Issue #2003 - 31
How Stepleton Airport Used Wireless to Improve Construction Management
Source: Baseline magazine (thankfully
Construction trucks, heavy equipment and hardhat workers have replaced the sound of jet engines in the dusty, noisy and busy confines of what once was Stapleton International Airport. That makes Hank Baker feel right at home.
Baker is the ramrod on the biggest and most closely watched urban "infill" project in the U.S. He's senior vice president of Forest City Stapleton Inc., a division of nationwide developer Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland. He's transforming these 4,700 acres of prime land near Denver's center into homes, shops and offices, relying heavily on a tool he can't even see.
That instrument, a wireless network, was not originally part of the project. But it now keeps construction moving and costs down. It was an innovation born of simple observation, inspired in part by the utility and ease of deployment, exhibited by wireless computer use in such places as Starbucks coffee shops.
For less than $50,000 in one-time costs, Baker got complete coverage of all construction trailers and sites on the massive urban development. He could kiss good-bye the costs of laying communication cables between trailers for data and phone services. Also disappearing would be the $30,000 or so he had spent early on for consultants to help him figure out how to keep the communications lines open as work crews continually shifted through the project site.
The real payoff? The development would have a new selling point to offer prospective residents and businesses, one that would fit in with the original goal of "future-proofing" the Stapleton facilities for advances in technology. Forest City, Baker says, would get the chance to "to beta test the concept of wireless connections throughout this development."
Stapleton airport closed in 1995; redevelopment of the property began two years ago. The $4-billion project quickly found itself in the national spotlight, as other builders watched how a large tract of land near a city's core could be most effectively reused. The results could be applied to other cities with aging airports, decommissioned military bases or other large urban areas in need of an overhaul.
This also was a showcase for publicly traded Forest City Enterprises, as well as participating architects, engineers, urban planners, contractors, and technologists. Denver elected officials also were keeping a close eye, after having awarded Forest City the development franchise. Forest City would pay $79.4 million for the land and a $15,000-an-acre fee to develop parks and open spaces. Shareholders would only see profits if Forest City operated efficiently.
Blood pressures started rising in 2002; expenses and delays mounted as Qwest Communications struggled to lay cables to the construction trailers, which act as mobile offices for builders. The lines allow managers to place voice calls and swap data, as they plan and execute the daily buildout.
"We began to ask ourselves, 'How do you skin this cat with all this tremendous cost?' " says Don Knasel, chief executive of Boulder-based PD Active, a supplier of software that manages large work forces.
Forest City was "spending a lot of money to obtain wiring for data and phone at their construction trailers," says Knasel, Baker's chief technology strategist since construction started on the first piece of the project, a retail complex near the former main entrance of the airport.
In building the retail center, Forest City spent around $50,000 for temporary communication facilities. Then, when trailers were needed for building homes, it allocated $40,000 on additional links. The company also devoted more than $30,000 just chasing down Qwest to get rewiring done as construction trailers started to move.
Knasel looked for ways to cut costs. He had worked with an Atlanta equipment integrator so he was familiar with how voice calls could be carried over the Internet. He also knew wireless technology had matured to the point that reaching trailers with high-speed frequencies was practical. Network performance, he says, increased dramatically while costs dropped and security improved.
In August 2002, Knasel proposed to Baker a wireless network that would hook construction trailers into the broadband communications network already being laid underground as part of the "future-proofing" and marketing of homes, offices and retail space. Broadband would give contractors all the capacity they would need to ship not just words and numbers, but video files and diagrams. Those could then be used to explain how to fix problems such as how to upgrade wiring in office buildings for tenants wanting highly sophisticated security.
The wireless network would cost no more than $50,000 for basic equipment, Knasel estimated, and the economies of a one-time expenditure seemed obvious. But Baker also had another incentive in mind.
"I had been in Starbucks and I had seen what they were doing with a wireless portal that allowed customers to link up with their PDAs and their laptops. It dawned on me that we might be able to offer that to residents on a broader scale," Baker says. "Imagine sitting in the new parks with your laptop, linked to the world."
Baker became convinced after he and Knasel began talking to wireless-networking companies, and picked Milestone Networks of Parker, Colo., to handle deployment.
They quickly realized they could make effective use of a structure left over from Stapleton's days as an airport: its air-traffic control tower.
"You can see all the way to Kansas from up there," says Joel Kappes, co-owner of Milestone. The tower would make an excellent generation-and-transfer point for wireless signals throughout the development.
Under the watchful eyes of Forest City's owners, Colorado public officials and contractors of all varieties, Baker and Knasel launched the wireless initiative.
Choosing Milestone was the lengthiest part of the process. Baker and Knasel had to be sure that Milestone had the acumen to work with so many different parties. Qwest, the local telephone company, was more interested in laying communications lines to service hundreds of homes than tacking up temporary connections for contractors.
"Services to construction sites are not high on their list," Knasel says. "And there is a high cost for them to turn a customer on for a few months, a high transaction cost.''
It's also a lot trickier to serve a construction trailer than a residence.
Currently, there are six trailers-three for the general contractor and another three for builders at the Stapleton site, though the total could climb as high as 25 over the next two years. The technological content inside most of these 12' x 60' structures includes phones, fax machines, laptop computers and synching cradles for handheld information devices. There are even electronic "whiteboards" that allow users in separate locations to look at diagrams and blueprints and mark changes on them while, elsewhere, others watch.
Understanding this and providing adequate bandwidth- wired or unwired-weren't the only hurdles.
Two months into the project, they stumbled over several wireless networks operating on the same frequency Forest City employed.
"It was a 802.11b frequency-interference problem," says Knasel. This is the commonplace "Wi-Fi" technology employed by home wireless networks, as well as Starbucks coffee shops and public spaces, such as Bryant Park in New York City. All the wireless usage was taking place in the frequency known as 2.4 gigahertz, where signals cycle 2.4 billion times a second.
"We started to experience periodic disruption,'' says Knasel. The response: Upgrade the equipment at an added cost of just under $20,000. The new equipment operates at 5 gigahertz. The problem disappeared.
"What we've managed to do with our construction site experiment was find a way to justify the technology and to pay for it,'' says Knasel. "Hank now has a network that will pay for itself three or four times over, and be ready to start doing things for residents right away. And that's pretty cool."
For more information: http://www.baselinemagazine.com
MobileInfo Comments and Advisory: A
very useful case study of wireless in one of the oldest industries.
There is a huge scope out there. We thank Baseline magazine for
bringing this out.
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