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Tech Evolution–Finally–Hits Construction Sector at Scale

McCarthy, Autodesk, Procore, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles
Courtesy of Sindy Sussengut

By Meghan Hall 

McCarthy is one of the largest–and one of the oldest–construction firms in the nation. The company began more than 150 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has since become a multi-billion dollar construction firm. McCarthy has witnessed many changes in the construction industry over the years, but given its history, the company has a unique insight on one set of changes and trends: technology. The construction industry’s adoption of technology has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a wave of changes.

Today, McCarthy has offices across the country in Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, among other locations. Its project portfolio is also vast, spanning all asset types, from advanced technology and manufacturing to healthcare to renewable energy. As the construction industry has evolved, so has McCarthy, giving it a unique perspective on the industry.

For better or for worse, the construction sector is known to be slow to adopt new technology. However, over the past 15 years or so, things have begun to change. According to McCarthy’s Vice President of Emerging Tech and Project Delivery, David Burns, there are several innovations that have been pivotal to changes in the industry in recent years.

“I think the industry is hugely fragmented, and that’s applied to McCarthy as well,” said Burns. “We’re building healthcare, water treatment, large-scale commercial; the reality is each of those projects is unique in so many ways and presents unique challenges. When you start trying to apply tech solutions on top of that…driving significant progress is really challenging in that environment.”

Chief among these is the advent of cloud technology. More and more, those in the construction industry are pursuing a software-as-a-service model to get things done. Technologies such as Procore, founded in 2002, and Autodesk, first established in 1982, have led to the creation of not just cloud tools, but cloud-based platforms. This has led, according to Burns, to a “single source of truth” for firms to work off of, encouraging collaboration.

“What that’s really done is really tried to promote and drive this idea of an ecosystem of technology solutions that are integrated together,” explained Burns. “That has been hugely impactful in terms of smaller companies that are rising up and getting connected into that ecosystem of more significant platform players.” 

Another huge change has been the creation of mobile solutions and mobile tech. A huge part of construction work is done in the field, away from desks and the offices in charge of hatching plans. Having the ability to connect to offices–and access information–remotely has been “significant” in propelling the industry forward. Burns also added that model-based workflows and model-based data services have helped to coordinate trades, streamline document production and increase communication channels.

Combined, these advancements have helped usher the construction industry into a new era with several benefits. Communication and collaboration has increased, and numerous processes have become more efficient due to the implementation of tech. Additionally, because information can be made faster and more parties have access to data, risk mitigation has also improved.

“They are definitely promoting and enabling better communication and collaboration,” said Burns. “…You have a lot of individuals, a lot of different specialty functions, a lot of different specialty companies that are coming in to orchestrate and deliver a construction project. All of those processes are now being sped up because of technology.”

Today, tech is advancing extremely quickly, and new technologies are coming to market at a rapid rate. For companies like McCarthy, determining which new platforms to use, and prioritizing what pain points within a project–or the wider industry–need addressing, is key.

“What’s interesting about the world we live in now is that we’ve got a lot of this technology that is presenting itself and you have to go and validate and seek out the problems that this thing is pitching or believing to solve,” noted Burns. “You have to do some matchmaking to see if that’s the reality.”

Burns explained that there are a number of platforms that will expose a problem or an opportunity for improvement. However, there are also companies, such as McCarthy, who has a clear set of problems that it is attempting to address on its own. Ultimately, looking at the industry big picture can help determine how to proceed.

“We’re trying to come at it from both angles,” Burns added.

McCarthy both looks to build partnerships with outside companies developing construction-related technologies while implementing its own solutions. The company has a dedicated division of experts who are in charge of exploring and experimenting with technology. A specific budget is also set aside and used in circumstances where tech might be helpful, but the client may not or will not assume the risk.

Additionally, when implementing new tech, McCarthy evaluates who will be working with the tech, the level of disruption its implementation may cause, and where a particular project is in the development process.

“It all definitely depends on the situation,”  said Burns. “If an organization aligns itself around solving a problem at scale, then the way in which we approach defining the problem and gaining buy-in from relevant parts of the organization, is going to look different. If we build a technology…there’s more of an iterative, design-build-test method versus ‘off the shelf’ product.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also hugely impacted the industry. Tech adoption and creation is happening faster than ever before, partially because of social distancing requirements and work from home orders. The pandemic is accelerating new and emerging trends, such as increasing reliance on data trends, analytics and smart job site tech, as well as the emergence of “citizen technologists.” Over the next few years, it is expected that most tech products coming to market will be created by individuals outside of the tech industry itself. 

After years of delays and challenges, the tech evolution has finally hit the construction industry, giving companies such as McCarthy plenty to look forward to.

“I felt like there was a collective belief coming out of this that our industry is no different than any other industry in our ability to rapidly adopt technology,” said Burns. “It was just a matter of identifying a very common and very urgent need.”