The key factors in keeping a project on track are to understand what causes delays and then to properly plan and manage schedule issues before they become problems. Delays of individual construction tasks may not be preventable. However, those that can't be avoided do not necessarily have to hold up the entire project. The success of any construction project is based on balancing the resources of cost, quality, and schedule. All three of these issues are important. On many projects, however, time is the most critical issue for the overall success of the plan. Some examples may include a manufacturing facility where the building houses the money-making operations, or a retail facility that requires an opening date at the beginning of a peak season.
Delivering a project on time relies on managing the development process, choosing experienced professionals, assessing timeframes realistically, and anticipating that some unforeseen problems are likely to come up. Aggressive management of typical scheduling issues that occur throughout construction can help ensure that projects are completed within the intended timeframe.
Get to the Starting Line
Major risks to a construction schedule occur even before the first shovel is put into the ground. In fact, the process for acquiring all of the permissions needed to start construction is often less predictable than many of the construction tasks. Delays of months or even years are often encountered due to lack of understanding or to improper planning. This can cause additional cost and timing problems for the job, since it may push the start of construction and the project opening into time periods that are not optimal for construction operations or the business cycle. Preventing delays requires acknowledging the normal land development process in the jurisdiction, and further understanding what may be unique about the project or the site that will require more study or agency reviews.
Underestimating the time it takes to obtain approvals and permits is one of the major factors in delaying a project before construction begins. It is critical to understand the process and allocate adequate time to secure these approvals. An uncomplicated land development approval typically takes two to six months, but approvals have been known to stretch into years for some projects. Commercial projects will typically take at least one or more resubmissions to address comments by the review agency. Each resubmission will usually add at least one month to the process, since many of the reviewing agencies meet on a monthly basis.
Builders, design professionals, and owners often fail to recognize other approval steps and agencies in the process. In addition to the typical zoning and land development issues, the final approval may be contingent on other agencies that may have an interest in the site or the proposed plan. In fact, there may be dozens of specialized permits required from various municipal and regulatory agencies. These can include site issues related to wetland delineations, soil contamination, and reviews by historical commissions. In addition, offsite issues - including traffic studies and road improvements - can also hold up final project approval and the start of construction.
Managing the schedule during the regulatory process requires an understanding of the requirements and approval processes, and realistic planning for these steps. In fact, a schedule should not be established without a complete understanding of the approval process. Working with a qualified engineering firm that is familiar with local approval processes is critical to making this complicated, arduous task progress more smoothly.
Select Qualified Designers
During construction, incomplete or unclear design documents lead to either questions or mistakes in execution. This inevitably causes delays while people try to figure out what the design documents do or do not show, and/or the time associated with fixing the problem. Critical schedule delays due to document problems often have a direct impact on cost, because of the amount of time construction workers and managers lose on the job site. This is in addition to the direct costs of fixing mistakes. Insufficient design documents may also cause problems that are not discovered until late in the project at final building inspections. Building officials follow very strict guidelines, so noncompliance with codes typically means tearing down some of the new construction to fix the problems, causing delays at a time when they are almost impossible to make up.
In order to avoid delays due to insufficient documents, the design team is a critical investment in the project. Engaging a qualified architect and engineer to develop a complete set of drawings is critical to maintaining schedules. Firms should be selected based on their track records of successfully completed projects. Any firm with unusually low fees compared to others in the region should be suspect. It may be a sign that they don't fully understand the scope of the project, or that less effort will be put into creating a complete set of construction documents. Most design fees are directly related to the anticipated hours that they will invest in a project. A substantially lower fee usually means less effort, and thus poorer results. It's a simple example of "pay me now, or pay me later." What may look like initial savings in design fees may cost more if there are substantial delays in the completion of the project.
Many firms offer the design-build approach to projects. It can be an attractive option for owners, since the design-build firm takes more overall responsibility for the schedule, cost, and quality of the project. However, the same principles still apply. Poor design documents, no matter who prepares them or tries to execute them, will result in costly delays as the project progresses.
Contractor Performance and Capacity
most aggravating delays are often those caused by a contractor's poor
performance. Selection of a builder and qualified subcontractors is a
major key issue. If the project's success is heavily weighted on
delivering the project on time, avoid the temptation of selecting
builders solely based on price. The low-bid general contractor will
subsequently be forced to award most, if not all, of the work to the
lowest-bidding subcontractors. The number of performance and schedule
problems is significantly increased when a collective group of
contractors has an extremely low profit margin and will be looking for
any opportunity to increase the margin through change orders and delays.
the owner and builder can prequalify the subcontractors by screening
out those whose performance cannot be trusted, the success rate of the
project is improved significantly. This prequalification process is a
primary responsibility of the builder when using the design-build or
construction management approach. Prequalifying subcontractors does not
preclude all competitive bidding. Builders, and sometimes owners, have
usually worked with enough qualified subcontractors to guarantee a high
level of competitive bidding. Since cost is always a factor, and each
building is unique, an analysis of the project challenges should be
assessed in order to determine which contractors are truly qualified
for the project.
Most contractors are specialists. They may
be successful in some areas and types of building, and less so in
others. When considering if a subcontractor is qualified, several
issues require sound judgment. Each subcontractor needs to have enough
competent and trained resources to get his or her portion of the work
done. Key questions include:
• What is the subcontractor's
current workload? If the subcontractor is growing rapidly, or will be
particularly busy during the time when he or she is scheduled to
perform the work, your project may be at a disadvantage. The first
casualty will be the schedule.
• Has this subcontractor performed
similar work in the past? As important as the company experience, the
staff experience is critical to project success. A subcontractor that
does not have a significant track record poses another schedule risk.
• How well has this subcontractor performed on similar jobs? Contacting previous clients is good insurance.
a subcontractor who submits the lowest price, without considering
performance or capacity, is bound to cost the project more in the long
Handle Minor Delays to Prevent Major Ones
While a well-crafted schedule can absorb some small delays, too many minor problems can add up to a major setback. Don't discount any of them. The cost of promptly resolving minor schedule issues is modest compared to the cost of resolving compounded issues from delays that go unchecked.
To compensate for manufacturing or shipping delays, for example, you may be able to pay a little extra to get an earlier spot in the manufacturer's schedule or to have a dedicated truck assure pickup and delivery of the needed materials. Or, if you run into work force shortages on the job site because the capacity of a subcontractor's labor resources weren't prequalified, you may be able to supplement the job with labor from another source. There may be contractual complications for all involved, but it will be a small headache for a large schedule reward. Whatever the reason for a delay, work with your builder and take a proactive stance to get the project back on track.
Be Realistic About Schedules
If you want to stay on schedule, set realistic goals. While time on the job site is costly, an overly ambitious schedule could cost more in the long run when you consider rescheduling and other inefficiencies. So respect your contractor's input on how long a project will take. And note that smart contractors routinely schedule activities often ignored by poor performers, such as submittal and approval of drawings, material fabrication, and material delivery - all of which must happen before each segment of construction begins.
Also remember to plan for the unforeseen. If your project takes place during the winter in a cold weather state, expect to lose one out of three days in February due to weather. Be sure to account for that delay on your schedule. And if February turns out to be unusually mild, you'll be ahead of the game.
Matt Twomey is president of High Construction Company, a Lancaster, Pa.-based firm specializing in design-build, general contracting, and construction management services. He can be reached at (717) 390-4600; visit the company's website at www.highconstruction.com.