All of the protocols general contractors are putting in place to keep their workers safe during the ongoing pandemic—rearranging shifts, monitoring temperatures, separating crews on site—will not move a project to completion without the dozens of inspections, site visits, and construction observation events that take place during the course of construction. But with many owners, architects, and inspectors unable to visit job sites due to stay-at-home mandates, construction progress can stall. One solution is the virtual site visit, opening the door to remote construction observations.
Texas-based Vaughn Construction has developed a process of virtual site visits, in which a team of three Vaughn employees walks the site while relaying images and audio in real time to the off-site viewers. It has been so promising from the standpoint of safety, productivity, and efficiency that they may continue the practice after the crisis has passed.
“The challenge we’re seeing is to keep our projects going,” says Rahul Deshmukh, director of information systems for Vaughn. “We are using existing technology with new workflows and concepts that can be used not just for inspections but also remote training and technical assistance.”
For the time being, Vaughn is conducting virtual inspections primarily for municipal and institutional building inspectors—mechanical, structural inspections, for example, for in-wall, above-ceiling, and pre-pour. They also have conducted virtual site visits with commissioning agents. But they believe the process could be extended to architect and design observations, as well, even if it requires contract modifications.
“I think there’s a way to work out anything,” says Buck Aykroyd, director of virtual design and construction at Vaughn. “We need to push the ball forward.”
The process starts with a meeting between the owner, inspectors, and the general contractor to ensure that everyone is on board and on the same page. “Upfront conversations are very important,” says Deshmukh. “Define the process and specify the purpose and goal of the inspection.”
Have the inspector develop a walk-through plan listing the items to inspect and the path the inspector wants the camera person to walk through the site, and verify that all parties have the necessary equipment and software. It’s also important to confirm that your existing software can be used for this purpose. For example, virtual meeting applications like Zoom, Webex™, and Microsoft® Teams are available at different levels for different numbers of participants, explains Aykroyd, so it might be necessary to upgrade your license. And he cautions that some institutions that license one application have a campus-wide block on competing applications.
Once those details are ironed out, Deshmukh and Aykroyd recommend that the general contractor do two trial runs to practice the walk-through, evaluate lighting conditions to make sure the important elements are visible, and, most importantly, to ensure that the WiFi or 4G-LTE connection remains strong as they move from space to space. Connectivity is the biggest issue, followed by battery life of certain devices, says Aykroyd.
“We do the first test ourselves, and then we test it with the remote inspector,” says Aykroyd. “You don’t want the connection to drop and create doubts about the process. And once you have the walk-through plan, stick to the path. If someone wants to go back and look at something, you can, but be aware of the plan.”
Three people are present at the job site, all of whom should be trained to do virtual inspections and observations: a “camera captain,” a safety escort, and a punch list recorder. The camera, which can be a smart phone, must be mounted on either a hard-hat or a monopod to hold it steady. (A hand-held camera won’t provide adequate stability). The camera captain also needs to have the walk-through plan; video meeting software (GoToMeeting™ doesn’t work well with mobile devices, they say); Bluetooth audio, so that everyone can hear the same thing simultaneously; and WiFi connectivity. The punch list recorder needs to have a laser pointer, a flashlight, Bluetooth audio, and a mobile tablet, if necessary.
Remote observers are equipped with three screens, for example two monitors and a tablet: one for the project drawings/specifications; a second for the video stream; and a third for a punch list software, for example Autodesk® BIM 360™.
Choosing the Right Technology
Vaughn developed this process with some of the inspectors they work with regularly.
“A lot boiled down to the overall relationship with the inspector,” says Aykroyd. “We brought several inspectors into that process and had them look at multiple platforms.”
He described one inspector who was skeptical that a virtual site visit could yield the same results as one conducted in person, so she did her own comparison—a virtual inspection followed by a visit to the job site.
“She was satisfied,” he says. “A lot of skepticism centers around the technology. Some embrace it and others come kicking and screaming.”
