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Building into the Future

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PCL Drone – Caption: A PCL drone in Flight: CREDIT PCL

Edmonton’s skyline is soaring as building projects continue to rise across the city. However, there is more than construction going on. Edmonton’s builders are embracing technology that is changing, challenging, and moving the industry forward in interesting and exciting ways.

“It is 100 per cent important for builders to explore technical innovation,” says Leeran Giovannoni, project manager/estimator at EGM Drywall Systems Inc., a residential and commercial drywall contractor specializing in steel framing, insulation, drywall, taping and acoustical ceilings. “Not only for builders, but for everyone in the construction industry. It seems like a lot of industries are adapting to new technologies and digital ways of doing things, but construction seems to be an industry that is adapting quicker than most others.”

EGM Drywall is no stranger to technology.

“We have implemented technology into our building processes as well as administrative processes,” Giovannoni explains. “We have equipped our field management team with tablets for ease of communication and quick access to our database for information pertaining to each individual project. For our administrators, we have built a system that automatically creates everything from quotes for a customer’s request to work orders for subcontractors, material orders, invoices and so on.”

The agile company has plans to implement even more tech in the future.

“We are in the process of developing a mobile software/application that will handle our current system with some very fascinating new features, including a geo-tracking module. We have also added an invoicing feature so that all subcontractors are issued a work order automatically and the jobs are invoiced automatically. There is a material order portion that goes directly to our suppliers, which eliminates the need for paper orders. All correspondence is done in real time through the app.

“The reason for moving towards a more digital solution is not only to eliminate the day-to-day mistakes that everyone makes, but to also streamline our processes so that each job is treated the same way and each job is controlled properly.”

Giovannoni notes the speed at which EGM Drywall and others in the construction industry are adapting to new technologies. “Ten years ago, we did our steel framing layouts on site with a chalk line and a marker. Now, we are on jobs with a laser scaling machine and a laptop. It’s changed so much in the last 10 years, and with more accuracy and more detailed processes using technology, its only going to keep being adopted by the industry… especially with modular building. We think that’s the way of the future with regards to technology and construction. Controlled environments, assembly-line like processes and so on.”

Rob Rogers, construction manager, Western Modular Homes is quick to agree.

“Many people still have the impression that factory-built housing is somehow lesser quality than a site built home due to the abundance of cheap trailers made in the past,” says Rogers. “I believe over the next 10-20 years the building industry will see many more changes than in the past. More offsite building of components or modules is definitely the way of the future.  If you look across the world, many countries (like Germany, Sweden and Japan) are already building a lot of their housing this way.

“North America is behind in offsite building technologies, but there are a few companies in the US trying to disrupt the construction industry this way. For example, Marriot Hotels has chosen modular construction for all its new builds and Katerra is building thousands of apartments through offsite methods. The UK and New Zealand are struggling with housing shortages and the government has been pushing for more offsite construction to help solve the problem.”

Western Modular Homes is a frontrunner in Edmonton when it comes to innovation in processes and technology implementation in offsite building.

“Having most of the construction happening all under one roof allows us to innovate easier than a site builder could,” Rogers explains. “One of the most innovative things we have done is figured out ways to ship over-height houses under-height. If we hauled them at full height it would be very expensive to get the power companies to take the lines down, so we figured out different methods for tackling this problem.  This includes hinging the roof system and some of the walls.

“We have also implemented ‘just in time’ delivery of information and specification to trades and suppliers so that the customers can make changes right up to when the products are ordered and the work is getting done.

“You can also tour some of our houses online if you have a Samsung gear VR. It is a really cool technology!”

For the modular home builder, the future is exciting. “There is some really good robotic machinery that can make housing components. The future will see more offsite building with advanced machinery,” Rogers concludes.

