Something big is happening in construction technology. It goes beyond the recent rampant growth of smart devices on jobsites and the explosive development of apps around the globe. It even goes beyond the growth of cloud computing, helping to manage large project files with faster networks that connect far-flung work crews.

As big as these trends are, an even bigger shift is happening: Collaboration and web services are becoming the norm on more and more projects and transforming how the industry operates. Construction firms increasingly are seeing the value of deploying web services, which can be broadly defined as a set of protocols that help apps to interact over web-connected devices.

Web services are helping project teams use their smart devices to work with smaller slices of data from a larger building information model file and work with it in the field. From the data captured on jobsites, they are developing new work processes that save time and money.

These are some of the insights experts in the field brought to ENR's FutureTech conference, held in downtown San Francisco's Embarcadero district on March 14 (see related story here). They also discussed results gleaned from a recent ENR app survey. ENR earlier surveyed its FutureTech newsletter subscribers, asking them to recommend three top apps they use and why.

The results, revealed during ENR's conference, showed that collaboration and field-management apps are among the most popular features that construction professionals are using. (For a graphic of the top apps recommended, and ones ENR has noted, click here.)

Of some 74,000 surveys sent to subscribers in February, ENR received 726 responses and heard from a diverse range of app users who described themselves as engineers-designers and/or architects (239 respondents), general contractors (218) and specialty contractors (82). Nearly 6%, or 42, of the respondents identified themselves as owners. The remaining 145 respondents described themselves as technology vendors, construction managers, specialty materials manufacturers, university educators or persons working in sales, surety or commissioning; in the survey, these occupations are under the "other" rubric.

Collaboration in the Cloud

The top results? Bluebeam Revu for the iPad got the most recommendations. The app ranks high with readers for its ability to view PDF plans, mark up project files and, using those markups, collaborate with work groups around the globe.

Autodesk's BIM 360 Field (formerly Vela Systems) also ranked among the top three apps that readers recommended, primarily "because it brings construction management and BIM together," as one survey respondent said. The field app, which also can render 3D drawings, is used for commissioning, punch-listing and documenting practically every required project form. If a user loses connectivity, the app saves the data to synch with cloud servers when network connectivity is restored.

Eric Davis, a virtual-design and construction manager with consultant Swinerton, told the FutureTech attendees that field apps have changed the firm's workflow and helped it set standards. "It's a tool to create your own process and standardize" processes, he said. "What we realize now is that we also have real metrics. We have data that we can leverage." Now, the firm is using its workflows to create metrics for benchmarking. "The future is leveraging and sharing the metrics, so we can better the industry and make it more efficient," he says.

The opportunity to grow this budding ecosystem of field apps—and share data to build new apps, or "mashups"—is growing, says Kimon Onuma, president and founder of engineering services firm Onuma Inc., based in Pasadena, Calif.

Take the example of a web-service tool that pulls up floor plans. "The floor plans are driven by a database. When a piece of that [database] changes, the graphics change in real time," Onuma notes.

Another possibility that web services offer is the ability to plug an app into one database for the needed information, then plug into something else, he adds.

"Your data is your asset," Onuma told the FutureTech audience. "It's time to bring the building industry into this world of web services. It's kind of scary, but it's an opportunity that exists."

Still Waiting for the ‘Right’ App

Andrew Carter, a project manager with Concrete Services, a general contractor in Boynton Beach, Fla., was among the survey responders who recommended a weather app to track fast-moving storms. However, as productivity apps grow in use, Carter says he is waiting for an app that works well enough to help his employees to do more job-costing in the field and inspires older workers to use it.

"There are people who still prefer printed plans and hand-writing time cards," Carter adds. "The field for app adoption is wide open."