A New Look at Scheduling
As the market slows and builders look to capitalize on new initiatives, they find assistance in the form of scheduling technology.
What are you working on these days? While physical home production has slowed considerably for some builders, it hasn’t stopped production from occurring on the long-term planning and operations side of the business.
Current market conditions have forced unprepared builders to reign in the investment dollars for new technology or initiatives. For others, the timing seems right to start exploring new areas of growth or for simply reexamining established business processes, in order to get a leg-up when the market does indeed turnaround. Some have started to explore the steps involved to achieve green building status. Others are taking a closer look at current land development processes in order to plan more appropriately.
No matter what the initiative, evaluating the role of IT can be an imperative first step. For many, scheduling is a good place to begin. Whether it’s investing in a new set of applications or simply developing a new strategy for applying existing applications to new processes, builders can lean on the scheduling tools of today to help them down a new path of growth.
Green on Schedule
The push for building green continues to penetrate homebuilding. In late 2007, Olson Homes, www.olsonhomes.com, Seal Beach, Calif., announced it developed the first attached, new-home community in California to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org, Washington, D.C., as a part of the LEED for Homes program. The community of Depot Walk attained a Silver rating, and its model homes feature green construction materials, eco-smart interiors, and solar efficiencies.
As a voluntary initiative promoting sustainable construction practices in homebuilding, the LEED for Homes rating system targets the top 25% of homes with best practice environmental design and construction. A primary goal of the program is providing national consistency in defining the features of a green home and to enable builders nationwide to obtain a “green” rating on homes.
The National Assn. of Home Builders (NAHB), www.nahb.org, Washington, D.C., also jumped aboard the green wave itself, launching the NAHB National Green Building Program. Announced at the Intl. Builders’ Show in Orlando, Fla., during this past February, the program features an online scoring tool, www.nahbgreen.org, showing builders how to accrue points in seven categories, ranging from water and resource efficiency to lot and site development to indoor environmental quality, among others.
As builders try their hand at green, many may find the level of planning and coordination required for such projects to be much more complicated than that involved with a typical construction project. One technology provider is addressing this challenge from the perspective of scheduling.
AEC Software, www.aecsoft.com, Sterling, Va., added custom templates particularly aimed at helping builders schedule green projects to its FastTrack Schedule application.
The templates, which can be downloaded via AEC Software’s Website, help builders organize project teams, define and outline green objectives, and help measure, manage, and communicate the progress of these objectives across the project team.
“After you get the project team together, the hardest part is all the extra requirements to determine if green initiatives are being met. All of these little details can eat you alive if you are not on top of them,” says Bill Keech, vice president of sales and business development, AEC Software. “Many builders are doing green and doing it well, but we give them a tool that allows them to communicate easily what is going on, how things get done, and what falls behind.”
In order to achieve certain levels of certifications from national green standards, such as LEED and NAHB, builders must meet various criteria on a project. This includes site selection, air pollution reduction, and practicing proper recycling methods for building materials, among others.
While there is definite interest in building green amongst builders, the biggest challenge often involves how to get started and how to keep all members of the project team on track, given the strict requirements of green.
“If you start adding in all the things you need to do in order to become green it becomes apparent that a tool is needed that helps everyone stay on the same path. We help people make it easy to align goals and efforts into a schedule,” adds Keech. “We have taken our existing application and created custom templates that give users a quick start into pulling everyone together on their green effort. Whether they are going after LEED building certification on commercial or on residential or (going for) the NAHB rating, they now have something that helps them get started on a checklist and on the requirements needed to go green.”
The customized FastTrack schedule identifies all the requirements that are available to go green. It is an outline of who is responsible within the project team for certain tasks and tracks if certain criteria were achieved, along with links to all of the backup documentation associated with each task.
Plan Your Land
One of the biggest burdens for builders today is carrying land that either cannot be developed or contains inventory that cannot be sold. With this in mind, some builders are taking steps to properly document procedures, policies, and practices involved with the land development process.
The thought is, with land development typically encompassing a few years, the ability to foresee when a piece of land will be ready for home construction could help alleviate huge headaches down the road.
