Behind the Build: Interview with Christopher Rippingham, Field and Manufacturing Technologies Leader, DPR Construction

As construction professionals, we're proud of the structures we build—and for good reason. Projects not only showcase our skills and dedication but also significantly contribute to the communities they serve. And beyond the things we create, we should also be proud of the teams we build. After all, it's the people who work on these projects that turn blueprints into realities.

DPR Construction's Christopher Rippingham is no stranger to building and working with teams. As the firm's Field and Manufacturing Technologies Leader, Chris strives to break down silos and ensure teams have the tools they need to collaborate effectively. 

We had the chance to connect with Chris, and had an interesting conversation about his construction career, the interesting projects he's worked on, and the important role of technology in fostering collaboration, data-driven decisions, and better outcomes. 

Check out what he has to say below. 

Tell me a little bit about DPR and what you specialize in.

DPR is a self-performing general contractor with offices around the country specializing in highly complex and technical projects. Our core markets include Advanced Technology, Commercial, Healthcare, High Education, and Life Sciences and while most of our work is in the US, we also do some work in Europe and Asia.

I've been with DPR for almost 17 years and was one of the first Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) Engineers in the company. I was a nightmare for my hiring manager because I didn't want to be hired as a project engineer, so I forced DPR to write a new job description for me as the first official VDC engineer, although DPR had been using VDC well before I joined.

Anyway, that’s how I got into DPR.  I spent a few years in VDC, both executing on projects and growing the VDC team, and then decided I wanted to get the experience of being a project engineer and project manager, so I transitioned to a more traditional operations career path for 3-4 years. I always knew I didn’t want to manage projects as my career, so after I felt I had gained the experience I wanted in operations, I followed my passion back to technology.

That was right around the time we formalized DPR’s technology and innovation group where I have remained since. I have held many different technology-based roles within DPR over the last decade, including starting our technology integration group, leading technology during the early days of our manufacturing-based entities, and working with our international group as we started doing work in Europe and Asia. I then landed in my current spot, where I co-lead our construction technology group with a focus on self-performed work, prefab, and supply chain technologies. I also still support all of our entities, varying in scope from material procurement to manufacturing.

Walk me through your career and what led you to becoming Field and Manufacturing Technologies Leader

I actually fell into VDC which eventually shaped my career, and I have a fun story to share with it. When I started college, I was pursuing a master's in architecture, and long nights of creating plans, sections, and elevations were part of the coursework. Driven by a desire to have more fun in college and spend less time in the studio, I found a student version of ArchiCAD, Revit was not well known in our architecture program at this point, and taught myself how to work in 3D, so I could cut down on the amount of time that I had to spend creating plans and sections. So, in some respects, BIM was a way for me to cheat through architecture school.

I continued to pursue my master's in architecture at the University of Idaho for a while and then decided it was not going to be the career I wanted it to be, so I jumped ship to construction management. I continued to utilize the skill set that I developed with ArchiCAD and 3D modeling technologies through different odd jobs by helping out subcontractors, architects, or any little projects that I could find, some of which ended up coming through the CM department at Chico State, where I transferred to for their CM program. I then realized I had this unique skill set, so I continued pushing it from there.

As for my career trajectory through DPR, I've always been passionate about technology and its influence in the industry. I'm big on adding value to any project or organization I am part of, so I saw technology as a way for me to make a big impact in construction, not only within DPR but across the industry. 

I think technology adoption has skyrocketed over the last decade within construction, so I feel like I made a pretty solid decision there. DPR has been a great company that has supported me and the overall advancement of technology in construction.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at DPR?

As I've grown in my career, I'm even more proud of the teams I've built within DPR than I am of the actual construction projects I have been a part of. Whether that be buying our first laser scanning and standing up a team to support reality capture, building our VDC group, or now co-leading our construction technology group, some of my biggest accomplishments are building great teams.

As far as the projects I'm proud of, the first job that comes to mind is from about a decade ago: a medical office building for Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

We had a fantastic team, including the architects, engineers, and trade partners, who all shared a desire to think outside of the box to deliver an award-winning project to the owner. So, no stone was left unturned, and everyone was willing to explore different ideas on how to accelerate the schedule, deliver better quality, and ultimately meet (and exceed) our owners' expectations.

