Construction Innovators Share Their Experience Building Infrastructure During COVID

Construction site of a bridge.

The last six months have been truly transformative for the construction industry. Infrastructure projects have experienced an array of challenges due to the pandemic, including new safety guidelines and the impact of the economic slowdown.

Still, as essential infrastructure projects carry on, construction firms are innovating at new rates to keep projects moving forward. We recently spoke to some of the incredible people behind some of our nation's transportation projects to learn more about their experience building through a crisis. We've collected their thoughts below:

Interested in learning how innovation in design and construction can accelerate economic recovery? Join us on September 21, 2020 from 11:00 AM–12:00 PM for a webinar with United for Infrastructure: Next Steps: Construction Innovation to Accelerate Recovery. Register here

Jamie Waller, Assistant Director, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT)

TDOT is a multimodal agency with statewide responsibilities in roadways, aviation, public transit, waterways, and railroads. The mission of TDOT is to provide a safe and reliable transportation system for people, goods, and services that supports economic prosperity in Tennessee. Like many other DOTs, TDOT leverages an innovative technology suite to deliver projects safer, faster, and more collaboratively. In her role, Jamie oversees some of the most cutting-edge e-construction projects and initiatives the agency is working on.

"My experience with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) in the last five months during this pandemic has been positive. When walking into our buildings, we have our temperature checked, mask on, and run through a questionnaire. I think most people are used to this process now and account for that as far as time goes.

This pandemic has also given TDOT the little boost needed to make many of our processes more digital. We have changed the way we are taking tickets from material suppliers on site. We have imposed contactless ticketing protocols or e-ticketing options for the contractors. Some of our processing for administering a project such as prequalifying a contractor is becoming an electronic process, too."

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Priscilla Benavides, Central Region Design Manager, NMDOT

NMDOT is a state government organization that oversees transportation in the entire state. The agency has four main focuses—transit, rail, aviation, and highways. NMDOT remains on the leading edge of innovation and embraces new technology and software to better serve its communities. In her role, Priscilla is responsible for ensuring projects are delivered safely and efficiently.

"BIM has greatly assisted with working from home during COVID. Our e-construction project [I-40 Reconstruction] was the only project that didn't have any unnecessary delays because it is web-based. Everyone had access to the project as long as they had internet access. Eventually, all other projects within my region caught up with the use of Microsoft Teams and the ability to share screens.

As for the new safety protocols, the masks can be a minor annoyance, of course, but we all understand they are necessary. We still have some work to do from a training and development side, especially for entry level CADD users. I am a firm believer that a hybrid schedule of working from home and at the office – so we could conduct more in-depth meetings and in-person trainings – would be the best for my entire crew in the future."

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Spencer Mullaney, Project Engineer, Shimmick Construction

In his role at Shimmick, Spencer is a lead Project Engineer on the BART Transbay Tube Earthquake Retrofit, managing the mechanical scope team. While the Transbay Tube is structurally sound, the project's goal is to future proof the important infrastructure system for a potentially rare and devastating earthquake.

"During our shelter-in-place and because my scope of work has not started fieldwork yet, I have only been to the site and the office a handful of times in the last six months. That said, I think initially there was a slowdown as we were one of the first projects [BART Transbay Tube Earthquake Retrofit] in the Bay Area to voluntarily shutdown (a decision I commend our PMs for) when there was a lot of uncertainty about what safety measures should be in place to keep everyone safe. As we've established protocols and a program for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, our work pace has largely returned to normal (it helps that a large part of our work already suggested use of N95 or greater respiratory controls).

Due to some major re-scoping of the project, my work has absolutely sped up, which is partially a function of the push to get back on track from the COVID delay and also just a function of the schedule re-sequence. I think our safety protocols have been largely successful while being felt as minimally invasive. Everyone on our team appears to be on-board and very respectful of the situation's seriousness at hand. In a scenario like this, it's crucial as even a minimal lack of buy-in could create big problems. We even had our safety team roll out the use of QR code scanning for contact tracing logs so that we could go to a touchless system. I didn't even have to suggest that as the resident tech evangelist, they came up with that all on their own."

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Sherrie Kapssof, Project Document Control Manager, Walsh

Sherrie is a part of the OC Streetcar project, a light rail line currently under construction in Orange County, California, running through the cities of Santa Ana and Garden Grove. As a technology-driven initiative, Sherrie has led the charge to centralize a documentation system for the entire project.

"Work-wise, everything has pretty much stayed the same [working on OC Streetcar project]. Being in Document Control, no matter what happens, there is always work, so nothing has changed in that aspect. The workloads have not lessened or grown any differently than a regular day. Being in the office is a completely new world, though. It was difficult to get used to at the beginning of the pandemic, but now it has become second nature. Unlike many non-essential jobs, we are beyond thankful we still have the opportunity to work and support ourselves and our families at home, so if that means we need to wear a mask and practice social distancing, we would gladly choose that."

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Britton Lawson, Director of Construction Technologies, Veit & Company 

As one of the Midwest's leading specialty contracting and waste management companies, Veit & Company, Inc. works on many transportation and infrastructure projects in the region. In his role, Britton supports field teams in their pursuit to collaborate by helping to deploy and advocate for technology solutions.

"Just like anything, there's good and bad. I'm not in my work office as much as I used to be, especially with a newborn and trying to stay away a little bit. I haven't traveled as much to our regional offices, which has also been a struggle for me.

I think part of the challenge, too, is our training. We had dedicated a lot to training to bring in our field teams and supervision teams quarterly so that we could sit down for a couple of hours every quarter to work out some of the pressure points and ongoing process improvements. I think that's the biggest thing that we missed. Training helps drive our standards and to help address things in the moment versus in the wintertime when we're looking back at what happened.=

It has also posed questions for some of our processes, too. Like trucking, we haven't been able to sign trucks out. We're thinking, how can we change this process and make it a technology process where we don't have to interact with a person that we don't know?

I think one of the successes is that things like preconstruction meetings have become virtual. Before, our crews had to leave the jobsite for them. This makes it easier for them to continue if they don't have half an hour or a 45-minute commute between the jobsite and the office. So we've got a better use of our labor, our workforce, and our leadership. And it helps everybody else be more present."

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Balaji Sreenivasan, CEO & Founder, Aurigo

Balaji is the CEO and founder of Aurigo, an American software company whose mission is to help public sector agencies and facility owners plan, deliver, and maintain their capital projects and assets safely and efficiently. Their flagship software, Aurigo Masterworks Cloud, is behind the scenes of some of the largest and most-visible infrastructure and transportation projects in North America – used to plan and deliver over $300 billion of capital projects.

"Most notably, the pandemic has accelerated the need for technology deployment for infrastructure owners and contractors alike. We are excited to be at the forefront of this wave. The major shift we have experienced is that Aurigo Masterworks usage has increased substantially, with customers forced to work remotely. Collaboration through Masterworks has become absolutely critical for our customer's success, regardless of their location at home, in the field, or office. Our tool is delivered in the cloud. It has been a natural and seamless change in how our products have been able to step up to the 'new normal.'"

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Grace Ellis

As Manager of Content Marketing Strategy at Autodesk and Editor in Chief of the Digital Builder Blog, Grace has nearly 15 years of experience creating world-class content for technology firms. She has been working within the construction technology space for the last 6+ years and is passionate about empowering industry professionals with cutting-edge tools and leading strategies that improve the quality of their jobs and lives.