Using Technology to Work Smarter
For Clark/Sullivan Construction, it’s not about getting bigger, it’s about getting better. The company’s aim is to improve customer experience by working smarter, being open and transparent and involving the client every step of the way, all through state-of-the art technology. It’s no wonder Clark/Sullivan is known as ‘The Partner to Build With.’
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when The Age of Information began, but certainly by the late 1980s the digital revolution was underway, and over the next 30 years impacted all aspects of how we live, communicate and work. While its impact is immediately obvious in business and manufacturing, not everyone recognizes the critical role digital technology can play in the construction industry.
“Oftentimes I would talk to people in the IT industry who would ask, ‘Why does a construction company need an IT guy?’ shares Todd Miknus, Clark/Sullivan’s IT Manager, who began his career there in 2006 as a technology consultant, before coming on board in his present full-time position in 2007.
“But in my mind, it makes perfect sense because of all the systems I manage,” he explains. “The people who work with me understand it, but I think there are people on the outside who think construction is all about labor and sweat in the field. That’s certainly true; there is labor and sweat, but you also have the office aspect and that is a part of construction too — putting together schedules, dealing with emails. All of that helps improve efficiency in the office, because you want a good marriage and good communication between office operations and field operations.”
For example, the company has standardized its use of the MS Surface Pro Tablet, a hybrid laptop/tablet computer with a touch screen and a stylus pen. To be sure, Miknus admits, “the Superintendents who’ve been working in the field for 20 or 30 years, long before tablets were available, know how to do the job with pencil and paper, but one of our goals is to show them how these new tools can help. Of course, they know how to do construction really well and they can teach someone like me a lot about construction, but on the flip side I can teach them just as much about technology. It takes time for both sides to learn, but then we have the best of both worlds,” he says.
“Much of the software we use is based out of San Francisco simply because of proximity and an example of some Bay Area technology that C/S standardized on is www.box.com, an online file storage container. We began cloudifying our project documentation in BOX and that speeds up access to information and there is a ton of it in there – over four terabytes of good construction information. Digitizing it and standardizing it in one place helps us stay organized in our main offices in Nevada and California, but when we have a trailer on a job site, which becomes a satellite office, everyone has immediate access to the same information. Saving this amount of information in the past would have been expensive and slow to access but using box.com has really been great.”
Miknus goes on to say, however, that before a new technology is adopted, it is vetted by putting it in the “hands of construction workers in the field. They will test it and if it doesn’t work for them, they will let us know with a comment similar to ‘This thing is going out the window or under a forklift if it doesn’t start to work!’ If the tech is not saving them time and it’s not working for them, we will abandon it. We believe in collaborating both externally (with our clients) and internally (with employees) and we don’t have top-down decisions. It’s more about, ‘this looks like a good idea, let’s test it and see if it works for everyone and then run with it.’”
Just over 35 years ago when the Internet was still in its infancy and smart phones, tablets, webcams and wireless connections still the stuff of science fiction, Dave Clark and B.J. Sullivan founded what Clare Christensen, Director of Marketing & Management calls, “a scrappy little contracting company, trying to break out on their own.” At that time their signature “raspberry” logo and branding was seen throughout town. Although many may have found the color choice to be odd, she says the founders didn’t mind, as people kept saying, ‘You guys must be really busy, because I see your pink trucks everywhere.’
Today those pink trucks have been replaced by a fleet of white and green ones while 110 Clark/Sullivan employees work from offices in Sparks, NV and Roseville, CA and from remote satellite offices on job sites throughout Nevada and California. The company’s portfolio includes public facilities, education, hospitality, medical, industrial and commercial buildings. “We enjoy projects that build better communities,” says Christensen.
“Always an innovator, Dave led the company into new markets and lots of new trucks,” she adds. Clark is now retired, but co-founder and company Chairman B.J. Sullivan who continues working in day-to-day operations while mentoring the next generation of leader/owners, is and always was “a go-getter, who pushes us to refine our technology and approaches.”
She explains that, “We like to push the envelope; we like to try new things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but we’re not afraid to try new things when it comes to technology. It’s paid off because after our projects are done, one of the things owners and stakeholders tell us is that they are so impressed with how we embrace technology and how we can make someone feel like part of the team, even though they are not on the job site.”
