Young Asian engineer flying drone over construction site. Using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for land and building site survey in civil engineering project.
Adobe Stock, by Zephyr_p

With $43 million on the line, Amr Raafat couldn’t afford to miss his target by even a single centimeter.

In play was the setting of modular boxes at the $43 million development of Canvas, a 126-unit, two-building, mixed-use property in Beverly, Mass., built by Windover Construction, where Raafat serves as director of virtual design and construction.

His job was to make sure the boxes’ electrical and mechanical chases, where wiring and pipes from the foundation connect to the units, fit perfectly atop the concrete and steel podium that served as Canvas’ base. But as anyone who’s ever worked on a construction site knows, completed buildings rarely adhere exactly to their original plans. Indeed, due to changes in the field, the details of “as built” structures can vary by several inches from their initial designs.

To solve the problem, Raafat launched a number of drone flights over the site to take pictures of the as-built podium. He then fed those photos into the 3D Building Information Modeling (BIM) program used to design the building and overlaid the architectural drawings for the modular boxes over the whole stack. The result? He identified more than 10 “clashes” that needed to be fixed before the boxes were built and relayed the information to the manufacturer so it could adjust accordingly.

“With every phase of the building, we were able to place those modules virtually first to make sure everything fit perfectly,” Raafat says. “That really helped us mitigate risk on that project.”

The surging use of drones in construction is just one example of the new technology multifamily developers and builders are using to streamline how today’s apartments are built. In addition to buzzing sites with drones, apartment pros today are using technology to keep visual tabs on project progress, GPS tracking software to account for laborers and hours worked on site, virtual reality to present buildings to clients and investors, and coordination software to make sure all stakeholders—from the owner to the electrician on site—are on the same page.

“Having this technology has been a real game changer for us,” says Richard Lara, president and CEO of Pasadena, Calif.-based RAAM Construction, which specializes in multifamily dwellings and uses drones as well as on-site staff tracking and project communication apps to oversee its builds. “It’s really impacted the way we manage our projects in the field, and even how we communicate to our clients.”

Courtesy Windover Construction

Smile, you’re on camera

The firm uses the ExakTime time-tracking app that takes photos of workers when they punch in and out of jobs on site, which not only keeps employees from fudging hours worked but gives the firm documentation for time plus materials billings when clients ask. “I can give them the name of the framing carpenter on their job and when he reported to work,” says Lara, who notes it also saves his superintendents at least two hours of record keeping. “Clients love the transparency.”

Field trips without leaving the office

To track progress of its projects, RAAM uses an app called Fieldlens—whose motto is “construction is chaos”—which allows superintendents to post daily photos and video logs of a building’s evolution day to day. It also allows workers in the field to communicate directly with architects and engineers in their offices on Requests for Information (RFIs), which can often delay work when plans don’t jibe with on-site conditions.

“You can mark up photos and add text or circle a problem,” says Nick Wilson, RAAM’s vice president of field operations. “So it gives a clear view to the architect or the design team what that issue might be, which is powerful. But it also lets you assign a deadline for that issue, and that alert goes out to everyone on the team, including the owner, so it keeps everyone in check in real time to make sure we get a response when we need it.”

Another great feature? Amid Southern California’s legendary traffic snarls, it helps RAAM monitor multiple sites with fewer trips on the road. “I can manage four to six jobs from my office and have a real sense of what’s happening on the ground,” Lara says.

Both apps, which are priced per user, end up costing RAAM less than $2,500 per project, a figure that’s well below the price of many enterprise software packages that perform similar functions.

At Indianapolis-based Annex Group, which specializes in student and affordable housing construction, COO Tom Tomaszewski says the company has been using industry-leading software Procore to keep tabs on its projects, which similarly lets him see real-time conditions on the ground.

“We use Procore to control and track the project from beginning to end, as well as remote camera systems and drone photography to monitor our sites constantly,” says Tomaszewski. “It’s proven to be a very powerful tool, especially in our case where we have multiple projects going over a large geographical area.”

At Arlington, Va.-based AvalonBay Communities, Jeff Hutchens, director of safety and health, is able to monitor a development site in Florida from his office outside Washington, D.C.

Using OnSiteIQ, a 3D photo app that leverages artificial intelligence to automatically analyze images for safety hazards, he can get a real-time view into conditions on site. “It’s like Google Maps drove into your jobsite, but with a lot more detail,” says Hutchens, who keeps the app open on his desktop monitor. “It will call out bad ladders, cords on the floor, or workers in unsafe locations. It gives you a remote vision that you’d have to wear out a lot of boots on the ground to capture.”

Developers and builders leverage artificial intelligence in apps, such as OnSiteIQ, to automatically analyze jobsite images for safety hazards.
Courtesy OnSiteIQ Developers and builders leverage artificial intelligence in apps, such as OnSiteIQ, to automatically analyze jobsite images for safety hazards.

Come in and look around

At Coral Gables, Fla.-based Astor Cos., president Henry Torres is also giving his investors and clients a real sense of the actual conditions on site at the luxury condominiums he builds.

He uses drone photos to blast out email updates to investors and owners on the progress of their actual units, while wooing in new buyers with photo-realistic virtual reality tours of models of units he has for sale. Using 3D imaging cameras from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Matterport, he can create ultra-accurate presentations of the properties he has for sale.

“We used to have designers generate our virtual tours, which was great, but you’ve got to be careful, because designers want to make things look almost too good. That can unintentionally seem misleading to some clients,” Torres says. “But what you see on that Matterport screen is exactly what you're going to see when you walk through that door, no more or less. In our furnished units, it will even show you the spoon laid out on the table.”

By using technology on site in the construction of multifamily buildings today, apartment pros are making sure they’re hitting their targets—whether with investors in the field or on the top of a concrete podium two stories high.

“It's just streamlining everything,” says RAAM’s Wilson. “For the guys in the field, to the office, design, and construction management teams, and even the developers themselves, everybody’s at the table to see what’s happening in real time.”