The project was a three-story medical office building on a podium deck above a 2 story subterranean parking garage. The concrete podium was a large portion of the critical path, so we worked with the design and engineering team to create structural details that allowed us to pour the podium deck after we erected the superstructure, thus removing the podium from the critical path, saving us months on the schedule. This was just one of the many opportunities to rethink the way we sequenced construction that really got me excited to be on that project. 

The project was also one of the first DPR projects to model and coordinate the light gauge metal framing, which enabled us to use a post and panel method for interior partition height walls. The post and panel process then enabled us to prefabricate all of the partition height wall panels in the parking garage with all of the electrical components, saving even more time in the schedule.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

Construction is known for being somewhat resistant to change and the bespoke nature of construction projects leads to inconsistencies in how we are using technology. I like to believe that, coupled with the amount of point solutions that exist within the industry, ensure that I have some solid job security for many years to come. 

I struggled early in my career with some superintendents when BIM was referred to as “Better Images for Marketing '' done by the new guy sitting by the SmartBoard (are SmartBoards still around?). Once we were able to demonstrate that technology, specifically VDC in this example, was able to accelerate the schedule, help with field collaboration, assist architects and engineers in the design process, and get everybody on the same page, those same superintendents quickly became advocates for VDC and continue to push the limits of technology on their projects to this day.

The other challenge is process consistency. We are a 10,000+ person organization who are all empowered to make decisions, including which tools and processes to use, so as we deploy enterprise-wide technology, we really need to consider the “why” and make sure we are providing technology that enables our teams to efficiently deliver predictable results every time.  We have taken an approach where we have defined processes and tools that we consider standards, such as project-based accounting while giving our teams opportunities to be innovative within a framework where we don’t have a reason to put a standard in place.  We have also started to emphasize the entire project lifecycle and how something that may take more time in preconstruction may save time in construction.  Our national customers have also come to expect consistency in how we deliver projects, so this has become a central focus across the company.

The next challenge we face is an aggregation of data from all of our projects and streamlining the use of data across the project lifecycle, eliminating rework or duplicate entries. This sounds very easy when you say it, but in reality, this would require us to standardize more processes and tools, which may actually stifle the innovative roots of DPR. To solve for this, our team is working to define required data inputs and outputs from our processes or tools which can be integrated into our data warehouse while still looking into industry platform solutions such as Autodesk Construction Cloud. With this type of approach, we will hopefully give our teams the flexibility they need, provide the data governance and data lineage required at the enterprise level, and allow us to leverage our data to make our people the best technical builders in the market.

Are you using Autodesk Construction Cloud on any unique and/or challenging projects? If so, what has been the impact using Autodesk Construction Cloud for these projects?

The short answer is yes.  We've adopted Autodesk Construction Cloud Build as our standard project management platform for all unstructured data such as drawings, specs, RFIs, submittals, forms, checklists, etc, and at DPR, we specialize in highly technical projects, so I'd say every project's unique and challenging. It's been great to have Autodesk as a partner throughout our adoption, and it’s very rewarding to see the feedback our teams have provided to Autodesk implemented in the platform.

One project that comes to mind when I think about a complex project where Autodesk Construction Cloud has made an impact is a campus project in my home city of San Diego, which has nine different architects, countless engineers, and two other general contractors all working with us on an accelerated schedule. Having an enhanced level of collaboration and communication is critical with that many stakeholders on a single project and I don’t think we would be achieving the same results with traditional processes.

That project became even more complex when the customer came to us after finding their anchor tenant and said, "Can you take seven months off of the schedule?". Without the ability to effectively collaborate with all of our stakeholders in a very timely manner, I don't think we'd be able to do that without working around the clock, but due to the people, process, and tools on that project, we're on target, to deliver the campus seven months faster with minimal overtime.

How has Autodesk Construction Cloud driven more predictability and confidence on your projects?

One of the big focuses was collaboration and integration across the lifecycle of a project during our selection process for our new PM platform. Autodesk has existing solutions in the design, manufacturing, and construction spaces, and while not fully integrated today, the pieces are all there, and Autodesk’s vision for ACC is aligned with DPR’s.

