Construction has been around for over a millennium (Howe, 1999). From before the ancient pyramids in Egypt to the Copper, Bronze, Iron, and Middle Ages—even the Renaissance, construction have always been in demand. Without it, the amenities achieved by modernizations would likely not occur. Therefore, it would seem fair to recognize that no matter the sector of business, there will always be someone who will have a need for a contractor. However, with so many contractors to choose from, how can construction businesses gain a competitive edge? In modern society, digitization processes excite consumers, interest investors, and can assist in maintaining a level of perceived professionalism and expertise. Additionally, digitization can assist in providing supplementary agile approaches to construction contractors, as needs and wants can easily be manipulated in digital formats. This research will address digitization developments in construction (e.g. construction management software), opportunities, limitations, and future direction, challenges (e.g. human learning), and the current progress. Additionally, this research will offer supplementary ideas and approaches to digitization by reviewing real-world construction businesses through peer-reviewed research articles.
Technological Advances in Residential Construction
In today’s modern society, digitization across fields has grown into the everyday use of convenience and rapid satisfaction. From ordering food directly to your exact location to depositing checks into your bank account; these convenient processes have been made easier than ever with just a few taps on a cell phone screen. Back when one needed to look up a number in a phone book to place an order for two large pizzas on a Friday night, one may have had the opportunity to scan a hardcopy document through a scanner that was connected to a cable on a desktop computer in order to convert the document into a PDF. That used to be amazing. Today, it is near an obsolete form of digitization now that these forms can be uploaded through mobile apps. But, what about construction? When one thinks about construction it can be reasoned that the initial thought is putting the hammer to the nail, so how can a labor-intensive industry benefit from digitization?
Consider the following: the financial decision has finally been made to build that dream home to retire in. A trustworthy contractor has been selected for the custom build and holds a meeting to discuss the project alongside an in-house architect. The dream is to build a 3,000-square-foot home complete with a finished basement, master suite, and an Olympic swimming pool. An architectural drawing would surely need to be composed, but this only provides a rough diagram of the aspiration one holds for their future. A 3D printed model can assist in conceptualizing the home by providing a smaller, three-dimensionally scaled mold of complex, geometrical components. By uploading the digital drawings to the 3D printer software, the device can begin printing the model. This tool can be useful to obtain the consumer, and keep stakeholders interested, but the cost to purchase and maintain can be expensive. According to 3D Sourced, the printers can cost upwards of $5,000 with annual maintenance costs around $1500 depending on the amount of prints (2020).
On a smaller scale, presenting 3D models to conceptualize new home builds sounds great, but may not be so economical. However, on the larger commercial-scale of 3D printing, the construction industry may outweigh the cons with industrial 3D manufacturing. For example, 3D printing can reduce material costs, make design changes quickly, and provide shorter lead times (Craveiro et al., 2019). According to Sakin & Kiroglu (2017), a 3D printed home in Russia costs just over $10,000 to build (or—print, rather), and only takes 1 day to finish a 400-square-foot structure. To put that into perspective, that is about the size of a typical basement, and the cost difference compared to a standard $350,000 home is about 97%. Thus, there may be a justifiable basis behind 3D printing residential homes with this in mind. Additionally, 3D printing concrete for foundations is already in the works and has been put to use in some countries like China and the Netherlands (Hager et al., 2016). However, it may take a long time before 3D printing is used to build residential homes in the United States until they can fully comply with building codes. Therefore, they may only be beneficial in regard to conceptual models, but these advances do not totally diminish the value in architectural drawings.
Automatic Computer Aided Design (AutoCAD) is an engineering program designed to assist architects and designers to digitally map construction components appropriately (Yang et al., 2011). In other words, it helps create the digital version of blueprints. By digitizing all this data into a PDF document that can be shared with all stakeholders, project managers, and senior executives, construction businesses are able to keep an archived data map of all projects. The benefits of the archived data can assist program managers in obtaining the best strategies for any given future projects within the archived portfolio. The advantages of AutoCAD provide the construction industry with a clear understanding of the exact specifications needed to deliver. With training, designers can concoct many drawings in the form of floor plans, site plans, elevations, cross-sections, isometric projections, details, surveys, and the rest.
Architectural drawings can be considered the construction worker’s bible, as it provides every aspect of the project needed to build the structure soundly, safely, and to the owner’s liking. However, the architect using AutoCAD to create the construction drawings is more than likely going to omit some features that are important to the consumer: finishes. In other words, the architect is not concerned with paint and stain colors or window styles and siding types. Typically, those details are left to the consumer to resolve. A typical wall detail may provide information about the gypsum board and 2×4 framing, but the detail is more than likely going to state ‘1/2-inch gypsum board RFP’ (ready for primer/paint). Not the color of the paint. Therefore, the project manager of the organization is responsible for maintaining the upkeep of the finish details of the home.
