By BUILDER Magazine Staff. About four years ago, The Drees Co. in Ft. Mitchell, Ky., knew it wanted to grow, but unlike many other builders, Drees understood that the way to manage increased workload and keep costs down was through technology.

So in 1999, Drees hired Michael Rulli as its director of information systems to modernize its computer systems. Since that time, Drees, which has 14 divisions building in eight states, spent $1.5 million on developing a new Web-based construction management system.

Rulli says his first order of business was to free the company's administrative staff, field workers, and subcontractors from the excessive paperwork that bogs down most construction jobs. He says by managing schedules, purchasing, and house plans over a Web interface the new system slashes cycle time by seven days. This lets Drees build more houses with the same staff. Rulli credits this performance with propelling the company from 2,000 closings and $515 million in 1999 sales to 2,710 closings and sales of $825 million in 2002. Here's a rundown of the system's benefits:

  • Improved work flow with suppliers and subcontractors. Work dates are constantly monitored and updated on the Extranet. This lets vendors plan more efficiently, which means subcontractors and suppliers make fewer dry runs. For example, building materials supplier Builders FirstSource reports that the Extranet helped reduce cycle time on the delivery of trusses by three days.

  • Fast disbursement of house plans. It used to take several days to more than a week to get house plans copied and into the right hands. Now, as soon as Drees' architecture department finishes the plans, they are reviewed and approved by division managers and made available over the intranet and Extranet to the project supers, staff in the model homes, suppliers, and subcontractors. Plans are sent out in Adobe pdf format and can be printed on 11x17 paper, a major improvement from the old handwritten, paper-based system.

  • Faster integration with new divisions. Whether Drees adds a new division through internal growth or via an acquisition, getting a new division up and running on the system is simply a matter of adding a couple of new servers. New divisions can be up on the system within one week. The new system was launched two years ago in the Cincinnati area and will be running in all eight states by the end of the summer. The company has 500 users on the corporate intranet and about 200 suppliers and subcontractors connected to the system.

    Here's how the system works during a typical sales cycle: Upon visiting a model home, a customer selects the house type, lot, and structural options, such as whether the new home will have an extended family room, finished basement, or additional half-bathroom. The requirements are sent to a company architect who draws up a set of plans. And, at roughly the same time the architect works on the plans, the customer selects kitchen appliances, carpets, bricks, shingles, and flooring.

    Both the structural options and selection sheets are sent to the division manager, who amends and approves the plans and posts all drawings and selections sheets on the intranet and Extranet. If a job goes out for bidding, the vendors use the drawings and selections sheets to help them put together the bid. Once the bid is awarded, Drees issues a purchase order.

    Billing is still done manually, but Rulli says Drees plans to replace its 15-year-old accounting system later this year. The goal is to integrate the intranet and Extranet with the company's back-end accounting system so Drees can do automated payments.