Builtcast: Blake Berg From WeWork Talks Construction Tech

by Jun 11, 2019

We talked with Blake Berg, Director of Construction Technology at WeWork, about his work ethic, dedication, and commitment to delivering future-forward projects at the revolutionary company.
Our guest today is Blake Berg, the Director of Construction Technology at WeWork. From becoming an eagle scout to managing complex and massive projects in New York City in his early 20’s, we talked with Blake about how his passion for always leaving something better than he found it has driven him to success at a revolutionary company. What we found out is that to deliver on WeWorks goals in 2019, the entire team – from Owner, to GC, to Sub – has to utilize the same data and technology to not only be on the same page, but to have harmony throughout the process – and simply put, deliver.

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Rather Read The Interview?
Check Out The Interview Transcript Below:

 

Reid

My first question I usually ask people is did you grow up around construction? Did you always kind of know that this was the direction you were going to take?

 

Blake

No, I did not grow up around construction. My first exposure to the AEC industry was an internship after my senior year of high school as a CAD Draftsman. That’s when I found out I was good at CAD and then had another internship at Turner the summer after that and that was my first exposure to construction and I just liked the people. That’s really what drew me in.

 

Reid

What did you study in college? Did you go to college?

 

Blake

I went up to Syracuse and I was a mechanical engineer. I enjoyed math and science. I enjoyed problem solving. I didn’t want to be a design engineer, but I knew that, you know, I wanted to learn the skills of problem solving and that’s really what drew me to engineering. Then I knew it could kind of open up the world to whatever I wanted to do.

 

Kurt

As you got a started, graduated college and so forth, what were the first kind of things you were doing in construction?

 

Blake

Around the spring of my senior year I was able to secure a job with Turner and that allowed me to enjoy the last semester of freedom as a student before I had to become a real person. That was good. But when I started at Turner in August 2012 I didn’t know what I was going to do, you know. I showed up and they said, all right, we’re going to put you into the estimating group. And so I was an MEP estimator working on huge commercial construction projects in New York. They really just threw me right into it. One of my first projects was a brand new hospital, up on the upper east side, out of the ground. And not only do you normally not even see new hospitals in the city, it’s always usually almost always renovations. I ended up working on three or four new hospitals that first year. So they kind of threw me right into the biggest projects. Luckily, I had a great boss at the time, Bob Gullickson, who really mentored and challenged me and without him I would have been completely lost. Good mentoring allowed me to be able to contribute on huge scale commercial construction projects that I had no expertise on prior.

 

Reid

Do you feel like going straight into estimating open a lot of doors in your mind for you – in terms of the construction process and all of the things involved?

 

Blake

Yeah, 100%. If I wasn’t in estimating, it would’ve been on a project and a project in New York can take two or three years. So it takes two or three years to really see the full cycle of a building from start to finish. In estimating, the projects are anywhere from one or two months to six months. So my project portfolio, instead of being one or two projects after five years, in two and a half years estimating I had about 45 projects. I worked on anything from airports and train stations to stadiums, to hospitals, to apartment buildings … hotels, all the different industries. In seeing those industries, I saw the different strategies of MEP design. So when it came time to go to my first job, I ended up going on site to a commercial office. Working on mostly hospitals before that, a commercial office almost seem very simple.

 

Reid

Was there any inefficiencies that you saw during that time? Was there anything kind of in your mind that started to tick and say, hey, this could be better?

 

Blake

Yes. Just about immediately. So the one thing, I knew nothing about construction really going into construction, but the one strength I did have was utilizing technology. I was stronger, even just using a computer, than most of my coworkers were. So any knowledge gap I had in terms of expertise in MEP engineering I could fill with technology.

One of the first things I was asked to do was a takeoff of some drawings. It was a bunch of duct drawings and I had a wheel, one of those takeoff wheels – so hard drawings, takeoff wheel – and I was asked to figure out how many pounds of duct were on a floor. I almost kind of laughed and was just like, well that’s strange. I thought they would just give that to you. That’s kind of one of the lessons learned. A new and a fresh opinion, even if it’s the youngest, most inexperienced person in the room can be leveraged by upper management to help drive and streamline process improvement.

