The planning and construction management process.

Ever heard someone talk about the construction project from hell?  Chances are many of us can recall hearing such tails of misfortune.  As a Contractor I can attest to hearing more complaints about bad contracting than one would like to admit.  When speaking with potential clients I often incite past experiences to see what worked well versus what could’ve been handled differently.  I have found this is a great way to learn about Clients and how the process should be implemented based upon personality, expectations and experiences.

So why the low success rates?  There are a number of ways to break it down but I believe it has to do with the number of unethical companies in the industry. Couple this with preconstruction decision making driven by budget constraints and its no wonder the project has pitfalls. The recession is hopefully helping to weed out the surplus of unethical organizations that thrived in years past.  When work was more abundant the quality of the workforce was diluted.  With less work available today there are more reputable companies vying for projects which they would not have considered in years past. The whole “sifting” process is leading to higher levels of service available and over time will help improve industry standard assuming of course the Client is willing to pay for it.

Following is a list of 5 questions and responses from 5 local Architects on subjects surrounding the planning and construction management process.  This is the second installment of this informative Q & A.  It is our hope that it will guide you to informed decision-making while planning and building your next project.

A special thank you to our local Architects for their participation:

Ron Kappe of Kappe+Du Architects, San Rafael, CA
Robert Swatt of Swatt Miers Architects, Emeryville, CA
Jonathan Feldman of Feldman Architecture, San Francisco, CA
Steven and Cathi House of House + House Architects, San Francisco, CA
Michael Rex of Michael Rex Associates, Sausalito, CA

  1. When negotiating design fees how do you explain the importance of detailed drawings up front and proper management through construction?Kappe: We need to establish our experience with the process, that we are aware of the level of detailed drawings that are required and try to justify our fee proposal on that basis. We are getting the same “low ball” pressure in this economy as Contractors are experiencing and the Owner who is not aware of exactly what is required will tend to go for the lower price.

    Swatt: We simply explain what our role is on the project and that our services include detailed construction documents and an active role during construction, which includes reviewing shop drawings and submittals, reviewing the progress of the work.

    Feldman: I explain the wide range of service and quality a client can receive and what they will be getting in regards to detailed plans.  I like to show examples of our drawings and encourage clients to look at others for comparison.

    House+House: We explain to our clients that they will get a more accurate bid with fewer change orders from the Contractor if our drawings and specifications are thorough and detailed.  We always tell our clients that many questions come up during the course of construction that they are not qualified to answer.  We also explain that we act as a mediator between them and the Contractor over the course of the project to help resolve issues.

    Rex: I explain that proper preparation and management prevents poor performance.  In construction there are too many variables and I prefer to answer questions from the field, not from my desk.  The Architect is the keeper of the essence of the design and sees the finish product from day one, without that perspective you’re judging with limited information.

  2. In terms of specific project management practices what does your firm do to ensure communication between Contractor and client?Kappe: A clear paper/electronic messages trail is necessary. A steady pattern of meetings help to insure accountability for all parties. Requests for payment need to be well documented. Potential change order requests need to be brought to the attention of the Owner early. It is important to try to maintain a spirit of cooperation and goodwill. The Owner wants to feel that the job is being taken care of in a professional manner.

    Swatt: We hold weekly or bi-weekly site meetings and we expect that the Contractor, Owner and Architect will attend.  Meeting minutes, with action items are generally prepared and distributed by the Contractor.

    Feldman: We take good notes and regularly distribute to everyone.  We also use software to track open ended items, what has been communicated, and who needs to do what in regards to follow up.

    House+House: We encourage each party to always ask questions and keep everyone updated on the status of the project through regular emails and phone calls.

    Rex: We encourage a pre-construction meeting between the Contractor, Architect and Client, so we can map together the best course ahead.  Site meetings between Architect and Contractor weekly or at least every other week is ideal.  Keep the Architect in the loop, particularly if changes or substitutions are considered, so the Architect can offer feedback about their potential impacts.

