consultants, clients and guests. Those users with rights to upload documents can post them to the site in batches for fast processing.

The documents folder has a folder tree on one side of the screen, and a contents list on the other side. Hovering over an entry generates a thumbnail view of the document, which aids navigation.


In a serendipitous development that complements the arrival of Ross’s Construction Connect suite, Daniel Schulz, a Salt Lake City plumbing contractor, invented and recently started selling a $60 rugged iPad case made from a delivery driver’s metal clipboard box. Inside the box is a padded compartment for iPad storage.

Schulz says he built the prototype by modifying an existing clipboard box with foam saved from packaging. He bought the iPad in April on a friend’s advice because the down economy cost him his office staff—his wife, who had to take another job. He says he needed to become computer literate to keep up with e-mail so that he could respond to business opportunities as they arose during the day.

“Then I realized, if I am going to take this to work, I better have a nice case—something inconspicuous and at the same time very durable,” Schulz says. “I take it on the jobsite and set it next to my tools, and I am able to do my work and do the office work at the same time.”

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