Mosaic Home Services Ltd. works with homeowners, property managers, and commercial contractors through a group of independently managed brands focused on improving living spaces. With several subsidiaries under the brand (including Iron Shield Roofing, Colour Envy Painting and Everlast Vinyl Fencing), co-founder Steven Knight relies on technology to ensure Mosaic always runs at peak efficiency.

“Over the past few years we have implemented a field service management tool that’s actually Edmonton based. It’s called Jobber,” explains Knight. “We use Jobber to quote, schedule, complete, and invoice work across most of our brands. This tool allows us to keep all departments of our business on the same page with every client, every project, and every point of communication. We’ve built our processes around this platform to improve the overall client experience, while making training and scaling up our business simpler. We’re able to complete work faster and more efficiently than our paper-based competitors and deliver a better client experience on each project.”

Technology, says Knight, is important for the construction industry now and into the future.

“Without innovation, builders and people in construction will continue to struggle,” he says. “The market is demanding builders that adapt their systems and build businesses that deliver products to market more efficiently. Technology is the best tool to accomplish those objectives.”

PCL Construction is a group of independent construction companies working in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and in Australia. Its operations in the civil infrastructure, heavy industrial, and buildings markets amount to an annual construction volume of more than $8 billion, making PCL one of the largest contracting organizations in North America. Daniel Doherty, manager of virtual construction, is expertly positioned to see, analyze, and implement the technology that improves the construction sector, but also the mindsets that impede it.

“The architectural, engineering, construction and owner-operated (AECO) industry in general is starting to see the rapid development of technologies which have been available for decades, most notably, building information modeling (BIM), which is a digital twin of the built environment, initiated during design, refined during construction and eventually used for operations and maintenance,” Doherty says.

“Although utilizing BIM can generate huge benefits for every stakeholder in the value chain throughout the entire lifecycle, to realize its full potential BIM requires a significant change in project execution, i.e. deliverables, scope definitions, contracts, procurement, etc.,” he continues. “The fact is, the AECO industry is notoriously risk adverse, so when standardized process that are historically entrenched are challenged and new workflows are introduced which change deliverables and ultimately how money is spent on a project, there is understandable trepidation, which manifests in outright rejection by some. Consequently, BIM is rarely used for robust lifecycle applications, no matter how much value it would bring. The industry tends to retreat to what is familiar and, regrettably, the status quo is teeming with waste and inefficiencies.”

However, he sees a shifting paradigm, and is pleased that PCL embraces the technology that keeps the company growing. “There is value in utilizing BIM technologies throughout construction,” Doherty insists. “PCL continually utilizes BIM and related technologies as part of a wider lean construction initiative meant to reduce waste and streamline project delivery. We are continually looking for ways to exploit technology to boost productivity, improve quality and optimize processes.”

PCL has also embraced 3D scanning, robotic total stations, augmented reality, virtual reality, autonomous drones and environment sensors.

“In the last five years we have seen almost exponential growth in the use of mobile devices (iPhone, iPad) in combination with cloud storage, which has greatly enhanced communication between stakeholders, improved information flow and storage, as well as reduced paper waste,” Doherty adds, but he also feels there is still a long way to go.

“It is no secret that the construction industry has a productivity problem. Granted, there are many different reasons for this, for example safety regulations, design complexity etc., but one cannot ignore the lack of technological adoption in the AECO industry.

“It would be impossible to ignore artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, 3D printing, 5G or any other of the ‘almost there’ technologies. All will be tied together, and each will have profound impacts on the AECO industry. I, for one, am getting impatient with the entire industry and the reluctance to accept the ‘already here’ technologies and can’t wait to see some real disruption because those that have invested and have committed to utilizing technology will be stronger for it.”

Doherty concludes with a statement that rings true now and for the future of the building industry in Edmonton. “Construction is vital to our entire socioeconomic structure. Given the position we are in as a society, implementing the tools available to become a more sustainable industry is not an option, it’s a necessity.”

Special thanks to the Edmonton Construction Association for making its members available to provide insights for this article.

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