Reality real estate

Houston-area construction team utilizes technology to solve problems

The majority of McCarthy Building Companies' projects now include some sort of virtual or augmented reality technology. Courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies

In recent years, the construction industry has begun embraced advancements in reality technology like virtual reality and augmented reality. While it has yet to reach critical mass in the industry, several contracting companies in the Houston region like McCarthy Building Companies are embracing the technology and blazing the trail for the construction industry.

Chris Patton, virtual design and construction manager for McCarthy's southern region, says many construction companies are consistently looking for ways to improve processes and procedures through reality technology.

"We really saw the potential and use cases for [VR] really early on, and it was really just a matter of the hardware and the software catching up to being something usable, consumable, deployable and cost effective on our projects," Patton says. "We were sitting there waiting for it and ready to go when it was."

Patton says these visualization tools have changed the way contractors display projects and have helped the partners on these projects — such as the design team, building owner and subcontractors — make better informed decisions earlier, more quickly and sometimes at a cheaper price point.

Before AR and VR technology entered the construction industry, companies either had to work with two-dimensional construction drawings or build very expensive, three-dimensional models, or mock ups, of construction sites that allowed clients to physically walk through a building space to interact with its features. Patton says the entire mock-up building process used to cost roughly $1 million — depending on the project size.

However, now this costly and time-consuming process is a thing of the past, as construction companies have found a way to utilize AR and VR technology to bring clients into a computer-generated environment. By putting on an AR or VR helmet, clients can immerse themselves and engage in a virtual environment that shows them all of the project's details and allows them to move about a virtual construction site the same way they would in a 3D model.

McCarthy's Houston division began utilizing reality technology in early 2015, with some of its other markets integrating the technology into their practices in late 2014. Since then, the company's use of AR and VR technology has grown exponentially, Patton says.

"When we first started evaluating and looking at virtual reality and augmented reality, [we] might have [used it on] one or two projects a year, and that was probably three years ago," Patton says. "Today, I'd say almost 60-75 percent of our projects—at some point in design or construction — utilize virtual reality or augmented reality or a combination of both."

Although McCarthy has been around since 1864, the general contracting company made its Texas debut in Dallas in 1981. Since then McCarthy expanded to create a Houston office in 2011, building a portfolio of renowned Houston clients such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas Children's Hospital as well as the recent completion of Houston ISD's Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

A notable project McCarthy's Houston Division took on was phase one the MFAH's master plan that included building The Glassell School of Art. The company also continues its work on phase two, which includes new developments for the MFAH for which McCarthy's virtual design and construction group created VR and AR models for the museum.

By using software like HoloLive and Fuzor for AR technology and Fuzor for VR technology, McCarthy's VDC group can visualize and combine digital creations with the real world, Patton says. With the growing number of projects utilizing the technology, Patton says McCarthy has invested greatly in personnel who will help grow the VDC group and continue to look for advancements in the construction industry.

"Some of the folks that we have those [VDC] positions in our company, some of them come from construction technology backgrounds and construction management backgrounds but others come from graphical design and have like a gaming background, some come from architectural backgrounds," Patton says. "[Reality technology] really kind of opened the door to a new opportunity for people to get engaged with the construction industry that we hadn't seen in the past."

In a world of driver-less cars and artificial intelligence, companies have an increased need to focus on safety in the workplace. Getty Images

New technologies — driverless vehicles, delivery drones, and AI — are making an accelerated push into operational excellence across industries, and are generating a lot of attention. Hype notwithstanding, we need to also think also about safety and risk and how to prevent safety incidents before they occur so that safety operates in partnership with new technologies and innovation.

Today, safety as process that is wrapped into ones' organizational culture requiring companies to look beyond intended performance and innovation breakthroughs, to their own assumptions about safety. And how it works and does not work, despite best efforts, financial investments and operations programs that are intended to create a culture that is incident free in the workplace.

When firmly in place, an effective safety culture instills an environment where employees differentiate between events which, while detrimental to performance, have low probability of generating an incident, and those with seemingly minimal impact on performance, yet high probability of escalation into full-blown safety incidents, accidents and sometimes deaths.

Six safety principles

Creating safety in the workplace requires a new and different mindset which incorporates six sustainable safety behaviors:

  1. Leadership consistently practice positive regard and good intent to articulate, demonstrate and reinforce employee behaviors that exemplify a commitment to safety.
  2. Leadership clearly communicate safety objectives and provide employees information to enable and empower employees to make value-based decisions and set priorities consistent with their levels of accountability and roles in the organization.
  3. Leadership supports employees identifying real and perceived barriers to a safe environment in compliance with policies, regulations and risks.
  4. Leadership practice positive employee regard to encourage, and assume good intent to accept, constructive challenges to policies and practices that have little or no value.
  5. Leadership support and create an environment in which commitment to identify risks during the course of one's work activities and take action, when first seen, creates a mindset that will genuinely transform the organization.
  6. Leaders are visible and consistently viewed by employees as champions of safety every day.

Safety mindset threats

Many current safety efforts occur after the incident takes place. In other words, after an injury happens — someone falls off a lift, for example — actions are taken to prevent similar injuries in the future. This is known as reactive safety and is not an ideal solution. If we can determine the why of an accident, safety can become proactive.

An effective safety program trains everyone, and encourages safety precautions, as well as strives to understand and reduce risk, rather than waiting for an accident to occur.

With an effective safety program in place your focus is always on preventing injuries before they occur and targeting 80 to 90 percent of the risk. Through utilization of this kind of process worker-controlled program, precautions can prevent injuries, reinforces these behaviors, identifies and removes systems, conditions and obstacles that make it difficult or impossible to take the right precautions.

In addition, employees may be practicing vicious compliance, in contrast to authentic commitment to process safety, in which they follow management's policies, procedures and other mandates "to the letter", even in situations where other choices would make more sense.

The workforce may act unilaterally based on their own assumptions, for example:

  • "They talk a good game about process safety, but I know it's really about getting the work done. I'll operate to get the desired production rate, even if this pushes the equipment to its limit." Indeed, the oft-ignored employee assumption and resulting belief is that production trumps process safety.
  • Employees' reliance upon personal experience to evaluate risk of low-frequency events: "As an employee, my experience teaches me that I've worn my personal protective equipment 100 times and there has never been an incident. So, if I don't wear it this one time, especially since I am so busy, it seems to me that the associated risk of an incident is quite low. So, why does management constantly 'get on me' about wearing it? Aren't there more important issues facing us?"

Routine behavior often includes silence or compliance, but with little challenge of issues or conversation about what could or might happen. As a result, management may perceive that all is well when in fact employees have significant concerns and issues.

To avoid major safety incidents, both known and unknown, an organization can take process safety to the next level by:

  • Exploring and challenging deeply-held beliefs, values, and assumptions by examining the underlying antecedents of process safety behaviors and utilizing new technology systems that shut down operation when a safety situation is first detected before an incident occurs.
  • Achieving the desired operational discipline, including paperless documentation, setting expectations, defining critical cyber secure procedures, and linking executive bonuses to achieving safety goals.
  • Focus on practicing a leveraged safety program that delivers results in the most effective and efficient mean possible by frequently focusing on decreasing threats, risks and increasing attention and communications to prevention, detection and correction.

The ultimate effective safety process and program relies upon effective use of new technologies in the workplace self- and organizational awareness, and the constant, never-ending focus on safety everyday and minute that we spend in the workplace.

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Mark Hordes is principal at Houston-based Mark Hordes Management Consultants LLC, an organizational consulting advisory.