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Digital Master BuilderQ&A With Newforma Inc's CEO

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ENR: What’s the biggest problem facing the construction industry and how can we solve it?

Ian Howell, (CEO of Newforma Inc.): The construction industry is forecasted to grow to 11% of global GDP: a $12-trillion industry by 2020. McKinsey Global Cities research suggests that by 2050 we will need twice as many buildings as today.

But today, project delivery is all too often a broken process. Using conventional project delivery methods you can get pretty disastrous results. BBC Headquarters in London, New York East Side Access and Chicago Millennium park projects are examples that were hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and many years late. This poor performance as an industry is unsustainable. Owners, led by The Construction Users Roundtable for example, are saying we need this to change; we need projects undertaken by deeply collaborative teams where project delivery is ‘better, faster and more capable”.

Our ambitions as an industry just keep getting bigger because building engineering and materials technology has allowed it. Like the ‘spaceship design’ for the Apple Campus 2 Project and the ‘mile high’ Kingdom Tower. The challenge is managing the increasing complexity of these ambitious projects. So much information is going back and forth between the disciplines that coordination is so often lost creating rework and delays.

Historically, coordination was the responsibility of a Master Builder. So even a very complex building like a Gothic Cathedral was possible because of that single point of control. As the industry has transformed over time we created silos brought on by specialization. And then to manage discrepancies between silos the industry hid behind "Errors and Omissions Exempt" on the bottom of our drawings.

ENR: So you want Newforma to be the digital Master Builder?

Howell: Yes. We want everyone on a project team to have access to the same information that the Master Builder would have had. And it’s not just about uploading all the data to a single data source. We believe that information on large and complex projects will always be distributed but that it needs to be accessible by anyone who needs it from any design office, on the job site or from a mobile device. We’re trying to offer that.

We agree with Albert  Einstein when he famously said, “ you can’t solve today’s problems by using the same methods that got you there in the first place”. The conventional approach to project delivery is to use on set of tools for project management (tracking RFI’s, Submittals, Change Orders, etc) and another set of tools for Information management (such as Email for collaboration, Microsoft office, spread sheets for estimates, BIM for coordination of geometry, etc).

What makes the construction industry unique is the “situational team” – different companies that find themselves working together as a team just for the duration of a single building project, each with their own back office systems using different technology ( I use Revit, oh, I use Bentley, oh, I use Graphisoft all working on the same project).

ENR: What would you like to see as a solution for in the industry as a whole?

Howell: More access by the entire project team to the exact same information for better communication and decision making. Not all on one server in one workspace in the cloud – but on a federated basis where team members have local access to the information they need on their company network as well as equally easy access to shared information from other team members.  Project information should be able to exist on premise for certain companies or hosted in the cloud for others depending on how they wish to work.  It is up to the technology companies to resolve how all of this information is managed and shared seamlessly (which we have implemented through our Newforma-to-Newforma technology as an example).

The other thing is more mobile. People really want to manage their info through mobile devices. Finding ways to really help them achive much greater personal productivity using their handheld devices . If they want to take copies of their plans on site, they can (using Newforma Plans for example). It there is a problem on site, they want to handle it right then and right there they can (with Newforma Field Notes for example).

ENR: What’s beyond cloud/mobile? What’s next on the horizon?

Howell: Some of these things will take some time to play out. We talked about the almost ten year adoption cycle for BIM. What we’re seeing is that same eight or nine more years in front of us for how to best to use the cloud to assist in project delivery and how to best use mobile devices in ways we never have imagined before the iPhone and iPad.

ENR: It seems like your customers want all the information ona project in their hand all the time?

Howell: What they want is access to all of their project information. They can’t possibly carry it all on today’s hand held devices. But they want access to it wherever it is being stored (back in the office, at the job trailer or hosted in the cloud) and they also want the ability to act on it in the moment. If there’s a request for information when I’m right on site then being able to actually respond immediately to that question and close it out from on the job-site speeds up the whole process. That’s the big trend: wanting to do more and more through personal productivity on mobile devices.

ENR: As you created cloud/mobile did you look outside the industry at consumer world?

Howell: For mobile we did in particular. We played with the idea of a 30-day free trial. Or that users would get so many of something, like 30 free RFI’s.  Ideas like you can get 50 plans for free but the 51st you have to start paying for. But at the end of the day we’re in the project business. It’s all about enabling teams around projects. So we decided let  our users try our mobile apps on a project and get the full experience of it. Also, if a contractor or owner decides to host a project on Newforma Project Cloud then the whole project  team can use the apps for free—on that one project.

ENR: What kinds of questions are customers asking about data security in general in the cloud?

Howell: Some customers want to host projects in the cloud and some only want to manage their projects on-premise. As a technology partner to our customers, we have to provide that choice (even for a single project) and manage the coordination and sharing of project information between every member of the project team.  For example, Beck as a design-build firm host everything on a Newforma Project Cloud. Turner prefers to manage their projects on an enterprise server deployment of Newforma Project Center. Their companies’ policies—even though they’re competing construction firms—work entirely differently. Our design customers have to be able to work with them both, seamlessly and easily.  It’s a tough problem to solve. But we have a solution in place.

ENR: Percentage-wise right now, are you doing mostly internal servers?

Howell: On premise yes—most of our customer’s information is beign managed on premise. If they have several hundred projects, for a big firm, then project extranets or cloud services are being used on say 10% of those projects

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