Mortenson Construction helps large project teams collaborate and share information—on and off the construction site.
by David Baum, August 2013
Standing beneath the fluid lines and sinuous curves of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, California, most visitors see a structural anomaly that seems to defy the laws of gravity. Clad in soaring panes of stainless steel and buttressed by sheared Italian limestone, it’s hard to tell if Frank Gehry’s original vision was of an unfolding flower or a billowing sail. The curvaceous walls of the structure appear to have been cut loose from their moorings, with no solid lines or linear coordinates to anchor them—a design that was deemed unbuildable when experts first pondered Gehry’s iconic design more than 20 years ago.
Derek Cunz, vice president and general manager of the National Projects Group at Mortenson Construction, was one of the believers. Along with a bold team of architects, craftspeople, and engineers—and with the help of advanced hardware and software technology—Mortenson helped turn Gehry’s flamboyant design into a tangible reality, setting in motion a series of technical breakthroughs that have propelled the entire construction industry forward.
As the construction manager and general contractor for the project, Mortenson worked with researchers at Stanford University to pioneer a 4-D computer-aided design (CAD) environment that combines 3-D models with advanced planning tools that helped the project team visualize the construction of the building and lay out the optimal sequence of events in the design and construction process.
“We knew that all of the traditional tools and processes used to plan, communicate, and understand project sequencing would need to be re-engineered and challenged,” recalls Cunz, who lived in Los Angeles for five years while managing the US$270 million, 300,000-square-foot project. “The most successful construction projects have the entire team working toward a common goal that everyone understands and believes in.”
Since completing the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, Mortenson has undertaken dozens of other large and complex projects including the Union Depot in St. Paul, Minnesota; the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China; the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado; and the Pegula Ice Arena, currently under construction at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Each project brings new advancements to the field of construction and design. Many of these techniques are now just a click away in an online collaboration tool called ProjectConnect that helps automate many of Mortenson’s large projects.
Built with Oracle WebCenter Portal and Oracle WebCenter Content and using Oracle project management and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, ProjectConnect is a comprehensive source of project information for everybody involved in the construction cycle—from owners and designers to construction supervisors and trade partners. It pulls information from multiple sources (meeting minutes, schedules, project controls, financial reports, safety documents, quality information, and progress images) and makes the information available to authorized users in a consistent way.
As team members refine the plans, order materials, or create shop drawings in preparation for their work, they automatically receive the most-current information from the portal. “That’s what drives these projects and enforces accuracy,” adds Cunz. “If someone grabs a schedule that is one rendition old, they might order the wrong material or line up their crews at the wrong time. ProjectConnect helps avoid these type of issues.”
Mortenson’s philosophy of infusing advanced design techniques into a shared workspace has fueled a series of advancements. Some of the most unique innovations are evident today in the design and construction of the Pegula Ice Arena, where the project team can display the design in Penn State’s Applied Research Lab (ARL) Synthetic Environment Applications Laboratory (SEA Lab). This room-size workspace displays 3-D graphics on the walls and ceiling to give viewers the illusion that they are walking around the arena.
The most successful construction projects have the entire team working toward a common goal that everyone understands and believes in.
“We perform design reviews in there to get feedback before we actually build anything,” explains Cunz. “It’s amazing what you discover when you are walking around in this virtual world.”
In this case, the construction team solicited three levels of feedback from stakeholders: first from the architects; then from the hockey coaches; and finally from the facilities managers, who will one day maintain the completed arena. Insights gleaned during sessions in the SEA Lab are quickly uploaded to ProjectConnect so that the entire team can absorb the feedback and make necessary changes.
With the push of a button, all pertinent information from the project is made available to the project team, from the 3-D model to safety training material. One of the buttons launches users directly into Oracle’s Primavera Unifier project management application, designed to manage all the workflow-based activities that occur during the construction process. Mortenson also uses Oracle E-Business Suite for procurement, budgeting, and project accounting. The company utilizes Primavera P6 for project planning and scheduling.
“Oracle WebCenter is the hub for all of the content we need for each project team,” says Frank Sarno, director of project controls at Mortenson Construction. “If a software application works within our model, we don’t try to recreate it within ProjectConnect. We simply create links to the application from ProjectConnect. Oracle WebCenter is an open portal environment that lets us include links to almost any cloud-based application. That’s why ProjectConnect is so great for collaboration and sharing.”
This advanced clearinghouse of information lets users access engineering documents, correspondence, change orders, plans, reports, and other documents. They can also track project milestones, financial forecasts, and performance metrics. Pointing people to a single, continually updated repository of information reduces potential errors.
ProjectConnect also helps with routine construction tasks such as minimizing rework and fast-tracking change orders. Its foundation in Oracle WebCenter makes it easy for Mortenson to manage dozens of simultaneous projects without compromising the integrity of sensitive information. A flexible security architecture controls access to simultaneous projects based on each user’s role in the design and construction cycle. (See sidebar, “Secure Communication in Cyberspace.”)
