Construction is a risky business. It is one of the only human enterprises, short of wartime, where so much manpower, knowledge, finances, and resources collide in an outdoor space, for a short duration, subject to the unknowns of weather, for an unprecedented goal. As Owners, we must prepare.
In most complex endeavors, such as creating a building, there is no such thing as a perfect plan. The course of events in a dynamic environment may force you to adjust and adapt to new conditions. It is essential to maintain situational awareness and not to be surprised or caught off-guard. It is often best to prepare and establish a change strategy with parameters, guardrails, and decision-making techniques – specifically tailored to your organization – to keep your team on course and your project directed to success.
We should establish contingencies for money, time, and even scope. That means putting aside finances until needed during construction, scheduling completion dates before you have to occupy, and creating plans for a partial or phased completion should it be required. It also means thinking through a menu of items you might be able to live without and different materials that may be acceptable ... or adapting plans to save time or money, avoid conflict, and keep the project going.
Cost estimates are just that; they are an approximation of the cost to construct. Budgets are essential to establish, and estimates are valuable information, but they are not proposals to build the project. Typically, those who create the estimates are not the ones who will do the work. So, despite qualifications and experience, those compiling estimates may not have the luxury of time, insight into the project's history and context, or the foresight to predict what may ultimately happen during delivery.
Scope, budget, and schedule development often occur from the peace and calm of the office, months or more before a project is in construction and based on historical data that may or may not be relevant or reflect current market or site conditions. Project cost assessments are often created before the Owner’s needs are fully vetted and project scope is well-defined; they generally lack detailed logistics and schedule considerations; and they normally occur when design documents are incomplete. Yet, the market is what defines the actual cost of construction and is the source for accurate feedback.
Despite what you may think or be told, your project is unique, something never constructed before. While there may be similar buildings in comparable locations, it has never been built at your site, at this time, with the contracted design and construction team, and under the current climatological, labor, economic, and social conditions. Just look back at events and shifts in the markets and our environment since early 2020, which are still occurring.
I am fortunate to have had some great mentors. One was a construction firm owner, former Army Corps of Engineers officer, and fifty-plus-year veteran of the planning and construction industry. I may not be quoting him exactly, but he once told me something like this. Plans, budgets, and schedules are great– and you have to have them– but the best-made plans often go awry when the first shovel hits the ground. Or, as that great philosopher Mike Tyson famously said, "Everyone's got a plan ‘til they get punched in the face.” What matters is how quickly you can analyze the situation, select the available tools or strategies, and adapt to the new conditions.
We have a wealth of knowledge, technology, and other resources available today to support our construction efforts. Having a PMIS (project management information system), CPM scheduling tools, Program Managers, and other implements of the trade are great utensils to have available. Still, in the heat of the battle to get something built, the information that typically comes from these systems may prove to be ineffective ... and yet the thought processes and planning behind them can be indispensable.
To position yourself for success, establish those contingencies and set yourself up with a road-tested process and hierarchy for decision-making. Consider developing a project charter, which can serve as THE source of truth when tough calls must be made or when leadership changes. Be agile and able to make decisions on the fly without seeking consensus or the approval of a board or other authority. Having contingencies available within funding, scope, and schedule – and having a plan for their utilization – can mean the difference between failure and success or at least allow for delivering your project to the customer with as little drama as possible.
about the author:
Jere Smith is an architect and Atlanta native. A graduate of Southern Polytechnic State University and Clemson University, he is currently the Director of Capital Improvements for the Atlanta Public Schools and President of the Georgia Chapter of COAA. For more information he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.