Like kudzu, computer tablets are quickly spreading over the home building landscape, eliminating fax machines, hard-wired telephone lines, office space, file cabinets, and the ubiquitous milk crates on the front seat of superintendents' pickup trucks. Unlike kudzu, they are beneficial, cutting costs and build time, increasing efficiency, and even helping to sell homes and options. In this series, we will look at a number of home builder case studies to explore how the devices are changing businesses.
A year and a half ago Matt Graves, Midwest production manager for Drees Homes said he didn’t even know what an iPad was. “Now it seems like they are taking over the world.”
And it’s been a welcome invasion for Drees, Graves said. The devices are saving the company money and time. Because of the home building recession, Drees’ job superintendents, who it calls builders, have had to supervise construction at multiple sites. While they had laptops and Blackberries, decisions, problem resolution, and schedule updates often had to wait until they could get back to the office where they had Internet access, so they could see documents in a large enough format to figure out solutions and update schedules and fax machines so they could transmit documents.
“They had a lot of drive time, and they had Blackberries to keep up with email, but they couldn’t see the documents very well,” said Graves. “It was hampering us because we had to go back to the construction trailers.”
Then the company’s IT department suggested that, rather than replace the company’s aging fleet of laptops with new laptops at $2,000 each, it should buy $630 iPads for the superintendents. Management was reluctant to jump in with both feet.
“But we decided to put one out there with one builder,” Graves said. “After two weeks he said he didn’t want to send it back.” In January the company decided to have them issued to all superintendents by March. It now has about 100 out in the field in all its markets.
As a result, the company has been able to eliminate the cost of Internet connections to its construction trailers, the telephone line, and the fax machines. “We were paying $50 to $75 a month for Internet connections in the construction trailer and the phone line. We are definitely seeing some up-front savings,” Graves said.
Drees is using the tablets for a variety of tasks that keeps growing. It uses them to update schedules, and for meetings with customers on warranty issues. Builders are able to type up the work order and then email it to the contractor with a copy to the customer before they walk out the door.
They use the devices to take photographs of construction problems that they can quickly send to the contractors to show them what needs to be fixed. Customers’ selections are online and accessible so a superintendent can see the list of options ordered and call up the customers’ plans in a large enough format to see the details.
Superintendents also use weather applications to see the forecast and radar images so they can make scheduling decisions.
At first there was some worry that the superintendents wouldn’t adapt to the new technology, especially older ones who the company thought would be more resistant to change. So Drees brought them all in for training sessions that taught them the basics of the device, including how to turn it on and how to navigate through various programs.
“In less than an hour they were navigating through all the things they needed,” said Graves. “The hardest thing we had to do was to get them to have a gentle touch on the screen.”
Since, the superintendents have been finding applications on their own to help their productivity, including note-taking software that allows them to email their notes.
There’s also been a more subtle value to the iPads as well, said Graves. “At a time when home building has been very, very tough over the last years, the fact that the company has taken the time, energy, and money to put into innovation puts the pep back into your step. That brings morale up some.”
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder.