Builders can't wait around anymore. Most are tired of wringing their hands over the failure of BuildNet during the dot-com era. And, last year's collapse of i4Synergy underscored that a single software solution to manage the building life cycle is months, if not years, away. Faced with the record-setting pace of the past few years, many builders understand that the only way to manage growth is to eliminate the constant faxing and manual rekeying of data that slows the business down, and automate their sales, production, purchasing, and customer service operations. Since the market hasn't produced a single system that does it all, builders have countered by patching together systems with sales automation software, CAD programs, fax utilities, and warranty and time sheet management systems.

“There's no such thing as a system that you bring in and it works,” says Dan Hanley, information systems manager at Taylor-Morley in Chesterfield, Mo., one of the builders profiled for this story. Taylor-Morley integrated CAD, fax server, payroll, and timesheet applications with its FAST back-office system. FAST Sales, which blends Sales Simplicity with FAST, will be up and running at Taylor-Morley later this year.

April Pierce, information technology (IT) manager at Hacienda Builders in Scottsdale, Ariz., the second builder profiled, says, “Our goal ... was to manage all the increased paperwork without increasing manpower.” Pierce played a leading role in Hacienda's integration of the Builder 1440 sales system with its Trueline back-office system. Hacienda also tied Autodesk's Buzzsaw into its construction management system. Next up: automating warranty management.

Our third profile is of Pointsett Homes in Greenville, S.C. Pointsett integrated its BuildTopia construction management system with Timberline's accounting software. Now, the company's office manager goes into BuildTopia two or three times a week and downloads all new work orders into Timberline.

“BuildTopia gave us sales, construction, scheduling, and purchasing,” says Pete Kellos, Pointsett's construction manager. “All we needed to do was tie in the back end, which is what we did with Timberline.”

It's your choice. You can continue to push paper, make do with an antiquated system from the early 1990s, or look for products that can help meet your business goals today. It's not easy and it may even require hiring a programmer or a couple of college kids to write some custom interfaces, but it sure beats waiting around for the elusive magic bullet.

FAST and Smart Taylor-Morley integrates numerous applications to work with its back-end FAST System.

Dan Hanley, information systems manager for Taylor-Morley, notes that even the best back-office systems require some custom integration.

He says Taylor-Morley uses FAST for land management, sales, construction production, purchasing, warranty, and accounting. But FAST took the company only so far, which is why Taylor-Morley bolted CAD, fax server, payroll, and time sheet applications to the system.

Hanley explains that one of his first steps when he came on board a few years ago was to move Taylor-Morley off its antiquated accounting and networking systems and build an infrastructure based on Microsoft Windows 2000, including Office 2000, Outlook 2000, and Exchange 2000. Microsoft's products are so universal that he found it easy to integrate other applications into FAST as needed.

For starters, integration between Argos' Vertex CAD system and FAST lets a CAD operator create lot-specific drawings with options the customer selected and then drop the final bill of material from Vertex back into FAST, which sends the updated information to purchasing so it can generate purchase orders.

Once the subcontractors complete the work, the super approves the purchase orders on a handheld and Troy Telgate's ChequeScribe generates all of the company's accounts payable and payroll checks. FAST offers the integration with Cheque-Scribe, but Hanley says Taylor-Morley plans to write a custom interface that will handle direct deposits and let the company print checks with direct deposit information.

FAST also offers integration with Omtool's Fax Senior, which automatically faxes purchase orders and production schedules to Taylor-Morley's subcontractors and suppliers. The company plans to upgrade to Omtool's Genifax, which will let it fax over multiple telephone lines. “The new interface will provide users with status and tracking reports and handle anything that can go out in a bulk fax mailing,” Hanley says.

Taylor-Morley is also looking to run mJobTime from Accu-Tech Systems over a handheld so its supers can manage time sheets out in the field. And the company has even had success with Tablet PCs. Taylor-Morley now has its design consultants enter options information directly into FAST via the Tablet PC. “They don't do any handwriting, they just check off boxes,” says Hanley. “If they need to enter in some information, they can type letters in with the electronic keyboard.”

