High-tech gadgets keep builders, homeowners in touch

Building projects run smoother with help of technology

By Bill Lewis | FOR THE TENNESSEAN

The most important tool if you're building or remodeling a house is no longer a hammer or a saw; it's a home computer, iPad, smartphone or other electronic device. Builders and homeowners now use computers and handheld electronic devices to instantly share information about the progress of construction projects. To-do lists, schedules, change orders and reports of each milestone are posted on a password-protected website, where they're just a click of a mouse or a tap of a touch-screen away.

Thanks to technology, homeowners no longer have to spend hours waiting for a contractor who misunderstood the schedule or wondering whether a project is going as planned.

"We've had situations in the past. Almost everybody has had nightmares they've gone through with a builder. But we have good tools and a good team," said homeowner Ed Routon.

He and his wife, Jan, tore down their West Meade home and are building a new one in line with LEED standards — the highest standard in sustainability. The Routons' contractors are using smartphones and iPads to keep up with the ample documentation required for LEED certification. Before leaving the job site, they use their smartphones to take photographs of their work and upload the latest information to the project's website, which is provided by a Web-based service called Basecamp.

"Everyone has to work together. The carpenter needs to know what the plumber is doing to optimize the design. We've all got to work together," said Erik Daugherty with E3 Innovate, who is working on the Routons' project.

Jason Broderick's remodeling company, Broderick Builders, recently began using a similar online service called Builder Trend.

"It takes everything we keep in the filing cabinet and puts it on the website," he said. "Suppliers, builders and the homeowners can all go to this central location. Everything is there."

The learning curve

Getting into the website is easy. "It's like logging into G-mail — just a password," said Broderick. But for construction workers who are more familiar with drywall than Android, there has been a bit of a learning curve.

"The sheetrock guys and the Bobcat driver aren't the most tech-savvy. A couple don't even have e-mail," he said.

Architect David Baird, whose Nashville firm, Building Ideas, has used Basecamp for two years, has learned to be patient with subcontractors and suppliers who aren't comfortable using a computer.

"Acceptance of individual team members to use the Basecamp process is the biggest hurdle we have. … It's amazing how many construction subcontractors are still computer-phobic. On one project, we have more than 20 subs and product suppliers (a total of 50 people), so there can be a lot of pushback."

In some cases, e-mail and text messages are a simpler way to communicate. Baird tried that during one recent project when the builder couldn't, or wouldn't, use Basecamp.

"The builder just kept ignoring it. However, the same builder kept losing e-mails and the attachments," he said.

But the time it takes to learn how to use Basecamp, and the $24 monthly fee, are worth it, said Baird.

"For us, Basecamp accomplishes the intent of our way of working with owners, builders and consultants, called 'Integrated Project Delivery,' which basically means that we use open communication and collaboration methods with the entire team all of the time," said Baird. "Transfer of information can occur 24/7."

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