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May 2011
Making the Grade
By Heather Head

     What do cloud computing, optimization software, and chess have in common with moving dirt? Before now, not much. But a revolutionary technology from BLUERIDGE Analytics called SITEOPS brings together the latest capabilities of emerging technology—and lessons learned from chess—to solve a site development problem as old as the industry: How to choose the best plan for a site and accurately predict the cost of development.

     Any given development project involves three main expenses: the cost of purchasing the land, the cost of preparing the land for construction, and the cost of constructing the building(s). The first and last elements of the project are easy to calculate, but the middle element can be highly unpredictable and represent 25 to 30 percent of the total budget.

     “You’re potentially dealing with the site itself, rock, contaminated soil, unsuitable soil, water tables, retaining walls, parking lots, loading docks, storm water drainage ponds, turning radiuses, handicapped parking, and much more all tied together,” explains BLUERIDGE Analytics CEO and President Mike Detwiler. “Plus, terrain surprises and human error can cause sudden delays and unexpected leaps in development cost. A $300,000 budget can quickly expand to a million dollars or more literally overnight.

     SITEOPS changes that.

     The technology’s history begins with chess. Consider, Detwiler explains, how a computer program can reliably beat almost any human player. The human brain is capable of looking forward at a limited number of potential outcomes from any move, while the computer can analyze every single move, down every potential path, from the first move of the game to the end, constantly adjusting the probabilities and potentialities based on each new move, and choose the absolute optimal solution at every step.

     That capability, once known as artificial intelligence and now referred to in the industry as “evolutionary computing,” is at the core of SITEOPS. “The technology allows us to look at a hundred thousand different grading plans to see which is best,” says Detwiler. “Then look at a hundred thousand different pipeline plans within that plan. You’d have to lock the top civil engineers in the world in a room for a year to look at all the different solutions that our software can analyze in a matter of minutes.”

     Of course, all that computing power requires massive amounts of data storage which would have been cost prohibitive even a few short years ago. Fortunately, current cloud computing provides the raw power necessary to support the data and complicated algorithms required by SITEOPS.

     The result: Cost savings of approximately $15,000 per acre of land developed. In fact, says Detwiler, they have yet to start a project on which they were not able to save money over the cost of a human-generated plan.

     But perhaps more significantly, SITEOPS solves the central problem of allowing developers to accurately predict their total investment. This, in turn, is changing—and boosting—the construction industry that has been hardest hit by our current economic downturn.

 

An Engineer’s Dream

     SITEOPS began life as an idea in the head of Jamie Reynolds in 2003. A residential site developer, Reynolds was intimately familiar with the headaches of moving dirt. After many years in the industry, he realized there must be a better way to avoid frustrating surprises during development. He became interested in evolutionary computing and using algorithms to solve problems and before long got together with Andy Watts to develop the concept. Together they decided that they needed a CEO.

     They brought their enthusiasm to a CEO they knew named Russ Bernthal. Bernthal immediately saw the immense potential of their idea. He had a friend he knew would be interested: Mike Detwiler, management consultant with an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics, a graduate degree in computer science from Northwestern University, and a keen interest in evolutionary computing.

     Bernthal called him up and left a voice mail: “I think this is a dream come true.”

     And it was. “My ultimate dream,” says Detwiler, “is to take this thing from soup to nuts. Not many people get the opportunity to take something from an idea to the actual technology, then to go to market with the technology, build the sales, and build the business. And we have a great team here, an unbelievable team.”

     BLUERIDGE calls their product “CAD with a Brain,” which is an apt description of the tool. CAD (computer-aided design) has been a standard tool among civil engineers since the late 1980s when it began providing 3D rendering capabilities.

     But SITEOPS provides benefits CAD never could. Beyond accurate site development estimates and optimized site plans, one of the core benefits is what BLUERIDGE calls, “The power of ‘What if…”

     Because the software can process innumerable variables simultaneously and produce site plans and estimates in mere hours, it empowers developers and engineers to experiment with multiple layouts and options. Users can tell the program to add another 30 parking spaces, place two buildings closer together, or make room for an emergency vehicle lane, and it automatically maps out each variable along with how much the changes would save or cost the client.

     This capability can allow users to choose sites more effectively, to save green spaces, and to make more environmentally friendly as well as cost-effective choices. Detwiler recalls a project in which a South Carolina school was planning to purchase an inexpensive site. The school had asked several engineers to evaluate it and come up with an effective development plan. SITEOPS was able to definitively determine that site development costs would be prohibitive.

     At the same time, engineers ran “What if” scenarios on other nearby available sites, narrowing it down to one more suitable, saving the school substantial sums of money and a potentially disastrous purchasing decision.