Hanley says Taylor-Morley's commitment to IT is unusual for a builder its size. The company closed 345 homes in 2003 but supports an IT staff that includes Hanley, a PC and network support person, a full-time programmer, and a part-time intern. “That's a pretty sizable investment for a builder,” he notes.

True Integration Hacienda Builders ties Web-based sales and collaboration software with Trueline's back-ofice system.

Builder technology is alive and well at Hacienda. During the past year, the company successfully integrated Builder 1440's sales system and Autodesk's Buzzsaw collaboration software with Trueline's back-office construction management system to cut paperwork from its sales and purchasing operations.

“When I first joined Hacienda, the systems were not speaking to one another,” says IT manager Pierce, who points out that the company experienced dramatic growth in the past year, from 448 closings in 2002 to nearly 700 homes last year. “Our salespeople would enter information, print out a contract, and fax it to our central office staff, who would then manually enter the information into Trueline.”

Here's how the system works today: The process starts when the home office enters all the background lot information, plans, and options data into Trueline. When a salesperson meets with a customer, the salesperson clicks options listed in Builder 1440 based on selections the customer makes. A sales agreement is signed, and the contract information is sent to Trueline via an XML transport that lets Builder 1440 and Trueline communicate with one another.

The construction department then pulls all the options information out of Trueline and creates a work order report using Sequel, a query and reporting tool from Advanced Systems Concepts that lets Hacienda's staff pull reports off its AS/400 mainframe computer. Once the work order is created, it's sent to Buzzsaw, which notifies the construction supers and subcontractors that a work order has been issued. At the same time the work order is generated, a schedule is created in Trueline's Web-based scheduling tool, which is updated by the supers once a week. Once the subs complete the work, the super signs off in Trueline, and a bill is paid via Trueline's accounting system.

Hacienda also plans to have Trueline, Sequel, and Buzzsaw manage customer service requests. The idea is for customers to e-mail service requests from the Hacienda Web site, then have those requests managed electronically with the existing integrated system. When an e-mail arrives, the warranty department would match the customer subdivision information with a project number in Trueline, print a work order with Sequel, then post it to Buzzsaw. This system would eliminate faxing between the home office and customer service managers, as well as all faxing between customers, service managers, and contractors.

Perfect Fit Timberline's accounting software complements Buildtopia's construction management system at Pointsett.

For Pointsett Homes, integrating its BuildTopia construction management system with Timberline's accounting software was the final piece of the puzzle. Now, the builder has an end-to-end system that handles sales, construction, scheduling, estimating, purchasing, warranty management, and accounting.

Pete Kellos, the company's construction manager, says the integrated system saves two or three people from manually processing invoices on the accounts payable side and two more purchasing clerks who used to process purchase orders by hand.

“The system also saves the supers from spending a half-day twice a month to approve invoices,” Kellos says. “Now they can spend more time on the jobsite, where they belong.”

Under the new system, the salesperson gets a customer to sign a sales agreement and then enters contract and options information into BuildTopia. If a customer requests a non-standard option, the salesperson flags the sales manager, who typically approves the option and sends it to estimating for pricing. For a less complicated item, the salesperson gives the price to the customer within 15 minutes. Once options are set, the customer has 14 days to select colors. After colors are selected, Equisys Zetafax faxes out the work orders to the subcontractors.

“What I like about this system is that everyone is viewing the same information,” says Kellos. “No longer do we have one person making up a spreadsheet and another person setting up the information in a Microsoft Access database. We're all on the same page using the same interface and database.”

That holds true for subs and vendors, too. BuildTopia users can offer subs and vendors an online service in which they access the BuildTopia system, view work orders, and print them out locally. The service costs $510 a year. Kellos says roughly 30 of his 150 subs and vendors have opted for the online service.

On the accounting side, two to three times a week the office manager goes into BuildTopia and views all the ongoing jobs, including new work orders. New work orders are loaded into Timberline, and once the supers approve the work, the file goes into a pay file.

Kellos says the integrated system helped Pointsett manage its fast-paced growth during the past two years. Pointsett closed 234 homes in 2002, 300 last year, and is looking to close 400 this year.