If you’re overseeing a construction project, you’re probably all too familiar with spreadsheets. A project manager might maintain an Excel sheet per project with hundreds of tabs, tracking materials, on-site conditions, the progress of multiple jobs, financials, and their workforce. The problem is that this process lacks integration and quickly becomes messy at scale.
The construction field is changing every minute, but data must be manually updated in many cases and does not usually accurately represent real-world conditions. Low-code/no-code platforms offer an intuitive way to stitch together software using visual-based models. They can enable non-programmers to assemble fully-functional, cloud-based applications and workflows with minimal manual effort. Construction is yet another area that low-code could transform for the better, providing a way to streamline data-based processes.
How Low-Code/No-Code Accelerates the Built Environment
So, how exactly can low-code/no-code benefit construction? For this article, I interviewed two experts on how low-code tools can be used to transform the world of construction. Below, Jacob MacIntyre, Director, Customer Acceleration Group of Quickbase, and Thiago Da Costa, CEO, Toric, lend their expertise on how low-code/no-code can accelerate the built environment.
1. Reduce Excel Dependence
Tracking everything in Excel makes sense for a small operation, but it gets messy as a company grows to, say, 20-30 people. “You quickly outgrow spreadsheets,” said MacIntyre. “Tons of manual effort is wasted inside Excel trying to represent the reality of construction projects.” According to MacIntyre, project managers end up putting much effort into macros and scripting to bolster Excel, which requires effort to learn and upkeep.
Da Costa reports similar frustrations working with spreadsheets for large construction projects. These environments “need a better way to organize information, clean, repeat the process,” he said.
Both experts believe low-code/no-code can help break the current reliance on spreadsheets. When they’re replaced with low-code/no-code, “it’s like trading in a butter knife for a swiss army knife,” said MacIntyre. The tool brings more power and structure and can form fit around a business process. “Low code provides the right multitool that construction engineers can use themselves,” said MacIntyre.
2. Track Parts and Materials
In construction, tracking materials is an ongoing concern. From lumber to drywall, valves, pipes, and electrical cords—the parts list is endless. Project engineers must first procure materials based on plans and then track their whereabouts and quantity throughout the entire building process. If a part is missing, it can derail an entire operation’s timeline. “It can be wildly frustrating,” said MacIntyre.
Take an order of stainless steel pipe, for example. It’s crucial for a project engineer to know precisely what stage of the delivery process it’s at and where the order is located. This can become increasingly complex if subsections are being produced by different manufacturers whose timelines are in flux.
3. Connect Partners in the Supply Chain
By easily deploying applications to the cloud, low-code/no-code platforms enable project engineers to invite partners in the supply chain to contribute to a process flow. Streamlining the supply chain communication can be especially beneficial for large contractors to track their parts.
Before working at Quickbase, MacIntyre encountered this very dilemma on a construction project. So, he built out a simple low-code/no-code pipe tracking app to connect all partners involved. The mobile-friendly app invited partners from welders to painters, and transportation companies, to take a photo of a barcode. This, then, automatically updated the system with the picture, location, and time, keeping everyone on the same page.
4. Design Custom Workflows
Off-the-shelf software exists for the construction industry, but it’s expensive and often difficult to mold to the unique conditions on the ground. On the other hand, there is the nasty world of spreadsheets and manual data entry.
Low-code/no-code is a bridge in the middle, according to MacIntyre. It’s inherently flexible to a business’ needs, which is particularly useful in construction projects where “every project has its own flavor of uniqueness,” he said. As evident in the example above, you could use it to build a dedicated module for something as particular as pipe tracking.
5. Integrate Data From Various Sources
There is typically much software already at play in the construction industry. There are modeling frameworks like Autodesk, project management and scheduling tools, and procurement tools designed to create purchase orders.
Unfortunately, getting data to talk across these systems is notoriously difficult, requiring you to contract expensive systems integrators. “They’re all point built and not talking to one another usually—or you have to pay a lot of money to get them integrated,” said MacIntyre. Using low-code/no-code platforms, you can create these connections without employing a professional developer.
6. Make Data More Actionable
“Data exists everywhere,” said Da Costa. Specifically, in construction, data may exist as PDFs, Excel files, images, or unstructured text, or it might be locked away in a CRM system. But if data remains disparate, then it can’t be leveraged to further the business. “Insights and intelligence only come from connecting data points,” he said.
It’s hard to make sense of so many sources unless you build a data platform to extract, store, and visualize the data. However, says Da Costa, this could be very time-intensive. According to Da Costa, low-code/no-code presents a way to transform this data for the better, providing engineers with more parametric capabilities.
In other words, a system that constrains objects together can better inform the overall process.
7. Leveraging Data to Predict the Future
Understanding progress is critical, as, in construction, installations must be done in a particular order. Once data is integrated, you can have a unified view that provides insights into ongoing projects and their specific steps. To take this one step further, Da Costa explains that once data is aggregated, you can start to visualize trends. For example, a system could help predict timelines, estimate costs, or forecast what materials are required for a future project, given previous jobs.
8. Leverage Historical Data
Large construction contractors produce vast amounts of data, yet this data just goes unused over time, says Da Costa. Instead, he encourages companies to use it in innovative ways. For example, tracing the injuries across a project portfolio could help optimize processes and increase safety.
The objective is to create “a digital representation of the built world that you can query and analyze,” said Da Costa. With historical data, you can visualize all your assets together to see how they perform. Having a history of your assets that is queryable over time can “help transform raw data in an insightful and meaningful way,” said Da Costa.
9. Empower Project Managers With Creativity
Low-code can inspire creativity and become a locus of good ideas. As MacIntyre explains, “it’s very rewarding, seeing clients moving from pulling up spreadsheets every time, to thinking ‘Oh, I could create an app for that.'” When citizen developers become comfortable with low-code/no-code platforms, this will often inspire new ideas to take root.
He describes how utility companies, which often have huge construction wings, have come to rely on low-code/no-code to coordinate their response to issues in the field. Portland General Electric (PGE), for example, uses Quickbase to receive tree trimming requests and to respond in the field.
10. Reduce the Need for Point-Built Solutions
Not only does low-code/no-code help project managers ween off spreadsheets, but it also helps ween off consultants and proprietary tools. Systems integrators and custom development around construction can be costly to support. Low-code is a middle ground that provides standard components but the flexibility to support specific workflows.
Da Costa compares what’s going on now with low-code to the shift that occurred with the web in the early 2000s. Before then, websites required web designers, webmasters, and content writers to keep the lights on. Then, WYSIWYG editors made it so that anyone could build a website from scratch. Similarly, low-code is now empowering all kinds of subject matter experts to build on their own terms.
Focusing On What Matters
Our last benefit is more of an outcome of low-code/no-code in general—if it reduces the tedium around data handling and meticulous process control, engineers can focus on what really matters.
According to Da Costa, such tools remove the complexity and amount of time to get a result. “It reduces the technical barrier for leveraging data,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to really help the industry.”
Pushing and pulling data are tedious tasks and can take time away from the more strategic leadership ambitions. Low-code/no-code can help construction engineers get back to these smarter things to focus on what matters, said MacIntyre. “The world needs this.”