Behind the Build: Interview with Emerson Smith, Assistant Project Manager at Donohoe Construction Company

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In construction, constantly optimizing for efficiency and time savings enables teams to get things done faster. One of the best ways to achieve this is to reduce busy work, so you and your teams can focus on high-value activities.

Emerson Smith, Assistant Project Manager at Donohoe Construction Company, understands this fully and he's a big fan of using technology to take care of tedious tasks. In doing so, teams can make room for actions that truly move the needle. 

We recently interviewed Emerson and asked him to discuss his career in construction and the role that technology plays in his journey. 

Take a look at what he has to say.

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

Donohoe is a full-service real estate firm based in Washington, D.C. The company has five different divisions: development, real estate, building management, hospitality, and construction.

Construction is one of the bigger divisions, and within that, they have what they call “building enhancements,” which is where I’m in. 

As for my role, I specialize in interior build-outs. Building enhancement encompasses projects that don’t involve building the entire structure from scratch. For example, we just finished a country club, where we built a new pool, pool shack, and dining area. The scope of work varies a lot. 

Walk us through your career and what led you to become an Assistant Project Manager.

I started as an estimating intern here at Donohoe. I liked the internship but decided to focus on project management. 

So I got a job as a project engineer in the service department. That’s a sub-department of building enhancements, which does smaller jobs—like under $100,000. We did a lot of volume, smaller projects. 

I was there for about three years and was migrating towards the bigger jobs within service. I asked to be moved to building enhancements to be involved in larger-scale projects. I've been there for about a year and a half. 

Then recently, I got promoted from project engineer to assistant project manager. 

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Donohoe? 

It's hard to pinpoint one thing. I think I've gradually felt more and more capable of managing jobs and being able to see myself grow. 

In the service department, I was able to finally manage a medical office renovation, which was phased, had night work, and had a lot of ins and outs. I was able to take the lead on that, and  it was one of the first big jobs I did myself. We were able to meet the schedule and keep the owner happy. In fact, the owner liked us so much, that they decided we were going to be their first choice for any further jobs. 

That project, which was Washington Radiology in Bethesda, is probably one of my proudest accomplishments. 

As construction evolves, how do you see your role changing?

Just from partnering with Autodesk and implementing the software, I think it's going to make a huge impact in reducing busy work for construction professionals. Components such as submittals, RFIs, and meeting minutes are going to become easier and quicker to manage. 

This shift will enable project managers and those in similar roles to be more involved in higher-level activities like decision making and strategy, rather than needing to be in the weeds with all the paperwork.

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

I'd say the biggest challenge is dealing with subcontractors in terms of getting them to commit to items, holding them accountable, and working together to progress on a job.

Managing submittals and RFIs are important, and maybe more critical is managing the finances and change orders.

Autodesk tools can help make all of this easier, especially when it comes to costs. I think the technology will really help in reducing the amount of paperwork and being able to easily track and report on items.

Why are you excited about implementing Autodesk Build over the next few months?

We first adopted Autodesk Build as a pilot. We were trying to decide between three different software solutions to move forward with.

I was running jobs through two different solutions: Autodesk Build and Procore. I tracked what I liked and didn’t like about each software and made presentations on the pros and cons, and we ended up going with Autodesk.  

I love Autodesk’s Cost Management module and I think there's a ton of potential to just make things super streamlined with contracts—being able to create them, add attachments, and then carry out internal workflows. It also integrates with DocuSign, so the information all comes back into the tool. Plus, our finance data is fed into our accounting software and then comes back to Autodesk.

I think if we can set everything up right, Autodesk Build has the potential to significantly improve our efficiency. It's exciting to see all of the different things we can do and I know these capabilities will help us in the future.

Autodesk’s pilot team did a great job guiding us through the pilot job. Someone from Autodesk’s Cost product team came to each of our weekly calls and answered key questions. We were able to ask them questions and learn why the tool was built a certain way and how it is evolving. 

I love Autodesk’s Cost Management module and I think there's a ton of potential to just make things super streamlined with contracts—being able to create them, add attachments, and then carry out internal workflow."

Additionally, the cost tool just has so much customization. There are the document templates, which we can write ourselves with formulas; it was fun building those and making them pull information from the places where we needed it.   

It also has an intuitive workflow of going from budget to cost to change order, then to billing. It seems well thought out and very advanced in terms of functionality. 

What made you want to partner with Autodesk on your projects?

Before Autodesk, we were using an antiquated project management software from the 1980s. So we clearly needed an upgrade. 

We tried out Procore, Autodesk, and then a tool called Project Teams. I was very involved with Procore and Autodesk, which were the two front runners. I experimented and dived into the tools to understand what they could and couldn't do. Then I presented to our technology team what I found. We all put our heads together and decided Autodesk was the way to go. 

One thing that was unique about Autodesk was we felt the company listened to us. We had seen stuff during the pilot where we suggested something and the team would actively work on it. In short, we felt like we had a say in how the software developed. 

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

We’re in the early stages of implementing Autodesk and sometimes, I come across certain situations, where I’m tempted to just do things the old way because that’s what I’m used to. 

So, I’m trying to force myself to say, "All right, I'm going to use Autodesk, even if it’s not going to be as comfortable at first." And so I'm trying to do new things like upload a material tracking log to the assets tool and link it to submittals. 

All in all, I’m trying to use the software as much as possible, so we can innovate further.  

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

I'd say ask questions and try your best to learn from the people around you.

Think about why things are done the way that they're done—whether it’s means and methods for construction or processing of paperwork or doing change orders. I believe that when you really consider why things are done a certain way, you’ll have a deeper understanding of your processes and that’ll help the company get better.

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.