Interview with Fred Tull, Preconstruction Services Manager and Eli Youmans, Project Engineer
Forming friendships at work can be tricky, particularly in the fast-paced construction world. Tensions are often high, and small disagreements can be escalated and blown out of proportion. Alternatively, at companies like JE Dunn Construction, friendships and mutual respect are key components of the strong company culture. Fred Tull, Preconstruction Services Manager, and Eli Youmans, Project Engineer, both value the personal environment the company has fostered. “It makes your job a lot easier when you come to work with people you care about—people who are your friends and some that you consider family,” says Eli.
Fred and Eli get the best of both worlds: a job and coworkers they love. This week, we go Behind the Build with these two friends and coworkers to learn more about their journey within the construction industry.
What makes JE Dunn Construction special?
Eli: One thing that JE Dunn does very well—and a primary reason I’m an employee—is we create the best culture. We are a very family- and friend-oriented company. I consider my coworkers to be real friends who I can depend on. They are people I can see first thing on a Monday morning, get work done with throughout the week and then hang out with in our free time on a Saturday.
Just coming to work and knowing that you have an entire project staff that has your best interests in mind makes me want to work harder. It also means that people will push you to your limits because they know what you’re capable of–key for both personal and professional growth.
Fred: On projects, JE Dunn provides the most diverse work possible; we’re not specialized in just one sector of construction. However, one of the things that is consistent amongst all of our different jobs and markets is we’re very client oriented. We do a lot of business based on relationships and the trust and honesty we have built a reputation for providing. Our exceptional client experience helps us create relationships to do repeat business, rather than just being a low-cost provider. Being a trusted partner and solving our clients’ needs as early as possible has been a critical strategy for us in the design and construction process.
How do you build trust with your clients?
Fred: It’s about staying open and transparent. Any construction project is going to run into hurdles, but it’s how you approach those problems with your client that moves you forward. If we are working through a design or construction issue, we make sure our communication is completely open with our customers, so they can know the real-time status of the situation.
How did you kickstart your career in construction?
Fred: When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to do architecture. However, I realized pretty quickly when I got to college that I did not have an eye for design. Also, I preferred the construction management aspect of the building world, so I switched degrees. In college, I started interning at construction companies, including Brasfield & Gorrie. I found that I liked the general contractor aspect, but my personality was more geared toward estimating than project management.
When I switched to estimating and started working at JE Dunn, I found I enjoyed the preconstruction part of the industry. It’s a little more repetitive, but the consistency of it all, as opposed to the hecticness of a construction site, is more my ideal work environment. Nonetheless, my job has evolved a bit to include more responsibilities. I was asked to do more client presentations, for example. Standing up and presenting to clients is something I probably would have hated 10 years ago, but I’ve gotten really good at it. Now, I get called around to construction sites to present on how JE Dunn does preconstruction.
What do you love most about the construction industry?
Eli: What I love most about this industry is being able to see the work that you’ve put in. Once we build something, it is there for all to see. Projects remain as landmarks and buildings you can drive by with your family members and say, “Wow, I played a part in that structure.”
What’s the most challenging part of working in construction?
Fred: For me, the most challenging part is that there are a lot of egos in construction. It’s also a fascinating industry because there are no child prodigies in construction; you have to have the experience to get what you want out of it.
Frequently, a lot of older workers do things the way they’ve always done them for the last 20 years. It can be challenging when they think that their way is still the best way.
Changing mindsets and getting people out of their set ways can be a struggle, but it’s worth the time.
Is there a project that sticks out as one of your favorites?
Fred: There have been a lot of exciting projects I’ve had the opportunity to work on, but the one I’m most proud of has to be the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta with Brasfield & Gorrie. It’s a big deal here in Atlanta, a landmark building for the city.
Since I’ve been here at JE Dunn, there have been several notable projects that stand out in my mind. Turner Field, which we converted to Georgia State’s football stadium, is one of them. The project was a fun kind of challenge. Another cool project we got to work on was the adaptive reuse of IBM’s old headquarters, which we converted to the new North Atlanta High School for Atlanta Public Schools. The IBM campus had an eleven-story building that was straddling a lake, and a nine-story building next to it. We imploded the nine-story building to build a gym. Seeing this huge building being blown up on a Saturday was quite an experience.
How did you first start using PlanGrid?
Eli: My first experience with PlanGrid was actually in school in a Construction Graphics class. What we had to do was create a submittal process within PlanGrid. So in our group, someone acted as the architect, someone acted as the contractor and someone acted as the engineer. We were able to see the contractor create an issue or create a submittal that would then be forwarded through the chain to the design team so that we could learn how that entire process works. I ended up learning about the submittals process and how they relate to the entire project by using PlanGrid.
How does JE Dunn use PlanGrid on projects today?
Eli: I typically use PlanGrid to store all of our project and contract documents. All of our drawings are on PlanGrid currently. Being able to download or upload an entire set of documents and drawings in a matter of minutes is huge. On projects where we have not used PlanGrid, it’s been very tedious to upload and access the information we need—it takes up a large chunk of time.
To me, PlanGrid is revolutionary due to the time savings.
Fred: On a project I’m working on now, the office headquarters for the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta group, using PlanGrid was an owner decision. We’ve been using it for a couple of years now, but recently we have been using the software as a collaboration tool with our owners.
One of the big challenges in construction has always been how do we make sure that we are all getting the right information at the right time. When I was in the field earlier in my career, I was basically running around with copies every day to make sure that everybody had the latest stuff. Obviously, technology has advanced a lot since then, and our teams have been more successful when they have one live set of documents to reference in PlanGrid. It’s so critical when we have the right information in front of us.
Do you have any recommendations for the next generation of builders?
Eli: Get organized and document everything. In this industry, there’s going to be a lot of people playing the blame game. But if you’re keeping up with your documentation, it’s clear who is the responsible party.
Fred: Never stop looking for ways to improve. The construction industry is one of the few that has declined in efficiency over the last hundred years. It takes more manpower to build the same amount of square footage than it used to. I think that it’s a problem that can be solved if more people were open to new ideas and trying to be better than we were yesterday.