 

A Powerful Future

     Powerful technologies like SITEOPS don’t happen by accident of course. Reynolds and Watts had nothing written down when they first stepped into Bernthal’s office, and they knew they needed someone like Detwiler to bring it all together. Detwiler organized capital and began building a team, starting with the best evolutionary computing expertise he could find.

     Detwiler contacted Dr. Thomas Baeck, leading authority and author of the handbook on evolutionary computing, among other related volumes, and eventual board member. Baeck helped him recruit two of the world’s top evolutionary computing scientists, Ron Breukelaar from the Netherlands and Peter Senft from Germany, both students of Baeck. As the technology began to grow, Detwiler sought (and acquired) patents in the U.S. and dozens of other countries around the world.

     Around the technology, Detwiler built a staff of 21 employees including the two scientists, two professional engineers, an executive staff, a sales team, marketing, and support. A palpable rapport among employees is deliberately cultivated. The company “constitution” includes three articles, all of which include the word “respect” and reflect a strong culture of collaboration and commitment to the success of every employee and the company as a whole.

     That same approach carries through to the way the company interacts with users. The company’s first customer was also its first Beta tester and a current major client, Lowe’s. Detwiler, Breukelaar, Senft and other developers at BLUERIDGE worked closely with Lowe’s to develop functionality appropriate to their needs, while continuing to build additional relationships and gather additional input from users.

     In 2007, BLUERIDGE officially unveiled their first iteration of SITEOPS, a single-pad tool providing unprecedented functionality for big box retailers like Lowe’s. In 2009, they released their multi-pad tool, and since then they have added additional residential and non-residential functionalities. Most recently, they added a swept path analysis module that allows users to realistically simulate vehicle movement, a task vital to the determination of site design feasibility.

     BLUERIDGE is committed to continuous improvement and new functionality, which they provide by offering the software as a service (SaaS) so that customers always have the latest version and the latest modules. Every new improvement is based directly on feedback from the users who tell them what is working for them, what needs improvement, and what kinds of functionality they’d like to see in future editions.

     As a result, the technology fits the market precisely, and has garnered hundreds of professional fans. This year, BLUERIDGE will be releasing a new update to include full multi-pad residential capacity, which will vastly increase the market reach for the product.

     Detwiler says the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) software industry is a multibillion-dollar market, and they expect to capture a percentage of that. “If things go according to plan,” he says, “BLUERIDGE Analytics could be one of the largest technology companies in Charlotte.”

 

Burying Traditional Competition

     Already the software has provided numerous benefits to engineers and their clients alike.

     Detwiler tells a story about an engineering group that was bidding on a project for a North Carolina school board. The lead engineer had prepared thoroughly and carefully in the traditional manner and brought a sketch of what they believed to be the optimal solution. It included no cost estimate because everyone knows you can’t predict site development costs. He walked into a meeting with the school board and one other competitor, and within minutes excused himself to use the bathroom and never went back.

     Why? Because his competition was using SITEOPS. They had brought more than 30 detailed, computer-generated layouts, each with an accurate cost estimate, for the board to consider and choose among, plus the promise to take suggestions and bring additional options based on their feedback, all within days. He simply couldn’t compete.

     According to Detwiler, he left the meeting and called BLUERIDGE saying, “I was just embarrassed in front of a potential client. I need your product.”

     Many school boards are already insisting that every site be optimized by SITEOPS in order to save taxpayer money. Dozens of engineering firms, land developers and retail establishments likewise use SITEOPS on every plan. Clients include Target, Bojangles, Bovis, Georgia Power, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Dunkin Industries, and many more.

     Detwiler thinks BLUERIDGE Analytics could be a $50 million company in the foreseeable future. “Our goal is to have our technology on every civil engineer’s desktop,” he says. “There are 10,000 civil engineering firms in the U.S. and internationally probably another 30,000. That’s where we’d like to go, one step at a time.”

     The next step on that route is the release of a new module that allows users to import images from Google Earth, plus terrain and other geographical data amalgamated from the U.S Geological Survey and other government sources, and within minutes be ready to enter development criteria and optimize layouts for any terrain.

     Furthermore, Detwiler believes his company can be at the center of a thriving technology community in Charlotte. He believes our city has the talent, the resources and both the climate and culture to attract more of the same. BLUERIDGE could easily become one of the city’s largest technology companies, he says, and he hopes its success will lure similar businesses.

     Whether his predictions for our city prove out or not, one thing is clear: The new technology may be just the infusion the struggling development industry needs. And that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating in and of itself.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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