An Interview with Frank Skeels, Inspector Superintendent, City of Portland
Thank you for joining us for our third installment of our Productive Construction Q&A series — a series of short interviews we’re publishing to highlight important stories and helpful advice from industry experts on construction productivity.
For our third interview in this series, we sat down with Frank Skeels, Inspector Superintendent of the City of Portland. Frank is an industry veteran who started off in construction helping his family, dabbled in the oil industry, and then found his way back to construction, working on commercial buildings and roadways. Like all great success stories, Skeels began as a contract inspector and worked his way up the ladder. But before he ascended the ladder, Skeels gained critical experience in other countries in Europe, doing drilling exploration as well as computerized automation in the late ‘90s in Finland.
Skeels became interested in technology back in the 90s when “cutting-edge” technology came onto the market, including “brick” cell phones, and he’s been excited about the potential of technology to improve construction productivity ever since.
Q: What do you love most about construction?
A: The building of things. The creation of things overall. I grew up in a construction family always doing and building something. I started in logging, which morphed into a construction company like dirt work. We worked some in plumbing and sheetrocking too.The biggest enjoyment I get is the creation of things.
Q: What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the construction industry as a result of technology and software?
A: Time savings. Technology manages so many things these days from design through construction and contracting. There’s so many avenues it touches these days. When you think of the old days with landlines and paper, I can’t even imagine how much time I save now. It would probably be mind boggling if you sit down and think about it. It allows me to take on more and different projects that I couldn’t before.
Q: Are there any technologies that come to mind that have been particularly impactful in terms of how things have changed for construction?
A: Tablets and cell phones. Back in the day all you could do was make a call, but now you share files and have plans right on your phone. You also have google right there for pictures and diagrams and past histories of projects. Everything is at your fingertips—literally.
Q: Productivity in construction is relatively low compared to most other industries. Why do you think that is?
A: With the construction industry, there’s such a large portion that has to be done by manual labor. That portion is the big chunk that accounts for low productivity. As tech grows, I think that will improve. But I don’t know if construction will ever really match other industries because there will always be manual labor. But, I see communication and other management operations improving.
Q: How important is productivity in construction to you and why? What can/should be done to make the industry, and people in it, more productive? Where does the industry need to focus?
A: GPS for construction sites for excavation. A program where you can load GPS coordinates on a set of plans and then load the civil and utility drawings onto the planset and it would make a 3D picture. This picture would talk to machines and keep them from digging where they laid utility lines, for example. You could actually dig a pipeline or parking lots or golf courses at the exact depth without the machine operator having to do much more than just drive the machine. I also think Prefab items for the manual side of construction by turning it into more of an assembly factory than it is now. Or the speed at which data is transferred will play a big part in it, too.
Q: How has technology and software changed the jobsite and how work gets done? Do you see opportunities for technology to improve jobsite work even more?
A: Technology has changed communication networking and the speed at which information travels around a jobsite. You don’t have to find a job trader to see the new set of plans. You can get real-time information with things like Skype. Inspectors can skype with everyone and look at the problem at the jobsite without waiting for the design engineers, construction managers, project managers, or contractors.
Meetings can happen in hours and minutes instead of days. We would only have the local people here, but by the time you coordinated a meeting, you would typically have to wait for people from out of state. At least 24-36 hrs for an emergency. 4-5 days for non emergencies. The problem is not only location, but also that a lot of these people are working on other projects concurrently and have to switch back over to your project
Q: What are the biggest causes of delays on projects or causes them to go over schedule?
A: Changing conditions in the field that no one anticipated or blowouts in the design. Sometimes you’re looking at a set of plans that’s hundreds of pages and don’t think much of a small conduit, for example. But once you start building, you see that there’s something unsafe like a natural gas conduit and you have to stop what you’re doing and fix it before an accident happens. A design blowout is when plans don’t match what’s in the field like the grade elevation that affects walls meeting up or pipes fitting together. Contractors, admins, and engineers will all generate costs here from hours worked fixing those issues.
Q: What role can construction technology companies play in educating the future workforce in construction?
A: Training. People in construction are scheduled out weeks in advance. Small training classes, maybe even remote training, more often would help. Online seminars are the best because they give everyone the flexibility of getting the training without taking time off of their project or travelling. You can have them right there in your vehicle on your lunch break. Online courses are great too because there’s someone there to answer questions.
Society is more tech-based now and for younger people the labor intensive part of construction is no longer appealing. But they can get excited about the technology portion of it. But when it comes to the manual portion of it they are struggling to find people to fill those positions at trade schools. Around Portland area, it’s literally impossible to find someone who knows how to pull the levers and read the plans and has experience to know how to do these things. The new hires aren’t keeping up with the rate of retirement
Q: What’s one of the more challenging aspects of your job?
A: Communication, trying to pull all parties together. I have to deal with so many levels of construction and personalities and varying degrees of education. For example, the way that the engineer talks isn’t the same way that people in the field understand and talk about things. Explaining the how, why, legalities, and logistics of how to do something. To break that down further, we have generational differences. Specifically, methods of communication. Younger people prefer written communication whereas the older generations are more hesitant to communicate that way. The younger workforce requires a different method of management and communication as compared to the veterans. The new generation doesn’t think anything of the new technology. They can just jump into it.
Q: What was one of the most exciting projects you’ve ever worked on, and why?
A: An airport at Amsterdam, adding onto the terminal in the winter. High water table there. I learned how to deal with the high groundwater table. How do you shore things into the ground with so much ground water? They would actually freeze the ground. They would drill holes and pump refrigeration into the ground to freeze it. Otherwise, you could end up with a very unstable building during the winter. We were down there 30 feet. Freeze it just to get done. When you get 3-4ft underground, it was very sandy and watery so the dirt wouldn’t stay set for building. When we froze it, it would stay solid so we could dig through it.
Q: What can be done to improve collaboration between the jobsite and the office? Does technology play a role, need to play more of a role?
A: Technology definitely needs to play a role between office and field. We have a little bit of lag time. If two different inspectors are working on the same project then you have to back out, refresh, and then go back into the plans.
When the designers are looking at the plans downtown, you have to back out of the project, update it, and then log back into the project. We’re tickled with what we have. Helps bridge communication style difference between engineer and field because you can show pictures. You can show them in real time why you can’t execute their drawings and it helps people better understand what the other is talking about.
Q: What makes employees at the City of Portland excited/happy to use construction technology for work? What would get people more engaged, or make it easier for them to use it?
A: The fact that it makes their job easier. Builders just like to try new things. You have to love to build things, so loving new technology is part of the personality.