Technology, Green Construction At Destiny USA

By Mike Stinson and Josh Kanner | September 28, 2010

There's broad agreement in the construction community that green construction is a worthy goal, and there has been a great deal of discussion about how the industry should move to a green model. Cianbro, an employee-owned company based in Pittsfield, ME, has gone far beyond simple talk. As the construction manager for the Destiny USA development in Syracuse, NY, Cianbro has been charged by the owners to follow a cutting-edge sustainable construction plan that includes the use of biodiesel instead of fossil fuels, the recycling of 95 percent of construction waste, and a paperless worksite.

This is no small project. Destiny USA is being developed by Robert Congel, the founder of the Pyramid Companies, one of the largest privately held developers of shopping centers in the United States, with Cianbro as the construction manager. The goal is to create a global destination in an environmentally sustainable manner, with a workforce that is safe and well-compensated, while using the latest technologies to improve efficiency. Individual elements of the project include a 1.3-million-square-foot extension of the current facility (a $350-million project); a power plant and a $450-million, 39-story, 1,300-room hotel on the banks of Lake Onodaga. Rolled out over the next few years, Cianbro estimates that this will amount to a $1-billion project.

On the renewable fuels front, Cianbro has already been able to convert all construction equipment to 100-percent biofuel, which is derived from plant sources and emits smaller amounts of greenhouse gasses than petroleum-based fuels. Recycling efforts are already meeting the stated goals.

And, thanks in large part to Cianbro's aggressive adoption of new construction technologies, paper has virtually disappeared from the worksite.

Construction has long been criticized for lagging behind other industries in adopting new methods and technologies. Delivery drivers and parking attendants, for example, have been using mobile technologies for nearly a decade to track packages and issue parking tickets. However, only in the past few years have similar technologies been developed that are able to meet the rigors of a construction site. On site, construction personnel needed a rugged computer that could function outdoors for a long period of time without needing to be plugged into an outlet, while also withstanding inclement weather. The keyboards on traditional laptops were also difficult to use in the field – just finding a place to sit is usually impossible on a job site – and PDA screens were too small to display plans and specifications. However, new tablet PCs have been able to overcome these issues, and as a result, now play a key role in Cianbro's strategy to create a paperless worksite.

Today, construction-ready tablet PCs allow users to write directly on the screen and enter information with a special pen. Cianbro decided to deploy these tablets, manufactured by Motion Computing. These units have displays that are visible in direct sunlight and a rugged design to withstand the often harsh elements encountered on the job site. The Motion F5 strikes a balance between commercial-grade devices and fully-rugged PCs, which contain expensive features that only the most extreme working conditions would require. Cianbro needed a tablet that could sustain bumps, drops and exposure to wind, heat and rain, traits which the F5 possesses.

Of course, hardware is useless without the right software, so Motion has partnered with Vela Systems, a developer of construction field administration software specifically for tablets.

Cianbro is using Vela Systems on Motion tablet PCs to distribute key documents and specifications electronically. This mobile field software replaces the notebooks and tubes of drawings normally carried by construction personnel. Using a special pen or stylus that comes with the tablet, Cianbro field personnel can write directly on the screen in their own handwriting, which the tablet can display as pen strokes, highlighter marks, or automatically convert to electronic text.

The software suite includes modules that replace each of the field tasks that take place on a job site including work lists, punch lists, field reports, and safety inspections. As a result, Cianbro can put an entire trailer load worth of documents onto the tablet PC. Any notations made to documents in the field are automatically synchronized with the master documents on a Vela-maintained server. This ensures that all participants in the Destiny USA project know the exact status of work on the site. When tasks need to be done, subcontractors can be put on the job immediately. Not only has Cianbro's adoption of this new technology all but eliminated paper, but it has also improved the efficiency of the entire operation.

Cianbro is also using these tablets to manage safety compliance. On most construction sites, safety inspections are still largely conducted using paper and pencil. Inspectors carry notebooks and then either file these reports or enter the results into a master paper or electronic document at a later date, slowing down the availability of critical information for all involved and allowing for human error when it comes to transcription. This process is also time consuming and makes follow-up difficult. In a paper system, it is easy to accidentally lose track of an item and not check to see whether subcontractors have fixed safety violations noted in the initial inspection. It is also almost impossible to analyze results in order to understand the state of safety across an entire project or to track subcontractors' individual safety performance across multiple jobs. The big picture is simply beyond the scope of a paper-based system.

With the Motion and Vela Systems combination, Cianbro uses drop-down menus and standardized inspection forms to speed up the process and ensure continuity across the entire organization. Inspectors in the field also have OSHA regulations right at their fingertips. When they're finished with inspections, the software automatically synchronizes data once inspectors connect to the Internet.

As a result, conducting inspections is much faster than with pencil and paper. The software also automatically notifies personnel when inspectors need to follow up on recorded safety violations, ensuring that subcontractors are held accountable. Additionally, the technology provides Cianbro's executives with much greater visibility. For example, Cianbro can manage safety compliance for as many subcontractors as they like on an individual project or across their entire project portfolio. Plus, they automatically have an auditable electronic trail of consistent, repeatable processes that gives pyramid visibility into safety performance.

Through its use of sustainable fuels, its commitment to the highest standards of safety and its adoption of new technologies, Cianbro is setting a national example for sustainable construction at Destiny USA.

Editor's note: Mike Stinson is vice president of Marketing at Motion Computing. Josh Kanner is co-founder and vice president of Marketing at Vela Systems.