Construction management is a “paper-lovin' business.” Big paper, too, with stacks of 30″ x 42″ sheets that are scrutinized, scribbled on, copied, or extracted to Excel spreadsheets for others to work from over the course of days or weeks. What if all that paper disappeared and you could still get the job done-in real time?

Gilbane Building Company is giving the world of virtual construction management a shot with a system they internally call iBuild. Moving all operations online, it amounts to “cloud computing” arriving in the construction field. Gilbane rolled out the tablet computer-based system on a trial (beta) basis to some 20 projects around the country a couple of months ago. And if things go as planned, those paper plans and scribbled notes builders are all too familiar with should begin disappearing like the snow in Spring.

Well, maybe over several Springs. iBuild, though easy to use, is comprehensive, and various bits and pieces need to be worked out in the field. Recently I spoke with the Gilbane Technology Group staff who put iBuild together and with a couple of Gilbane engineers in the field who are giving a whole new look to the punch list process while constructing a replacement hospital in Maryland.

Gilbane's techies make no bones about their vision for iBuild: “We have some engineers and project managers in this company who have phenomenal specialized experience in healthcare design, for example, such as operating room design and construction,” says Jonathan Rider, Gilbane's Chief Information Officer. “With iBuild we can assign one of these people virtually to any project in the country or the world, with full access to all documentation and able to participate without ever leaving the office.” iBuild's 23 “smart apps” allow remote involvement in developing rolling completion lists (RCLs), punch lists, RFIs, scheduling, safety inspections. Altogether eight modules are being piloted now in the field and 12 to 14 more are nearly ready to go.

The virtual management program evolved from Gilbane's 12-year involvement using “less than capable” software packages on the market today, which gave engineers a taste of what might be done. “About a year and a half ago,” says Todd McCallum, Director of Professional Services for the Technology Group, “we decided to link up with InQuest Technologies in a partnership to build an online project management program from the ground up. We built smart applications for some 23 activities in all and create efficiencies wherever we could. Today we can create a workflow behind each and every application.”

iBuild can bring in the owner, the architect, the contractor, sub-contractors, and consultants together on one user platform. With the various applications displayed as boxes, or “widgets,” users can one-stroke access any application they want. A superintendant might want safety data and reports on daily work and inspections; an engineer might be looking for RFI submittals or meeting minutes. A regional manager might want to communicate daily on multiple projects. It's all there, available from a single dashboard and drilling down to any level of individualized detail.

“Say, for example, you're doing an RCL prior to developing a final punch list,” McCallum explains. “Engineers are constantly sending RCL items to contractors for their attention and resolution-a wall needs caulking, duct work has to be completed, carpeting laid. The program enables the engineer to write the item and show it on the appropriate drawing, with an icon indicating its location. The engineer can also take a photograph of the item in question on a computer-mounted or handheld USB camera. All this goes out in an automatic email notification to the appropriate sub, who does the work and logs into iBuild to mark that the task is completed and ready for inspection by the project superintendent, who signs off on it. It's all done with the push of a few workflow buttons.

“You can imagine, when you have 500 of these items on a job, the time you can save with this,” says McCallum.

One of the beta sites on which iBuild-specifically its RCL function-is being tested is a 510,000-square-foot replacement Washington County Medical Center in Hagerstown, Maryland. “I have a notebook computer I carry on my forearm,” says Ryan Becker, Gilbane Senior Office Engineer for the project. “It has a Sprint air card and, as I walk about the project, I log in any deficiency, write it up, identify it with an icon on the appropriate drawing, and even attach a photo; I hit the workflow button, and it goes as an e-mail notification to the sub-contractor involved.”

Becker recalls when earlier in the project-actually about three weeks prior to this conversation (iBuild in the field is new)-“I would take handwritten notes that nobody could read, therefore I would have to enter the information in a spreadsheet, and have that spreadsheet sent back to me when the work was done for inspection. The process often took a couple weeks. On iBuild, which is more in real time, different actions by different subs are color-coded, depending on what they are, so I can immediately see what action was taken and follow the chain of events.”

As an example, Becker notes that hospital projects typically involve a great deal of owner-furnished equipment that is purchased at the last minute to avoid the instant obsolescence healthcare technology is prone to. With the new equipment we may need to rework some under-slab electrical floor plumbing to fit the new equipment. With iBuild we can write the RFI, forward it to the engineer for his response and direction, and then issue it to the subs with the revised drawing or detail. Once the work is completed, the sub can hit the workflow button, letting field staff know the work is complete and ready for inspection.”

Gary Orton, Gilbane Senior Project Executive on the Washington County site, continues, “When the sub gets notification by e-mail or on his iBuild dashboard, he'll do the change, write it up and hit the workflow button for an event to go to the super in the field to inspect and sign off on.”

Because field experience with iBuild is so recent-that three weeks' experience Becker was speaking from-Gilbane has yet to equip its subs on the Washington County site with tablet computers of their own, although any sub with a laptop having Internet access and log-on information can participate. “It will be a challenge getting subs involved and buying into this, they're so used to paper and big filing cabinets,” says Orton. “We're still using the old approaches for RFIs and submittals; we're only doing this for RCLs and punch lists.”

Otherwise the old ways will prevail, at least for now, says Orton. “We still spend a lot of time making sure people in the field have the latest information and drawings although, very often, they won't. Right now we have plan tables stacked four or five high with 30″ x 42″ sheets for work that a computer and a 60″ monitor will do in the future.”

“It blows my mind,” says Becker, “to think we'll see a day when there won't be piles and piles of paper, and people losing track of documents when they need them, and instead have online documents that all the trades have access to and can build from.”

Gilbane has already addressed one key issue in getting industry-wide acceptance of this modality: training. The system offers self-training modules for every activity, or widget, covered by iBuild. A sub clicks on a “how to” display for a particular action and sees pop-ups offering a detailed explanation. These audiovisual tutorials-some 130 of them-are available for every stage of an activity.

The system also addresses the obvious questions many ask about wireless “cloud” computing: Can it be used without a signal? Yes, iBuild is in development to work offline in disconnected mode, developing RCLs and writing emails ready for synching up when the network is restored. Is the system reliable? As with most cloud services these days, the system has 99-plus-four-digit percent reliability, coming close to “total” but allowing time for occasional updating of servers. Is it secure? The system is a virtual private network (VPN) with 128-bit encryption and with servers located in secure backup data centers.

Now with the field testing underway in those 20 projects around the country, Gilbane has an ultimate vision for iBuild. “It'll be an all-encompassing system,” says Ryan Becker, “with everything coming out of the Web page. You just need a name and a password and you're in.” Adds Gary Orton, “Everything that now requires separate platforms-clock management, field operations, safety management, submittals, and so forth-will be pulled together onto one platform. And no matter where you are, once you're in, you're in.” HD

For further information, visit http://www.gilbaneco.com.

Healthcare Design 2010 May;10(5):14-21