Stimulus Package Status Report

If your community is like ours, you have received very little information about the much publicized economic stimulus package currently under consideration by our legislators and President-elect Obama. For a small town, this is frustrating because if this does happen, the opportunity will be a once-in-a-lifetime deal. So we sit on the edge of our seats anxious for news about what is going down.

Fortunately James G. McConnell, an attorney in Chicago, seems to be closely following this issue, and we have started receiving frequent “info-alerts” from him. Because some of you might be in a situation similar to ours, I wanted to pass along his name and link to his blog, Construction Law Developments, so you too can at least have access to some information.

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Do Contractors Text?

Poor Jack, he could never get hold of me on the phone. Little surprise. We both work in construction and spend most of our day lining up work and crews, securing materials, overseeing projects out in the field, and dealing with the general problems that arise each day on a construction site. With all that, who’s got time to play phone tag. But when Jack needs to get in touch with me over a project his company is building for the city, he needs an answer right now. On a construction site time is money and problems don’t wait.

I have to give Jack credit. He has patiently put up with this through the years, usually working through my secretary or other city employees who could track me down to find the answer. Why was I so hard to get hold of? Because communication takes time, and Jack is not the only one trying to reach me. Over the years, I have wrestled with how much time to spend talking on the phone and listening to voice mail. If I took care of 100% of all calls, I would never have time to actually work – my whole day would be spent on the phone. I really needed some way to communicate with people like Jack who are just looking for a quick answer, but who need it right now.

Then I got my new phone with an unlimited texting option. And then I asked Jack if he would mind trying to text me instead of calling. He took to it right away, and we have been successfully communicating for many weeks now. In fact, by using this method, Jack now has a better connection to me than anyone else on any other project. I can be in meetings with developers and the mayor and still answer Jack’s questions immediately.

Sometimes our texts consist of only one word, but sometimes only one word is needed to get the message across. For example, one day he texted “KFC.” Because we are in the process of deciding which contractor will pave the alley behind the KFC restaurant, I knew he was asking me what we decided.

Now Jack and I are not the typical text user – we are both in the over 45 crowd and grew up with rotary dial phones. But Jack, like many contractors, is a focused man of few words, and I think he would agree that texting fits his communication style and works as a successful communication solution. Now I want to ask other contractors, “Do you text?”

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Second Life Build as a Deliverable

Over the last year or so since my first introduction to Second Life, I have found myself trying to think of ways that this technology can improve or prevent problems or issues that I have at work. As I blogged about the other day, we had a terrible problem with the design/builder of our water plant reconstruction project – they completely failed to listen to our design requirements and ended up designing something that we do not want at all.

So as we work through the solution that I have come up with to resolve the design problem, I keep trying to think of how the use of Second Life may have prevented this. I don’t think it comes as any surprise that problems with the design usually arise during construction. This is really the first time that someone other than the designer takes a good look at what he or she has created. Also, design problems are hard to ignore as they are turned into “bricks and mortar.”

So how does SL help? Well, if customers/clients required a Second Life build of a design as a deliverable for each job, then the problems that would have arisen during construction may come up during the SL build process. I realize that this would probably only be true if the process followed more closely that of a RL build. (Wouldn’t it be cool if someone designed a tool in SL that actually knew if the build would fail in RL?)

Also, after the build is up, the designer should have to “walk” with the client through the build showing them what they are getting and how it will work (using scripting here). The build could stay up during the construction process so the client could continue to refer to it if questions arose.

Second Life has many possibilities and terrific usefulness in the design/construction industry. However, some people will only use tools if forced to do so. If we as the client push our designers to deliver a SL build as part of the project, perhaps the industry will finally catch on to what many of us have already discovered.

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For all things pavement….

Throughout my travels in Second Life, I have seen the impressive vision expressed by people who work for government agencies located in the United States. There are a number of creative and innovative government employees who have seen the potential of using Second Life to better perform their jobs and to reach out to citizens and other government professionals. The builds they have helped create provide an educational and intellectually stimulating location in which to learn and interact with others.

Today I found out that a group of government professionals, in partnership with the University of Washington, has been working with Internet-related technologies other than Second Life to come up with an impressive tool to share knowledge related to pavements. The result has been the Pavement Interactive Wiki. According to the site, “this document (or ‘Guide’ for short) is an Internet-based multimedia document whose primary purpose is to provide a general pavement overview covering all aspects from materials to design to construction to maintenance. It functions as a ‘Collaborative Web site’ that resides on the Internet and requires only a PC/Mac and minimal freeware to access the information.”