The Project Manager & Construction Management Software
In residential construction, the Project Manager (PM) is the face of the operation at hand. The PM must have the knowledge and expertise to complete a project to the exact specifications required by the owner. Additionally, the PM’s responsibility is to deliver the product in a timely manner while integrating methods that minimize setbacks. Research on construction project managers was conducted by Hanna et al. (2018) regarding performance determined by evaluation based on competency weights. This study found that the most important proficient data-based value fell on the economic aspect of the business under “knowledge and experience.” This suggests that PMs in this industry have a financial responsibility during the project life cycle that must be combined with relevant expertise.
Therefore, PMs must incorporate economic practices with vendors to keep within the bounds of a profitable and stable project. Additionally, these procedures should align to compliment deliverables and their lead times. Ultimately, PMs have to rely on the consumer’s decisions. If the customer proceeds beyond the project scope of work by selecting a marble countertop as opposed to granite, it is the PMs financial responsibility to decide if the preference is within budget. Construction management software can assist with financial evaluations, as well as keep track of all the specific and minute details.
Construction Management Software
BuilderTrend: A key aspect of project management is documentation. Before construction management programs came into fruition, it can be reasoned that most documented paperwork was filed in either hardcopy or PDF format. This practice could be time-consuming and create difficulties in the efficiencies of the organization. Construction management software, like BuilderTrend, allows for a multipurpose Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program that integrates project management and client user interfaces with ease (Pham, 2016). BuilderTrend has an integrated mobile app that allows clients to quickly reference the timeline or look back into recent change orders, and other digitized documents. Further, the software allows PMs to construct and alter timelines as required, generate estimates, proposals and change orders, and make adjustments as needed from conception to completion (Bauer et al., 2016).
CoConstruct: Much like BuilderTrend, CoConstruct is another project management software assisting the construction industry in digitization. Alongside bidding, estimating, and many other features merging CRM practices, CoConstruct also integrates photo sharing, subcontractor hubs, and organized document files (Ekwonwune et al., 2019). These management programs are beneficial because it integrates a global communication initiative designed to keep all stakeholders informed of current and future phases. This user-friendly platform assists PMs with staying on track of the project and being organized; assists with informing tradesmen of the scope, as well as providing a proposed timeline to start certain phases, and; assists the consumer and senior executives in monitoring the overall project.
These are just two examples of project management software. These programs are designed to make construction project management easier by introducing digitization of processes that is relatively new. Though these programs offer high-end organizational practices and other ease-of-use aspects, project management software does have one limitation: strong customer accessibility. At this point in time, the customer accessibility of this software is weak. Customers can view photos, documents, and timelines, but it does not give consumers an opportunity for complete inclusivity of one program.
Theoretically, if a customer is uncertain about finishes, the customer has no way of updating this information on the software once decided. A program like Smartsheet may assist with something like this as it allows PMs and customers to make adjustments as necessary. A Smartsheet platform is similar to a Microsoft Excel format in which cells can be manipulated and adjusted according to a specified function or assigned task. A recommended future direction for these programs would be to integrate some form of Smartsheet-like availability. This could lead to enhanced possibilities or solutions and may keep organizational skills at a high level as this integration can lead to decreased digitization clutter, and less confusion for the customer as the updated software would encompass various features. However, Smartsheet does not notify parties if a cell was updated; a user must logon to the software frequently to find any additional information. Therefore, it would be recommended to incorporate some type of notification system if these programs integrate these software.
Digitization has led to modernized practices in residential construction project management. Once the Project Management Institute was formed in 1969 (PMBOK, 2017), complex programs for commercial, industrial, and engineering construction began in the mid to late 1970s (Kolisch, 1999), but these programs did not come into play for smaller residential contractors until the early 1990s with Primavera software (Liberatore et al., 2001). These programs began to scale when agile concepts flourished and users were able to adapt planning techniques and respond flexibly to changes in the early 2000s (Qumer & Henderson-Sellers, 2007).
Digitization is the overarching catalyst to what construction project management is today. Without the ability to process the information needed for construction projects digitally, it can be reasoned that most projects would not be able to deliver in a timely manner. Using software to integrate all levels of the project from stakeholders to senior management, project managers are able to withstand the complexities of every project. Additionally, these programs are a clever and innovative way of keeping investors interested, consumers, and subcontractors informed and generate a line of communication and data through organizational and positional levels. These technological advances have modernized the construction industry and it is clear that they offer benefits to deliver completed projects that expand the organizational portfolio.
Mr. Brian Hoicker has worked in the construction industry for over 6 years. He started as an administrative assistant and day laborer, then worked his way up to Project Manager. Brian has completed over 20 residential construction and renovation projects and has proficient knowledge in construction management strategies and programs.
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