Within about a year of working there, we started doing our takeoffs and our leveling and stuff [digitally]. It used to be on paper, and then within a year or so of me being there we started doing it on the computer. That really helped us streamline and pick up the speed at which we can estimate a project. It allowed us to do more projects and do more with less.

 

Reid

Were you ever hesitant on voicing your opinion on how things could be better?

 

Blake

No, I’m not shy about it. It’s kind of a thing that … it must be inside me somewhere, but if I see waste, it just drives me crazy. Down to the point where if I’m taking the one train from south ferry here up to 28th street, you know. I may take the one and then transfer over to the two and then back to the one, just to save a minute. At home I do the same thing, just drives me crazy. Any form of waste drives me crazy. So if I ever see that there is a chance to save time or money or improve value, I’m going to speak up no matter what. If people can continue to do their jobs quicker and faster and cheaper and things like that, it really does add value to the organization. So I’ve never been shy about speaking up about it.

 

Kurt

So how does that attitude and approach translate into what you’re doing today?

 

Blake

Today, at WeWork, we’re on a rapid growth mission. We’re really opening up a ton of locations this year, doubling the amount of location and square footage we did last year. With that massive scale, just a two second improvement applied to the amount of volume that we’re going to do this year is a drastic improvement. At WeWork, we really encourage everyone – no matter what the role is – to speak up. If you see or have an idea that can improve a process it’s not only welcomed, but encouraged.

 

Kurt

So how is tech helping WeWork, accomplish their goals?

 

Blake

It’s almost the backbone of how we run our development, design and construction group from start to finish on a project. We try to finish the whole thing in about nine months from inception all the way through opening day. That’s a crazy short timeframe to do that in. One of the biggest ways we’re able to do that is [by] utilizing technology. As soon as we can, we’re in there with the laser scanner, understanding real dimensions of the space. In my past life and kind of around the industry, you know, we’re relying on whatever existing drawings and information we can get off of the landlord. But in New York specifically, as-builts may be from the 1980s or the 1960s, right? So if you rely on that information, it’s likely out of date and we try to create a design and do all of our precon very early on so that we can start construction and finish construction very quickly in order to make sure we only design once and build once. It all comes down to having the right information on day one.

 

Reid

How does WeWork – in the way you guys go about your construction process, your preconstruction process –  A) How is it different than maybe what is typically done? … and B) What can contractors learn from that?

 

Blake

We do a couple of different things that I think are unique. Me, personally, one thing that I always do is I trust and I trust contractors. I trust consultants. I trust the team no matter what, that they are specialists to do their job and I trust that if I share information such as the laser scan that has real measurements that’s going to make someone’s life a lot easier elsewhere around the industry. I see almost a lack of trust and kind of some legal battles around that sort of thing and so people don’t really share information or take ownership over a project. At WeWork, we really utilize technology and then claim ownership on that information being very accurate and we share it with contractors and suppliers and consultants so that they can do the best job they can do. Construction that’s as seamless as possible. That’s number one.

The second thing is we get everyone in the same sandbox. So instead of having the owner and the architect and the engineer on one platform, and then the architect and engineer and the general contractor on another platform, and then the general contractor and the subs on another platform – that just creates time delays and misinformation. It’s like a big telephone game of misinformation and also problems are recognized a lot slower that way. We utilize field lens for everyone. So everyone from the owner to the GC to the owner’s rep – which is our construction managers – down to the subcontractors, we’re all working in the same sandbox off the same information. [This way], the day that we have a change request or any new information, an RFI submittal, it just gets to the guy actually doing the work a lot quicker.

 

Reid

I’ll take you back here with this question for a minute, but tell us a little bit about what your responsibilities and objectives at WeWork are?

 

Blake

in my role with construction technology, really at a high level, it’s finding ways to streamline process, finding ways to cut time out of construction, waiting time out of construction, finding ways to drive value and also finding ways to reduce the cost on our projects utilizing technology. The hardest part about that is it usually requires an upfront investment. So you know, an owner or WeWork has to spend a little money with the payback period to make money back on the long term. That’s hard when you’re a typical GC. Margins are razor thin, so to find money to invest in expensive software and technology and people [is difficult]. To even have a research and development group is a huge opportunity to not only change what WeWork is doing, but what the industry is doing for the better.