The site provides a multimedia and interactive product that engages the design and construction community and offers them training, information, and the ability to collaborate on all pavement-related topics.

Because all the content from a former Web site, Pavement Guide Interactive, was imported to the wiki, there is already a large amount of pavement-related information in the reference section. Other areas of the wiki are “portals” or areas where members of the original pavement consortium can create distinct pages for their agencies. Other groups, such as organizations, can create their own pages for collaboration in the “Groups” area of the site.

Users who register at the pavement interactive wiki can add research and content in the “articles” section. I registered immediately and added this wiki as a resource on our own Public Works wiki under the transportation section of the Public Works in Real Life page.

As a government worker myself, I applaud the leadership, vision, and innovation that continues to be exhibited by engineers and other public works staff employed by federal, state, and local agencies of our government. I figure it is only a matter of time before I can visit DOT, FHWA, and EPA islands in Second Life.

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Second Life Builds Take you from Cradle to Grave…

Well, maybe not really cradle to grave as in the lifetime of a person, but more in the lifetime of a project. Everyone seems to have realized the benefits that Second Life can offer during the planning stage of a project, but few have discussed how Second Life can be used throughout the remaining phases of a construction project. Because I tend to focus more on the construction and operation phases, I find myself looking for ways to use Second Life to streamline tasks within those areas instead of just for planning and design.

The other day I was thinking about two engineers I know who work for a local construction company. Both have seen the Second Life demo I give everyone who dares to visit my office, but I don’t think either have taken the time to check it out on their own. I was wondering “what would finally push them to use Second Life?” and started thinking about the bidding process. If I could build my project in Second Life and tell bidders that they could visit a representation of the project while they were trying to put together their bid, perhaps this would entice them to check out this new 3-D world.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this actually might clear up a lot of issues and questions engineers and architects get during the bidding process. Which could help minimize costly add-ons later on that occur because something was not caught early on. As questions came up, a build in Second Life would offer a representation of the completed project where engineer/architect/contractor/owner could meet to go over concerns about the bid package. And although making the whole build a completely accurate replica is not feasible, smaller builds could be placed nearby to serve as details of specific components – just like details are used in plans.

If the build was left in place during construction, engineer/architect/contractor/owner could again use the 3-D model as a place to meet and discuss specific concerns or questions that arise during construction. It would be so much easier to discuss problems with a completed model. Also, a builder/contractor could make his own solution and display that in-world for analysis and review by the architect/engineer.

Even after the project is completed, the build could be left in place for monitoring and operation – particularly for structural builds, (the ability to monitor equipment in the real world from a location in Second Life has already been accomplished) but that is another topic for another day. In the meantime, we have a new wastewater plant that will be going out to bid soon….

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Totally Missing the Point

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On a trip to an establishment in a neighboring city, I noticed the ramp shown above. Something did not look right, and upon further inspection, I realized the curb was not depressed. With the implementation of the final decision concerning ramp design, I have been trying to go out of my way to check out the ramps in other communities. I realized there has been some confusion and lack of knowledge concerning the regulations and requirements governing ramp construction, but I never thought I would see someone put in the detectable warnings but not depress the curb. What were they thinking while they were pouring the detectable warning pads? 

I suppose someone could have thought that putting in detectable warnings prior to all roadway crossings, accessible or not, is a great idea. The problem is that due to the ADA regulation, people with reduced eyesight will reach this and expect a ramp with a depressed curb. This will confuse the pedestrian and could perhaps cause injury.

Clearly there is still a significant lack of training and education surrounding curb ramp construction. On publicly funded jobs, the engineer can be more involved and ensure that the requirements are being met. On privately funded projects where there may be no oversight by an engineer or architect, the owner is relying on the contractor to meet the requirements.

Last year, I was called to a new subdivision under construction because the developer was forming the public sidewalk and trying to conform to the ADA requirements that I had given him related to cross slope. A driveway had been poured from the private garage to the curb, through the area of the sidewalk, and the contractor for the homeowner had not met the ADA-mandated cross slope of 2% through the sidewalk area. The developer was having to match the nonconforming cross slope with his new sidewalk. I suggested he contact the driveway contractor to work this out. That driveway contractor called me and was extremely agitated. He felt it was the city’s responsibility to keep him informed about every federal, state, and local regulation that governed his work. Of course, it was all the city’s fault in his mind.   

I do think that public works professionals can educate to some degree but with reduced staff and funding at all levels of government, there is only so much we can do. There have been a few good articles published over the last year or so that are related to this subject:

Public Works Magazine, “Ramping up for Compliance”

APWA Reporter, “Is there a compliant curb ramp out there?”

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