As CIO of J.E. Dunn Construction Group, John Jacobs’ most significant IT project was crafting a new Web portal that gives building stakeholders access to digital blueprints and other crucial commercial documents related to construction projects. But it wasn’t until a demonstration of the platform’s capabilities at a conference in November that he realized how powerful the software had become.
From a wireless hotspot and a laptop in a hotel conference room Jacobs showed off 3D modeling of buildings, including cost estimate changes on the fly, to about 50 architects. “It was flawless,” Jacobs says. “I was blown away by the performance of the rendering of a 3D model over a hotspot and how seamless it is.”
The accomplishment didn’t go unnoticed by the architects, who quickly tested the software on their own laptops and tablets. They questioned whether the information, updating in real time, was real. Jacobs, who impressed even himself, assured them that it was.
Jacobs’ path to the CIO role is unique. He spent his first 14 years with the company in various operations roles and gained technical experience only after weaving together assets from various acquisitions to create standard operating procedures. The idea is that whether JE Dunn was building a hospital in Atlanta or Phoenix, the process and outcome would be consistent. He credits CEO Gordon Lansford with taking a chance on an operational executive who believed that technology could be better leveraged to bolster the business. “I am the least technical CIO in the business,” Jacobs says.
Even so, Jacobs knew he needed to turn to technology to make collaboration more efficient for his construction business.
Construction modeling goes digital
Construction companies are not renowned for their technological prowess, as their core business and operations still rely heavily on manual activities. In fact, many contractors continue to cart around and paper blueprints. If a builder wanted access to all of the building information he would have to go to his trailer and get out three sets of drawings and cross-compare them to see the building rendered. But this unwieldy approach is unnecessary in a digital age that enables construction stakeholders to access information via a Web browser and mobile devices.
JE Dunn, a $3 billion company based in Kansas City, Mo., has embraced a digital strategy. “Now, on a mobile device, over a hotspot, I have all of it,” at my fingertips, Jacobs says.
Built on Microsoft SharePoint 2010, the Dunn Dashboard consolidates information such as electronic bid submittals and vital details regarding building information modeling. JE Dunn project managers, building owners, architects and subcontractors and use the portal to share information about building projects. The portal also integrates with the company’s ERP system, allowing managers to track project financials.
It’s the building visualization and modeling aspects of the dashboard that has Jacobs excited. In 2012, Jacobs began working with Autodesk on cloud-based 3D visualization software that allows users to see digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of places such as architecture, plumbing, electrical wiring and structural engineering. One of the perks is “clash resolution,” the problem that arises when, for example, a beam intersects with a column. Once identified, project managers can alter the design on the fly rather than redo the entire drawing.
Looking at buildings through a new Lens
JE Dunn added a proprietary pricing technology, called Lens, to the dashboard. Built with Microsoft and Autodesk, the app provides cost estimates for each building element in the 3D model. Users can open a building model in Dunn Dashboard, click on an object in the model and see how much it costs, including the object cost relative to the entire building estimate. Users can also change object properties — say from wood to brick — to see the financial impact of the change. Previously, calculating the cost of such a change would take two weeks.
“Now it’s instant,” Jacobs says. “It’s absolutely our biggest piece of technology that is changing how we estimate how much buildings are going to cost.”
Today, 42,000 users, including JE Dunn employees and their constituents, access 498 websites addressing projects such as hospitals, advanced manufacturing facilities and office parks, among other sites. By collaborating via the platform, project stakeholders can stay abreast of cost and schedule overruns.
Improvements to the Dunn Dashboard are forthcoming. Although Jacobs initially built the Dunn Dashboard to be accessible via any Web browser, the portal has not yet been upgraded for responsive Web design, which would provide users a consistent experience regardless of their device. Jacobs says his team is overhauling the portal to run in SharePoint 2016, which will provide a more consistent user experience across all devices.