My company has built custom homes in Washington state's San
Juan Islands since 1989. It's a family business: My wife runs
the office and takes care of customer service and interior
design, and I design homes and manage the construction.
We have no employees, which has always put a brake on our
ability to grow the business. Although we could have handled
extra design and client work, the myriad details and people
that have to be managed for each project — everything
from scheduling subs to the inevitable quality-control problems
that have to be solved — meant that we could effectively
handle only a couple of jobs at a time.
Or so I thought. I learned otherwise about three years ago,
when we took on a 51-home subdivision. Since this would mean
having as many as six homes under construction at a time, I
figured I'd have to hire a project manager or two. But it
turned out that those hires weren't necessary, thanks to a
powerful new tool I bought — a tablet PC computer that I
now carry everywhere.
We'd used computers for bookkeeping, project management, and
design for years, but only in the office. Out on site, where I
spend about 70 percent of my time, pen and paper always ruled.
My field management system was a stack of yellow legal pads,
with one pad for each job and one page for each job phase:
foundation, framing, siding, plumbing, and so on.
The problem was that with so many sheets of paper floating
around in my truck, it was hard to find information when I
needed it. And I still had to transfer everything to the
computer back at my office.
I kept a notebook computer in the truck, but it wasn't good for
much beyond looking things up online and typing the occasional
e-mail. What I really needed was something I could take with me
when I walked through a house. I had tried handheld voice
recorders and PDAs, but both fell far short of my needs. There
seemed to be no way to free myself from the yellow pads.
Then I read an online article about tablet computers. The more
I learned, the more I started to think, "Wow, this is my yellow
tablet, but it's electronic."
In fact, my tablet computer has proved to be much more. It
weighs only 3 pounds and is the size of an 81/2 x 11 sheet of
paper, but it's tripled the amount of work I can manage.
I use a Motion 1400 tablet PC from Allegiance Technology
Partners, a company that sells and configures tablet PCs for
professional users. The 1400 is a standard Windows XP
It's a "slate tablet," which means there's no keyboard. There's
a docking station for use in the office, but you can do
anything you'd do with a keyboard and mouse by touching the
screen with the digitizer pen. Handwriting recognition is part
of the operating system — and the computer understands
almost everything I write — but I rarely use this
feature. My personal preference is to keep notes and e-mails in
my own handwriting.
Cost for the tablet — including a 60-gigabyte hard drive,
one gigabyte of RAM, and a docking station (keyboard, 21-inch
monitor, separate mouse) — approached $4,000. Reps at
Allegiance Technology tell me that most builders get by with
512MB RAM and a 30-gigabyte hard drive, but I needed the extra
memory for my CAD software.
The tablet works fine without a keyboard but can also be docked
if preferred. The author uses his tablet as a notepad, then
syncs with his desktop PC at the office.
Like most portables these days, the 1400 is wireless-ready,
with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities. It also has a PC
slot where you can connect a cellular card. I've used only the
WiFi; a wireless router in the field office at my subdivision
gives me a range of about 300 feet, and there are enough
wireless hotspots to meet my needs when I'm working around
town. If there's no signal when I send hit the "send" button,
the computer will just hold the message until it senses a
signal, then send it automatically.
The screen is bright enough to view outdoors, although in
direct sunlight it's not as bright as I would like. Still, I
never have to squint to read what's on it.
Battery life is an issue with any portable computer. I've found
the tablet's battery life to be fine for day-to-day use, but I
do carry an extra battery just in case. To conserve power, I
turn the wireless off when I don't need it.
The 1400 has a built-in fingerprint-scanner, which I use
instead of a password. It allows eight different scans of
fingers, but I ended up using six of them just for my thumb,
scanning at six different angles so it works every time.
The computer has held up well on the job site. It comes with a
removable cover for the screen that snaps onto the back of the
tablet. I also bought a protective film to shield the screen
The tablet software allows me to do everything that can be done
with a standard PC: send and receive e-mails, keep detailed
project files, track bids and estimates, even make design
The following programs are the ones I've found most valuable in
Microsoft OneNote. This is my primary
field application. I use it constantly. It's a note-taking
application that lets me take the same handwritten notes I
previously wrote down on paper — but it also helps me
organize those notes and search for data, same as with any
digital file. It does an excellent job of searching even my
OneNote's screen interface has tabs across the top that look
like manila-folder tabs. Instead of pulling down a menu, you
just click the tab to open a folder. Inside each folder,
additional tabs down the side of the screen lead to individual
This lets me use OneNote the same way I'd previously used the
yellow pads, with a folder for every house I'm building and a
page for each job phase. I usually end up with 30 pages in each
folder; unlike paper pages, they can hold an unlimited amount
The folder system is great for keeping track of job progress.
When I do my daily walk-through of a unit, I start a page for
that day's punch list and simply write down the tasks that need
to be done by each trade. I list items that need correction,
along with their location, and put the initials of the
responsible sub — the electrician, the finish carpenter,
the painter — next to each item.
Microsoft OneNote is the author's primary
field application. The tab interface allows him to create a
folder for each job and a page for each job phase. He simply
enters information in the appropriate page by writing on the
tablet's screen as he walks the job. He can also create punch
lists, lumber orders, and other time-critical messages, which
he can immediately e-mail.
