Palms Add Mobility to Builder Network

Conducting project walk-throughs with two-way radios, pagers and cell phones strapped to their belts, site superintendents and subcontractors might well be expected to resist the lure of yet another digital device.

By Patrick L. O'Toole | June 13, 2000
Home Finishes Inc., the San Ramon, Calif.-based builder service company is rolling out software this month that will enable its clients to use its Internet-based work order system in the field using hand-held computers. The data is later updated via desktop computers.


Conducting project walk-throughs with two-way radios, pagers and cell phones strapped to their belts, site superintendents and subcontractors might well be expected to resist the lure of yet another digital device. But hand held computers -- great for contact information, schedules and task lists -- are in among those who work outside.

Also known as Palm Pilots, what makes the devices revolutionary is their ability to interface with desktop computers so information can be "synched-up" upon return to the office (or trailer). Confirming the trend is building industry service provider, Home Finishes Inc. This month, the firm will introduce a software rollout for using Palms as an add-on to its existing Internet-based, work order tracking system. That way builders and subcontractors who use the Home Finishes system can perform updates without leaving the field.

Operating in several Western states, Home Finishes is a company that offers builders a way to off-load much of the finish detail work involved in preparing new homes for closing. They also work with builders as a warranty fulfillment service after homeowners move in. For Mike Giosso, a co-founder of the San Ramon, California-based firm, a primary focus is to manage the construction process information.

“The abundance of construction issues generated during the last 10 days of closing, we estimate, represents about 200 individual items for each home,” Giosso explains.

With this in mind, Home Finishes partnered with Price Waterhouse Coopers to develop and operate its work order management system that builders can use as an "extranet" to communicate with subcontractors and home owners. This way all parties to the process know, in real time, the status of any and all outstanding work orders and can also provide status reports and comments.


Home Finishes' Robert Akey is one of 30 reps supporting the Palm software rollout.


Right now the system depends on good note taking in the field and the discipline to enter updates into a desktop computer upon return. With hand held computers, there will be very little writing involved says Giosso. "Onscreen drop-down menus make updating a matter of click, click. It will capture 98% of what builders try to keep in their head, put on a notepad, or yell to someone across the street," says Giosso.

For builder Mark Fischer of The Groupe Construction Co., Stockton, Calif., the Home Finishes work-order management system has driven more accountability down to the subcontractor level and has reduced the number of corporate office staffers it takes to manage coordination of labor and materials. Fischer also thinks customer satisfaction levels will rise when the company conducts a planned survey of recent buyers this summer.

"The system has really enhanced our ability to communicate with our subs," notes Fischer, whose company built 300 homes last year. "They are notified in a much more timely basis."

Designed to be lot- and subcontractor-specific, the information is relayed to subs automatically when the job drops into each contractor's file and each lot file. This is also important because most homeowner issues involve more than one trade. If, for example, a homeowner calls in with a window that is leaky and needs to be replaced. A case is started for the lot and a work order issued to the framer to break out and replace the window. When this is done, the work order is routed electronically to the next contractor, the stucco company. From there it goes to a painter and so on. "You never have to recreate a work order, you just route it," says Giosso. "The builder is air traffic control."

When the Palms come online this month, builders conducting formal walkthroughs -- before concrete is poured or after framing is complete -- will be able to quickly create a number of work orders that need completion before the home is OK'd to move forward. Then, when the OK is finally given, all subs working on the next stage will automatically be notified to be ready to be on the job site the following week.

Though the system has been up for only nine months, the company has already used it to process 22,000 work orders, says Giosso. Over time that data is bound to be of value to building company managers. After builders use the service for a while, reports could then be generated that might identify problem areas that could be related to correctable design flaws, improper installation, or substandard products.

"Right now we are seeing at least two days that are being picked up due to productivity gains," says Giosso, "and what is more important, homes are more complete on closing." The introduction of Palms will likely improve on that.


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