Tuning In to Web Cams

By Tom Allen, AIA | September 28, 2010

No longer will you have to wait ... and wait ... and wait until someone arrives at the job site to look at a situation. With the push of a button on a new generation of portable web cameras, you can show anyone in the world a live, close-up view of the job site instantly. Critical personnel can see exactly what you are talking about and resolve the issue without the time and expense of a site visit to see for themselves.

Sometimes the work can go smoothly for days without generating a question. Other times it seems like problems just line up at the door. Waiting to get an answer causes unacceptable delays.

It's not just the time and direct expense for the trip. What about the cost of an idle crew waiting for direction? If the delay is extensive, the subcontractors may be forced to move their crews to another job. Delays on one job site can create havoc on the schedules of other projects. The ripple effect can be catastrophic to a company's profit margin. When time is wasted waiting for answers, business relationships become strained. Information delays can mean the difference between a job done well and a project that ends up over budget and way behind schedule.

Contractors, architects and owners have been searching for better ways to communicate between the job site and resources not physically at the project. Contractors were early adopters of cellular telephone technology because it gave them the ability to communicate job site situations while standing right next to the problem.

Cameras have always had a place on construction sites to document the work. Polaroids and 35-millimeter cameras have given way to megapixel digital cameras. The industry has learned that photographs are useful only if the picture shows exactly what is needed. A photograph can miss a critical detail and you are forced to take another trip to take another picture. Cell phone cameras cut down the amount of time between taking the picture and having it show up on someone's computer, but they are cumbersome to use as a construction administration tool.

Since they were first introduced in the early 1990s, web cameras have been used on more and more Northwest projects. These internet-based cameras are mounted to a pole or nearby rooftop to give team members visual access to the construction. Even though fixed view and remote control live web cameras can be programmed to take periodic construction sequence pictures, they aren't a complete solution because they only offer a single point of reference — the outside of the building.

"Web cams are good for general project monitoring, but once the walls go up, you're blind. Seeing close-up details of the work is crucial to fully understanding the precise nature of the work and maintaining your schedule," said Tom Allen, a commercial architect and the founder of iBEAM Systems Inc. "Most of the situations on a construction site that need to be discussed are inside the building and cannot be seen by a camera across the street."

A new generation of camera, the portable web camera, has entered the construction market. Lightweight and battery powered, these cameras make a wireless connection to a receiving station and can send live video of any detail on the construction job site to anyone, anywhere. The viewer watches the live video on an internet-connected device like an office computer, a wireless laptop in the truck or on a PDA at the coffee shop. Using free software, viewers can easily snap high quality, full color photographs onto their computer for future reference. Voice contact is accomplished with a phone call to the cell phone of the person holding the camera.

Project superintendents are beginning to use these portable web camera systems to help coordinate work flow and resolve issues quickly. Because the time to understand, discuss and resolve situations is compressed, the profit on each work segment increases.

"Using a portable web camera, the time to get a response to an RFI has been reduced from weeks to hours," said Andrew Nettleton, a project manager in Colorado.

Bring Resources to the Job Site

Waiting for someone to arrive at the job site wastes time and costs money. Portable web cameras bring resources to the site when you need them.

During the completion of the LEED Platinum-certified Banner Bank high-rise building located in Boise, a third-party commissioning agent needed to certify the installation and operation of the under-floor plenum in the main lobby before carpet could be installed. Due to a scheduling error, the agent couldn't make the 400-mile trip for a week. The delay threatened to postpone the move-in of the prime tenant, which was scheduled to take occupancy in two days. The owner was understandably concerned.

The project manager urged the mechanical contractor to use a portable web camera to give the commissioning agent a "virtual" inspection tour of the building. After an extensive 40-minute walk-through of the project including witnessing pressure gauges, inspection reports and flow switches (the same amount of time the agent would have spent on the job site had he actually been there), the plenum was signed off and the move-in was back on schedule. The project manager was a hero.

The Power of Timely Decisions

Whether due to unexpected site conditions, design errors, incorrect materials, or simple human error, unanticipated issues are simply part of the job. When issues can be addressed before they become problems, the project can keep moving forward without taking a hit to the schedule and budget.

The value of timely input was powerfully illustrated as the first of dozens of custom windows was set at Nettleton's project. He used his portable web camera to show the installation of the custom windows to the manufacturer in Austria. The manufacturing engineer noticed an incorrectly installed flashing section and immediately offered a simple solution. "Using the camera, we were able to quickly identify and fix the problem without missing a beat. Even though he was thousands of miles away, it was like the engineer was standing next to me at the job site," said Nettleton. Having the right set of eyes at the right time avoided an expensive error, saved hours of hassle and avoided a major water damage lawsuit.

Reducing Risk

Everyone knows that delays during construction are costly. And everyone knows that delays will happen. The contractor's profit is tied to how closely his schedule can be followed. Better control over the construction schedule means more profit for the company.

It is in the contractor's best interest to keep subcontractors well informed so that their crews can stay on task. The live interaction possible with a portable web camera and a cell phone lets contractors show exact site conditions to subcontractors prior to their arrival. The camera system allows subs and specialty contractors to coordinate with fab shops and suppliers in real time and to arrive on site fully prepared to complete the work at hand.

Subcontractors can increase efficiency by using a portable web camera to show the manufacturer the placement of equipment as it is being installed rather than waiting until a rep can come out to the site and confirm the work. Getting it right the first time decreases the overall schedule and increases the potential for a profitable job.

The Effect

"Using a portable web camera, the architects, engineers and owners that we're working with can see firsthand what we're dealing with in the field. That's the biggest benefit from my standpoint as a superintendent: keeping the job on schedule and the materials rolling and making sure that we're thinking ahead," says Scott Wright, a superintendent.

Before this new system, a phone call was the only way to communicate a problem in real time, and details were often lost in translation. With a live camera, there are no gray areas. Using a portable web camera to walk through the entire project helps issues become completely understood. Situations can be solved with confidence.

Fewer trips means less fuel, less congestion and fewer vehicles into and out of the job site. Faster response times for conformation, investigation and resolution means a higher likelihood of completing the job on time and on budget. Contractors using portable web cameras are reporting an increase in profits, a raised level of competitiveness, projects that track closely to schedule, and delighted clients who want them back for their next project.

Author Information
Tom Allen is the founder and CEO of IBEAM Systems Inc., 280 North 8th St., Boise, ID 83702; (208) 344-8002; tomallen@ibeamsystems.com; www.ibeamsystems.com.