Credit: cleftwich

Don’t tell Daniel Falcon about construction project sensitivity. Not only is the McCormack Baron Salazar senior vice president and manager in charge of one of the firm’s first multifamily development projects coming out of the recession—a 90-unit Los Angeles apartment building on top of 15,000 square feet of retail and a couple hundred parking spaces—he’s simultaneously got some serious transit-oriented project management issues to contend with. “The tunnel for the L.A. subway system diagonally bisects our site,” Falcon explains, “and at its shallowest point, it’s only 4 feet below grade.” To keep dozens of subcontractor groups informed and aware of daily changes in such a delicate development environment and ensure protection from construction defect finger-pointing and litigation, Falcon is embracing the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures will also likely save Falcon’s firm thousands of dollars in project management efficiencies and evaded liability if all goes well with its implementation of (CPD), an online forensic photo-documentation service provider based in Woodland Hills, Calif., that can take, display, and archive photos of projects under construction from virtually as many perspectives and angles, and at as many time intervals, as a client chooses.

“Project management is part of it, but documenting the construction process from start to finish, including any relevant impacts, provides a sound defense against complaints,” says Falcon, who as a developer and GC is well aware of the scrutiny his project faces from city planners, the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NIMBY-minded neighbors, and, of course, his St. Louis-based firm’s own partners and investors. “Anything from street damage from construction vehicles to damaged transportation infrastructure to water intrusion has been documented both at the baseline and at regular points during the construction cycle,” he says.

While few technology providers have looked to the construction industry as a growth vertical over the past few years given the lack of new development, photography-related hardware, systems, and applications are now emerging as a resource for skeletal construction crews coming out of the recession and looking for creative, cost-saving tools. From forensic photo services to FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and thermal imaging to smart phone cameras, upfront costs have come down across a range of applications that help developers as they start to get things going again.

“These days, you are doing more with less,” says Gil Dominy, director in the Dallas office of Atlanta-based developer Wood Partners. “We are putting on a lot of different hats so as we are chasing new deals, keeping abreast of changing information and pricing via project management is our biggest challenge.”

X-Ray Vision

Falcon says one of the greatest attributes of both forensic photo providers such as CPD and the use of infrared imaging cameras is the ability to identify underlying construction defects or damage issues without physically visiting a job site and ripping walls open with a crowbar.

“Every building has its issues, and at some point in the life cycle, there is something that someone needs to go fix, either during construction or two or three years down the road,” Falcon says. “Understanding what is going on and what has gone on in any specific area of a building from a construction standpoint is key to minimizing the hunting-and-pecking activity.”

With web-based account access, CPD users can link pictures to RFIs [request for information] or to change orders with altered construction plans, and add notes for deeper project descriptions or requests and then e-mail the photos as necessary. The 12 to 14 megabyte files are scaled down for quick browser loading (think mobile access), offer zoom capability, and can even be tagged with a GPS signature. “As a forensic company, we’re documenting progressions and milestones as a visual X-ray ‘as-built’ for the development,” says CPD co-founder Scott Yarhaus. “It is a visual record before the walls are closed up showing hot water, cold water, electrical, sewer, HVAC—all of the mechanicals going on. If anything comes up in the future regarding what is behind a wall or underneath a foundation, you know exactly where to drill for destructive testing, or whether or not you need to drill at all.”

Providing apartment developers and operators with a glimpse behind the wall without powering up the ripsaws was always the intent behind thermal imaging cameras, which show a visual representation of differentiations in temperature and can reveal water intrusion or lack of proper insulation, but at $5,000 to $6,000 or more per unit have often been considered cost-prohibitive. Since the recession, however, costs on entry-level cameras have come down, prompting providers and adopters to again stress the ROI indispensability of these heat-seekers.

“They are still not cheap, but the one we have bought has already paid for itself many times over,” attests Dominy, who says Wood Partners uses a FLIR camera for determining and documenting building envelope energy efficiency and for quickly isolating warrantee-related issues. “If you have plumbing leaks, they are a lot easier to identify with a thermal imaging camera than going in and ripping out a wall.”

Cost Containers

Multifamily applications, in particular, can suffer from the no-pun-intended cascading effect of simple plumbing leaks that can quickly begin to affect a large number of vertically and horizontally adjacent units.

“When you discover a problem in a concealed system, typically it has been going on for awhile,” says Andre Rebelo, global PR manager for Waltham, Mass.-based FLIR Systems, which is marketing what it claims to be the first thermal imaging camera available for less than $1,600. “Most multifamily buildings have shared heating and cooling and shared water, so when you are dealing with common resources, the ability to trace a problem becomes invaluable. Moisture travels in peculiar and non-intuitive ways. If you can expedite your discovery, you can save yourself some dollars.”

If you are operating under an extremely tight budget and can’t afford to invest in top-of-the-line technology, rest assured: The majority of developers already own the least expensive form of photo documentation—the smart phone. Whether iPhone, BlackBerry, or Droid, today’s phones offer image fidelity and corresponding apps for boosting both project management efficiencies and project communications during the construction process.

“When you are in the field you can download documents, look at them, take pictures, and send e-mails,” Dominy says. “It’s great. Everybody on the construction side at Wood Partners is given a BlackBerry because let’s face it, the two-way radio era is over.”