As an electrical subcontractor to several major home builders, Dallas-based Lanehart Electric must be as adept at job juggling as wire pulling. At any given moment, the company has multiple balls in the air, each representing a house in various stages of design and construction that's constantly subject to last-minute changes affecting everything from design to electrical components to completion time.

Home building's frenetic pace, though cooling lately, has tested Lanehart's hand-eye coordination. Dealing regularly with four individual builders during the residential construction surge, the company has had to allocate almost as many resources to project management tasks as it has to the nuts and bolts of wiring new homes.

Lately, Lanehart has been responding to that challenge in a way that might seem counterintuitive: by making sure key associates spend more time on the Internet. They haven't been given a green light to decompress by surfing message boards or shopping sites. Instead, they've been regularly logging on to Web sites that have all the information and interactive tools needed to work on the company's client projects.

At the behest of its home builder clients, Lanehart has become an active and mostly eager participant in Web-based project management. A tool that more contractors, engineers, and construction management firms are mandating for project participants, project Web sites that can be accessed with a standard Web browser are gaining acceptance as a platform for improving collaboration and streamlining management functions.

So far, Lanehart reports, that's a pretty fair description of its experience with Web sites powered primarily by Buzzsaw, a popular Web-based project management software program marketed by Autodesk, Inc., San Rafael, Calif. Used by clients such as KB Home and The Ryland Group, Buzzsaw-enabled sites have allowed the company to do more day-to-day and long-range project work in cyberspace without a corresponding increase in on-site computer hardware, software, or network management time.

Maurice Wilson, Lanehart's sales and marketing manager, says critical information needed to manage key aspects of the electrical work on each house — from bid to punchlist — are available through the builders' hosted project Web sites. More importantly, the site's automated communications, file management, and collaboration functions help ensure the company is always in the loop.

“We're able to tie directly to the Internet and easily pull off plans, specifications, and change orders without having to go to a project or builder's office,” Wilson says. “Any time a change occurs with specs for an individual house, we're notified immediately, so we're not waiting on calls, faxes, and other communications. We get what we need instantly.”

A frequent visitor to the site in his capacity as assistant office manager for Lanehart's Austin, Texas, office, Blake Chance says the Web site has cut down on the time staff must spend at client offices. “We used to have make one or two trips a week to pick up plans so we could bring them back and bid on them,” Chance says. “We don't have to do that as much now because so much of what we need is accessible right from our desktops.”

The project as community. Just as the Internet has brought information closer to everyone's fingertips in a macro way, it's now doing so in a micro way for interdependent members of a construction project community — electrical contractors included. In much the same way that Internet sites serve as information clearinghouses and communications portals for businesses, organizations, and causes, Web sites are being created that give parties involved in complex building projects the information and collaboration capabilities that they need to complete their work correctly, efficiently, and on-time — all under one digital roof.

Although not new, the concept of Web-based project management/collaboration appears to be gaining more traction in the construction industry. Increasing comfort with computers and the Internet, combined with improvements in the user-friendliness of technology and recognition of the importance of improving construction project efficiency, is fueling a surge of interest in using digital technology as a backbone for better project management.

For electrical contractors like Lanehart and others engaged in large construction jobs, regular visits to project-specific Web sites are becoming standard operating procedure. With their use by subs increasingly mandated by owners, lead contractors, or construction managers, the sites are emerging as the hub where all project-related communications intersect. And at its core, Web-based project management is all about improving and facilitating communications.

“It's really a forum for us to post information and get information that we need from other trades,” says Jeremy Camper, a project manager for Cupertino Electric, Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based electrical contractor. “They work best as a way to handle things like RFIs, and sharing drawings, submittals, and project meeting minutes. Though there still can be a significant amount of correspondence that takes place outside of the electronic site, they offer an easy way to exchange information and keep a history of that communication.”

Translation: Even though the sites use powerful software that automates collaboration, users must be diligent. To fully exploit their capabilities, contractors have to log on, check the status of requests/submittals, follow up as needed, and adhere to formal usage guidelines and mandates established at a project's outset.

“One of the greatest challenges to using them effectively is making sure you as a user keep up to date in what is still a fast-paced environment,” says Ernie Yacovone, project manager/estimator for Enertech Electrical, Inc., a Youngstown, Ohio, electrical contractor that has recently begun using ConstructJob, a Web-based project management system marketed by Accubid Systems, Ltd., Concord, Ontario. “I'm logging on every day as jobs progress, and we're very diligent about all of our project managers entering everything that's required to make it work for us.”

