WIRELESS BLACKBERRY HANDHELDS HAVE become a kind of mania in the business world. The stereotype is of the insatiable “Crackberry” user who can't stop his thumbs from pounding out an endless stream of e-mails.
Although Blackberry addicts haven't exactly infiltrated home building, it's clear that new applications from software developer ATSG are helping dozens of employees in the home building industry use the devices to manage jobsites more productively.
Add ATSG's applications to the Web-based Blackberry customer-service products builders use from Corrigo, and other applications from software companies such as BuilderMT, and 2005 may well be remembered as the year the Blackberry finally broke through in home building.
“We went with the Blackberry application on a Nextel phone, because now our people [can] have a phone, Nextel's push-to-talk feature, e-mail, a link to their schedule in Microsoft Outlook, and the ATSG application [all in one device],” says Ron Swecker, director of home building for Grayson Homes, a builder in Ellicott City, Md., that constructs about 200 homes a year at prices from $315,000 to $700,000.
ATSG has written two home builder–specific applications. The first, Construction Quality Manager (CQM), is a punch-list application that automates the final walk-through, which lets builders identify problems and gradually eliminate defects from the construction process. The second application, Construction Schedule Manager (CSM), lets users update construction schedules and pay bills in the field.
Swecker says CQM came out of Grayson's participation in the National Housing Quality (NHQ) awards program administered by the NAHB Research Center. He says Grayson received a gold award under the program in 2005, after having won a silver and an honorable mention the previous two years. CQM played an important role in Grayson's taking the gold this year.
“When the judges from the NHQ board were here, they asked us how we handled punch-list items,” says Swecker. “Like most builders, we told them once they're complete, we tear the list off a yellow legal pad and throw it away.”
The NHQ people suggested Grayson look into an application that would let the builder capture all the punch-list data and run reports so it could see defect trends emerge over several weeks and months. After investigating different solutions, Grayson decided to ask ATSG to develop an application. The result was CQM.
A good example of how CQM helps pinpoint defects: After sending out reports to one of Grayson's drywall contractors, Swecker says, the contractor reported back that he had to replace attic access panels 26 times in one quarter. Evidently, when the insulation team came through, they were knocking out the access panels previously left by the drywall contractors. So when the trim contractors came to finish the jobs, there were no panels left. Not a big deal in one house, but it can run to several thousand dollars if it happens 100 times a year.
“It's the little things that get built into the cost of doing business,” says Swecker. “Nobody thought the access panels were a big deal until it showed up on the report how many times it was happening.”
Whereas CQM is geared for small builders, CSM was initially written for Taylor Woodrow, which asked ATSG to write an application for the Blackberry that would integrate with the builder's NewStar back-office system. Bradenton, Fla.–based Taylor Woodrow closed 3,635 homes in 2004.
“We used to have a lot of faxes going to the trailer,” says Bob Summers, Taylor Woodrow's chief information officer. “Now, instead of having the supers go to the trailer to sign purchase orders, the POs are tied to the schedule. When a task is completed, the super clicks that it's done, and all the POs attached to the schedule are approved for payment.”