Business Tips

How good project managers troubleshoot pre-construction

There are plenty of overviews of what construction project managers do, but most take such a high-level view of the occupation that they start to sound abstract and meaningless. That’s why we’re zooming in on how a project manager gears up for a real hypothetical project, with concrete (pardon the pun) examples of the kinds of decisions they face and make day to day.

So let’s say you are a construction manager working for a general contractor in Northern California who is embarking on a new multi-family residential build in the up and coming corporate center of Dublin, California, about 45 minutes east of San Francisco.

Sussing out holes in the estimate

The first step in pre-construction planning is to take the project plan created prior to bidding, and the estimate, and turn both into concrete action points, i.e. a schedule. Sounds easy, right? Nope. That’s because no project plan is simple, and no estimate takes into account everything that will actually be involved in the execution of that project.

But you’ve got the estimate in hand that the GC made to submit to the owner, and it will be your initial guide in creating the budget and schedule. Per usual, you know the estimate was created under deadline—but you also know it was made by a smart and good estimator, so it’s at least in the right ballpark.

Still, not even a good estimate can predict all the complications that are going to arise during a construction project. And since estimates are almost always made quickly to meet tight bid deadlines, there are places where potential problems and project wild cards can be expected to lie in wait.

It’s important to check in General Conditions, as it can be a catch-all for ascribing costs to potential environmental and other regulatory issues that may arise.

Sussing out where the missing pieces are among all the assemblies in the estimate is your least favorite task, but one you kind of love at the same time. It’s also important to check in General Conditions, as that becomes a bit of a catch-all for ascribing costs to potential environmental and other regulatory issues that may arise.

For instance, you already know this project abuts some wetlands and will likely disrupt them to some degree, so you’ll need a Section 10/404 permit.

Hammering out a schedule

As you pour over the estimate to create the schedule for the various subs—concrete, drywall, roofing, HVAC, etcetera—on the project, you will be taking a close look at the work breakdown structure. In pretty typical fashion, the estimator didn’t break down many of the jobs into individual tasks, while for others he reused assemblies from prior estimates that don’t fit this project to a T.

There is the curtain wall system that will be need to be installed on the exterior of the frame, which is a different animal from the insulated metal panel walls of the building he modeled this estimate on. He also lumped lots of interior tasks together, such as the interior walls. Completing drywall and wall-finishing is one thing, but there will also be painting, and the installation of fixtures.

There are places where you’re predicting that work will go faster than it did on other jobs. This development will have metal standing-seam roofs, and your sub will be installing solar panels on them. The estimator borrowed an assembly from a previous job in which panels were installed on a tile roof. What you’re doing will most likely go faster, as it is easier to attach solar arrays to the metal seams.

You know how scheduling can be, and that looking ahead is key. You are familiar with the framers on this job, so you feel comfortable pressing them to set a hard finish date so you can schedule your electricians on site directly afterward. The painters, you don’t know as well, but you make a note to speak to them about time frame to ensure you get the flooring people on site as soon as they’re done. Of course, there will be rescheduling to do, but you want to keep it to a minimum.

The other thing that will help with managing scheduling and any changes that need to occur, such as raising or reducing the number of workers: access to real-time data on work hours and tasks completed as the project progresses. With ExakTime’s accurate time tracking and instant executive reports by location, you’ll stay apprised of all of this instantly, crossing one major headache off your checklist.

You are familiar with the framers on this job, so you feel comfortable pressing them to set a hard finish date so you can schedule your electricians on site directly afterward.

Risk management

Of course you’ll want to concern yourself with risk management in the pre-construction phase to head off losses and uncover safety blindspots prior to construction as much as possible. Tight project schedules and innovative designs are known risks—and you’ve got both on this project.

You’ll want to plan for bi-weekly toolbox talks, and to check what kind of insurance the owner and GC holds that will come in handy in case of weather catastrophes. (Even in Northern California, there can be weather catastrophes, including flooding from excessive rain, and wildfires.)

Another key action item will be delegating responsibility for managing specific risks to select team leaders and members, because your single set of eyes can’t oversee everything.

In terms of the risk of losing money on materials waste—or losing time transporting materials—you’ll want to talk to all subcontractors about watching for waste in common offenders such as steel reinforcement, cement, ceramic tiles and pipes and wires. You learned on your last project about the trouble with transporting cement around the job site, for example, so you want to be sure you leave clear pathways this time.

Controlling the quality

Reviewing specifications carefully before the project starts will allow you to discover if any materials are not available and get approvals on substitute materials so they are already on site when needed.

Delegating is essential with quality management, too, so that everyone knows where the buck stops when it comes to quality control in each area of construction. For instance, if you have the lead carpenter checking that walls are built to specification, that’s a good setup, as you’ll want to have decision-making take place at the lowest possible level (by those who know the task best). You also have to make sure the person is competent and feels invested in the project, as that will shape their whole attitude.

The best way to make certain of all of the above is to get a good sense of the players who’ll be on the project, including subs and supervisors. You schedule a quality control meeting for right after the kick-off meeting so that you can assign roles and everyone knows what their responsibilities are.

There’s so much to project management that it could never fit into one blog post—it’s more like a book. That’s all the more reason to rely on software that simplifies some of your tedious yet critical tasks, such as time and activity tracking. With a proven software that was developed for construction like ExakTime, you’ll have powerful, automated oversight you can rely on.