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2020 ENR Top 20 Under 40: Reliance on Collaboration Tech and Data Sharing Will Boom

ENR’s 2020 Top 20 Under 40 includes several thought leaders and innovators in the use and broader application of the latest design and construction technology—everything from automating building processes to designing better power distribution systems. The tech-savvy rising stars stressed how the pandemic is impacting both the development of new technologies and speed of adoption of existing ones.

Several of those cited this year—including Aaron Yohnke, vice president and district manager at PCL Construction; Menzer Pehlivan, geotechnical earthquake engineer at Jacobs; and digital technology manager Chitwan Saluja, also at that firm—mentioned their use of Microsoft HoloLens to visit jobsites virtually and hold meetings. Wearable technology that is recording project data is another tech development many of the Top 20 said was changing processes.

“We are entering an era where we no longer need to rely just on the data associated with one project, but also in leveraging historical data associated with all projects that we’ve ever built,” says David Barritt-Flatt, a director of strategy and innovation at Clark Construction. “You can create amazing insights with respect to how to plan the job.”

Architects and contractors of all ages and with diverse perspectives on technology continue to stress the need for innovative tools and processes to enable workflow, generate a model and create a more seamless transition for information to move from one part of a project team to another.

“I really like to see clients hold us a little bit more responsible for producing that model as part of the actual deliverables in a contract,” says Tim Pach, a civil engineer and senior project manager at Stanley Consultants in Muscatine, Iowa. “We’ve definitely made lots of headway over sharing information in the past several years.”

For contractors, establishing the relationship that will lead to better project collaboration is still tantamount, whether it happens onsite or via Zoom or HoloLens. Onsite communication is still the gold standard.

“Early collaboration between the contractor and design partners is critical,” says Ashley Little, senior project manager at Moss Construction in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “My most successful projects had design professionals on site for construction assistance to help work through issues in real time with us.”

Kate Howell, senior associate at architect Rees Associates in Oklahoma City, says that the conversation about deliverables and who owns a 3D model needs to continue because the scope of work increasingly affects both designers and contractors.

“How do you stay profitable on a project if the entire model is your deliverable?” she asks. “From a quality assurance perspective, it’s a much bigger thing to set your mind to than on paper,” she says.

William S. Haas, AECOM’s smart energy market sector director, says one thing that has contributed to speedier construction and project management is a business innovation—a wraparound services contract.

He cites its use in the recent construction of an alternative patient care facility for those with mild to moderate COVID-19 cases at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.

The ability to move quickly from design to fabrication to installation was crucial for the team that delivered the project, which included AECOM and contractor Walsh Construction. Haas says the unsung heroes were specialty contractors such as Mechanical Inc., which fabricated ductwork for HVAC system upgrades  in just two days.

“Balancing that [HVAC] system and changing the entire pressure system in the building, we had folks who were climbing into air ducts and taking measurements and rebalancing that system in a way that it was never designed for,” he explains. “The relatively old system that was mostly pneumatic could not just be programmed by building automation. HVAC contractors had to get in there and rebalance it.”

Having the capability to prefabricate and rapidly create systems is something at which Haas says the industry has gotten proficient. But what most excites him is how project data can now be used predictively to unlock new capabilities for roads, buildings and the energy grid—saving both energy and money by delivering data more predictably and efficiently.

“What I’m working on a lot these days is transportation electrification, and the technology backend that can help with scheduling and control of charging electric vehicles,” he says. “You can space out [charging] and reduce your demand charges from the utility.”

Whether working in design or construction, this year’s T20U40 group members say that communication is key to delivering projects and understanding teammates and what they need. Whether that is done via Zoom, HoloLens, notes in a construction management platform or on a 3D model is secondary to initial understanding.

“What do you need to be successful? It’s a simple question, right?” asks Adrienne Nelson, an associate at Pickard Chilton. “The answer might be technology, but in the current climate, the answer might also be something else—time and support.”