Murphy Was an Optimist

By Brooks Gentleman | Posted: 04/30/2013 4:38PM

 

I was talking with a friend the other day and I commented that, “Murphy was an optimist” and she wasn’t familiar with this saying. I couldn’t believe she had never heard this phrase before and then it dawned on me. Anyone associated with the construction industry knows that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If you have been in this business for long, you know exactly what I am talking about and ole Murphy visits you quite often. This made me think about why things go haywire on construction projects.

First of all, it is understandable that a construction project can boil down to a comedy of errors when you look at what it takes to get the owner, architect, general contractor, and subcontractors on the same page. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and it takes a well coordinated effort by all parties to deliver what is expected, meet the schedule, and land within budget. In this article, I want to concentrate on how the construction team creates its own problems. I am a firm believer that understanding the traits that can lead you to the abyss helps one refine the behaviors that define success. So here is a look at the problems that can afflict the players in a construction project.

Owners
It is critical that the owner has sufficient financing in place prior to beginning construction. We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of projects where the actual bid for the work to be performed is much higher than the preliminary budgets. If the owner doesn’t have the pocketbook to finance the project, it puts a great deal of stress on all involved. We see the following problems result from financial strains:

  • Serious delays while funding is revisited, causing a strain on the project schedule and once you are behind in the schedule, other problems emerge

  • Changes in scope known as “value engineering” that can affect multiple trades of work

  • Acceptance of unqualified subcontractors and products because of a need for lower prices

  • Mediocre plans and specifications since the architect doesn’t have the budget to put the time into the project

  • Delays in payments to the team for work performed, causing stress on the team’s cash flow

Another problem we see with owners is when the owner fails to get involved in the details of the project. If the owner doesn’t effectively communicate with the architect and contractor on the overall plan as well as the project details, serious delays will result. It is so important that the owner has a representative that has a complete understanding of the project and has the time necessary to dedicate to the process. If this individual has an aptitude in construction practices it really helps. The absence of this involvement will result in delays, higher costs, inferior work, and potential rework.

On the other hand, an over-involved owner can be problematic as well. An owner who wants to make all decisions and doesn’t rely on the team to perform their duties, will clog up the enterprise. We see this happen quite often on governmental projects where the owner allows legislators and judges to make decisions regarding the project. The construction process does not favor democratic decision making throughout the schedule, and you will have serious delays if you invite multiple decision makers with large egos into the program.

Architects
Lack of project specific experience from the architect is a guarantee for a doomed project. It is essential that the architectural team have the expertise and personnel to manage the complexity of the project. Preservation projects in particular are vastly different from conventional construction and require a distinct background. If the architect doesn’t have this knowledge, the project becomes his classroom where decisions are made on the fly rather than upfront in the construction documents. We see plans and specifications with irrelevant boiler plate information, forcing others to work with the architectural team to educate them on proper means, methods, and materials during the submittal/shop drawing stage. An inexperienced architect will cause delays, increase construction costs, and deliver an inferior product to the owner.

On the flip side, another difficulty that can undermine the success of a project is architectural arrogance. I know that it’s hard to believe, but there are some architects out there who think they are omniscient and that the rest of the team is a bunch of bungling idiots. Although the construction industry has its fair share of mentally challenged individuals, there are many professionals out there who can effectively work with the architectural team. It can be very frustrating to have to stroke the ego of a prima donna architect and to be denied participation in the decision making process. The construction team needs to work together to be successful and that includes all parties.

Another architectural problem that can infect the health of a project is slow decision making. There are thousands and thousands of decisions that need to be made during a construction project, and the answers to these questions are what keep the wheels moving. The architectural team needs to be staffed properly to be able to quickly address challenges as they are presented. It helps a great deal when the subcontractors can have direct access to the architect so they can have a dialogue rather than working strictly through RFI paperwork. Sometimes we get so caught up in our bureaucratic systems that we clog up the entire process.

General Contractors
The general contractor or construction manager is the one who has to make it all happen. The contractor must have the combined skills of construction expertise, scheduling ability, and unfailing determination. Unfortunately it is difficult to bring all these skills to a single project. Most contractors have a project superintendent who has vast construction experience, or they have a detail-oriented person who monitors the Gantt charts, or they have an individual who can crack the whip. Very few master all three disciplines. If you don’t have all three skills at play, the project will suffer. Since it is extremely rare to have all three skill sets in one person, the contractor needs to make sure his key project players cover all the bases.

Subcontractors
The quality of the subcontractors determines the outcome of the project. Unfortunately, the bidding process often awards the lowest price and not the best value for the work to be performed. Many of the lowest priced bids achieved that status because of estimating mistakes or misunderstanding of the project requirements. If the winning subcontractors fall into this category, the architect and general contractor often have to crack the whip to make sure the subcontractor delivers as expected. This process can cause serious delays and substandard work and puts an undue burden on the general contractor. Also, the challenging economic climate of the past five years has made many subcontractors financially fragile to the point that it is not uncommon to see a sub go out of business in the middle of a project. As a result, we have seen an increase in project bonding and the submission of financial information as part of a prequalification process for subcontractors.

The architect and the general contractor need to review the demands of the project prior to bid date to determine whether a particular scope of work demands a subcontractor with a specific skill set. There are a lot of companies out there that are desperately searching for business and are willing to throw numbers at a bid package that is a stretch for their competencies. We are just beginning to see more detailed prequalification requirements on projects for critical work. It is vital that the architect and general contractor spend the time to determine which subcontractors have the background and the capacity to manage a specific scope of work

When one looks at all the players who have to connect to make a construction project successful, it is easy to see why our friend Murphy plays such a prominent role in the industry. If owners, architects, general contractors and subcontractors can avoid some of the pitfalls outlined above, Murphy will have to go elsewhere to spout his doom and gloom.


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About the Author

Brooks Gentleman

Brooks Gentleman has been in the wood window and architectural millwork business for the past 25 years and is currently the owner of Re-View, a manufacturer of custom wood window replicas for historic landmarks across the country based in Kansas City, MO. www.re-view.biz

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