Innovations from the Giants 300

Creative, educational, and just plain smart ideas from the top architecture, engineering, and construction firms.
August 11, 2010

The Giants didn't get to be Giants by resting on their laurels. They're constantly coming up with new ways to stay ahead of the pack. Herewith a sampling of recent innovations from the nation's biggest architecture, engineering, and construction firms.

3D/International (E/A 47, CM 8)

Began selling its management assessment and construction program software tools to clients independent of the firm's professional services. Result: new revenue source for 2005–6.

Astorino (A/E 46)

Developed a new approach to architectural design that involves observation, shadowing, in-depth client interviews, collage development, story telling/journaling, color theory, and metaphor elicitation to fully understand clients' needs. Result: In April, the process was granted a patent from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

Clancy & Theys used Field2Base, a tablet PC tool, to communicate faster when building the College of Engineering II
building at North Carolina State University at Raleigh. Building photo: Jim Sink

Burt Hill (A/E 26)

Established a permanent, 200-person Dubai office. Result: Greater visibility, more work, greater control over their work, prompter payments, less frequent travel, and an ability to contribute to the economy of the country supplying the work.

Clancy & Theys Construction Co. (C 63)

Adopted and helped pioneer the use of Field2Base, a tablet PC-based mobile communication tool that speeds up communication between Building Team members. Result: Won the 2006 Associated General Contractors of America's national championship in the biennial competition for best information technology solution.

EMJ Corporation (C 59)

Launched a new subsidiary, Signal Wind Energy, to provide preconstruction, design, and construction services to developers and utilities in the wind industry. Result: The company is currently building 300 MW of wind energy projects throughout North America.

Gafcon (CM 23)

Launched the Nspec Quality Control System, which uses a mobile, hand-held computer with a built-in camera and wireless connectivity to resolve construction deficiencies. The system aids QA/QC inspections by producing color photo reports on site and within minutes of the visual inspection. Result: QA/QC inspection efficiency increased more than 200%.

SmithGroup’s “house-air” system minimizes the amount of air required in animal
holding spaces by connecting the building’s HVAC system directly to animal cages.

HRH Construction (C 69)

Created a new department called Technical Services, which consists of experienced builders that work with design teams at project inception. Result: A streamlined building process—both monetarily and in terms of scheduling.

Ingenium Group (E/A 11)

Enhanced its ProjectWeb program, a Web-based document management tool that allows multi-disciplinary staff to share files within a single project environment. Result: The firm sells the software to third parties and is expected to generate more than $1 million in direct revenue in 2006.

Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz (A 12)

Initiated the "Double Green" approach to planning and design that alleviates initial upfront costs associated with building green and reduces environmental impact of products and building systems. The concept draws on the firm's Energy Green Design and Community Green Design ideas (hence, the "double green"). Result: Reduced building energy requirements per sf and an anticipated increase in worker productivity as a result of spaces fostering interaction and a sense of workplace community.

Karlsberger (A 37)

Formed the Karlsberger Research Group, which conducts general and customized (client-specific) research for healthcare and laboratory clients. Research areas focus on the patient and family experience, staff issues, internal culture change, best practices, facility innovation, industry trends, and benchmarking. Result: An active client base, publication of several "Karlsberger Knowledge" general research papers, and presentations at conferences.

Martin Associates Group (E 5)

Researched strong-motion data from instrumented buildings with several earthquake records. Result: Created a set of methodologies that could be used immediately after an earthquake to assess the probability of building damage (assessments can be as detailed as a floor-by-floor analysis) to determine whether or not the facility needs to be evacuated.

M/E Engineering (E 32)

Developed the Environmental Physics Group division. Result: Increased focus on sustainable design and implementation practices related to mechanical and electrical systems.

Messer Construction (CM 16)

Instituted the "Lean Construction" management-based project delivery system. Result: Improved total project performance (specifically for complex or fast-track projects) that decentralizes hierarchical decision making and uses peer pressure to drive reliability.

Morris, Johnson & Associates (E 45)

Developed performance specifications and contract forms for the first design-build project undertaken by the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. Result: The forms standardized the proposal process so that design-build teams could competitively price their bids for a new 85,000-sf school.

RBB Architects (A 29)

Created new operating room and interventional suite designs using 3-D modeling techniques. Result: Dynamic models of motion of displacement of individuals and devices allowed RBB to study optimal workflow patterns. Particular attention was paid to the set-up of monitors and displays and to new robotic devices for operating rooms. The project was part of the firm's work as consulting architect on UCLA's $415 million replacement hospital.

Sellen Construction (C 71)

Increased use of 4-D modeling to test construction schedules, activities sequencing, and site logistics. Result: Labor and materials are better organized before construction begins; site logistics are better understood.

The S/L/A/M Collaborative (A/E 39)

Beefed up senior design talent and added project development specialists in order to pursue the goal of becoming the "integrated firm of the future." Result: More commissions for increasingly complex projects and more comprehensive partnerships with clients.

SmithGroup (A/E 7)

Designed a vivarium for the University of Michigan's Life Science Institute that employs a "house air" system, believed to be the first of its kind in the country to be operational. Ventilated animal cages are directly connected to the building's HVAC system, with laboratory air flow control valves controlling supply and exhaust air. Result: The system minimizes the quantities of air required in animal holding spaces, since a specific quantity of air is delivered to and extracted from each rack, rather than turning over large volumes of room air. The system also better isolates the room and the air in the animal cages, resulting in a cleaner, more odor-free environment.

Spectrum Engineers (A/E 45)

Partnered with sister commissioning firm, Total Building Commissioning, to improve the building commissioning process. Result: More fully integrated mechanical, electrical, and technology engineering; clearer documentation; and greater design details for HVAC instrumentation and controls, building management systems, lighting controls, fire alarm systems, and audio-visual control systems.

Steffian Bradley Architects (A 50)

Collaborated with the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology to create Operating Room of the Future concept with a suite of rooms that improves patient flow. Result: Room turnaround times between patients was reduced from 45 minutes to 15 minutes. The OR also improves efficiencies by networking surgical, anesthesia, and nursing data and touch-screen control of equipment, lighting, and images.

STV Group (E/A 5)

Created a series of construction standards, in collaboration with the New York City School Construction Authority. Changes include new materials and redesigned electrical and mechanical systems. Result: The city's public school improvement costs were reduced by millions of dollars. The city's average construction cost of $450 per sf was reduced to $300 per sf. The changes will be required for all the city's future public school projects.

Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (A 8)

Participated in the H.O.T. (Hotel of Tomorrow) project. Developed new concepts for guestroom furnishings, amenities, and architecture for the hospitality industry. Collaborated with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Result: Established the "Hospitality Transformed" student design competition, which challenges students to design a resort hotel for the year 2055.

Zimmer Gunsal Frasca Partnership (A 7)

Collaborated with the University of Oregon's Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory to develop patient room designs that maximize daylighting. Result: The firm's research proved that from a daylighting point of view, patient rooms with in-board bathrooms or shared wall bathrooms are the best layout, while outboard bathrooms (a very common set-up) are the worst possible layout.