The internet is full of some pretty horrifying (albeit entertaining) bloopers in commercial construction.
Elevators that lead to nowhere. New buildings that have to be abandoned due to structural oversights. But these, of course, are the most egregious outcomes. Even more numerous are the everyday setbacks like major project delays, budget overages, vendor conflicts, and the like.
But, you ask, is it possible to avoid these challenges altogether? We believe so, and it comes down to finding collaborative partners and following a well-designed process. These are some of the best practices that can help.
Challenge #1: The design comes in over budget.
How to avoid it: Work with your general contractor to “descope” the project.
What’s descoping? It’s the practice of reviewing all aspects of a project to find less expensive ways to achieve the same result. This means evaluating materials, products, services, and labor—anything that impacts the bottom line—in search of more affordable (yet equally effective) alternatives.
In the industry, this practice is also called “value engineering,” because you’re looking for ways to redistribute cost and unlock value. While the term gets a bad rap, since it seems to imply downgrading, the goal is simply to cut back on needless overpayments.
At Weaver, we descope projects by inviting our trade partners—who are all experts in their respective fields—to review plans with us. Everyone offers input on products, materials, and methods that may offer better efficiency, performance, or value. Then, we propose a list of alternatives for the owner, architect, and engineers to evaluate. Ideally, these shifts will not only reduce the cost of the design, but match or exceed the performance of the original specs.
Often, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing subcontractors have the greatest ability to offer alternatives (and these services rarely impact aesthetics). Structural framers, on the other hand, may have a harder time reducing cost without making design changes.
The goal, always, is to honor the integrity of the original design.
Challenge #2: Features of the design can’t feasibly be built.
How to avoid it: Get the right partners around the table, early on and after.
While budget surprises tend to be more common, “constructability” surprises do also happen. These misunderstandings typically hinge on education gaps between project partners. For example, the architect drafts a large span of unbroken space that the structural engineer deems unsound without a support beam.
The best way to avoid these scenarios is to invite the owner, architect, engineers, and contractor to collaborate from the get-go. This practice builds rapport, preempts issues, and brings everyone into alignment.
The architect shares ideas; the engineers confirm it’s pragmatic; and the contractor ensures everything can be built to your budget.
There’s a caveat: This process only works if the partners themselves are genuinely collaborative. We’ve found ourselves in settings where vendors talk over, or around, each other and don’t seem committed to a common goal. So it’s important to choose project partners who come recommended as much for their openness as their experience.
Challenge #3: Surprise upcharges.
How to avoid it: Make sure your initial proposal is based on real numbers, not assumptions.
There’s an old (unfortunate) saying in the industry: “We’ll make it up in the change orders.” In other words, builders will low-ball the initial bid to secure the job, knowing they’ll ratchet up costs later on.
We believe it’s far better for everyone to agree on a proposal that truly reflects the outcome the owner wants. So how do you get there?
For starters, you want to make sure the proposal is based on actual numbers related to your project—not simply square footage estimates or pricing from a previous job. These figures are rarely accurate and often misleading.
To shore up our own numbers, Weaver follows the descoping process described above. We carefully vet all subcontractors and review their individual proposals. We comb the proposal for missing elements, making sure it’s truly comprehensive, and review any exclusions with the owner (maybe the demo contractor hasn’t included dumpster services, for example).
Yes, change orders do happen, and it’s always wise for owners to build in a margin for contingencies. Yet it’s even more important to trust that your contractor is an accountable middleman: working for your best interest and holding all project partners to a high standard.
Challenge #4: Project delays.
How to avoid it: Make sure planning continues well beyond preconstruction.
Rigorous preconstruction planning is important, but the most successful projects employ continuous planning.
One of the best continuous planning practices is regular trade partner meetings. We’ve found that these work best on a weekly or biweekly basis throughout the entire build.
During these huddles, with all project managers and subcontractors in the same room, we look at the four common types of delays: weather disruption, supply chain slowdowns, construction conflicts, and scheduling conflicts.
Is there weather in the forecast the roofers will need to work around? What are suitable alternatives to products on backorder? Are there pipes being installed in the way of electrical paths? How can we best coordinate subcontractor work to stay on schedule?
We look for solutions and controllables, and our project managers share a two- and four-week look at the schedule. Then, we follow up with an “OAC” meeting with the owner, architect, and contractor to review the takeaways.
Challenge #5: A messy job site.
How to avoid it: Make sure your contractor has solid protocol in place and only works with trusted subs.
The job site offers a first impression of what’s to come, and you want it to reflect well on your company.
Your contractor bears the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens on the job site—so you want to be sure they’ve established guidelines for things like staging materials, site signage, daily cleanup, and employee conduct. And that they care enough to implement them.
One of the ways we reinforce these standards at Weaver is through monthly “toolbox talks” with our crew. These morning musters are a time to rally the team (subs included) and get everyone on the same page. We remind folks what we expect of them: to store materials and secure tools, to wear a hard hat and not smoke, to take off muddy boots when entering finished floors, to clean up and close the fence at the end of the day. It’s not worth making assumptions about even the small things.
And just as important is team rapport and reliability. Trust on the job site is huge for us, which is why we develop long-standing relationships with all of our subcontractors. They’re an extension of our team, and we make sure they share the same core values and commitment to character.
What challenges did we miss? Does this have you thinking about how to structure an upcoming job? While our practices come from five decades in the field, we’re always refining our process based on client input. Get in touch to share your experience or plans.