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Keeping Construction Projects On Schedule

Some delays are inevitable, but a realistic timeline and attention to detail can help you manage costs and avoid major work stoppages.

Jun/Jul 06
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.

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