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The Coronavirus Is Making National Companies Rethink Construction Tech

The Swinerton-built mass timber headquarters of First Tech Federal Credit Union in Beaverton, Ore.

Building construction projects for global companies has always been an intricate balancing act.

“For just one client, you might be coordinating between a headquarters in San Francisco and satellite offices throughout the Bay Area, an architect in New York and an engineering firm in Seattle, all while you’re trying to build projects at the same time in Austin, Atlanta and Los Angeles,” said Swinerton Vice President Peter Hau, who oversees North American construction operations for some of the largest tech firms and enterprise businesses in the world.

While shutdowns, a pandemic and the need to enforce social distancing on job sites have only added to that complexity, Hau admitted that at least one part of his job has become much simpler in the last few months.

With all of his clients working from home, he is no longer flying around the country to tour job sites and office spaces. Instead, he’s been making video calls and relying on Swinerton’s fleet of 3D scanners to show his clients how their future offices are progressing.

Working from home has offered global companies a chance to re-evaluate their relationship to construction technology. For their contractors, it has offered a chance to showcase the value of the devices and modern construction methods they have been investing in over the years.

While the shift to work from home was abrupt, staying in touch with clients has actually never been easier, Swinerton Executive Vice President Don Adair said. In the past, Adair might have set aside two full days to travel across the country for a single three-hour client meeting, but now he is now able to keep in touch on a daily basis with his clients through videoconferences.

Keeping those lines of communication open is crucial, Adair said, because clients have more questions than ever before.

“We’re constantly searching for ways to expedite material delivery and progress all while ensuring that everything on site is smooth and safe,” Adair said. “For all our projects, we’ve come up with several contingency options to accelerate the project, if [a] customer needs or demands change.”

The Virtual Tour Comes To The Job Site

The most important tools in Swinerton’s arsenal for remote collaboration are laser scanners and 3D cameras. As often as once per week, Hau said, project teams take full scans of ongoing construction projects, resulting in a highly detailed virtual walk-through that clients can take to see how construction is progressing, as well as a Building Information Modeling blueprint of the structure, which can be shared with engineers, designers and architects.

While Swinerton has been using 3D scanning for nearly a decade, the current crisis has made the technology much more tangible and valuable for clients.

A Swinerton project manager using a 3D camera headset and tablet to create a virtual tour of a job site.

“An architect 3,000 miles away can look at the clearance between two walls and confirm that we’ve built the room to the right size,” Hau said. “Normally, we’d have an immense number of people on-site for big events like a box walk, where during the framing stage, we review the location of every single outlet or light switch prior to closing up the walls. But the level of precision you can get with these 3D scans alleviates the need to fly out here in person. These reviews can be conducted right from a desktop.”

Many of Hau’s tech clients also work with third-party vendors like food service groups that build out kitchen areas, companies that design and staff on-site gyms, and IT consultants that design audiovisual and network infrastructure. Being able to collaborate with those groups without their ever having to set foot on the job site has saved everyone immense time and costs.

Even building inspectors have now begun to check in on Swinerton’s buildings using 3D scanners. With inspectors and clients both able to give their sign-off at a moment’s notice, Adair said, the process of construction is moving along even more swiftly than before. This is one change that may outlast the current crisis.

“I don’t see this going away for us,” Adair said. “Of course, there will still be face-to-face meetings, but I see the digital communication and the virtual walk-throughs replacing a large number of those.”

Construction Techniques

The current crisis has also led global companies to re-evaluate the size and design of their offices. As they look to drive more value out of their office projects, these companies are giving greater thought to cutting-edge construction techniques like prefabrication and mass timber construction. 

Even before the coronavirus hit, Hau said, large tech firms were examining these techniques as ways to build one-of-a-kind offices while saving time and labor. Hau pointed to one recent Swinerton project, a three-story, 156K SF office in the Portland area built with mass timber. Because the pieces of mass timber had been constructed and machined off-site in accordance with a highly detailed digital model, Swinerton was able to erect the entire structure of the building with a total of four carpenters and four laborers, a fraction of the number that would be required for building a traditional steel structure.

“There were also over 4,500 different penetrations for sprinklers, plumbing, AV cabling and electrical distribution, all of which would have had to be drilled by hand using traditional methods,” Hau said. “But by machining them off-site, we reduced the overall timeline of the project by about 20%.”

Expanding prefabrication and preconstruction also ensures that building materials arrive on-site just in time to be installed, Adair said, which helps cut down on supply chain and storage costs, driving more value for owners. 

Owners are catching on. Hau said that Swinerton is receiving daily inquiries from clients asking about the firm’s mass timber practice, which Hau chalked up to economic pressure to complete jobs more efficiently in the current climate. 

“These companies are certainly rethinking their offices on a small scale, wondering, ‘Where do we put desks and plastic screens to keep employees safe,’” Hau said. “But they are also starting to rethink them on the grand scale and reconsidering what an office should feel like, and how they should use it. We’re working to help them navigate both transformations.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Swinerton. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.