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John Lord standing in front of one of the many construction sites CAS has worked on nationwide.

As the Chief Information Officer for Component Assembly Systems, John Lord is on the cutting-edge of the use of technology in the construction industry. A graduate in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, John has been with CAS for 30 years, during which time the company has grown into one of the leading commercial interior specialty contractors in the United States, in part because of its trailblazing use of technology. BTEA President Elizabeth Crowley spoke with John about the next wave of technological developments coming to the industry and what contractors who have not already embraced technology can do to keep up with the changing times.

 

BTEA: Component Assembly Systems is well known as a wall and ceiling contractor, but your work extends beyond those specialties. Can you tell us about the range of CAS’s areas of expertise?

Component Assembly Systems, Inc., founded in 1964, is in its 60th year of business. CAS has found that it is not enough to just be a commercial drywall/carpentry contractor on a project with tens of others all competing for space. We have needed to work smarter, safer, and more in sync with our clients at all stages of the process. The leaders at Component include Founder and CEO, Lewis Rapaport, who is still running the business today. He is managing a company with 10 offices in the United States, both in the Northeast and West Coast. Robert Perricone, a former Co-Chairman of the BTEA, is the company President, and John Rapaport, COO runs the technology projects with me and our IT group. So, besides building the great walls and ceilings of New York City and beyond, CAS prides itself in working with General Contractors and architects to bring our rich history and experience to the planning stages of some of our projects.

 

BTEA: CAS has worked on amazing projects across the country including the Frank Gehry-designed Facebook/Meta headquarters in Menlo Park, California; Apple’s monumental circular headquarters in Cupertino, California; and the Washington Nationals’ stadium in D.C. Tell us about some of CAS’s projects in New York.

We installed framing, drywall, and specialty ceilings at the new Yankee Stadium. Right now, we’re working on JP Morgan’s new global headquarters at 270 Park Ave., as well as the Waldorf Astoria’s historic renovation. Upcoming work includes JFK International Airport and the YouTube Campus in California. Certainly, a very special project for us was the One World Trade Center Building. We were there two days after the attacks. Our crews were in there building access ladders and stairs for the rescue personnel to get into tight places in as safe a manner as possible. CAS carpenters made the rescuers and recovery safe. It is why I hold our workers as the unsung heroes of that dark period in our history and the very best in the greatest industry. Some ten years later we came full circle and built the new World Trade Center, including the 911 museum adjacent to it. At 1WTC, despite it being a project we wished we never had, the Port Authority, Silverstein Properties and Tishman Construction all did an outstanding job of managing the trade contractors, keeping the payments on time, and making the project a big success. You can see our full portfolio of projects here.

 

BTEA: Are we getting to the point where technology is such a game changer that contractors can’t afford to do things the way they’ve operated in the past if they hope to have a sustainable business model?

It’s just my opinion, but I think so. A guy in a pickup truck can do what we do—put up walls—but are they in the right place? Do they have sufficient resources to be able to do the high-end details that we can do? We had a project where 50 feet in the air we did a very detailed, sophisticated ceiling. Try laying out in 3D that detail in space without the technology we use. It’s these tools that allow us to start thinking—I’m not even going to say outside the box, because the box is almost unlimited in construction—but in ways we couldn’t back in the day. And what’s happening now is that architects realize what’s possible because they walk into other buildings, look around, and say, “I want something like that.” So now the demands placed on us, because of what we’ve shown we can do, extend the architect’s vision, which in turn means that there’s a very limited number of players capable of doing that work. We have found that, for the large projects that we and many members of the BTEA perform, understanding and implementing Building Information Modeling (BIM) is essential for success.

With BIM technology the project blueprint can be transferred to the floor of the site using laser imaging.

 

BTEA: For the 30 years that you’ve been with CAS, the company has been on the vanguard of using technology to improve the way that you prepare for and execute jobs. For businesses that haven’t had this tech-oriented culture up until now, I imagine it could be intimidating to suddenly change the way they’ve always done things. What would you say to a contractor considering whether to take the plunge into integrating technology into their work?

Anyone reading this shouldn’t be intimidated by the amount of work that CAS put in to get where we are today. Whatever the software used, a construction business must create standards to enable consistency and reliability from estimate to closeout. In addition, CAS has developed PARTie, which is the Partition Information Exchange. Getting involved in buildingSMART would go a long way to establishing one’s organization as a forward-leaning company interested in industry development.

The underlying question is, How much of your business do you want to see? Not all jobs have successful outcomes. How do you want to handle risks, which can include, at the top, safety? Or maybe the estimate was wrong. Over my 30 years I’ve seen a lot of different problems arise. In fact, thanks to an industry study done on the West Coast, we’ve learned that there are 32 types of issues that can cause activity problems in our area. Any one of those 32 issues that plague projects could impact us on any job. And then there are black swans, the ones you don’t see or can’t even plan for, such as COVID, that can derail your hopes.

I always reference the turkey. A turkey has a great life up until the moment it doesn’t, right? That is going to happen to many companies who don’t protect against the worst outcome. And though you can’t avoid all the pitfalls that you may be subjected to on a project, you can learn to dodge, or avoid, or see them coming and do something about them before they hit you. And that’s why we have a very, say, active nervous system on our projects. I can’t even speak to the number of meetings we have, but at the core of these sessions is the data system that we have that informs us how those projects are going. We acquired a payroll data and job cost accounting system known as C/F Data Systems in 2007 to further enhance these efforts.

 

BTEA: What are some of the technological developments coming in the future that you think BTEA’s members should be tracking now so they aren’t caught flat footed down the road?

AI, of course, is the “new” tech that has taken center stage in the conversation. While not essential yet, the question going into this new paradigm of AI is, Do you have the data necessary that can enable AI to be useful in helping to make a decision? And what are you looking to do with it? For instance, every office generates spreadsheets. The CFO of many companies does a monthly or weekly report that updates certain things like payroll, the number of people on the job, profitability, projections, et cetera. It’s painstaking work to do and redo it, or even update it. Well, there’s a tool you can use with Excel called RPA—Robotic Process Automation. By teaching the computer how to do this spreadsheet you simply answer a few questions, and it puts data into the right spot for you. Same can be done for Word or Microsoft Project or any tool that you would use. So, if it’s very click and input intensive, then RPA is very helpful. Now we’re starting to consider AI in our takeoff process. Right now, we would have an on-screen of the floor plan and on it would be different wall types, depending on what the architect selected. For each wall type, we pick a color, and the estimator goes around and highlights those walls. With AI today—we have tested it, it’s not there yet, but it’s very close—you just push one button and the takeoff’s done. So, what used to take five days for an estimate, with the existing technology we’re at a little more than a day. With AI, we’ll be able to get down to hours. This will enable the estimator to focus on other often overlooked value judgments that both leverage the rich knowledge of these professionals and make more efficient the arduous take off process heretofore that is prevalent in our industry. The key with any technology in our industry is to connect between office and field relevant information keeping the job on track and transparent to company decision makers. The BTEA is in a very unique position to be a forum for industry trade contractors to exchange ideas, create standards, and reveal the best practices to move the New York construction industry to the forefront of change and innovation.

 

Editor’s Note: The industry study John referenced that identifies the types of issues that can plague projects can be read here.