Portland Oregon-based SERA Architects blends two traditions into its architecture service – urban revitalization and sustainable design. Not only does the firm embrace a corporate philosophy to operate as green as possible, it provides guidance and expertise in a wide range of environmental issues that extend well beyond green building.  Since discovering Smartsheet a few years ago, SERA is meeting deadlines, impressing clients, and communicating as efficiently as possible – saving time and money.  

While the firm now uses Smartsheet to collaborate on the design and build apsects of many projects, SERA associate George Hager takes us inside their latest project – the Oregon Health and Science University's new Collaborative Life Sciences Building in this video:

Flash back several years. Here's how the team first began their use of, and affinity for, Smartsheet.

A Challenging Deadline – How Collaborative Project Management Came to Be

In 2006, SERA Architects teamed with Cutler Anderson Architects and was selected for what would become one of the largest federal government building renovation projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The Edith Green – Wendall Wyatt Federal Building (EGWW) was a great win for the firm for obvious reasons, but brought to light two struggles that SERA consistently struggled with:

  1. Tight timelines. The General Services Administration (GSA) challenged SERA to complete a 24-month design cycle and be ready for construction in 9 months – an incredible challenge and one that reflects in every new project the firm takes on.
  2. Dispersed teams. From keeping the GSA in the loop to connecting with 40+ subcontractors, SERA has to move fast while keeping communication open.

With so much on the line, the firm realized there was no way to deliver this project in a “business as usual” type of manner. The standard process of emailing Excel files, meeting notes and design docs around to the teams, including the contractor, the subs, and the client, wouldn't cut it.  “We had to find a way to dramatically cut down the design time even though the amount of work we had to do stayed the same,” said James Riley, Project Architect and Associate at SERA.  “We didn’t have an hour to spare managing different versions or repeating information.”

The Smartsheet Solution

Immediately, Riley asked his coworkers at SERA to find the best, cloud-based collaboration tools for the job.  The criteria for the solution was two-fold: 

  • Familiar look and feel, easy for anyone to use
  • Anytime, anywhere accessibility

“Smartsheet stood head and shoulders above the rest,” said Riley.  After he introduced Smartsheet at a team meeting, the group embraced it immediately. "There's absolutely no learning curve because of the form factor. Most people look at it, understand it and use it. In fact, most people can pick it up in 2 minutes and they’re off and running."

In using Smartsheet for collaboration during the EGWW Federal Building project, Riley and his team of designers, engineers, architects, and contractors saw the tool impact several facets of their process:

  • Everyone and everything is connected

The renovation of the EGWW Federal Building involved many stakeholders. SERA had a design team of 21 and an engineering team of 16 people. The General Contractor and five first-tier subcontractors were involved on a daily basis  Others, such as the GSA, used Smartsheet to monitor the overall progress of the project. All in all, most of the project sheets involved at least 30-40 viewers and editors, with some having up to 150 involved. 

“With this many people involved in the process, Smartsheet became the hub that kept us all connected and on the same page as things changed,” said Riley.

  • Updates and notifications when you want them

“We have more than 35 Smartsheet worksheets being utilized, and everyone can decide how often and what they’re alerted on,” said Riley. “I choose to get alerts once a day, but our clients only want to be notified once a month. It takes the ‘how much is too much’ guesswork out of the communication process. Now we have meetings with our clients to go over all changes and we’re confident there will be very few surprises about the project because of how transparent the entire process is.”

“Another huge advantage to Smartsheet are Update Requests,” said Henry Alman, head project manager of SERA’s latest project, the Collaborative Life Sciences Building.  “When I need an update on a specific line, I can send that row with a note detailing exactly what I need, and they can update my sheet directly – files, attachments, it’s all right there.  It’s very convenient.”

  • Meetings run faster, better and communication is tighter

With such a tight schedules, coordination meetings needed to be succinct, targeted and efficient.  “Now we put Smartsheet on the big LCD TV in our conference room and log our notes directly into the app as they relate to the activity,” said Riley. “Everything - notes, dates, discussions, files - is tracked on one screen, on specific task rows in Smartsheet. It’s a tremendous time saver to have everything at your fingertips, and not lost in a pile of paper on your desk.”

Collaboration is Contagious

 “Our general contractor, along with several other GCs, project managers, designers, and engineers can't believe we hit the deadline. And they’re more stunned when they learn we’re tracking a LEED Platinum project.” added Riley. “It’s almost folklore -- I get asked how we do it all the time. I really don’t think we could have done it without Smartsheet.”

While the SERA team began using Smartsheet for the EGWW Federal Building Modernization Project, that was just the beginning – the firm is using Smartsheet today to collaborate on the design and build of the Collaborative Life Sciences Building.  With another team of 40+ subcontractors and stakeholders from the Oregon University System and the Oregon Health and Sciences University, Smartsheet is exactly what the team needs to get the job done.  “Being able to easily share information is key to our success,” said SERA Associate George Hager of the role Smartsheet plays in the firm’s latest undertaking.

And it’s spreading throughout the business. “It’s kind of a joke around here,” said Henry Alman, project manager. “Anything that’s chaotic or needs to be organized – we just create a sheet for it.  Everything from our purchases to our meeting minutes to our scheduling, even organizing our barbeques – we’ve got a sheet for it all.” 

Anytime availability is key.  “Our team can see their sheets wherever they have an internet connection,” said Hager.  “It’s easy to find and look at documents on your desktop, you can easily check in on your tablet, or pull up the project sheet from your home computer.  It’s an excellent communication tool – the simple exchange of information, they way we can communicate with Smartsheet – it’s the way that modern businesses operate.”