Innovation typically is slow to happen in the construction industry. The thinking often has been: why change traditional methods that have worked for decades? That’s why it was one of the last sectors to adopt digital technology. But now, bits are now part of bricks, especially as “virtual construction” design has become the norm. At Columbia Construction Company in North Reading, progress is even more notable — the company’s director of improvement and innovation is a woman. Siggy Pfendler’s former title was the friendlier “director of virtual construction,” but her responsibility is essentially the same, in business-speak: to deploy the technologies that support operational efficiencies.
Pfendler, 41, was even more of a groundbreaker on construction sites, where she worked earlier in her career. Siggy – a nickname for Sigrid – began studying civil engineering at Stanford University but soon discovered construction management was the best way to follow her interest in learning how structures were built. She had several internships with large contractors, including on that involved working on the famed Sony Center in Berlin, Germany, with leading construction company Hochtief. It was a field office job, but she spent a few weeks checking installed rebar and trying to communicate in not-so-perfect German with eastern European workers about necessary changes before concrete was poured. She worked her way up the construction ladder, including assignments as field engineer and project manager.
Pfendler says she’s always been driven by a desire to improve productivity. She was one of the first at Columbia to experiment with using computer-generated 3D models, or BIM (Building Information Modeling). She found that constructing a building virtually made it easier to identify potential problems that are invisible on two-dimensional drawings – and that cost and material information embedded in the model could save time and money.
The Globe spoke to Pfendler about her construction career:
“Hanging on my office wall, I have photos of the buildings I worked on as an engineer and project manager, including the Paramount, an apartment building in San Francisco; San Mateo Public Library in San Mateo, Calif.; Siemens manufacturing facility in Walpole; and the Special Olympics building in Marlborough. These are the projects I feel most connected to and where I really learned to be a builder.
“One of the great things about this position is that there’s a lot of variety from day to day. I love to develop relationships and solve problems. I work with some of the same subcontractors over and over again on different projects and I do my best to make the process as enjoyable as possible for everyone.
“Sometimes it feels like all I do is solve problems, whether it’s getting two subcontractors to cooperate or working through whatever technology isn’t working that morning. I try to figure out how to make things work before they go into the field. Though it’s not a perfect process, if I can solve 90 percent of the issues and the superintendent’s job is made easier, I feel like I’ve succeeded.
“Virtual construction helps identify potential issues before they are physically installed. The earlier that changes are made, the less expensive they are. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to resolve things as soon as possible. I have five monitors in my office where different aspects of a project can be viewed, providing an accurate depiction of a building’s structure. We analyze the computerized models and find where there are ‘clashes’ – instances of error that might be hard to see in 2-D. Some examples include a room with no ceiling, a steel beam going through a window, or a fan coil unit placed in the middle of the lobby. It’s easier to see all the parts and pieces in 3-D. And because I’ve been a builder myself, I know how to work with subcontractors to find a solution.
“There’s a sense of urgency that goes with construction, and although I’m not a project manager anymore, sometimes I just can’t resist asking, ‘Has that duct been ordered yet?’