Canadian Contractor

Steve Payne   

We have the technology in this industry. Why aren’t we using it? Report from The Buildings Show

Canadian Contractor

Nov. 27, Canadian Contractor hosted a panel discussion on Residential Construction Technology. Here is a brief report.

Nov. 28, Canadian Contractor publisher Rob Koci moderated a panel on Technology at the largest construction show in Toronto, The Buildings Show. The panelists were:

Isaac Barlow, CEO of BusyBusy, the GPS-tracking-oriented “jobsite intelligence for construction” firm.

John Jones, VP of SoftPlan, the architectural design software firm.

Devlin Chartrand, manager for RenoRun, the phone-based-app building materials delivery service.


Here is a report…


Isaac Barlow CEO of BusyBusy, found out about the importance of analyzing productivity years ago.

He was running excavation crews and, manually, at night, would go through the numbers of his firm’s “actual” versus “estimate” costs. Barlow found his crews were – pretty consistently – 25 per cent more profitable than other crews. Simply because their activity was being tracked by someone and corrections being made where necessary. This is why Barlow urges contractors of all stripes to get into productivity tracking as soon as possible. And the easier way, too – which means using technology.

What is at stake if you ignore technology? Your very livelihood, Barlow argues. “”70 per cent of construction companies that start up, fail within 7 years,” Barlow says. While undercapitalization may explain some of those failures, others we just poorly and inefficiently run. Most of the ailed firms needed better technological tools – especially tools that monitor productivity.

“Technology eats every industry eventually. It will eat yours (renovations and custom home building) within 5 to 10 years, too,” Barlow said. Why then, does our industry lag so far behind most others when it comes to adopting technology? It’s not that residential construction lacks for good quality software, apps and platforms.

“We don’t have a technology problem in our industry,” says John Jones of SoftPlan, the architectural design software firm. “We have a technology adoption problem. SoftPlan does design, 3D and materials lists – and much more – for custom homebuilders and renovators. Yet there is a misperception, Jones says, that it is software for architects. “Probably 60 per cent of our clients are builders… maybe 3 per cent architects,” Jones said. “Architects do not design single family homes in any large numbers.” Design-build contractors, do, Jones asserts. And those design-build firms are largely independent, entrepreneurial firms who don’t usually have access to the kind of technology that big commercial builders have been deploying for years.

Jones believe the digitization of all house and building plans – with a history of all the work that has occurred in them recorded in the digital files – is the very future of the residential construction industry. The concept, well-known in commercial and institutional construction as BIM (Building Information Management) will eventually reach the custom homebuilding and renovation industries, Jones says. Or, at the very least, it would be a huge advantage to contractors BIM penetrated our field.

BIM is already hard at work in some housing developments in south of the border. Jones points to The Villages, a retirement complex midway between Orlando and Ocala, Florida. The managers of the complex can see digitally when the carpets were last changed, and in what locations, what electrical and plumbing system changes were made and by whom, etc. This is a tremendous advantage to the owners of the complex.

Ex-roofer Devlin Chartrand, now a manager with RenoRun, the Montreal-based app that allows contractors to get fast delivery (usually within 2 hours) of building materials right to their job sites, said that the productivity increases that technology brings are usually vastly underestimated. But when contractors do “get” how technology can make them money, they often buy in even more rapidly.

“We supply products to job sites on a last-minute basis, to improve your productivity,” Chartrand said. “We want to stop your guys from making those 1- to 2-hour trips to the store that costs you so much in terms of productivity. Our goal is to keep everyone on your site productive at all times. Use use technology to improve productivity just like BusyBusy does.”

So successful has RenoRun become in Montreal, that this past year it expanded to the Greater Toronto Area as well. And contractors are even using its delivery services to order complete projects, not just last-minute, fill-in deliveries. “We started out as a fill-in supplier, but it’s not up to us to decide what the market wants,” says Chartrand. “So now we are doing complete builds more and more.”

Before launching the services, RenoRun’s founders did a lot of legwork, Chartrand explained. “We parked outside stores where contractors were shopping and did vehicle and foot counts on the traffic. We were seeing multiple contractors coming their multiple times during the day.” Obviously this was a huge loss of productivity for those contractors.

How much lost productivity? Chartrand estimates that an “average” sized renovation job in RenoRun’s markets is losing about 250 person-hours of trades labour in picking up supplies.

At the end of the day, and as advantageous as these three technology offerings are, residential contractors can only take technology so far. This is because municipal building departments are still stuck in a “paper” or “PDF” mentality when it comes to approving plans and blueprints, observes Jones. “So we have to dial down the technology to level of the building department – with guys looking at rolls of paper.”



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