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Prioritizing innovation across the board

For design-build and commercial real estate company Clayco, it’s the key to better design and safer jobsites

Prioritizing innovation across the board
During the pandemic, the Pfizer plant in Chesterfield, Mo., had to retool on the fly—a process made easier thanks to a digital model Clayco had created.

Several years ago, the engineers, designers, architects, and construction experts at Clayco earned the opportunity to develop, design and build a research and development facility for a major pharmaceutical company. As the cutting-edge plant was built, Clayco’s teams flew drones over the Chesterfield, Mo., site daily to scan and capture the placement of every pipe and piece of conduit both above and below ground. Clayco used the footage to create a digital model of the building. This allowed headset-wearing team members to virtually walk through the facility, “seeing” through the walls to the infrastructure behind them.

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Clayco named to Best Workplaces for innovators

While drones and virtual building models aren’t necessary for every project, they proved to be critical for this one: the research lab where Pfizer ultimately developed the COVID-19 vaccine. As the effort to research and develop the vaccine began, the Chesterfield plant needed to be retooled on the fly due to the pandemic—a process made much easier by the existence of the digital model, which is just one of many innovations Clayco has eagerly adopted. “The core leadership of the company believes we are a technology company, not a construction company,” says Bob Clark, Clayco’s founder and executive chairman, noting that the firm received one of the first Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) licenses to operate drones commercially.

Indeed, Clayco has prioritized innovation since its founding in 1984. Its substantial R&D budget and dedication to advancing design improvement, engineering and building processes— not to mention jobsite safety—have earned it a spot on Fast Company’s Best Workplaces for Innovation list.

INNOVATION IN THE DNA

Clayco’s emphasis on technology began early, when a new accounting hire brought along an IBM 360 (“It looked like a big refrigerator to me,” Clark says) that he promised would help set Clayco apart from the competition. At that point, the industry was developing estimates on office calculators—a far cry from the processing power the early computer could provide. “From that day forward, I was just constantly trying to figure out what we could do to keep in front,” Clark says. “It sounds like a cliché, but it really did become part of our DNA.”

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Clayco brought that same innovation emphasis to jobsite safety, using data to assess which types of injuries were most common so it could work toward preventing them. The firm has partnered with researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine to identify causes for soft-tissue injuries and with students at the Savannah College of Art and Design to create the hard hats of the future—ones that are durable, lightweight, comfortable, safe, and sustainable. Thanks to projects like these, the company’s on-the-job incidents are well below the industry average.

Clayco’s emphasis on innovation fosters new ideas from across the company. Recently, a jobsite superintendent worked on his own time to develop a safety system for boom and scissor-lift operators. Since moving from the employee’s garage to a dedicated space at the firm, the Fall Arrest Acknowledgement System has moved closer to reality, with a patent application approved and a manufacturing plan under development. “If you’re going to go around saying safety is your highest priority, you have to empower your employees when they come up with a great idea,” Clark says. “The next generation of builders and engineers have amazing technology at their fingertips, and they’re going to be looking for companies where they can apply it.”

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