by Jodi Sorensen on May 10, 2011
Portland Oregon-based SERA Architects blends two traditions into its architecture service--urban revitalization and sustainable design. Not only does the firm embrace a corporate philosophy to operate as green as possible, it provides guidance and expertise in a wide range of environmental issues that extend well beyond green building.
In 2006, SERA Architects teamed with Cutler Anderson Architects and was selected for what would become one of the largest federal government building renovation projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Located in downtown Portland Oregon, The Edith Green/Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (EGWW) it is to become a flagship building for the federal government. It is comprised of an eighteen-story office tower, which occupies one full city block and two levels of basement and parking areas. Upon its completion in 2013, it will house about 17 different federal agencies.
This was a great win for the firm for obvious reasons, but there were two challenging requirements:
SERA realized there was no way to deliver this project in a “business as usual” type of manner.
The standard process of emailing Excel files, meeting notes and design docs around to the teams, including the contractor, the subs, and the client, wouldn't cut it.
James Riley, Project Architect and Associate at SERA began working to find ways to streamline every process SERA would use in the delivery of EGWW.
“We had to find a way to dramatically cut down the design time even though the amount of work we had to do stayed the same. We didn’t have an hour to spare managing different versions or repeating information.”
Immediately, Riley asked his coworkers at SERA to find the best tools for the job. Quickly, they realized a cloud-based tool for collaboration was the only viable option.
The criteria for the solution was two-fold; it needed to look familiar (like Excel) which kept the learning curve practically flat, and always be accessible. “We reviewed several online project management tools, and Smartsheet stood head and shoulders above the rest,” said Riley.
After Riley introduced Smartsheet at a team meeting, the group embraced it immediately. "There's absolutely no learning curve because of the form factor. Most people look at it, understand it and use it. In fact, most people can pick it up in 2 minutes and they’re off and running."
For Riley and the teams of designers, engineers, architects, and contractors, Smartsheet was critical to the success of the renovation project. They saw the online project management tool impact several facets of their process:
Everyone and Everything is Connected
The renovation of the EGWW Federal Building involved many stakeholders. SERA had a design team of 21 and an engineering team of 16 people. In addition, the General Contractor and five first-tier subcontractors were involved on a daily basis-- a team of about 50 people. They contributed design docs and content as well as status updates and approvals.
Others, such as the GSA, used Smartsheet to monitor the progress of the progress of the project. All in all, most of the project sheets involved 30-40 viewers and editors, with some having up to 150 involved. “With this many people involved in the process, Smartsheet became the hub that kept us all connected and on the same page as things changed.”
Updates and notifications when you want them
With so many people involved, Riley initially struggled with figuring out who needed to know what, when. Project managers and designers want changes brought to their attention immediately while others don’t need or want that level of granularity. They prefer a roll-up of major milestones less frequently so they’re aware of the changes without getting bogged down with all the details.
“We have more than 35 Smartsheet worksheets being utilized, and everyone can decide how often and what they’re alerted on,” said Riley. “I choose to get alerts once a day, but our clients only want to be notified once a month. It takes the ‘how much is too much’ guesswork out of the communication process. Now we have meetings with our clients to go over all changes and we’re confident there will be very few surprises about the project because of how transparent the entire process is.”
Meetings run faster, better
With such a tight schedule, coordination meetings needed to be succinct, targeted and efficient. Typically for projects of this size, the group would print out 15 copies of various reports for the status meetings, pass them out to all attendees, with notes taken on paper. The notes didn’t get reviewed and tasks verified for completion until the next meeting.
“Now we put Smartsheet on the big LCD TV in our conference room and log our notes directly into the app as they relate to the activity,” said Riley. “Everything - notes, dates, comments, files - is tracked on one screen, on specific task rows in Smartsheet. It’s a tremendous time saver to have everything at your fingertips, and not lost in a pile of paper on your desk.”
Online collaboration equates to cost & paper savings
In addition to designing eco-friendly buildings, the architecture firm itself has very "green" ethos and is motivated to eliminate waste in the office, especially paper since it is the primary consumable of an architecture company. SERA even sponsored a company-wide "No Print February" to make a point that they themselves could make an even greater positive impact on the environment.
With Smartsheet in play, the team has reduced its paper use. “With a significant portion our project now in the cloud, we’ve been able to cut way down on the design printouts, especially the over-sized ones. As we move more projects to cloud based applications, we’re seeing the benefits of more information being accessible for people to use, not stacked in a pile under their desk,” said Riley. He also noted that everyone has access to view the documents and can collaborate on their desktops or iPads - wherever they are. “In February alone, we saw a 50% reduction in printing which translates to real money savings for a company of our size.”
SERA wrapped up the design on schedule and construction has been underway for almost 7 months. “Our general contractor, along with several other GCs, project managers, designers, and engineers can't believe we hit the deadline. And they’re more stunned when they learn we’re tracking a LEED Platinum project.” added Riley. “It’s almost folklore -- I get asked how we do it all the time. I really don’t think we could have done it without Smartsheet.”
While the SERA team started using Smartsheet for the EGWW Federal Building Modernization Project, the main SERA office is deploying it for numerous other projects and other business processes. “It’s becoming a critical tool for managing our business and you can’t really put a price tag on that. However, I made a point to tell my boss this is hands-down the best $500 he's ever spent.”
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