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How AEC firms are using collaborative tools to solve client problems

How AEC firms are using collaborative tools to solve client problems

By Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief | August 11, 2010


Perkins Eastman’s intranet, called ORCHARD (On-line Resource for the Creative Harvest of Architecturally Relevant Discovery), is a repository of diverse employee resources. While several sections of ORCHARD are dedicated to principles and guiding practices in architecture, there are three sections that specifically focus on providing collaborative firm-wide guidelines and standards for project management and drawings. These standards are important to the firm’s long-term growth while creating consistency in all projects. 

Says Jennifer Carrel, Perkins Eastman’s director of knowledge management and creator of the ORCHARD system, “It is unusual for an architecture firm to provide key resources related to architectural design on its intranet. On ORCHARD, resources are not only delivered at the click of a mouse, but they are developed in such a way as to create standards that are utilized to develop consistent, quality work products. Given that a project might start in one office and then be transferred to another, these standards significantly reduce the duplication of effort—increasing efficiency.”

The three collaborative sections comprise Design and Drawing Resources, Project Resources, and Templates and Documents. They allow users to support a project from inception to completion, and provide useful tools for a systematic approach to navigating complex design, financial, legal, and intra-office issues. These resources are imperative to the project teams’ ability to navigate the range of interactions with clients, contractors, and consultants.

Design and Drawing Resources
Design and Drawing Resources section comprises three useful subsections that deliver resources critical to design and drawing processes: Graphics and Rendering, Building Technologies, and Specifications. The Graphics and Rendering subsection details AutoCAD standards that guide the project team through the process of drawing set-up, layer management, and troubleshooting. Having these resources available via ORCHARD allows architects in 13 offices to produce consistent drawings that can easily be used collaboratively.

The Building Technologies subsection addresses the construction phase of a project. It contains information on building products and manufacturers via MasterFormat, the most widely used materials classification system in the industry. The subsection also provides tools for the documentation of projects, construction administration, and specific recommendations for different practice areas.

The Specifications subsection details the procedures for working with the project’s specifier, as well as access all documents and templates needed in each phase of a project. It also contains detailed specifications by practice area, allowing users to quickly access detailed templates produced for specific building types.

Project Resources
The Project Resources section of ORCHARD comprises the Project Management Guide, Project Management Tools, and Codes and Regulations subsections. In this area Project Managers can access documents that outline standard methodologies. Client satisfaction, fundamental to the practice of architecture, is fostered through consistency and adherence to guidelines—an ordered progression of a project.

The Project Management Guide provides essential tools to help the project team establish goals and objectives of each project, as well as convenient access to detailed guidelines designed to foster quality control. These guidelines supply a framework for the service delivery process, enabling the Project Manager to methodically and creatively manage a project.

The Project Management Tools subsection provides all required document templates. Legal, financial, and administrative templates are organized by the phase of the project’s development, allowing the Project Manager to navigate through their multi-faceted role with relative ease. 

The third subsection of the Project Resources area is devoted to Codes and Regulations. Here team members are provided with direct links to city, state, and provincial regulating agencies, as well as a detailed, interactive chart that outlines accessibility laws.

Templates and Documents
The Templates and Documents section functions as the central repository for all forms related to project management as well as human resources, accounting, and marketing. Under Document Templates users can locate and utilize all fax transmittals, corporate letterhead, and meeting agenda forms. Every document type related to project correspondence, memorandums to meeting attendance forms, is also available in this subsection, all categorized by office location.

The Human Resources area provides users with the ability to order their business cards, renew their architectural license, and read all medical coverage updates. Having all Human Resource documents available online eliminates the need to request forms and, in turn, allows employees to be more proactive in the use of their employee benefits. Direct deposit, employee referral, and vacation request forms can all be easily located and filled out online; significantly reducing a backlog of interoffice mailing.

In the Marketing section project photography request forms and PowerPoint presentation templates, among other tools, ensure that every presentation document, both internal and external, has consistent brand identity. As with most large firms with multiple office locations, consistent use of logos is critical to providing a cohesive corporate image to both employees and clients.



Heery President Bill Heitz set a corporate goal of achieving 300 LEED APs by the end of 2009, a number which was exceeded in June 2009. Heery’s sustainability e-community became a hotbed of activity with employees from across the country both asking for and offering support. One team of employees created a LEED preparation seminar that they posted on the e-community, letting their peers know key study elements. Others created and forwarded spread sheets that summarized elements by topic rather than chapter. Still others posted study guides and practice tests. When individuals noticed registration delays or extensions, they were communicated via e-communities. Anytime employees read or heard something of relevance, they passed it along.


