At June’s AEC Systems event—the biggest annual technology show for architecture, engineering and construction—a presentation focused on the 5 1/2-year design and construction of the Seattle Seahawks’ new football home.


Speakers were soaked in prestige: Two from Turner Corp. (largest U.S. general builder) and one from billion-dollar designer Ellerbe Becket. They spoke about project challenges, the tremendous cooperation and collaboration, and of course, the technology used.

Electrical work on the $430 million project, which includes a nearby exhibition center, was design/build, and assigned to Cochran Electric of Seattle, one of the nation’s largest contractors. Between electrical work on the exhibition center and the stadium, as well as VDV work on a separate contract won by Cochran’s technology group, the company grossed roughly $40 million.

Did the technology picture look the same at the subcontractor level? While the AEC Systems presentation was fascinating, Larry Couch, senior project manager for Cochran, had a different angle.

View from Cochran

Some technology on display at AEC Systems is what used to be referenced as “bleeding edge.” But keys to success for Cochran revolved around two fairly mundane items: Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and e-mail.

“We have an earned-value system, which we have used for the past 10 or 11 years,” said Couch. “It works on Excel. We divided the job into roughly 2,000 activities. We tracked labor hours against these activities as well as percentage of completion.”

“What this gave us, on a monthly basis, is the ability to devote attention to problem areas faster. It makes it easy for us to spot where the problems are and jump on them. And all you have to do to maintain it is enter data in a couple of cells in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.”

While tracking is key to profitability, the life of a project manager on a huge project has changed, Couch revealed. The job now requires a key guy to monitor a computer and check e-mail all day long.

“At the job’s peak, I was averaging 150 e-mails per day. Yes, they were all associated with this job. Not all were sent directly to my attention; on some, I was copied in. But I had to look at all of them. Of course, that was at the peak. I’d say over the four years we’ll be on this job, it will probably average out to a bit less than 70 per day.”

Yes, that’s roughly 70 e-mails per day, day after day, over four years. Cochran has invested in the technology to speed up such an operation. The company has a server on the job site, which is linked to the computer in its main office.

Turner & Ellerbe perspective

The AEC Systems presentation covered the stadium/exhibition center project’s use of technology. The following items explain the flow to Couch’s e-mail in-box:

Major use of e-mail on the project. At one point, 15 percent of the e-mail messages going through the entire Turner operation in the United States were generated in connection with this single project, although Turner has 41 offices across the country. Thomas Gerlach Jr., senior vice president and general manager of Turner’s local office, jokingly credited this to the fact the company is in Seattle—and because Paul Allen, one of Microsoft’s founders, was involved financially in the stadium.

Distribution of Requests for Information via electronic format. The job averaged 25 RFIs per day, each running two to three pages, which could be distributed to more than 30 people internally (Turner) and more than 30 externally (contractors and designers).

“We digitally scanned the RFIs, and, via Prolog, we sent them out electronically to the subcontractors,” said David Klopp, engineering project manager for Turner. “At no time on this project did I get a call from someone saying, ‘I didn’t get that piece of information.’” Prolog is a Meridian Project Systems product.

Electronic creation/sorting of punch lists. This covers the finished exhibit hall. Turner’s people created the lists in Prolog and shared access with Ellerbe Becket. The information was sortable electronically and communicated that way, too.

The advantage: “We eliminated most punch list conflicts this way,” said Klopp.

Limited paper drawings

Obviously, there were paper drawings on this job. However, Couch of Cochran noted that the detailed coordination drawings—which flowed through the mechanical contractor—were all done via CAD.

In other words, the engineering work was all done on computer; paper drawings were not exchanged or couriered around town.

An obvious question for Couch: At the peak of the job, when 150 e-mails were coming in each day, but you were present on the jobsite, how often did you find yourself on the phone about a given problem, while simultaneously responding to another stadium-related inquiry via e-mail?

“Oh,” Couch laughed, “only a couple of times a day.” EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.