The first undertaking of any major project is the early planning phase, the process of defining the owner’s program and evaluating its feasibility with regard to land use and existing buildings and constraints. The planning phase is often hastily and perfunctorily performed without proper consideration, in favor of leaping into design and the creation of drawings and construction documents. Proper planning is what will determine how to accomplish the owner’s vision. Industry studies have proven a consistent correlation between effective planning and project success and uphold the premise that decisions made at the early definition stages set the strategic framework for the project. Think of project planning as a kind of insurance or investment—the more you’ve invested in the beginning, the more likely you are covered for unexpected events. Planning represents a small cost of the project, but has immense impact in the construction phase where 90% of the cost and liability occur.
Consider the Ability to Influence Outcome curve in relationship to the Ability to Influence Cost curve noted below. Fortunately, the ability to influence project outcome occurs most when costs have not yet been committed and there is the ability to change course. Owners should be encouraged to take advantage of the clear benefits of early planning.
A good construction manager’s influence on a project’s outcome is similarly greatest at the planning phase. The ability to optimize results starts with an evaluation of all project variables to create a carefully conceived and well-defined construction project plan that incorporates scope and costs and clarifies programmatic and budgetary objectives. The earlier the construction manager is involved the better, as most savings opportunities are identified during the early planning phase of construction projects. Being onboard early allows the construction manager the opportunity to assist the owner in assembling the right professional team at the outset.
The most important task in a project is to assemble the right professional team at the outset.
Many professionals are required for large projects—architects, engineers, consultants, contractors, designers, landscaping, AV/ IT, lighting and specialty consultants, etc. For a project to be successful given this enormous number of “moving parts”, it is critical the right team is assembled at the outset and is managed to bring out their best work to meet the client’s vision and goals. For instance, selecting the best architect for your project is more than a matter of design and inspiration. No one wants an initial design that is impractical or beyond their budget. Be realistic when evaluating whether an architectural firm’s temperamental and procedural compatibility fits with yours and the balance of the project team. This is the stage at which an experienced construction manager can be of great value. Every design decision has a cost and schedule implication. It is essential to integrate management of the design and cost seamlessly during the entire process to keep a finger on the pulse of cost and schedule.
The early or conceptual design phase is a dynamic process of discovery.
The early or conceptual design phase is a process of discovery in which the architect and owner begin to articulate and define the goals for the project. Owners are usually eager to describe their vision of a project that fits their business model, or in the case of a residence their needs, lifestyle and image, but there are many other project parameters the architect must incorporate that will impact the developing program. The construction project planning checklist could include code analysis, planning requirements or restrictions, site feasibility and analysis, environmental issues and neighbor concerns. Early planning is a dynamic process in which the owner and design team take the time to listen to each other, formulate ideas, evaluate design options and concepts and begin to move toward a project design. Architects often utilize conceptual sketches, physical and three dimensional digital models to aid the owner’s visualization of ideas being discussed. This is the point at which clients may include a preliminary investigation into whether a project can incorporate various energy and water savings, green building techniques, or meet LEED certification criteria if desired. It’s also the time to review requirements for the planning approval process with local jurisdictional authorities.
Residential construction is a creative process. At this juncture it’s important to bring in others on your team to get their input on the developing design. The more discussion and free exchange of ideas among the owner and project team, the more the project design evolves. Eventually, conceptual drawings are further developed into schematic design drawings that include building plans, elevations, sections and site plans, but these drawings cost money and should be based on a solid understanding of the client’s program. Not understanding the dynamics of construction, owners may pressure the team to reduce the time spent planning and have unrealistic expectations of the savings of “fast track” project delivery. It is important to reassure clients of the valuable benefits engendered by honing the plan, which has likely morphed due to the input of the project team that got them to this point. This will lead to a better client understanding and foster trust in the construction manager and project team to create a realistic plan that is clearly articulated, feasible and that fits into their budget and schedule constraints.
Every design decision has a cost and schedule implication.
Preconstruction. An essential part of preconstruction requires early retention of a general contractor to provide cost estimates, which inform the conceptual total project budget. This enables the construction manager to establish a rough order of magnitude budget as early as possible to correlate cost and value to project scope. We suggest clients pay for estimating services so they don’t feel obliged to retain the contractor if the eventual construction bid isn’t competitive. With an early project budget in hand, a good construction manager will oversee the architect and team to design to that budget.
Constructability Review. The owner generally isn’t technically savvy enough to review drawings and documents for constructability, accuracy and completeness. These tasks require a high level of skills, experience and collaboration best coordinated by the construction manager. As they review the developing plans, team members evaluate scope, requirements, cost, schedule, involvement, communication needs, etc. This process referred to as a constructability review ideally occurs on an ongoing basis throughout design development. This proactive team input can reveal potential opportunities and conflicts while it is still possible to incorporate or remedy them before they negatively affect the project. Changes made after construction commences may have budget consequences such as delays and change orders.
Contrary to widely held belief, it is the design drawings that determine the cost of the project.
It is critical the architectural firm produce design drawings that are well established, clear and coordinated and in sufficient detail for the contractor to build efficiently. Contrary to popular understanding, it is the architects design and drawings that determine the cost of the project—much more so than the contractor who can only bid on what is drawn. Your construction manager should be heavily involved in this stage. While the architect focuses on designing what the owner desires, this perspective often competes with the need to keep a finger on the pulse of cost and schedule. Runaway design with ever-increasing scope is a problem that can be mitigated by proper construction management procedures. Your construction manager should attend design meetings along with the owner and continually review drawings as they are being developed to ensure the design and scope of work remain consistent with the original intention and budget.
It is important to demand full design and coordinated engineering drawings to save on expensive change orders later. Value engineering is often a euphemism for whittling elements out of a project when it is over-budget at the end of the design process—after the bids are received and the project is too costly. It is expensive and upsetting to the owner to eliminate design components that they became emotionally attached to. The owner always has the option to increase the scope of course, but should be able to make informed decisions based on the associated cost implications to those changes. It is much better to integrate management of the design and cost during the entire process rather than try to fix it at the end.
Early planning for construction can make or break the success of your project.
A professional construction manager will provide guidance on developing a comprehensive and accurate scope of work and defining functional and technical requirements for the management and execution of the construction project plan. Planning for developing the budget and schedule involves defining scopes of work, estimating required resources and durations, project organization, decisions on collaborative project software, which firms will be invited to bid and other project planning steps. Effective, early project planning leads to improved performance in terms of cost, schedule and operations. Properly planned projects reduce expensive change orders and cost overruns, limit liability and can make or break the success of your project.