Using an iPad for construction defect investigations

The iPad is an ideal tool for construction inspections, replacing a clipboard full of paperwork, and expanding the opportunities for improving the inspection process.

The picture accompanying this article is a self-portrait from a recent visual inspection as part of a construction defect investigation. For obvious reasons, I cannot elaborate on any details pertaining to that particular case. Instead, I want to reflect on what it is really like using an iPad for construction inspections.

What the iPad replaces

In a typical visual inspection, my colleagues and I often have half a dozen or more pieces of paper on our clipboards for each and every unit/home. With two to three people inspecting each unit (one each for interior, exterior, roof), that’s about 20 pages of paper to be filled out for each unit. Since most inspection schedules involve eight units each day (for visuals), each inspector typically completes around 50 pages of paperwork.

This paperwork is usually comprised of floor plans corresponding to each unit/home, and checklists corresponding to specific conditions for that case. In a construction defect investigation, that paperwork often becomes evidence, in addition to all the photos taken. Amazingly, in all my years of inspections, I have only seen field paperwork disappear on a few occasions. (Twice I have seen high winds rip paperwork right off of inspectors’ clipboards.)

How the iPad replaces all that paper

The key with getting the most out of any technology is how one uses it. When it comes to a device such as the iPad, the key is using the right applications. Let’s break down how many inspectors interact with paper, and some applications that replace that functionality:

  • Checklists
    This is the biggie. If you haven’t read it, Atul Gawande’s seminal work, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, is the book on how properly implemented checklists can literally change the world. In construction inspections, checklists provide a road map for inspectors to ensure that every applicable issue has been addressed.

    Determining which application to use for your checklists depends on the end use of that data. If you are processing your field data using spreadsheets (Excel), building an extremely user-friendly template using Apple’s own Numbers for iPad is the way to go. If you have a FileMaker database, upgrading to the latest version of FileMaker will enable you to quickly roll out an application for the iPad that syncs perfectly with your existing database.

    If neither of those options works for your situation, you can use what I use: PDF Expert. This powerful application allows you (among other things) to add annotations and comments to a PDF form. If you use Adobe Acrobat to produce an fillable PDF form, PDF Expert will allow you to quickly and easily populate data in that form.

  • Floor/Roof/Site Plans
    Again, this depends on your existing workflow. If you or your firm do not typically receive hard copy or digital versions of plans prior to inspections, you may find yourself sketching room layouts, site plans, roof plans in the field. There are several applications for the iPad that can help in this regard. Autodesk SketchBook Pro for iPad and iDraw are my favorites. Both allow for grid-based sketches, a variety of shapes, line thicknesses, colors, text boxes, etc. But if you really need to quickly and accurately sketch a floor/roof/site plan with dimensional accuracy, look no further than TOTAL for iPad. This application can also be used for checklists, but may require some additional configuration.

    If you are working off of paper or digital plans, again PDF Expert is the way to go. Using a PDF plan as a virtual “base sheet” for your annotations, PDF Expert facilitates very quick entry of location-specific data during the investigation. One app that I will be experimenting with soon is PlanGrid, which was built by and for construction professionals for this specific purpose.

Usability, security, and the learning curve

When it comes to usability, your mileage may vary. Put another way, if you have never used an iPad before, don’t expect it to save you any time on an inspection. As with any tool, you’ll need to spend some time getting to understand how to best implement that tool in your own workflow. Also, you can expect that using the iPad will result in changes to your existing workflow. I think a fair comparison can be made between the transition many of us inspectors went through going from film cameras to digital. Some things end up being easier, some things are more difficult.

I have been using my iPad every day for about a year. I use it for a lot of things that I would have used paper for in the past, as well as for things I would have used my laptop for. So for me, I am quite accustomed to typing on the device and I can type almost as fast on an iPad as I can write on paper. That said, don’t expect to write paragraphs of text during the limited time available on a typical inspection. I used the “stamp” function in PDF Expert to create reusable icons/graphics that I could use to indicate certain things, like window types, staining, cracking, etc.

Get a stylus! For quick yet precise sketching on an iPad, a stylus is much more effective than your finger. Plus, construction inspections for me typically result in dirty fingers. I have a screen protector on my iPad so I’m not as worried about scratches, but after a day in the field, my screen was covered in finger smudges.

One of the biggest fears that I hear expressed about using a digital device for field documentation is losing data. “There’s no paper trail!” Well, that’s what the cloud is for. PDF Expert syncs with Dropbox (which I use), Apple’s iDisk, and other cloud-based services. So as I complete an inspection, everything I have entered into a PDF form is automagically synced with multiple servers with redundant back-ups. Paper doesn’t do that. Also, every one of the applications I mentioned above has the ability to send a file via email. So you can send a copy of your just-completed inspection forms back to the office or to yourself. Again, paper doesn’t have that ability.

What happens if the iPad gets stolen? That is a very real concern, although most of us would admit that the device is more likely to be misplaced or dropped. First things first: make sure that you have set the screen to lock automatically and require a passcode. Second, make sure you have configured Apple’s free Find my iPad app. That will allow you to locate the device using GPS, remotely lock the device, send a message to the device, or if necessary, remotely wipe all data from the device. (Don’t worry, that data has been synced with your iTunes account and through any other services you use.) For more on best practices for businesses using iPads, see Apple’s iPad in Business – Security (PDF).

This is just the beginning…

As I continue to use the iPad to improve the quality of my inspections, I’ll report back on ways to get even more benefit out of the device. So if you haven’t done so already, subscribe to the A/E/C Brief to stay in the loop.