Using MS Sharepoint in a major construction effort

Matt Fahrenkrug and Bill Culhane get paid to handle the nuts and bolts of complicated construction projects. As the owners of Culhane & Fahrenkrug Consulting, they facilitate every aspect of commercial construction efforts, such as the second phase of a three-year, US$170 million building expansion for the Van Andel Institute, a cancer research facility based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Culhane and Fahrenkrug are overseeing every detail of this project for the Van Andel Institute. As the Institute's "owner representatives," Culhane and Fahrenkrug write the contracts for all of the architects, engineers, construction managers and subcontractors involved in the building expansion. They get building permits and approvals from the city of Grand Rapids. They make sure the Van Andel Institute is adequately insured, and that all of the consultants, contractors and subcontractors follow federal and state safety standards.

It's a big job with lots of stakeholders and moving parts, and one that generates reams of paper, including contracts, drawings, specifications, maps, requests for information, cut sheets and meeting minutes. To manage all of the project's documentation, logistics and participants, Culhane and Fahrenkrug are using Microsoft SharePoint.

SharePoint has grown to incorporate so many features that some IT shops still have a hard time understanding exactly what it does. (See SharePoint Demystified, for an up-to-date primer on SharePoint's pieces, parts and capabilities.)

But the product's capability around the storage of unstructured data is one of its strengths, says Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst with Forrester Research who specializes in information and knowledge management tools. "Organizations see SharePoint as a backbone for getting more control over large amounts of unstructured data," he says. "All of the things that would have previously been put on a file server or e-mailed around as attachments are great candidates for moving into a more structured environment [like SharePoint]."

Why SharePoint

When design of the Van Andel Institute's new building began in January 2006, Fahrenkrug and Culhane met with Bryon Campbell, CIO of the Institute, to find out if there was any technology they could use to store all of the documents the construction project was going to create. Fahrenkrug figured they'd use an FTP site, having used them for previous construction projects.

Campbell recommended SharePoint, having used SharePoint Team Services in 2005 on another unrelated project.

Campbell told Fahrenkrug and Culhane that his IT department could use SharePoint to create a secure, private website that the architecture, engineering and construction teams could use to store and share documents, create threaded discussions and post meeting minutes. Anyone to whom Fahrenkrug and Culhane granted permission could access the site with a username and password.

To date, SharePoint has proven to be an effective solution for the Van Andel Institute's building construction project. It's provided a lot more capabilities than just document storage. Culhane and Fahrenkrug have used SharePoint's calendaring function to track contractors' vacations. They've set up alerts so that people know when documents are ready for approval. They've used discussion boards for brainstorming, and they've used SharePoint to share specifications.

Fahrenkrug says one goal of SharePoint was to eliminate as much paper as possible to reduce printing and shipping costs and support the Van Andel Institute's environmental sustainability efforts. "We wanted to be as environmentally friendly as we could," he says.

The collaborative workspace certainly helped: Culhane and Fahrenkrug have shaved as much as $250,000 off the cost of the project because they were able to reduce the amount of paper they had to print and ship around the country to the various architects and contractors by 50 to 60 percent, compared to typical past projects, says Fahrenkrug. Campbell also believes the construction process has been expedited because architects and engineers don't have to wait 24 hours or more for the documentation they need to do their jobs.

"Turning documents around faster translates to building faster and that translates into cost savings on labor," says Campbell.

"SharePoint has worked pretty well, adds Fahrenkrug. "It saved a ton of time and a lot of money and trees, but it hasn't been flawless."

Specifically, SharePoint took some getting used to, and its workflow didn't support the project's requirements out of the box, he says. Provisioning proper access for users was also tricky using SharePoint TeamServices. But the consultants and the Van Andel IT staffer who developed the site worked around those difficulties and crafted a solution that has largely met everyone's needs. Here's a inside look at their solution and what it accomplished for Van Andel's building expansion.

Building a SharePoint Site

Kim Jeffries, an application analyst at the Van Andel Institute, began developing the SharePoint site in February, 2006. She first met with Culhane and Fahrenkrug's administrative assistant, who explained which stakeholders were involved in the design phase of the construction process and the associated workflows. The admin told Jeffries that the project was going to have different teams focused on areas such as brainstorming, parking, construction and sustainability, and that these teams would need different levels of access on the site. She gave Jeffries a spreadsheet listing all of the people involved in the design process and the levels of access they'd need. Culhane and Fahrenkrug also wanted an area of the site that only they could use.

"We drew it all out and we ended up with a home page that everybody hits, with about five sub-sites off the home page, a couple of document libraries, main contacts, discussions and at least one private site for our owner rep team [Culhane and Fahrenkrug]," says Jeffries.

Because the Van Andel Institute was already using SharePoint Team Services internally at the time, Jeffries had to build accounts for each participant locally on the existing SharePoint server. Then she had to bring in each participant page by page, library by library, and meeting workspace by meeting workspace. She says provisioning access for users in Team Services was "tedious" and "the most difficult part" of building the site.

It took about 40 hours over the course of a month to get the site up and running, Jeffries says. When it was complete in March, she turned the design and the content administration over to Fahrenkrug and Culhane's administrative assistant. Jeffries continued to create accounts for new teams and individuals as they came on board, because that process was complicated and it needed to be done on Van Andel's local SharePoint server.

