Why Suffolk’s Chief Innovation Officer is Investing in VR

By Patricia Riedman Yeager |  May 16, 2017

When the $2.9 billion construction company Suffolk held the groundbreaking for a new addition at its Roxbury, Mass., headquarters last year, it opted not to arm the dignitaries attending the event with ceremonial shovels. Instead, it handed out virtual reality headsets and remotes. As Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and a group of Suffolk executives turned over a few spades of virtual dirt, a digitally-rendered version of the addition rose to reveal itself, displayed on giant monitors around a tent for all to see.

Suffolk CEO John Fish lifts some virtual dirt at the 2016 ground-breaking.

It was all part of what’s being called one of the first virtual ground-breakings, orchestrated by Suffolk and Theia Interactive, a San Francisco-based virtual reality firm.

“The point of a ground-breaking is to gain awareness and to help people understand what you’re doing, to build some enthusiasm around the effort and to make sure the community and everyone else around is engaged,” says Chris Mayer, Executive VP and Chief Innovation Officer at Suffolk, one of the country’s largest privately-held companies. “By doing it virtually, we basically super-sized all three of these objectives, and we were able to utilize technology that will ultimately enable us to build a better building; it’s looking to make sure what we’re delivering is value and not just sizzle.”

A Network of ‘Smart Labs’

Two years ago, Mayer arrived at Suffolk with the mandate to build and sustain a centralized innovation function. He started an Innovation Council within Suffolk, comprising 10 executives from across disciplines and regions.

This year, the Council will get a boost, as Suffolk is about to open several Smart Labs to identify, test, and pilot new technologies that the company believes will impact the construction industry. These units will be housed at several offices, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami. Mayer, who reports to Suffolk’s Chief Financial Officer Mike Azarela, now has a dedicated team of nine individuals reporting to him.

“We’ll have space specifically designed to showcase our innovative capabilities and build better communication across the organization,” Mayer says, adding that each lab will be designed with wall-sized collaboration displays, virtual reality environments, augmented reality glasses, and other tools designed to enable project teams and outside partners to try out new technologies and workflow solutions. “These Smart Labs will have the resources to focus beyond the near-term horizon,” Mayer says.

Pulling in ideas from across the organization is key. “As you can imagine,” he adds, “the job wouldn’t [work] if it was ‘let me sit here and think about all the innovations we should be focused on.’ It’s really creating the framework for the ideas that other folks in the organization are surfacing — to help support those and amplify those, and then to help extend those across the organization.”

One big focus for Suffolk is its “build smart” approach, which aims to deliver more predictable and efficient projects on time and on budget.

‘Active Visualization’

Since last year’s virtual ground-breaking, active visualization has been a big emphasis for the team — creating new ways to envision projects in their finished state, whether using augmented or virtual reality. The company currently has virtual reality “CAVES” in three of its offices. A CAVE is a 6-foot high, 10-foot wide space that comes together via a screen on two connecting sides. Clients walk in the room, don virtual reality head-gear, and immerse themselves in a model of the building they’re planning or of another building. “It’s a way for you to better understand the space and interact with people in the ‘physical’ setting,” he says. It’s not meant to replace other forms of modeling, but rather to add another dimension, illuminating how a space feels. Virtual reality helps with things such as, realizing how complete a space is, and helping to answer, “Do you have all the necessary components? How are you effectively communicating with other people about it?”

Suffolk creates its CAVE environments by obtaining CAD 3D design files from the architect, and then layering on plumbing, electrical, and other infrastructure layers. It then renders a view with the right amount of information to help a client understand a space. In one instance, Mayer says, it was particularly helpful when they took a client through a space virtually and she suddenly noticed the engineer had put the fire alarm displays in the middle of the wall; the client wanted them moved for aesthetic reasons. While it was on the plans all along, seeing it in a virtual environment really grabbed her attention, and saved Suffolk from having to make costly changes further along in the project.

The first project designed using the CAVE was a $500 million new building for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Enhancing Site Safety

Mayer says the company is also starting to experiment with VR to build a safety training application, part of a training effort that works toward a goal of being “incident and injury free,” or IIF. With the prototype app, workers navigate around a virtual job site to help them visualize standard-sized railings; holes that need to be covered over a certain diameter; or how workers would be able to make their way through a space with a flashlight in the event of a power loss.

“We’re really focused on putting safety ahead of everything else—everyone comes to work and goes home safe—that’s the commitment,” Mayer says.

Some additional things the company is testing include perimeter cameras on job sites to keep track of people as they enter or leave, as well as other types of monitoring technologies that rely on RFID chips embedded in workers’ ID badges. Suffolk wants to know “who’s on and who’s off the job site, and where they are on a job site,” Mayer says. “If there’s ever a situation, we know who’s accounted for, where people are. So everybody is safe.”

Monitoring machinery also fits into this safety initiative, as a way to keep people safe as they interact with and near the equipment, but also to keep the machines secure. Mayer says that Suffolk wants to track things such as, “what machinery is where on site, what is it doing? Who’s in proximity of that machinery? What is scheduled that day to go in that area?”

Chris Mayer, Chief Innovation Officer at Suffolk.

Hackathons and Gathering Ideas

Mayer realizes that the best ideas often come from people out in the field. “One discounts ideas coming from anywhere in the organization at one’s own peril,” he says. “There are people across the entire organization who have great ideas, or the best vantage points on things to really be impactful.”

Right now, Suffolk doesn’t use any software to funnel or winnow ideas, but it does use its intranet to solicit them. It’s an informal process, Mayer says.

But he says there are a few caveats: “You really want ideas to come from people who are passionate, but also from those who have enough experience to be able to characterize the true benefits of implementing certain technologies or processes.”

Suffolk also has meetings of something it calls the iClub, a voluntary group, in which people gather to discuss different topics that interest them. For instance, some people are interested in emerging technology, while others might show up just to discuss something specific, like job site data capture.

Suffolk experimented with a hackathon targeting a specific topic late last year and was pleased with the results, Mayer says. He says that he’s leaning toward narrowing the focus of future hackathons to generate more manageable results.

Mayer says potential areas to explore include:

  • Examining how to do “reality capture” (gathering data about a construction project as it proceeds) to increase the quality and efficiency of a construction project.
  • Looking at the process flow that Suffolk currently has, and rethinking that in areas such as materials handling or managing information and activities on job sites.
  • Seeing how Suffolk can use big data capabilities to differentiate itself and improve safety, quality and performance.

Unlocking the Value

How does Mayer see his innovation unit affecting the company and its clients?

The innovation group’s mission is intertwined with the company’s Build Smart initiative, and finding ways to improve and maintain client relationships. Mayer says his ultimate goal “is to help transform the construction experience.”

That means not only for Suffolk’s clients, but for its 1,200 employees and partners as well.

“Just saying that we’re going to roll out new technology on a job isn’t enough,” he says. “It’s in the R&D or piloting phase that we can unlock the true value we’re going to get out of it, assuming that the real win is to take what we’ve learned and identify how to scale it across the entire organization. Then it becomes what we do. Ultimately, with enough of those with a frequency of cadence, it becomes who we are.”