Technology: Fast Forward Through technology, “you can often eliminate having to go somewhere in person, avoid a meeting, and avoid load time, windshield time,” says Joe Stoddard, office technology consultant and REMODELING columnist. “These are milestones.”
In that sense, the first technological breakthroughs of the past 20 years were also communications breakthroughs. “Radios were the biggest jump forward,” says Tom Schlieffer, PhD, a retired contractor who wrote Construction Contractor's Survival Guide and now teaches at the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University. Being able to “get hold of people in remote areas makes it easier to manage the work. It not only allows instruction to flow but allows others not directly involved to know what's happening.”
The same holds true for cell phones, now nearly ubiquitous. “We were using the bag phone and paying as much as $1,500 a month and glad to have it,” says Stoddard who was a remodeler during the early 1980s. Stoddard also points to the fax machine as having an impact. “If we needed any kind of installation, methodology, or specs, someone could pull them out of a book and fax them to us. It cut down cycle time. It was huge.”
But the biggest milestone has been computer use. In 1985, “computer programs for the remodeler and the small builder were non-existent,” says Jim Strite, a Boise, Idaho, remodeler and an early tech user. Back then “you were talking $30,000 for a job cost program.”
In the mid-1990s, computers and specialty software became more widely used. Says Strite, Timberline construction software came down in price, but it “took someone very knowledgeable in the accounting field” to make it beneficial. The development of HomeTech estimating software, QuickBooks, CAD, Chief Architect, Soft-Plan, and other software has been a series of small milestones that have helped make users more professional. “They enhance a company and its sense of keeping things organized and categorized. We can now build a database and export information to provide us with trends,” says Strite.
Those pieces of information are the keys to success. “The remodeler who owns the project data owns the project,” says Stoddard. What's made that data easier to disseminate has been the Internet and the World Wide Web. “E-mail allows a one-to-many distribution,” says Stoddard. “That's its power, getting everyone on the same page.”
Many remodelers like Strite took a Web presence early on. Now, a Web site is a must-have. “In the past five years it's been so easy to set one up,” says Schliefer. “Probably over 50% of contractors have one. In a few years it will be 100%.”
Design/Build: One Stop Shops Design/build may seem an odd milestone to mark, because it is still evolving. Yet it has made an impact on the industry — as a new way to do business and in the way clients think about design -— and will continue to do so, particularly in and around urban areas with affluent, educated clients.
Although Fred Case changed the name of his business to Case Design/Remodeling in 1981, he and several others such as Tom Kelly of Neil Kelly Design/Build in Portland, Ore., had been doing design/build — single source design and remodel — for many years. By the mid-1980s, the process, as Case's president Mark Richardson calls it, had gained a following.
Driving the emergence of design/build was a sense of frustration with the lack of control found in the traditional triangle formed by client, architect, and remodeler. “We were getting uncomfortable seeing our designs being built by someone else,” says Kelly of the transformation of his company. He also points to the antagonistic nature of the architect-remodeler relationship as another sore spot that lead to change.
There are no hard figures on how many firms have changed their business model to design/build — in part because there is no true definition of the process — but anecdotally, the Washington, D.C., metro area has the largest concentration of design/build companies, with more than 50.
Changes in business practices meant educating the consumer. Convincing prospective clients to choose a single source for their project was a formidable task. Remodelers like Kelly forged ahead. “We just changed how we did business, and those who didn't want to do business with us the way we were defining it — although we were flexible where we needed to be — we wouldn't do business with them. As more contractors adopted those kinds of processes, the consumer over time has been educated as to what design/build means.”