Beyond accreditation, employees are helping each other on sustainable projects across the country. Glenn Bellamy, Senior Mechanical Engineer and a member of Heery’s Environmental Advisory Panel created a presentation on how to manage a LEED project, which he placed on the e-community. Given its popularity, the presentation went live, and was offered at the most recent Heery University, the firm’s continuing education program.


Interior Designer Judy Peterson, another member of the Environmental Advisory Panel, remembers a question that had been forwarded regarding the best method of approaching a renovation project on the East Coast: using LEED-CI alone, or LEED for Core & Shell and LEED-CI separately. After an ongoing discussion regarding some of the points they believed they could obtain and those they knew they could not, the advice to seek CI alone was given due to the improbability of meeting the criteria needed for both. Employees also share published articles, products of interest, and links to helpful websites.


Another example: The architect for a middle school had specified veneer plaster interiors. The contractor suggested using high-impact drywall instead, saying it would save the owner money. The owner came to us as the PM saying they had the potential to save money but needed to know more. Out went the note and within hours our manager had compiled a large amount of information that was both positive and negative. In the end, we were able to confidently say there was no need to substitute the material the contractor had requested.


Yet another example: We handled PM on the new Oak Ridge High School in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The music teacher had concerns about the ceiling heights. While we had an acoustic consultant, at the end of the day it seemed a subjective decision. We called a meeting with the designer and consultant but wanted some real-world information to bring to that meeting. Our question was "What was the standard?" so we put it out to K-12 e-communities and discovered ceiling heights varied and that there really was no set standard.


A final example: As part of a PM program in Phillipsburg, N.J., we needed to provide a complex phasing schedule for a large high school project. Within the day, our Boston Area Manager provided a great example on a similar project that office had done. It didn't directly resolve the problem, but helped in determining the best approach, and we didn't have to re-create the wheel.




In order to bring more value as a project delivery partner in key strategic markets, Walter P Moore has chartered and launched new “Communities of Practice” (CoPs). Our Healthcare Community of Practice (CoP) is a virtual national organization comprised of over 25 practicing structural engineers who are experienced in healthcare design.


One of the community’s primary roles is to glean knowledge from the collective healthcare experience of the entire firm, applying those lessons on each of the firm’s new healthcare projects. The Community also provides a national forum for members to collaborate, share ideas, develop best practices, and engage in collective learning.


Most importantly, our healthcare experts serve as active participants on major projects to ensure that the collective experience of all engineers in our firm is aggregated and leveraged for the benefit of all of our healthcare projects and clients.


Current initiatives of our Healthcare Community of Practice include the development of an internal learning seminar on the rapidly changing issues of healthcare project delivery, a task force on Medical Equipment, and a work group that is exploring and moving our firm forward in the areas of Lean Design and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD).


From Kurt Young, PE, LEED AP, Principal and Leader of the Healthcare CoP:


“The CoP was a natural outgrowth of how we behave as a firm. We have 13 offices across the US, and we do structural in 11 of those offices. When I joined 13 years ago we had only 4 offices, and we abolished the profit-center concept, because it might hurt collaboration and communication between offices. We did not want to compete against each other, that seemed ridiculous. We were one firm, shared resources, shared expertise, shared staff.


“In early 2008 we formed the COPs in the firm, and picked select markets – Sports, Healthcare, Aviation, Parking Consulting (functional design of parking garages), Tall Buildings, etc. plus several “interest groups,” i.e., Federal markets and hospital – how does our SF office benefit from my experience at WD Anderson Cancer Center or Texas Children’s?


“Key: Everything for the COPs is volunteer time – an investment that we may not get paid but it’s important to be the leader in these markets.


“We have two levels of membership: 1) contributing membership, which does a lot of the heavy lifting (usually senior staff), and 2) corresponding members, who “listen in” on meetings and can volunteer.


“We had our kickoff in Healthcare in April 08 – about 27 or so total members, of which 15-20 are contributing members. Just about every office represented, 12 of 13. We didn’t want to make it mandatory. You had to have a passion for it.


“Some of the direct effects: One of the things that we were already doing was sharing knowledge, and we upped the ante and created a more formal framework to do that. We have a Medical Equipment Task Group, headed by our DC office, and they have taken inventory of all the different kinds of medical equipment we see in projects, and sorted thru all the information and summarized the big-picture things and what are some details that we as structural engineers have to know: What does a 1.5 tesla MRI weigh? A 3 tesla magnet may weigh 25,000 lb, and it may need steel or lead plate for shielding, potential vibration problems etc.


“We’ve summarized all these implications and questions, so the guys in Houston or Florida who have seen every MRI known to man can pass that info along to our new offices in California – in the forum of the committee, the Task Group is important because they can shoot out info on new piece of equipment and members can provide information.


“We’re really aggregating all the experience and knowledge that we’ve had since the late 1940s and making it available to everyone in the firm.”

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