More than glitz. Properly used by all parties, electrical contractors agree that proven Web-based project management systems offer much more than fancy bells and whistles. With a reliable system for information sharing and communicating in place, the sites deliver tangible benefits.

For Cupertino Electric, they deliver the most punch in design-build and design-assist jobs, rather than “hard-bid” projects. The ability to post detailed CAD drawings and solicit critical design input from other trades translates to fewer errors and conflicts later in the project, according to Camper.

“As we develop our engineering drawings, we'll post them for review, allowing everyone from mechanical contractors to plumbers to architects to view them and make sure we have all the requirements covered,” he says. “That way we can take a look at what everyone is saying. That can help cut back on the lead time in getting submittals or deliverables approved.”

Camper says sites that offer powerful collaboration functions also help streamline the RFI process. Rather than funneling written RFIs through the general contractor, the sites have allowed Cupertino to have RFIs exposed to any and all parties that might be able to obtain answers and commitments.

For other contractors, project management sites are valuable simply because they offer a time-saving way of tracking the status of jobs. Settle Muter Electric, Ltd., a Columbus, Ohio-based electrical contractor, is a frequent user of sites set up by general contractors, and powered by systems from vendors like Folsom, Calif.-based Meridian Systems, which markets Prolog.

“They give you ready access to logs of all RFIs, and you can see every one written for a particular job in a format that's similar to an Excel spreadsheet,” says Brad Muter, a project manager for the company. “You also have access to detailed daily records input by on-site superintendents, as well as meetings of minutes of weekly or bimonthly meetings you might not be able to regularly attend.”

While Enertech Electrical's Yacovone says it's too early to see all of the benefits of working with the ConstructJob system its begun using, it's clear it will simplify many time-consuming processes.“It puts everyone and everything you need for a project in a central location, and its database capabilities will mean we won't have to bother keeping a lot of hard copies of documents around,” he says. “It's essentially an automated filing cabinet that allows for virtual paper shuffling.”

Barriers still exist. For all of its recent growth, Web-based project management may still face hurdles to broader adoption and deeper usage by contractors. One significant barrier may be the willingness and ability of a critical mass of contractors to participate. Lacking firm commitments from subcontractors to be diligent and responsible users, GCs and others who have been driving adoption might back away. There's already some evidence that interest may be waning. Kelly Anderson, president of JEN Electric, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based electrical contractor, says several GCs who had adopted Web-based collaboration several years ago and sought to bring in subcontractors like his firm, appear to have suspended efforts to implement it on a large scale.

“It now looks like all of them have stopped having subcontractors participate,” says Kelly, whose firm does use Autodesk's Autodesk for Subcontractors, a Web-based project management system designed specifically for subs. “It seems that many were getting mixed participation from trade to trade so there wasn't any productivity gain.”

So far, though, a growing number of electricals appear to be onboard with the concept. Though many see room for improvement in areas related to ease of navigation, the speed with which documents can be retrieved, and the degree of commitment from all users, there's an emerging consensus that the concept offers many potential benefits.

“Web-based project management is just in its infancy now, and we see ways to improve how it's used,” says Camper. “We think it will continue to improve as more contractors become receptive to using it, the systems improve, and everyone agrees up-front on the extent to which it will be used on a project.”

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo.



Sidebar: Web Enhances Lean Construction

The Internet may no longer be an example of cutting-edge technology, but its unique collaborative capabilities may have an important role to play in advancing groundbreaking new construction theories. Specifically, Web-based project management and collaboration may help contractors implement “lean construction” principles that emphasize the importance of coordinated design in the entire project delivery process — not just the physical structure.

A complex theory developed by the Lean Construction Institute, Louisville, Colo., the concept borrows from tenets of advanced production management and calls for an intense focus on the reliable and speedy delivery of value.

Cupertino Electric, Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based electrical contractor, has been involved in projects that seek to apply lean construction principles, and also routinely works with Web-based project management tools. Project manager Jeremy Camper says an example of employing lean construction is the utilization of 3-D coordination.

“That's becoming popular,” Camper says. “We've been involved in projects where we've done an entire building in 3-D and posted it on an FTP site. Using clash detection software, we've been able to generate all possible ‘collisions’ associated with design conflicts among the different trades involved. By the time the project gets to the field, it's collision free, and there are no change orders needed.”

By using the 3-D model and assigning schedule attributes, “you can review the constructability of a project early in the design phase,” he says. “It's a concept that dovetails well with Web-based project management.”