By Brenda Romano, Chief Operating Officer, Virtual Builders Exchange, LLC
What’s a Builders Exchange? No doubt I’ve been asked that question dozens, if not hundreds of times. Each time is frustrating proof that Builders Exchanges do not enjoy a high level of name recognition in all segments of our complex industry. In fact, it can be argued we are the construction industry’s best-kept secret.
So, for the record – what is a Builders Exchange? The answer lies in the name. A Builders Exchange is a place for builders to exchange information. Typically, “information” is defined as anything related to construction bidding. In short, we’re a plan room service.
For most of our existence, those words were sufficient to explain our purpose to owners, design professionals and prime contractors. We requested a set of bid documents, they were given to us (free of charge), and we published that information so that subcontractors and suppliers knew what was bidding, when bids were due and which GC’s were looking for numbers. We called (as in telephoned) our contacts every few days to check for updates until we learned who got the contract award – it was an elegant system that moved with the precision of a Swiss clock.
However, over the last twenty years, the industry perception of plan room services has taken on the slightly tarnished air of your grandfather’s watch. You’re pretty sure it’s valuable, but not sure what to do with it. Other than nostalgia, what’s the value of such a relic in a digital age?
That’s a question Builders’ Exchanges have done a poor job of answering. We’ve never been particularly good at marketing; there are fewer and fewer companies that have been in business long enough to know about us and our members are not motivated to share their secret weapon with competitors. Blame it on our long history and fraternal roots.
Perhaps a little history lesson is in order.
The idea of a meeting place for contractors to share techniques, technology and project information goes back to the glass, metalworking and stonemason guilds of ancient Rome. However, the birth of the modern-day Builders Exchange can be traced to construction in 19th century America when historical limitations gave way to new technology like iron framing, elevators and electric lighting. The first “skyscraper” on record was opened in Chicago in 1884, leading owners to compete fiercely to build ever larger and more impressive buildings. Formation of Builders Exchanges across the country quickly followed suit as contractors sought a way to find and make deals with those who had the necessary skills and/or moxie to build these new monuments to capitalism. There are over 200 organizations still operating in the United States that were birthed as Builders Exchanges, the average of whom was founded in 1916.
By the Turn of the Century, contractors tied their horses to the hitching post outside the Exchange office, joined their peers in smoke-filled rooms outfitted with spittoons and played poker both literally and figuratively. Bidding opportunities were scrawled on black boards and dutifully erased when agreements were reached. By the 1920’s, post office boxes and typewritten bulletins replaced blackboards; giving way in the 1940’s to mimeographed bulletins sent to members by U.S. Mail. Fast-forward to 1997 when the nation’s first “electronic” plan room made its debut courtesy of the Builders Exchange of Texas, five years ahead of national competitors.
The Builders Exchange of the 21st Century is not your grandfather’s plan room. It has the patina of a rich history, but the inner workings have been replaced with cutting edge technology. Gone are the rooms reeking of cigarette smoke filled with estimators pouring over blueprints reeking of ammonia. In their place, contractors now login to sophisticated software and download what they need when they need it. Changes to the project are forwarded automatically by email and search filters make the process of finding projects quick and easy for subs. Prime contractors can play “Big Brother,” monitoring who’s looking at what and when, finding specific trades when they need them with the click of a button. It’s a new day.
Sadly for us, there are countless “plan room” providers now in competing against us today. So what makes Builders Exchanges different?
Like a fine timepiece, the services provided by Builders’ Exchanges are still “handcrafted.” While competitors often scrape incomplete and inaccurate data and use slick marketing to resell it, people continue to be the main commodity of every Exchange, not software. People that live in their local community, talk to local owners and design professionals about their projects and eat lunch with the local contractors who build them. At our core, Builders Exchanges are service providers, not software providers.
We know that time is money for the construction industry and both depend on the flow of reliable, accurate information. Such information can only be amassed through strong, personal relationships between real people. We have made a career of building and nurturing those relationships.
So, what’s a Builders Exchange? We are the construction industry’s secret weapon and its best-kept secret. We are its oldest and most trusted plan room service.
There are over 200 Builders’ Exchanges in the Unites States. Collectively, they report over 100,000 construction opportunities every year. The Virtual Plan Room Network(VPRN) is a voluntary collaboration of these local organizations that share a single platform and provide joint service across the US.
SO, what does that mean for SmartBid users?
-The ability to search for additional projects in their markets that they can bid on.
–Critial project information provided by VPRN to their members, by joining our users to have access to a continually updated list of projects in their area that they can bid on
-By integrating the options from VPRN to our members, they can view projects and, if they chose to, become a member of the VPRN and get project documents and files.
If you would like more information about the Virtual Plan Room Network or its partnership with SmartBid, learn more here.