Hard Hat in one hand, Palm Pilot in the Other

Construction industry adapts to high-tech like a hammer hitting a nail.

Mid flying sparks and the steady hum of drills, a high-pitched ring echoes through the forest of steel beams. Alec Steele is quick on the draw. It's a contractor calling on his cellphone. "With the punch of three buttons [on the phone], I can manage five or six foremen," says Mr. Steele, who is a superintendent of a 36-story skyscraper project in Boston.

He's part of a $1.2 trillion construction industry that's starting to mix bytes with bricks - swapping walkie-talkies for cellphones and stacks of blueprints for laptops. While such technologies in corporate America are nothing new, they're just making their debut in the old-line world of construction. Indeed, the drive to build it faster, better, cheaper has sparked an era of e-construction that's helping the lunch-pail set get techy and cyber.

Palm Pilots are popping up on construction sites. The smell of blueprints signals inefficiency as drawings turn digital. Virtual 3-D cities show developers what they're really getting for their buck. Overall, new technologies are helping one of the most fragmented industries sharpen its precision, rev up efficiency, and save millions of dollars.

Builders who have entered the era of e-construction - only $6.3 billion of the industry's total business right now - can view architectural drawings online and print blueprints from their computers. Web sites act like project managers uniting what can be hundreds of teams, from Dallas to Singapore, on a multi-year construction project.

Even the bread-and-butter watercolor drawings and clay models architects use to illustrate their visions may soon become obsolete. A project called "Virtual L.A." for instance, superimposes a building plan onto the city's skyline, then lets viewers walk, fly, or drive through brick-and-mortar structures in real time. Sitting in a 160-degree wrap-around theater, a developer can take a virtual tour of a skyscraper to assess things like windows, shadow lines, and wall trimmings. Neighborhood groups can sit down with architects to more accurately evaluate designs and quality-of-life issues, such as whether planting daffodils or rose bushes will make a parking lot less of an eyesore.

"Artists renderings are never what the finished project looks like," says Bill Jepson, who leads the Urban Simulation Lab and Virtual L.A. at the University of California in Los Angeles. "In our model ... bricks look like bricks, people look like people, everything looks like it should ... placed in an existing neighborhood."

Using global positioning coordinates, Mr. Jepson has constructed 20 square miles of Los Angeles within centimeters of accuracy on a high-power computer. The program includes everything from floor plans and restaurant menus to Web pages linked to buildings. It is currently being used in a $110 million Los Angeles airport renovation project. There are similar simulations for other cities, including Berlin, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

This drive for accurate representation combined with architects' quest to liberate design from utility and cost has spurred another revolution: computer-controlled fabrication models.

The 3-D computer-aided design system creates a digital model of a building element, and then data is transferred directly to cutting machinery. Complicated, sleek curves and surfaces can be finished quickly. This frees up imagination and creates less repetition in the structure, says William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. The result is that in this golden age of design, the aesthetics become more democratized and responsive to context, he says. Think of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, he adds.

But before the finishing touches go on any building, hundreds of sketches and revisions have to be marked up and approved by architects, consultants, and contractors. Developers pass them around only to find that, say, the plumber's plan has to change. The back and forth can take months and cost thousands of dollars in printing and distribution. Now, thanks to a central Web site, instead of waiting for an overnight package, a consultant can download sketches, make changes, and send them on.

"We've cut 25 percent of our time away," says Jonathan Randall of Boston Properties, developer of 111 Huntington. Indeed, users of Constructware.com are 15 to 30 days ahead of schedule on average, which saves thousands of dollars. Most projects are 15 to 30 days behind, says Allen Emerick, chief information officer of Constructware in Atlanta. The site has information on bid solicitation, human resources, and internal messaging, among other features.

In addition to using the Web to shave off time, 111 Huntington builders assemble some parts off-site. The aluminum and glass "skin" will coat the skyscraper about twice as fast as the steel goes up because each pane is partly put together ahead of time. On the inside, floors are filled in quickly by powerful pumps driving wet concrete through pipes that carry it four or five stories up. Hoses spray it out, and workers balance on "whirly bird" vehicles that look like riding lawn mowers and skate across soft concrete. The result is cement resembling shiny glass.

"Concrete placement [used to be] done by motorized buggies," recalls Steve Weber of John Moriarty and Associates, the general contractor for 111 Huntington.

While computer chips won't replace the muscle work of pounding and lifting steel any time soon, Mr. Mitchell sees a future where workers in hard hats manage the process more by perching in front of laptops. They'll peruse handheld devices, download designs, and video-conference wirelessly from the site. Meanwhile, the distinction between robotic and nonrobotic will blur. Today's rotating tower cranes that pick up long slabs of wood and metal are crude harbingers of construction robots of the future. Machinery will have more intelligence and power, Mitchell suggests, and urban simulations like Virtual L.A. will make city planning more predictable and timely. "There will be fewer errors, more design freedom, more bang for your buck," he says. But, on the social level, more skilled workers will be needed, forcing out bottom-rung, older jobs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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