When people think of a construction job they usually don’t imagine stacks of paper, but in reality that’s what it takes to get something built. On top of the hundreds of full-sized blueprints, a large commercial project—such as a hospital or department store—has at least 50 or more additional half-sets scattered around the site. All of these plans are constantly being updated and reprinted, which not only costs a lot of money, but can lead to serious problems if not everyone is on the the same page. Literally.
When Tracy Young was working as a project engineer on a hospital in San Francisco, she remembers being forced to rebuild operating rooms five times because the plans were updated without the crews’ knowledge.
“It wasn’t that these were incompetent builders, we literally could not get paper out to the field fast enough to the right people, so they were always looking at old [blueprints],” she says.
Young shares that the U.S. construction industry spends on average $4.2 billion a year on reworks because of similar miscommunications. This motivated Young, along with a few other project engineers and software developers, to create a solution to the “paper problem” by launching a company called PlanGrid in 2011.
Mobile era of construction
The keystone for PlanGrid’s beginning turned out to be Apple releasing the first generation of the iPad in 2010.
While most of the world tried to make sense of the new technology, Young says she and the future co-founders of PlanGrid, Ryan Sutton-Gee, Ralph Gootee, Kenny Stone, and Antoine Hersen, saw the potential for field-ready construction software that would be used on iPads and eventually digitize blueprints, specs, photos, RFIs, field reports and punch lists, for users around the world.
“We believed it could revolutionize the construction industry by arming builders, for the first time, with this computing power and essentially have every project document at their fingertips,” Young says, during a July interview from the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
By the end of 2011, PlanGrid was launched, taking advantage of mobile technology. Not only can building owners, project managers and subcontractors access the most current blueprint at any time, but they can also track changes and push updates to everyone on the team in real-time. And when the keys are turned over at the end of the project, so is the data, ensuring long-term operations have all the building’s information and history.
“We wanted to build the kind of software that we all wish we could have used as construction engineers,” Young says. “Workers are clamoring for more tech on the job site so they can build more efficiently and establish a healthier work-life balance.”
Based on surveys PlanGrid has distributed to customers, the software is proven to save the average field construction worker four to six hours a week simply by eliminating confusion between crews.
“We’re not changing the way builders build; what PlanGrid does is eliminate all the unnecessary time wasted chasing down paper and information,” Young says.
“We’re not changing the way builders build, what PlanGrid does is eliminate all the unnecessary time wasted chasing down paper and information.”
It wasn’t long until builders in other countries were discovering such benefits.
“The beauty of mobile software and app store distribution is we get this natural output to everywhere else in the world,” Young says. “All someone in South Korea or Finland has to do is search ‘construction’ on the Android, Windows or Apple store and they’ll find our software.”
Today, PlanGrid is a leader in construction productivity software and used in over 70 countries.
Young expects the number of users to keep growing as more people discover the financial and environmental benefits of paperless construction.
Taking into account the size and weight of blueprint paper, it is estimated that by storing over 50 million digital documents, PlanGrid has saved over 150,000 trees since it launched in 2011.
“That is the equivalent of saving all the trees in Central Park six times,” Young says.
And the environmental impact doesn’t apply to just trees. PlanGrid has also saved over 150,000 gallons of water and over 10 million pounds of solid waste normally generated during the paper manufacturing and disposal process.
In 2013, these numbers caught the attention of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the nonprofit responsible for promoting sustainable building in the U.S. The USGBC was impressed by the inherently green technology, and partnered with the company to create a one-hour webinar to teach construction professionals how to use PlanGrid’s tools. The webinar also counts toward continued education credits for LEED Accredited Professionals, or LEED APs.
This educational component is very important to Young. PlanGrid’s Consulting Team has traveled all over the world to teach building professionals how to use the company’s tools, and have even published video tutorials and demonstrations on YouTube.
Recently, the company also launched PlanGrid for Education, a program that partners with universities and trade schools around the world to provide students and teachers access to the company’s tools at a reduced rate.
While the founders all agree that designing software that teaches the next generation a more sustainable way to build, Young says nothing beats the reaction of industry veterans.
“What we’ve built—the technology—it’s beautiful and effective and that is certainly rewarding. But the best part is having superintendents tell me that in the 20-plus years they’ve worked in construction they can honestly say [PlanGrid] is the best tool that has ever been given to them.”
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