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Best Practices: Getting The Construction Project Done, No Matter What

The Best Practices series asks CRE leaders about how to best execute a single aspect of their business.

Business is brisk for construction companies in the current economy, but a lot stands in the way of completing a commercial construction project on time and on budget: permitting delays, fluctuating material prices and availability, and a chronic shortage of labor in the trades.

We asked construction executives about their strategies for getting jobs done, regardless of the obstacles. 

Premier Design + Build Group Executive Vice President Brian Paul

Premier Design + Build Group Executive Vice President Brian Paul

We engage permit expeditors in the bid phase to better understand local lead times. We do this at the same time that we're gathering bid data so that we can dial in our construction schedule and gather relevant sub pricing.

Also, we're on-site long before the trailer arrives, preparing for and mitigating the unknowns. This allows us to meet with building department personnel, introduce ourselves to our neighbors, and get to know the market participants.

A procurement team for job site set-up enables us to coordinate delivery of all items needed on a site the day we're authorized to mobilize. This requires an understanding of the lead times associated with temporary utilities, as well as having fully outfitted construction trailers, so that the execution team can get to right down to business on day one.  

On a recent project in the Northeast, an issue at a plant shut down production of precast, which had dire implications for project schedules across the market. Our approach had us talking with the supplier well over a year in advance and across multiple projects, giving us not only leverage with respect to size, but allowing us to guarantee readiness on our site, which in turn gave us priority delivery. 

So we were able to shift production to an alternate plant and take advantage of a narrow window that came available. That allowed us to keep our schedule intact while waiting for production to resume locally.     

Premier Design + Build Group is headquartered in Itasca, Illinois, and has regional offices in California, Florida and New Jersey.

Sigma Contracting President Dan Hinkson

Sigma Contracting President Dan Hinkson

Our approach involves establishing a realistic schedule. Our operations director works with our project managers and superintendents to create the initial schedule for each project, bouncing strategies and concepts around with each other to ensure we're working as a unit. Once the initial schedule is created, the timelines and sequencing are vetted with the trades in terms of lead times for materials, deliveries and installations in the field. 

We conduct weekly trade meetings to review the schedule and look for creative ways to reduce timelines if possible. If a trade gets behind, we work with them to make up lost time. We also work to maintain our commitment to owners relative to schedules. This commitment is discussed, with trade input, at every weekly meeting. 

The way to stay within a proposed budget is to have ordered the specified materials early in the project. We go through the drawing and submittal process, and once everything is approved, the parts are ordered early and the agreed-upon costs are locked in.

Skilled labor is a huge concern in the U.S. Fortunately, we have long-term relationships with many of our trade partners, and are often working with second-generation owners.

As we're budgeting and bidding new work, we're able to bring those to the table that we believe have the talent and available manpower to complete a project successfully. However, there have been times when we don’t have the luxury of working with certain companies that would be a great fit for a given project because of their labor shortage.

Scottsdale, Arizona-based Sigma Contracting's experience spans all commercial property types.

James McHugh Construction Co. Vice President Kate Ivanova

James McHugh Construction Co. Vice President Kate Ivanova

We eliminate unknowns by performing inspections ahead of time. The earlier we get involved on projects, the more options we have for material procurement and delivery, and the more time to research and test alternate materials. 

Some money-saving options include fabricating material and cutting to size overseas, prefabricating off-site, or modularizing materials to reduce on-site labor requirements. For the Ritz-Carlton Chicago renovation project, we sourced the stone directly from a quarry in Italy and shipped it to Turkey to be fabricated and laminated into large-format modules. That allowed us to reduce on-site installation time by about 70%.

James McHugh Construction Co. is one of the largest construction managers and general contractors in the U.S.

Englewood Construction Director of Operations Chuck Taylor

Englewood Construction Director of Operations Chuck Taylor

Because Englewood operates on a national basis, we’re fortunate to have a network of subcontractors across the country in any given trade. One of our strategies is to tap into that network, even if it means looking outside the market where the project is located. 

That could entail awarding the project to a sub from out of town from day one, or bringing in subcontractors from other markets to supplement manpower if we have a trade underperforming on a project. Currently, we have Chicago trades working in Cincinnati, Chicago and Indiana trades working in Michigan, and we’ve even sent Chicago partners to New York.

In terms of materials, you hear a lot about rising costs, but another challenge we’re seeing is increased lead times for certain items. Many manufacturers and distributors of items such as HVAC units or electrical service parts have stopped keeping inventory on the shelf due to costs, and are instead fabricating items to order, so we're much more mindful of lead times. 

Glass and millwork lead times have increased, too, primarily due to demand and workload for those firms. To keep projects on schedule, we definitely need to allow sufficient time, and to communicate to clients and project partners how changes to material specs could disrupt the overall timeline.

Full-service general contractor Englewood Construction is based in Lemont, Illinois.

James McHugh Construction Co. Vice President, Preconstruction Dave Bartolai

James McHugh Construction Co. Vice President Dave Bartolai

Eliminating uncertainty through planning is key to completing projects on time and under budget. For instance, prequalifying potential subcontractors ensures we have the right project team with the capacity to perform the work.

Also, before even signing a contract, we seek input from key trades rather than waiting for construction documents and bidding everything out. This preview allows trades such as HVAC, plumbing, electrical, facade, elevator and even drywall installers to purchase materials early to guarantee the schedule and to lock in prices.

Consulting experts also helps identify potential obstacles. On a recent project, we hired a third-party facade consultant to help evaluate the nuances of subcontractor proposals, even before we had a final contract.

The skilled labor shortage can drive up costs and delay construction projects. To solve this issue, we partnered with Chicago’s largest developers, general contractors, labor unions and the United Way to launch HIRE360, a program that sponsors career training and apprenticeships while also supporting the growth of M/WBE subcontractors.

James McHugh Construction Co. is based in Chicago.

McCain Manufacturing CEO Jeffrey McCain

McCain Manufacturing CEO Jeffrey McCain

Pre-engineered and prefabricated materials are designed to accelerate project schedules and reduce labor costs. The speed of their installation saves project managers time on their schedules, and the cost of labor that comes with large teams, especially when the project calls for prevailing wage rates. Airports are a prime example.

The San Diego International Airport wanted a reusable barricade that would maintain customer experience, cut installation time and be quick to relocate. To do that, we had a six-man crew install a 450-foot-long, 14-foot-high modular wall system in two shifts, helping the construction team meet its tight, one-year schedule. Crew members could disassemble and reinstall the modular walls in different configurations in other parts of the airport that same night.

For airport projects, there's typically a limited time frame for a construction team to work in public areas, which sometimes is a four-hour period from midnight until 4 a.m. For the Los Angeles International Airport, we had a crew of six people install 500 feet of wall in less than six hours.

For the Denver International Airport, over 1.5 miles of our modular walls are for a multiyear, multiphase renovation project of the main terminal. The walls will be used throughout the airport, traveling from one side of a terminal to the other, then onto the next level of the airport.

The reusability of the wall systems is saving the airport time because it eliminates additional trades and extra crew members, and it also helps save on disposal impact fees because they’re keeping material waste like drywall from ending up in landfills.

Vista, California-based McCain Manufacturing specializes in modular wall systems and modular accessory dwelling units.