Fahrenkrug says it generally took users two to three weeks to get accustomed to SharePoint. Jeffries hired a local training center to teach the owner representatives and a handful of employees from the architecture firm and construction offices to use SharePoint. But, Fahrenkrug says, most users learned the system on the fly.

Though the SharePoint site took some getting used to, Fahrenkrug says, the user interface is more intuitive than an FTP site, which looks more like a computer file than a web page and never offers enough storage, in his experience. As such, SharePoint makes storage and retrieval of documents easier, he says. Users can access the site whenever they want; and they don't have to wait for Federal Express deliveries. Jeffries adds that users receive alerts via e-mail whenever a new document is added to the site.

When users need to find a spec, they can simply type the name of it into the search engine on the home page, which takes them right to it, as opposed to drilling through folders to find it, he notes.

Troubleshooting problems is also easier on SharePoint than on an FTP site, says Fahrenkrug.

"If people couldn't get into an FTP site, it was pretty hard to figure out why," he says. "With SharePoint, my admin can go in, figure out why they can't get access, and if there is a glitch on our end, we can easily fix it."

Tips for Getting the Most From SharePoint

1. Train users. "If you can't get people to use SharePoint, putting a site together is not worth the effort," says Kim Jeffries, an application analyst with the Van Andel Institute.

2. Give novice users targeted tips. "When I created an account for a new SharePoint users, I sent them an e-mail with their user name and password and some quick tips on how to access the account, what level of security they had, and what that meant in terms of what they could and couldn't do, how to use the calendar, and how to use a document library," says Jeffries.

3. Follow the three-click rule. Within the SharePoint site, says Jeffries, keep content as close to the surface as possible. "You should be able to get done what you need to get done in three clicks," she says.

4. Make sure you have enough storage. By the end of the Van Andel Institute's building expansion, the SharePoint sites might take up one terabyte of storage, says Bryon Campbell, CIO of the Institute.

5. Understand SharePoint's capabilities and limitations. "SharePoint is not the end all be all of software, but it works if you understand what it can and can't do," says Matt Fahrenkrug, owner of Culhane & Fahrenkrug Consulting. "By understanding that, you can manipulate the software and get to the result that you want."

--M. Levinson

Upgrading to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS)

When the Van Andel Institute migrated to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) in January, 2007, Jeffries had to update external users' security levels because they could no longer access their specific site with the local accounts she had originally set up for the previous version of SharePoint, Team Services. (Security is set up differently in Microsoft Office SharePoint Server than it is in Team Services.)

Drawing on research she had done about the best way to set up user access on MOSS, she worked with the Van Andel Institute's server administrator, Russell VanderMey, to create Active Directory accounts which she could then bring into SharePoint. VanderMey created an external Active Directory domain that's not on the Van Andel Institute's network, yet provides Jeffries with a domain that she can use to create and maintain security for SharePoint users who are not Van Andel employees.

"With MOSS, the maintenance is so much easier because I created security groups for every level necessary on each page and sub-site and I created security groups within SharePoint," says Jeffries. "Now, when someone new joins, I go out to the external active directory site, I get their name and plug them into whatever site they need to belong to."

Jeffries adds that it now takes less than five minutes to provision access for users, because she doesn't have to drill through 30 sub-sites to maintain security.

SharePoint Key to New Submittals Process

In June, 2007, Fahrenkrug came to Jeffries with a new request. A new phase of the project had started-the submittal phase-and he needed technology to support it. During the submittal phase, architects and engineers create drawings which they release to subcontractors, who bid on the projects and create new, more detailed drawings. These documents then get sent back to the architects and engineers for review and approval.

"I thought this was a huge undertaking," says Jeffries of the submittal phase. "If we could get a solution for them using SharePoint, it would be huge."

Her first effort to use Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to automate the submittal process ran into complications. SharePoint's workflow didn't support the architects' and engineers' needs. They wanted to use a certain naming convention for .PDF files, and they didn't want users re-naming files. The problem, says Jeffries: SharePoint wants users to rename .PDF files after they've checked them out of a library and are ready to return them.

To fix this problem, re-coding SharePoint would take too much work and would complicate software updates and patches. So Jeffries wound up creating three separate sites-one called submittals out, where all specifications are uploaded for review; a coordination site, where the architects can review the contractors' changes and suggestions; and a third called submittals in, where the architects submit specs to the owner reps. She says creating three separate sites was much easier than customizing the software. The beauty of SharePoint is that it makes creating these sites a cinch, she says.

Setting up three separate sites also ensured that all of the versioning that needed to take place during each phase of the submittal process happened in the right site, and ensured that versioning was complete at each phase of the submittal process, says Jeffries. The sites went live on July 13.

Today, the Van Andel Institute has four SharePoint sites supporting the construction project, with 18 document libraries for each of the three submittal sites and 25 document libraries on the original SharePoint site used for the design phase of the project, says Jeffries. Each folder within each of the document libraries on the submittal sites can contain 100 or more documents. "The paperwork alone being maintained here is amazing," she adds.

The sites support 108 users and 200 or more gigabytes of storage according to Fahrenkrug.

Fahrenkrug estimates that the new building, which is expected to be complete late next year, is about 40 to 45 percent complete today. "It's right on schedule. It's on budget," he says. And that's due in no small part to SharePoint.

Says Campbell, "The fact that we used SharePoint for the submittal process will definitely keep us on track."

This story, "Using MS Sharepoint in a major construction effort" was originally published by CIO.

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