PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
James Robinson, Architect, Stantec

Behind the Build: How This Architect at Stantec Makes the Business Case for Technology

No matter what industry you’re working in, getting your company to buy into new technology can be challenging. While the benefits might be crystal clear to you as an employee, getting management to agree on making a significant investment could be another story.

When James Robinson, an Architect at Stantec was campaigning to expand his company’s use of new construction technology, PlanGrid, in Canada he found there was one argument that was hard to deny. “On paper cost savings alone, you can justify using PlanGrid. Nevermind the endless streamlined processes, perception with colleagues and clients, and always having the current set and complete sheet revision history at your fingertips! Traditionally, on our projects, for instance, there is typically a significant amount of printing; but if you’re properly set up on a program like PlanGrid, the need for printing diminishes,” he says.

In this week’s Behind the Build, we learn more about James’ work in contract administration and his efforts to eliminate the paper trail at the design-firm. Read on to learn more.

Tell us more about your role at Stantec.

Stantec is a global design firm–we have many specialties. I’m an Architect within our Buildings Division, specifically healthcare. I am also a Contract Administrator, having recently obtained my CCCA designation through CSC, which is a credential that recognizes individuals for their education and experience specific to the Contract Administration portion of a project.

I’ve been working at Stantec for seven years now, and I’ve been a part of some very big projects. In general, our company is strong at executing large projects from beginning to end; everything from the upfront work with clients through construction, administration and project closeout. Over the past 12 years, I have had exposure to all phases of the project life cycle, taking particular interest in the construction phase.

I am currently stationed full time on a construction site for a large healthcare newbuild; approximately 1.5 years into a 3-year construction schedule.

As part of my role as an Architect, I am accustomed to casual exposure to construction sites for various site visits as required by our projects, but nothing beats fast-tracking your understanding of the process and ‘how buildings are built’ than by being on site full time!

It has been a busy couple of years so far and will continue to be, but well worth it, because I have learned so much…and continue to learn daily.

What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m an on-site architect on a hospital project in the greater Toronto area. The project is a new build, approximately 1.2 million square feet, with three buildings, consisting of a four-story parking garage, a central utility plant and a 12-story hospital. We have a strong core group of about eight of us on-site full time from Stantec, which make up our CA team. With an additional 125+ people at Stantec spread across our offices that have contributed to this project, in addition to our many dedicated consultants and engineers who are all essential contributors in helping this project come to life. It’s been fun, very busy, but fun and extremely rewarding already to be a part of such a significant project within my local community.

There is something about being on the front lines and seeing the project come together into its final form that is incredibly gratifying. 

Why do you like focusing on contract administration?

Although I like to be a part of all phases of a project, I have a particular interest in contract administration specifically within design-build projects. The projects I’ve worked on for the last 10 years, including the current hospital project I am working on, have primarily been public-private partnerships (P3). P3’s have become quite popular in Ontario for larger infrastructure projects over these past ten years, and for those not familiar with this project type, a P3 is more or less a form of a design-build project where the design is not quite finished and construction starts somewhere midway between design development and construction documents.  

Even though my role is contract administration, on more traditional types of projects, I would have focused on more exclusively on processing information (change orders, RFIs, Sis) with more static contract documents. But on a design-build project, my role is more obscured and dynamic, as there are many parties involved on these complex projects. On any given day, it might involve any number of tasks for our team, including but definitely not limited to; field reviews, detailing exercises, coordination sessions, value engineering analysis, processing submittals, processing changes and issuing site instructions. While we work for different companies, during a project of this type, we form a team with the contractor, and we work together during project pursuit and throughout construction to get the job done.

It’s challenging, but I enjoy the complex nature of the relationships and complex nature of the project itself.

It’s almost like we are all working to solve a puzzle from the start and filling in the gaps along the way.

I get to spend a lot of time on site, walking around with various groups, often including superintendents and project managers. I’m involved in a mix of different activities which is engaging.

How has technology evolved your job?

It’s crazy to think how much has changed over the last 12 years. Looking back at my first job out of school, I worked as an intern architect. When I first started working, all drawings were done in CAD, and BIM was not commonly used on projects yet. There was more much more hand sketching when I first started in the workplace, but now with sketching apps getting stronger, I see more and more people experimenting and attempting to change the ways they sketch. As for shop drawings, we use to mark up several versions with pens and pencils, the exact same, and then send them by mail to our various consultants for their review and return. When it came to tracking changes and RFIs on our master drawing sets, I would use my scissors to physically cut out the change on colored paper and tape the revisions to the drawing sheet. Today, programs like PlanGrid and others enable us to do things a lot more efficiently and we can track things digitally.  

Getting companies to adopt new technology can be challenging. How do you justify the cost of new software?

Today, a lot of contractors and architecture offices still rely on manual processes, but I see more and more offices are getting digitalized in their processes. Some people are more inclined to use technology than others, that’s just the way it is, but with the generational shift in the workplace, this mentality is shifting. It is hard to refute the fact that younger generations are simply more familiar with the use of tech and the potential innovations and efficiencies that it can provide, and they will the demand for its use.

Over the last few years, I’ve been driving a digital initiative at Stantec, to help develop and push a digitalized toolkit for people to use on our projects. I’ve had many conversations and held several presentations about the many benefits of using technology and construction software to identify efficiencies and promote collaboration in our daily work.

As I have already mentioned in a previous response,  the use of PlanGrid can be justified on many fronts. For large projects, savings on paper costs alone can justify its use, not to mention the endless streamlined processes, perception with colleagues and clients, and always having the current set and complete sheet revision history at your fingertips!

What would you tell the next generation of architects?

There is no replacement for learning your vocation and developing your area of technical expertise. This being said, I would say coming in at a close second place, is being aware of innovations in tech.

Between understanding your job well, and understanding tech innovations, you will be better equipped to be better and more efficient at what you do.

As new generations enter the workforce, technology plays an inherent part of who people are and how people are brought up. You need to know what sort of technologies are out there to get the job done better, on a personal level, but also for the company that you work for or with.

More progressive companies are starting to wrap their head around this mentality, they’re letting people explore new technologies more freely to develop their own ‘digitized toolkits.’ With this approach, in the end, we all benefit because people are happy with the tech at their disposal and productivity is increased because we have the best tools available to get our jobs done!

Further Reading:  Behind the Build: Interview with Liz Hartmann, Vice President of Field Operations for W. Bradley Electric, Inc.

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