  3. In terms of specific project management practices what do the best General Contractors do to ensure communication with the team?Kappe: These are some of the issues that concern us:

    Submittals in as early as possible, resolve substitutions early as possible, written communication, good methods of tracking things important for the Owner as well as Architect.   Good communication patterns tend to cost more and the Owner needs to understand this point and be willing to pay for this level of service.

    Swatt: The best General Contractors follow the same practice – weekly meetings and meeting minutes.  Additionally, the best Contractors update the project schedule on a regular basis.

    Feldman: There is a difference in quality of note taking. The best GC’s have proper procedures in place which allow for weekly meetings, well documented list of changes and action items, and follow through tracking the details.

    House+House: They keep us and the client informed on a continuous and regular basis about the progress of the project and about upcoming issues requiring decisions.

    Rex: They call the Architect frequently and promptly when issues arise so they can be resolved quickly by working together.  They anticipate events and activities well in advance, refer to the Construction Documents frequently, remain organized, order materials well in advance, and hire skilled, professional subcontractors and supervise them well.

  4. What do you tell clients to consider when choosing a General Contractor?Kappe: The Owner needs to look for an experienced problem solver who has been through similar projects before. Trust, honesty and personal compatibility are also important issues for the Owner to consider

    Swatt: First, we make sure that the GC is a good fit for the project in terms of size of project, expected quality standards, cost, and location.  We suggest that the homeowner contact other homeowner references, tour completed work, and review the GC’s upcoming schedule and availability.  Most importantly, we want to know who the superintendent will be, and what his / her qualifications are.

    Feldman: The main things I suggest considering are personality type, their experience in the industry, solid references, and most importantly happy clients.

    House+House: Quality of workmanship, experience in the specific project type, good project supervision, excellent communication skills, accurate bookkeeping and overall integrity.

    Rex: Experience is what counts, talk to past clients, ask questions and get creditable answers. Do all your homework and then go with your gut…..be excited about it, if your ambivalent somethings wrong. Common values are always good….ask yourself what they are. Consider someone local who is familiar with codes and departments.

  5. What percentage of clients chooses the low bidder in today’s climate?Kappe: For public side projects, it almost always goes to the low bidder in this climate. The Owner needs to watch out for too low of a price because this usually leads to problems later on in the project. Demonstrated experience by the Contractor is always an important factor.

    Swatt: For our residential work, we rarely use competitive bidding.  Almost all of our projects are negotiated.  The obvious advantage is that with the negotiated process, the Owner and Architect (with the Contractor’s help) have the ability to analyze cost and constructability issues before it’s too late to modify the scope or design of the project.

    Feldman: I don’t feel it has really changed. If the client understands you get what you pay for and that there is a difference in levels of thoroughness in the bidding process they are often willing to pay for better service.  Only when the client has unrealistic budget expectations do they set themselves up to go with the low bid.

    House+House: Approximately 75%, although we would only ask Contractors to bid a project who are well qualified, are similar in size, and have a proven track record.

    Rex: Very few.  While price is important, having trust and confidence in one’s Contractor is the most important deciding factor.  Clients look for both good value and dependability.  They also need to feel confident that they can communicate well with their Contractor.  They also select people to work with they like.  Good referrals are essential too.  The Architect’s recommendation is an important key.  Having a positive past relationship with a Contractor is also a major factor in the selection process.

One thing I have found instrumental during planning is the Architect’s ability to set expectations early.

One thing I have found instrumental during planning is the Architect’s ability to set expectations early. Some Architects believe in the negotiated format while others use the competitive bidding process more frequently. Ultimately it is the Architect who shapes the Clients view and has the power to implement process in ways he/she believes will work best.

Having seen the negotiated format work so well vs. the pitfalls of competitive bidding it’s a shame more Architects don’t bring Contractors in early and push for the team/transparency approach.

Do both bidding and negotiating work? Yes. Does one work better then the other? I think an honest answer leans in favor of the latter.

Process aside there is one thing we must not forget and that is the importance of team and keeping the process fun. There are challenges in every project and the way in which we respond together is paramount.