That is why Deshmukh and Aykroyd recommend starting out with technology you already use, such as iPhones and Zoom. For example, Vaughn is in the process of commissioning a BSL-3 Ag lab where the commissioning agent is in Atlanta on Skype. “It’s what they had,” says Aykroyd. “Their company uses Skype.”
“Once you master this process with familiar technology, you can explore the more advanced options out there,” says Deshmukh. But he cautions that more advanced technologies also require more bandwidth, so they can cause more connectivity issues.
Aykroyd is partial to the Microsoft HoloLens with Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, which displays a shared interactive 3D virtual environment. “It provides a more immersive experience for the person who is remote,” he says. They also use helmet-mounted OpenSpace 360-degree cameras.
Vaughn also uses drones equipped with a thermal camera for exterior inspections, which can be safer than doing those inspections in person. “Finding the right person at the FAA to get approval has proven to be our biggest challenge with drones,” says Aykroyd.
Limitations to Virtual Observations
Virtual observations are not appropriate in all cases.
“The most difficult ones are those with very high ceilings and blackout overhead areas,” says Aykroyd. “This is not necessarily appropriate for final punch list inspections. You can’t avoid doing those in person.”
Tim Reynolds, science and technology principal at TreanorHL, agrees, saying his concern is the contract between the architectural firm and the owner. He cites one contract stipulating that the architect shall visit the site at least twice a month to observe progress and quality of the work, and to see if construction is progressing according to the construction documents. Additional site visits are required by the various engineers—mechanical, plumbing, civil—throughout construction.
Denise Cheney, an attorney at Bickerstaff, Heath, Delgado, Acosto LLP in Austin, Texas, cautions owners to focus on their contract. “My clients have an expectation that the person going out will make notes: Are people on site working? Are the right people on site? How does the project look overall?”
There are cases where a virtual observation could potentially raise issues of contractual liability and negligence liability, “if you can’t carry out the inspection adequately,” she says. But those concerns can be overcome if the owner and the architect come to an agreement in advance. “Talk to the owners and try to amend the contracts to permit virtual observations in order to move the project along expeditiously, and have the owners acknowledge and agree to any limitations inherent in the use of virtual observations.”
Matthew Ryan, a construction lawyer with the Texas firm of Allensworth & Porter, represents the construction side of the issue. He agrees with Cheney that the conversation needs to start with the contract, followed by weighing the potential of sending individuals into a possibly hazardous situation against the possible shortcomings of a virtual observation. He stresses that each unique visit should be considered individually.
“It is a very difficult balance to strike,” he says. “Could this particular site visit be conducted remotely, without undue risks? Do logistical challenges and jurisdictional orders even allow it?” Ryan says he would not categorically advise against an architect or engineer conducting remote observation work, but “pick and choose your moments.” Perhaps a crucial structural observation, like truss installation or a key concrete pour, requires an in-person site visit, while others do not.
“If you’re proposing to do anything short of what is in your contract, work out an agreement and explain the reasons in writing,” says Ryan. “Setting expectations is everything.”
That is where TreanorHL has landed on a recent project. “The gist came down to this: We do not want to be in breach of our contract,” says Reynolds. “We do not want to do something that makes our work uninsurable. We are leaning toward asking the contractor to provide a safe and secure site, following CDC guidelines. We’ll split up into small groups so we’re not walking with a group of 20 people.”
“There are a lot of folks out there looking for creative ways to keep things going,” says Aykroyd. “It all boils down to knowing your client and what makes sense for them.
“If you’ve got an architect that can’t come to the site, then we could say, ‘I’m going to put on my HoloLens and invite you to an MS Team meeting,’” says Aykroyd. “I’d go wherever they told me to go. I’d be acting as that architect’s avatar.”
“We went through a lot of crazy stuff after 9/11, and we evolved as an industry, and we got better,” he says. “And we will evolve now, because we want to get the job done.”
The team at Vaughn anticipates that some form of virtual inspections will become part of the new normal. “Use of communication technologies to replace in-person presence, whether for virtual inspections or other productivity enhancements, has been evolving over the years,” says Deshmukh. “The challenges presented by COVID-19 are just a catalyst to that maturation process.”
By Lisa Wesel