In terms of other ways Autodesk Construction Cloud Build is driving more predictability and confidence on our projects today, I feel like I’ve generically mentioned collaboration too much, so I’ll focus on additional areas.  Autodesk Construction Cloud Build is helping us take a step toward being less reliant on emails (although we are still very reliant on them), and it enables our project stakeholders to review project metrics at a summary level and drill all the way down into the finer details of RFIs, drawings, models, submittals and other project related data.

Similarly, the ability to link models, drawings, specs, forms, assets, etc, has also helped us build a comprehensive and dynamic audit trail for each of those datasets that can be reviewed by anyone on the project without having to dig through emails or folder structures. While this seems like a simple concept, this drives more effective workflows and saves our teams time compared to printing files to PDF to attach to other PDFs to then store on some document management solution, creating a static document that may or may not be outdated. The underlying process of moving from static documents to dynamic datasets is huge and helps drive confidence that everyone has access to and is using the latest and greatest data on our projects.

What do you value most about your partnership with Autodesk?

One of the biggest things for me is to have an impact on both DPR and the industry. The ability to help shape the products that Autodesk is working on—which will be used not only by the DPR but also by the industry—offers a huge opportunity. It excites me to come to work to figure out how we break the tools that Autodesk develops and provide valuable feedback on how to make those tools better for the AEC industry.

I truly value the partnership that we have with Autodesk for the transparency and collaboration we have built. We have regular meetings and workshops with Autodesk product managers and frequently get updates on the development roadmap and priorities. It’s also important to us to understand what is not on the roadmap or where Autodesk does not plan on investing so we can make an informed decision on other point solutions to use or develop. That level of transparency and collaboration is huge for us.

That close partnership has really come to light with Autodesk Construction Cloud Build and the rapid iteration made possible by SaaS applications. With traditional desktop applications, there was generally a yearly release cycle, so at times, it felt like our feedback would go into a black box for a year or two until we may or may not see new features unless there was a bug requiring a patch. With SaaS products like Autodesk Construction Cloud Build, it feels like you can have very detailed discussions around features or configurations, and a couple of months later, you can see the results of those conversations. 

It is also great to see Autodesk out on our projects, interacting with our front-line users, getting detailed feedback, and seeing firsthand how Autodesk software directly affects our projects.  With the aging workforce in construction we need to continue to do everything we can to make our field staff more effective and “encode” the knowledge of our superintendents and trades people wherever possible.

When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at DPR?

DPR has always been focused on innovation, one of our core values is ever forward, but most of that innovation has come from our teams out on projects figuring out how to do their jobs more effectively.  There will be disruptive technology such as AI and robotics that we have an enterprise-wide strategy for, but no matter how big we get, we need to make sure our technology-based teams are focused on the problems coming from the field and scaling solutions that have demonstrated success on projects. Our goal needs to remain making our project teams more efficient so they can spend more time at home with their friends and family.

We can talk about where we think construction is going to be in five to ten years, but if it's not being executed out in the field, then our thoughts and opinions don't really matter (how long have we been talking about model-based estimating for a General Contractor?). That's why it's important to stay connected with the field and craft. That's the biggest thing for me and my team. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry?

My best advice is don't be afraid to break… stuff. Adopt the concept of failing fast and look to other industries for inspiration when solving problems within our industry. Be willing to try a bunch of things. Some of it may not work, but as long as you learn how to fail fast and make sure you know what's working and what's not… That's how the industry is going to progress.

We’ve all seen the graphs of how construction productivity seems to have decreased since the 1960s, to which I would respond our buildings have become exponentially more complicated, but other industries have made significant progress solving their own issues, some of which the AEC industry could learn from.  For example, How can we apply technology from Autodesk’s media and entertainment group to automate the creation of construction sequence visualization? How can we make the Boston Dynamics Spot robot actually useful on a jobsite instead of using it solely for marketing content? How can we learn from the modular approach to construction found in shipbuilding? What can we learn from the virtual design and engineering process used in aerospace engineering (although let's stay away from quality processes at Boeing for now)? There’s so much we can learn from other industries, so we need people to look outside of the AEC bubble and try not to always “reinvent the wheel”.

AEC is an amazing cross-section of so many different skill sets, and I’m excited to see what the future brings for our industry.

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.