With that kind of progressive thinking, Miknus is a natural fit as his skills lead the company forward in ways the founders couldn’t have dreamed of in the early 80s, given the technology that was available then.
Long before the ground on a new project is broken more and more collaboration is happening between the general contractor, the architects, various subcontractors, and the project owners, which often times leverages technology. “The more collaborative you want to be, the more accessible you have to be,” he says, “and you need to be able to have remote meetings and you can’t stick to the old ways just because ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ There’s a shift away from the hard-bid project delivery method, where the lowest dollar amount always wins, because now it’s about more than the overall dollar amount; it’s about service, trust, listening to the client and working with them to be flexible. We can use the technology to be more collaborative and we can get creative with our time because of technology which helps to save time and make things more efficient.”
The company also partners with architects who use programs such as AUTOCAD and REVIT to create systems and buildings virtually before they are constructed in reality. “Most of these BIM programs are under the umbrella of AUTODESK and we collaborate hand-in-hand with the architect before construction with tools that capture each comment and notify each person in real time on one platform,” he says.
And, Miknus adds, it’s not only clients and staff the company needs to communicate with. “People may think the construction industry doesn’t interface with a lot of different agencies, when the reality is that not only are we in communication with the project owner and various subcontractors, we have to know all the local environmental laws and we have to take into account many different municipalities, state or federal governing agencies.”
Technology also lets Clark/Sullivan pool its resources, even when working in two different states or through a joint venture (JV) with another company. “Because of the technology we’ve adopted, we were able to pull a Project Engineer from our California office to help work on a project we’re doing right now near Lake Tahoe (Nevada), which is a joint venture with another General Contractor, so that means we’re working with a second company which requires more collaboration. So just on that one project alone, we have one project manager from our Nevada office, a project engineer from California office along with an entire separate team of people who are part of a JV company which uses their own technologies, and we are all collaborating together on one project to get it done.”
The newest technology Clark/Sullivan has introduced includes live cameras, giving a real-time portal into the progress of the project with a picture taken every five minutes, every day, rain or shine. “We want to give our stakeholders as much visibility and transparency as we can, and the live cameras are a solution we have found success in,” Miknus says. And because the photos are posted publicly on the company’s website, cams.clarksullivan.com. The cameras are also available for schools and colleges to use as a visual tool to get students exciting and asking questions about construction. “We stitch all the pictures together to create a time-lapse video, showing months and months of work distilled into a two or three-minute video. When you can condense two years’ worth of construction into a short video there are a lot of things happening and just pressing the pause button once will open up a ton of opportunities for question and answers.”
At first, the company used a commercially available time lapse photography software product, but then decided to take advantage of the flexibility and savings that could result if it had its own software which Clark/Sullivan developed in-house. “So, we figured out all the problems and solved them and added new features and became somewhat of an in-house software developing company on a very small scale. We also crunched the numbers and there was a large potential savings to be had,” says Miknus. Creating a custom time-lapse camera solution in-house helped saved money against the bottom line because it reduced “hosting costs” of putting time-lapse camera pictures into the cloud. This decision to create a custom solution was completely opposite from organizing project files in box.com as mentioned earlier.
While Clark/Sullivan leverages a number of platforms, including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Miknus chose Vimeo as a platform to host the videos resulting from the hundreds of thousands of 18-megapixel photographs taken over the life of a project. “Right now, it’s a visibility tool, but we’re tying it to our schedule, so if a subcontractor were to say, ‘on this date I installed these power poles’ we could go back and look and say, ‘we don’t see you on that date, but we see you a week later.’ A new goal is to develop shorter videos that are slowed down to show specific phases of construction such as structural steel or foundation work.” In addition, the company uses 360° cameras, which are different from the time lapse cameras and which document the interior. Miknus adds: “These 360° cameras give a completely different feel compared to a 2D photograph and the newer technologies really can immerse the viewer in a room or a building without having to step foot on site.”
In the end, of course, it is customer satisfaction and repeat business that measure success, and Clark/Sullivan is way ahead with 80 percent of its business being from repeat clients. While there are undoubtedly many contributing factors, not the least of which is a company philosophy that believes “great individuals make great teams,” it’s technology which makes Clark/Sullivan’s ideals of collaboration, communication and innovative solutions a reality.