 

Reid

A lot of companies either don’t see the value or can’t find the value in having a group like the one that you run. Is it just WeWork’s innovative nature? Is it just kind of in the ecosystem there to always drive for that change?

 

Blake

Yeah, I think it’s part of WeWork’s culture and our mission is welcoming change and welcoming new ideas and innovations that can help drive better products. Our group is super important because as a construction manager, as a super, as a project manager, as a BIM lead, you’re really busy, really busy and it’s hard to take a step back and be able to think and be able to work on something that could make people’s lives a lot easier. The people in my group are construction professionals. They have that experience and they understand what it’s like to do all those, but they have some time to take a step back and go and meet with people around the industry and figure out how we can really drive change together. So it’s a huge opportunity and it is really leveraged well at WeWork to help streamline our processes.

 

Kurt

Do you think there is any game changing tech that’s on the horizon that’s coming in your opinion?

 

Blake

I would say around the industry, I’m still loving all the prefabrication work that I’m seeing and it’s really hard for us to do that, because a lot of our jobs are renovations and we’re limited to a freight elevator and the size of the freight elevator and path of entry into an existing building. But even so, you know, we start day one with measuring that freight elevator and path of entry and send it to all our suppliers and subcontractors. They can start to plan in their shops and bring things in the right size to limit the amount of work on site. So that sharing of information and prefabrication, I really do think the more that we can prefabricate ahead of time, the more it really helps construction.

Aside from that, at WeWork we’re really, really pushing the use of the model all the way down to the subcontractors and the supers. Unfortunately, around the industry, too often you only see the designers and the architects and engineers – maybe a project manager for a construction company – utilizing the model. You rarely see it in the field. So one of our biggest pushes this year is for everyone from VDC managers down to the subcontractor utilizing the model as a reference to help build in the field. That improves first time quality at install. Then, I think the future-future of tech that I’m seeing, which I really have enjoyed, are two things: it’s getting everyone in the same sandbox. Again, the sharing of information, getting on the same platforms, but also if you’re on different platforms, tying them all together to understand different factors on site. [This] leads to the second thing, [which] is capturing more data off our job sites to understand how design affects construction, whether it’s cost or schedule. The more we understand schedules and the true percentages of work in place, right, the quicker that you can help manage problems as they arise on job sites, but also prevent them in the future.

 

Reid

There’s these, what I call, “new shiny objects”. There’s AI, there’s AR, there’s Blockchain. What’s your take on all that?

 

Blake

I think there’s a good future for augmented reality. I think there’s a really strong future for that, but it’s been around for awhile. I remember maybe 10 years ago when GE sent out these little AR sheets in a magazine and you could scan it on a camera and a wind turbine popped out of it. Today, 10 years later or so, we haven’t done anything with it. So I’m a little skeptical, but I still think there’s a strong future for it. When it comes to improving the way we document and share information after construction, right – and that’s key – because oftentimes when you are involved in a construction project or design project, there’s a finite end and it’s quick. But that project, that location, that building, that hospital, whatever you’re producing has a much longer life cycle then the project. And so I see a future with AR. I see a future with continuing to utilize the models after construction when it comes to facilities to help buildings be able to run better and recognize issues maybe with equipment 10 years from now. [This way] they can try to prevent making the same decisions if they were poor on future projects.

 

Reid

What’s in it for you? What keeps you coming in every day and pushing forward and pursuing what you’re pursuing?

 

Blake

My goal is always to leave a place better than I found it – always. I take that through to outside of work, at work, personally, and what I learned early on is to leave a place better than you found it. I really enjoy seeing when people are utilizing some solutions that we’ve put in place and when it helps them – I get really strong enjoyment from that. If I see them having fun or getting photos of supers using the model in the field and taking measurements off the model, to know that you were a part of the group that helped facilitate that is a really rewarding feeling.

Let me know what you think about this episode down in the comments or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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