Vicki Buckridge, information technology manager, Ryder Homes, www.ryderhomes.com, Walnut Creek, Calif., is adamant about using the current market downtime to the company’s advantage. One of her current objectives is helping superintendents refine processes and learn to use technology in new and innovative ways.
Currently she is focusing on streamlining the myriad of processes involved during the land development phase using scheduling technology. Factoring in the need to plan for the many environmental issues that accompany building in the state of California; the mapping and permitting approval process; and the model home preparation process; among others, it becomes common for the land development phase to stretch out across three or four years at Ryder Homes.
“Right now it is a manual process, where we are relying on the experience of the superintendent assigned to that project to remember all of the steps,” says Buckridge. “Luckily we have some good superintendents at the moment, so what I am trying to do is to take their knowledge and develop a more uniform template that can be put into the automated schedule.
“Of course every project has little nuances, and different cities have different requirements, but I am trying to develop a template of steps you need to follow in general, which can be refined based on a certain project.”
Buckridge says the company will apply the technology from BuilderMT, www.buildermt.com, Lakewood, Colo., it currently uses for home construction scheduling to the land development process, albeit with a few modifications.
“When you build a house the steps are easy to determine: first floor, second floor, truss, roof, etc. But in a big land contract, you instead determine the percent that you are done. Determining exactly how to divide up that piece is what we are trying to decide,” says Buckridge.
“With our current technology we have the ability to go into the schedule and rather than clicking pay points, you can go into a particular contract and make the modification to determine this is 10% completed, for example,” she adds. “It is not quite as easy as just checking off steps that are done during the building process, but I think it is a very viable way of applying that technology in order to keep everything going on schedule.”
Currently when doing an individual lot, Ryder Homes has established a certain pay point for each trade working on the job. With that, the schedule is set up as such making it very clear that when a step is complete it is then marked off as complete within the automated schedule. Buckridge says the difference on the land development side comes with the fact certain progress will need to be tracked in percentages rather than in clear and concise steps.
And just like with the housing schedule, the land schedule would need to be tied to the job costing system. This will allow Ryder Homes to import invoices based on the percentage of completion.
While Buckridge believes it would be valuable even without the link to the job costing system, she adds this certainly would make it more efficient, as then the cost codes could be tied to each step. The key to making it all work is having the flexibility within the technology.
“The ability to refine processes very easily is something the technology does so well. You can fine tune your program without a big deal. You can set a date back by ‘x’ days and restate when we expect to be done,” says Buckridge. “That information is now readily available for all parties involved, including the banks, which is very important in this type of market.”
Ryder Homes is not alone in its plans to apply more technology to the land development process. Kimball Hill Homes, www.kimballhillhomes.com, Houston, Texas, is also currently engaged in this process. With so much money tied to land, Mark Roper, director of IT, Chicago office at Kimball Hill Homes, believes this is an imperative step for builders to examine closely in order to identify new opportunities down the road.
“You need to better understand your business in land, because the next time the industry rises we can make more money. At the same time, when the market starts to turn—if we have it properly documented and our procedures and policies and practices are in place—maybe (it helps us determine that) we don’t go out and buy a piece of land,” says Roper.
Unlike Ryder Homes, Kimball Hill Homes is using a different scheduling technology for land development process (Microsoft Project) than it does for scheduling the home construction process. He says Microsoft Project will fit the objectives of the land development process, as it is easy to use and learn. One caveat is he will need to tie some rules to the Microsoft Project tool.
“From a technology standpoint we just wanted to make sure that it was able to run on the server and that multiple people could access the schedule,” says Roper. “Because you are not just building a schedule and keeping it within one person—you are starting to share it across functional areas. Now land is starting to share with finance, with the field. They will know and can predict when we will start building homes and share that information with the executive management teams.”
As Roper says, it becomes just a basic project timeline. By applying the technology, it allows everyone involved with land development to track each step throughout the process with the utmost certainty.
“You use it as a template. For example, this community took us ‘x’ amount of time to get up and going. This next community we have coming up—this piece of dirt—is the exact same type of footprint that we need to go through,” says Roper. “Obviously you learn from old (projects). If we think the market will be a good market in two years, you might accelerate the timeline, if not maybe we don’t buy that piece of land. So it can be definitely used as a forecasting tool.”