For our next stop in our Virtual Travel Series, we head to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. To celebrate Infrastructure Week, we have been traveling (virtually, of course) across the US to learn more about the people behind our nation’s transportation projects. Today, we meet Britton Lawson, Director of Construction Technologies at Veit & Company.
As one of the Midwest’s leading specialty contracting and waste management companies, Veit & Company, Inc. is familiar with the many moving pieces involved in transportation and infrastructure projects. It’s a massive collaborative effort to make these projects successful. In his role, Britton supports field teams in their pursuit to collaborate by helping to deploy and advocate for technology solutions.
Below, Britton shares more about his journey from heavy equipment operator to Director of Construction Technologies and how technology helps his team collaborate seamlessly on major Minneapolis infrastructure projects like the Dennis McClellan street reconstruct project.
Tell us more about your journey in construction?
My passion was heavy equipment as a kid, and my career started as a heavy equipment operator years ago. So I’ve come from a boots on the ground background, performing the work and experiencing some of the trials, tribulations, frustrations, successes, and failures that people experience in the field. Because of this, it’s a lot easier for me to understand some of the workflows and common constraints.
When I came to Veit, I had held some supervisor positions in previous companies. I was pursuing a technology passion that opened up many doors for me because I was an early adopter on the grade control side. So, I did that for five years, and then my role evolved with the company. I ended up taking over that group and advocating within the grade control side of things. From there, I was able to move on to advocate on a broader scale.
Tell us about your role at Veit & Company. What does your day-to-day look like?
My day includes supporting our field staff and end-users as far as how we can use various systems better, how we can integrate, and how we can leverage information to be more efficient. Part of it is also advocating for that use of technology and integration and working out how we can push that farther. How can we push the envelope to get more use out of the systems that we use on a day-to-day basis? I touch on all of our job tracking software, our project collaboration software, and our survey-grade machine control side.
Tell us more about one of the projects you’re working on. Why has this been an exciting project to work on?
The one that comes to mind is one of our busiest right now. It’s the Dennis McClellan street reconstruct project. We have one grading crew out there, and we have four utility crews out there. We’re redoing an entire neighborhood.
There are many constraints in terms of space, logistics, and schedule. We’re making use of a lot of technology—and most of our equipment has technology on it. All of our utility crews are doing their as-builts on PlanGrid, which means doing all of their existing utilities and installs on the software. If they come across a gas line or an electric fiver line, they’re taking a picture of it, and then when the grading crews come through, they’re looking on PlanGrid and seeing utilities that have already been exposed and devising a plan to cross them with the pictures provided by the utility crews
We’ve also gone through and recorded all the existing utilities with our GPS rovers so that we can overlay the line work onto the plan sheets in PlanGrid. Anything that may or may not be on the project, we’re putting it into the project and color-coding them so all groups are aware of the utility.
Can you share how you use technology on this project? How has it helped enable you and your team to be successful?
The topo is a good example. It’s our standard operating procedure that we topo all of the existing utility markups. Then we can overlay them on the plan because a lot of times, there are plans that do not include some of the existing utilities. That can turn into a change order for us or an unforeseen condition that we weren’t planning for and would require us to adjust our schedule. This way, we can communicate better with the owner on this and be better prepared before our crews encounter the conflict
Again, with the collaboration across all platforms and with multiple utility crews going through the same area, they’ve got all the existing utilities, including pictures of them and locations. We’re also marking all of the installed manholes and all of the installed utilities. This gives the grading crew access as they come through. Technology, like PlanGrid, makes everyone work together better.
What makes working on infrastructure projects unique?
Essentially with infrastructure, you’re doing open-heart surgery on a live patient.
All of your water, sanitary sewers, and storm sewers are alive. We have to make sure that all the residents can use those resources throughout the entire process and that people can get to their homes.
It’s such a moving target. It’s a very uncontrolled environment in terms of unforeseen challenges or infrastructure installed previously that we were not aware of— for instance, a different type of valve or something else that was originally installed years ago.
The unforeseen things mean we have to pivot and decide on the fly to be successful financially and schedule-wise for the project. It’s satisfying to innovate in the moment and to be able to leverage our experience and take the right path forward. To have it all come together when you’ve got 40 plus people working on one project is very satisfying.
What has your experience been like working on infrastructure projects during COVID?
Just like anything, there’s good and bad. I’m not in my work office as much as I used to be, especially with a newborn and trying to stay away a little bit. I haven’t traveled as much to our regional offices, which has also been a struggle for me.
I think part of the challenge, too, is our training. We had dedicated a lot to training to bring in our field teams and supervision teams quarterly so that we could sit down for a couple of hours every quarter to work out some of the pressure points and ongoing process improvements. I think that’s the biggest thing that we missed. Training helps drive our standards and to help address things in the moment versus in the wintertime when we’re looking back at what happened.
It has also posed questions for some of our processes, too. Like trucking, we haven’t been able to sign trucks out. We’re thinking, how can we change this process and make it a technology process where we don’t have to interact with a person that we don’t know?
I think one of the successes is that things like preconstruction meetings have become virtual. Before, our crews had to leave the jobsite for them. This makes it easier for them to continue if they don’t have half an hour or a 45-minute commute between the jobsite and the office. So we’ve got a better use of our labor, our workforce, and our leadership. And it helps everybody else be more present.
What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering the industry?
Be true to yourself. Follow your passions.
I found that I was always trying to deviate from my passion, and I ended up coming back. I was trying to hide it, right? Like with heavy equipment versus going to college. If you’re into it, you’re into it, and it’s OK – own it.
The next thing is just to ask a lot of questions. You’ll go into the industry, and you start learning and understanding that it’s going to take time to get to the point of doing what you want to do. Be OK with the process. If your goal is to get into a piece of heavy equipment, you have to start somewhere, even if that means starting to stand there holding a flag for 14 hours a day. Understand that you can watch the pavers, what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it, and you can learn something. Just go with that mindset of you can always learn something every single day. It’s going to be the biggest thing because this industry changes daily, and you have to evolve with it.
What is one essential thing that you would take with you on a road trip?
My family and my camera. I love taking pictures!
What’s one place you cannot wait to travel to once things get back to some normalcy?
I just told my wife this, but I really want to go to Lake Powell. I think Lake Powell or Zion National Park. I’ve seen a lot of pictures, and it’s on the bucket list.