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AECbytes Viewpoint #38 (May 8, 2008)

Two Steps Forward, No Going Back: How Our Firm is Using Technology to Gain a Strategic Advantage

Stephen C. Wright, AIA
Design Principal, Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company

Four years ago, the architecture and planning firm Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company created a strategic technology committee to see what leading firms were doing to improve project delivery. The committee’s formation arose from feeling a high degree of frustration. The people of Hanbury Evans felt that the technology they had, from CAD to communications, was inefficient at a time when clients were demanding more in less time. In this Viewpoint article, Design Principal Stephen C. Wright, who chaired the firm’s strategic technology committee, reflects on the changes that have restored the firm’s operational excellence.

 

Our technology review started with frustration over contract administration (CA). It is said that architects make their money in design and lose it in CA, and we were no exception. Four years ago, we set out to reinvent ourselves technologically to address that issue, not just in the CA phase but throughout the project lifecycle.

Like most firms in our industry, collaboration plays a huge part in our day-to-day work. Much of our work involves complex buildings on college campuses as well as historic structures, with all the experts such projects require. It’s vital that we work closely with those consultants and external team partners. Our clients are located throughout the United States and, increasingly, in other parts of the world. Our 86 employees are spread across three offices. As a result, we knew we needed to communicate more efficiently, and more effectively. What’s more, as a design-focused firm, we wanted our improved communications to have a positive impact on our end product as well.

To address problems of operational efficiency and the larger technological changes in the industry, we formed a strategic technology committee to investigate tools that would help us deliver the products and services necessary to delight clients, improve our profitability, and enjoy our work.

Here’s a review of technologies used at Hanbury Evans before and after our strategic technology initiative:

  Before After
Design
Autodesk Architectural Desktop
Revit Architecture
Email
Microsoft Office Outlook            
Outlook with the Newforma Project Center add-in toolbar
Project information management
Ad hoc
Newforma Project Center
Collaboration
Paper, email or telephone            
GoToMeeting Web-based conferencing, TANDBERG videoconferencing
Connectedness
Isolated upon leaving the office   
Blackberry smartphones (used by 50% of office)
Accounting
Deltek Sema 4                          
Deltek Vision

In what order did we attack these areas? And how did we assimilate change? While at times it felt as if we were implementing them all at once, in truth, we went about it systematically. First we enlisted the consulting firm of Kristine Fallon Associates (www.KFA-inc.com) to assess our design software. Together, we came up with a strategic plan to implement technology and improve efficiency.

The Sequence of Changes

It started with a Revit rollout, which we’re doing team by team. Simultaneously, we introduced Web-based conferencing to reduce travel and improve communication. We chose Citrix GoToMeeting for online meetings. Then we advanced to video conferencing using TANDBERG technology. Next we implemented Newforma project information management software, and, finally, we added Deltek Vision business process software.

The good news is that after making a significant investment in both purchasing and assimilating these technologies, we are now deriving a lot of benefit. Most significantly, we are able to keep up with a heavy project workflow and better manage staff resources. We definitely are working more efficiently, and a lot smarter. For example, architects are very visual people, so using visual communication tools like Web-based conferencing and videoconferencing is very effective. Our work is more coordinated, because we can see what we’re doing! Now we don’t wait until the end of the phase to get together physically with clients.

We are fortunate that our colleges and university clients have access to high-end video, so we have more face time with less travel. That makes us more available to our clients, which is what it’s all about! But consultants are jumping on board, too. If they don’t own the technology, they have access to it. For example, nearly every week, there is a three-way, face-to-face conversation between a Houston client, a design partner in London, and our team in Norfolk. It has been a terrific benefit.

Thinking Like an Architect

We’ve been impressed with how much more work we’ve been able to do using Revit. The beauty of Revit is that it lets you think like an architect again. Personally, I find I can work in Revit as I work with pen and paper. I don’t have to be a CAD jockey, which was a requirement of our old system. Revit lets us be architects again!  After the first few months of frustrations distinguishing any learning curve, BIM allows us to deliver projects on tighter time frames. All new projects start on Revit, and today, approximately 40 percent of our projects use the software.

Our Easiest Rollout: Newforma Project Center

Of all the technology rollouts, the introduction of Newforma Project Center has been the easiest, with the most immediate positive impact. Its project information management functionalities have given us control of project emails and made them accessible to the entire internal team. People no longer hoard emails in private inboxes. Before Newforma Project Center software, we sent transmittals, approved submittals, and tracked issues manually. Automated logs save heaps of time. Logs are up to date, and we have a more accurate audit trail for every project.

We’re also looking forward to the upcoming capability in Newforma Project Center to help us manage RFIs. [Editor’s Note: Newforma Project Center Fifth Edition, which offers optional functionality for submittals and RFI management, is scheduled for commercial release this month.]

Vision’s Benefits to Project Managers

By upgrading our accounting software from Sema4 to Deltek Vision, our project managers can monitor project progress against fee utilization at any given time. Formerly, this information was available only to a few. Vision also helps us better control the traditional mad rush for resources at the end of every project. We use it for planning and resource allocation, and are ramping up Deltek’s client relationship management module, which we believe will enhance our support of existing clients as well as new clients and projects.

Enhanced Online Presence

Speaking of attracting new business, we also launched a newly redesigned website during this period. In addition to increased visibility, it is a content-rich site which quickly provides potential clients and consultants with lots of information about the firm. A behind-the-scenes control panel allows instant updates, so the site remains fresh and relevant.

The Return on Investment

As a result of our strategic technology initiative, we’re spending more on technology as a percentage of revenues, but we’re getting a great deal in return for this investment. We’re keeping up with a very demanding project workflow, and our earnings per full-time staff are rising. These tools let us automate the mundane and put our time into billable hours and the things that really matter. As we continue to streamline our workflows by making our project delivery processes more efficient, we can spend more time doing what we were hired to do, and what we like to do, and what we entered this career to do—designing structures and satisfying clients.

 

About the Author and the Firm

Stephen C. Wright is a design principal of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, an architectural firm specializing in planning and design for the arts, for campuses and for historic buildings. Steve’s interest in the way materials go together is paralleled by his focus on finding ways for Hanbury Evans teams members to collaborate synergistically. The firm’s portfolio of projects throughout North America has earned 72 awards, including 22 national design awards since 1985. Its higher education practice, which includes more than 90 college campuses, specializes in planning and student-life facilities such as residence halls, dining halls, libraries and student unions. Arts projects include campus performance venues and historic theaters. The firm’s historic preservation practice includes adaptive-use projects and renovations such as the Executive Mansion of Virginia. Headquartered in Norfolk, Va., Hanbury Evans also has offices in Wytheville, Va., and Tampa, Fla. The firm currently employs 86. Learn more about the firm at www.hewv.com.


Note: The views expressed in Viewpoint articles are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of AECbytes.

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