Most importantly, the ProjectConnect portal streamlines interactions with clients to minimize surprises and keep everybody on the same page. Especially for unique construction projects, this level of knowledgeable interaction helps eliminate the chaos and confusion that often accompanies projects of this magnitude.
“Many business owners don’t know what to expect during the construction process,” says Sarno. “ProjectConnect helps them monitor the progress of construction and make good decisions. Through the duration of the construction project, thousands of documents of various types are created and need to be accessed by the customer and project team. ProjectConnect takes files that used to be distributed by e-mail and puts them in one place for a very positive customer experience.”
Just as amorphous walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall seem to float effortlessly in space, ProjectConnect has acquired a mobile interface that enables designers, construction managers, and craftspeople to tap into information from any location—whether it’s while reviewing plans in a coffee shop or working on the 16th floor of a high-rise building.
Neal Katorosz, initiative manager at Mortenson Construction, describes the evolution of this unique environment. “We have used electronic information for many years, but until recently a lot of it was stuck in the construction trailer,” says Katorosz. “As our project teams became more diverse, we had to figure out a way to take information that was generated inside of the construction trailer and disperse it to people throughout the site, as well as to trade partners. ProjectConnect lets us channel lots of information through the portal in a consistent way.”
Most construction companies place trailers on the job site so that architects, construction managers, subcontractors, and workers can review specifications and resolve problems as they arise. But what about the welding team on the sixth floor of a new stadium? Do they have to make their way down to the trailer to consult the management team if an issue arises?
To solve this dilemma, Mortenson created the Field Box—a small office in a steel container that can be moved throughout the site by crane. The Field Box is still commonly used onsite for many projects. However, with the advent of mobile devices and the availability of 4G wireless technology, Mortenson has extended its functionality to mobile devices. Authorized users can see the latest plans and specs in real time by accessing ProjectConnect on a standard tablet or smartphone.
“The evolution from the trailer to the Field Box to any internet-accessible device became much more viable once we started using Oracle WebCenter,” says Sarno. “Oracle WebCenter applications work on any device. They aren’t tied to any operating system or mobile platform. As long as you have a data connection on the job site, you will have the latest information at your fingertips.”
That’s an important differentiator in an industry where project teams are increasingly becoming more geographically dispersed. Design partners, trade partners, and customers can be spread all over the world, but ProjectConnect is available anywhere that there is a data connection. It has been used on more than 80 projects to date. Each engagement gives Mortenson new ideas for improving the system.
Furthering its connectivity, Mortenson is now creating a new intranet site to make it easier to find and display content. The new intranet site will use Oracle WebCenter Portal and Oracle WebCenter Content, similar to ProjectConnect. They also plan to use Oracle Secure Enterprise Search to link content from other repositories.
“There are lots of tools out there for sharing information, collaborating on files, managing projects, and enforcing quality control,” concludes Cunz. “ProjectConnect coordinates all of these things. We don’t have to re-create all of these best-in-class solutions, because we have developed a common front door to all of them. That’s the difference that this technology provides for us and our customers.”
David Baum is a freelance writer who specializes in the intersection of science, technology, and culture.
Secure Communication in Cyberspace
Mortenson Construction’s ProjectConnect portal can deliver everything from executive-level status reports to construction schedules, budgets, specifications, safety plans, and meeting minutes for everybody on a project team. Through the Spaces feature of Oracle WebCenter Portal, each construction project gets its own space. Similarly, each project gets its own folder inside of Oracle WebCenter Content. People can store and manage all content pertinent to a project, and secure it so that only members of the project can access their respective files. ProjectConnect also includes project photos, live webcams, and weather reports.
“We created a secure portal, accessible through the internet, that serves internal and external constituents,” explains Neal Katorosz, initiative manager at Mortenson Construction. “We used Oracle WebCenter Portal to develop the user interface. Under the covers is Oracle WebCenter Content, which stores all of the project documents, such as schedules, plans, specifications, and photos. It consolidates information from diverse systems so it can be centrally managed and exposed through the portal.”
Mortenson used Oracle Identity and Access Management Suite to build controls that protect sensitive information. Single sign-on provides a seamless experience for users. They log in once to the portal and the underlying content that they have permission to access. General information is available to everybody. Other documents are visible only to people with the correct clearance, an architecture commonly known as role-based security. For example, financial information isn’t shared with the community at large, but access is granted to sensitive documents based on security role.
“Oracle WebCenter Portal and Oracle WebCenter Content have become the backbone of our communication and collaboration, enabling real-time access to secure project information,” sums up Katorosz. “Everybody gets the right level of information based on their roles. They don’t need to worry about how to find the information they need. When it comes to keeping projects on track and on budget, that level of coordination and control is invaluable.”