An icon lets me e-mail the list directly from OneNote; the
program uses Microsoft Outlook. About twice a week, I send the
punch lists to an e-mail subgroup consisting of all my
subcontractors. The subs read down the list, and if they see
their initials, they know they have an item to complete. If
they don't see their initials, they can ignore the list.
I always choose the receipt option, so I know they received the
e-mail. Since I began doing this, I haven't once heard the
excuse "I didn't get the e-mail."
OneNote makes my life easier in other ways, too. For instance,
if I'm walking down the street and the siding contractor calls
to say he needs 3,200 feet of cedar for the soffits, I can open
OneNote and write it down in the appropriate page, then go to
the e-mail tab to send the order to my lumber supplier.
I can also scan directly into OneNote, which has proved to be a
real time-saver for correcting code issues (I use a portable
When something doesn't pass inspection, I get a correction
notice from the town with the items that need to be corrected.
In the old days I'd call each affected sub on my cellphone and
explain what needed to be done. Now I simply scan the
correction notice into OneNote and e-mail it along. If needed,
I can attach a note, such as: "Correction items that need doing
before noon tomorrow."
The scan and e-mail tasks take less than three minutes, and
since the subs get a copy of the notice, I don't have to spend
time explaining it.
UDA Construction Office. UDA is a
scheduling and project management application based on
Microsoft Office (the interface is an Excel spreadsheet) that
integrates with my QuickBooks Contractor Edition accounting
software. I keep a separate schedule on the tablet for each
unit, so I can instantly see where each project is and what
needs to be done to catch up.
UDA also lets me make schedule changes in the field. Before
getting this program two years ago, I used Excel to write my
own schedules and then sent them to my subs at the beginning of
each job. The schedules were static, which meant that a change
would not automatically update subsequent tasks. When one task
got delayed, I would have to make a whole bunch of phone calls
to adjust everyone's schedule.
With UDA, by contrast, if the trusses are two days late I
simply change the date, and the program automatically adjusts
the schedule for every trade that follows. I then send the new
schedule to my subs and label it with the unit and date so they
can adjust their schedules accordingly.
Schedule items are also exported to my Outlook calendar and
Tasks list, so I don't even have to open UDA to see what's
going on that day.
UDA Construction Office is a scheduling
program that works like an Excel spreadsheet. If the author
makes a change on site, all tasks are updated and the new
schedule is sent to everyone working on the job.
Internet Explorer. I use the Internet
a lot in the field. If the granite guy needs a sink template, I
can download it from Dimension Express, a subscription service
I use almost daily; it offers dimension specification sheets
for thousands of appliances, fixtures, and other products. Or
if I have a question about how to weather-seal a window, I can
go to an online forum to see how other builders have handled
I can also look up prices and get answers to code questions,
tasks that used to mean hours on the telephone or a trip back
to the office.
SoftPlan. I design my own homes, so I've been
using CAD software for years in the office. I used to carry a
set of blueprints in the field. Even a simple change, such as
reversing a door swing, would mean marking up the blueprints,
then transferring the changes to the computer back at the
office. Having SoftPlan on my tablet eliminates the need to
carry the prints and lets me make changes to the drawings in
With SoftPlan on the tablet, the author
can show homeowners renderings and floor plans — and make
changes — without having to go back to the
SketchUp Pro. This is an incredibly
useful freehand sketching software — a geometry program
rather than a CAD program. It's my starting program for
concepts. It's also three-dimensional: I can sketch a drawing,
then rotate it as if it were a model. I can even create a 3-D
object, like a front door, in SketchUp and import it into
SketchUp is also a great tool for exploring changes and
communicating them to clients and subs. For instance, I can
quickly create an accurate 3-D model and work up several design
I also use the program to submit proposals and sketches for
preliminary review to city agencies.
SyncToy. Back at the office, I use
this free synchronization tool from Microsoft to keep the
tablet in sync with my desktop computer.
The author uses SketchUp Pro — a sketching program
— to explore designs and communicate them to clients and
All this software took time to learn and master, but that would
have been the case no matter what computer it was installed on.
Also, my subs had to get used to checking their e-mail every
day and responding to the items that pertained to them.
Other than that, there wasn't much of a learning curve. The
tablet itself is quite easy to use. When I'm heading out of the
office to the job site, I grab it from its docking station and
snap on the screen cover. I don't even need to turn it on or
off: It goes into sleep mode and awakens at the tap of my
Since I can write on it just as I would on paper, I take it
everywhere. Its note-taking and e-mail capabilities mean
there's a lot less paper to deal with and far fewer phone calls
to make. I can quickly answer questions from clients and subs
without guesswork, and I always have a record of what I
In short, the tablet allows me to do more work in less time and
without extra staff. I'm less stressed, too, since having
everything on my tablet means that I have less clutter in my
head to keep track of. At this point, working without a tablet
computer isn't an option. I honestly don't know how I ever got
by without it.
And if you look in my truck, you won't see a single yellow
Ron Paulkowns Paulk Custom Homes in