Start by streamlining the transition from estimating to construction
by Ron Churchey and Ron Chazin and Bob Baird
September 16, 2016

Effective project management starts well before construction begins. With meticulous preplanning during the estimating stage, followed by strategic thinking during the job itself, a company’s project management team can ensure project success.

Estimating Essentials

The starting point for effective project management is a clearly defined scope of work from a detailed quantity survey developed during the estimating stage. Create a comprehensive worksheet that describes prep requirements, lists key project documents and details essential project elements. These include scope of work, site conditions, schedule, budget, material and equipment proposals, prefabrication, subcontractors, equipment and tools, manpower, mobilization and more. Being disciplined about following the turnover process is a great way to iron out any major cost- or scope-related issues before they come back to take a bite out of the bottom line. As soon as you identify a potential risk, your project managers can dig into it and pull in the appropriate team to figure out how to minimize exposure. At the same time, the turnover process verifies that the documents used for estimating are the same documents referenced in the contract issued by the general contractor. A related benefit is streamlining the transition of specifications to the project management team, so that they can get a jump on fine-tuning the scopes of work for subcontractors.

The turnover process also confirms and clarifies any value-engineering opportunities that were offered and accepted by the owner. For example, an original specification may have required copper piping to be used for domestic potable water distribution. But a value-engineering alternative would be to use chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) pipe and fittings instead of copper. This effective substitution meets code for several different types of HVAC or plumbing systems. But the downside to offering value engineering is assuming the risk of using an alternative product or system. It is up to the estimating team to do the due diligence to make sure any value-engineering option is code-compliant. Armed with a strong scheduling solution, your project managers can then prioritize the issuance of purchase orders and subcontracts to get the project started.

Committed Costs

On mechanical construction projects, subcontracts and major equipment purchases are committed costs. It is imperative to scope out these costs properly to avoid “scope creep.” Ideally, you should work to minimize risk with subcontractors and equipment providers by establishing an ironclad scope of work and purchase order agreement. This is particularly important when it comes to minimizing labor risks. Anything you can do to minimize labor is a project-management home run. During the early stages of planning, make it a point to go through the scope of work to find labor items that could be subbed out.

Prefabrication

By using a building information modeling (BIM) system, virtual design coordinators are able to coordinate piping layouts and minimize any clashes with other trades well before your team is on the jobsite. In fact, by using laser scanning, the design team is able to establish the location and precise dimensions of structure and existing piping much quicker than a draftsman working on site. An example of a standard operating procedure (SOP) is to coordinate, spool and fabricate as much of every installation as possible to reduce on-site labor. Production efficiencies with reduced jobsite labor almost always translate into better execution with reduced cost and a better project bottom line.

More on Value Engineering

The project management team may identify potential value engineering opportunities after construction has begun. For example, your team might determine that it is more cost effective to use press-type pipe fittings in lieu of soldered or brazed copper fittings. While the material cost of press fittings are higher, they save on labor costs in both new construction and renovation. Again, reducing on-site labor costs should be one of your top money-saving priorities.

Material Handling & Staging

You should prepare a material handling plan for every job. A great example is the Washington College of Law, American University’s new law campus in Northwest Washington, D.C. On this project, one of the main construction challenges was related to the installation of radiant cooling & heating panels—an emerging technology.

For this project, the panels come in three different types and sizes (8x2, 6x2 and 4x2 feet), which fit the ceiling grid. The panels weigh up to 35 pounds each and have to be supported from the deck above on all four corners. In addition to the 4,180 panels installed over 12 miles of piping with more than 1,000 control valves completed the four pipe distribution system. Handling this huge quantity of radiant cooling and heating panels on-site could have been a logistical nightmare, but the team was able to deal with it strategically. The total order was broken down into 10 factory releases coordinated with the project schedule. Each release was delivered to the site in two tractor trailers full of panels. After offloading the panels, the team distributed them to the location of installation inside the designated building for a just-in-time delivery. Using this approach, the project team reduced the need for on-site storage and eliminated multiple handling of the panels.

Despite best efforts at advanced logistical planning, sometimes material handling solutions need to be developed long after construction is underway. This was the case on the INOVA Women’s Hospital project, a new hospital build-out with approximately 450 patient rooms, eight operating rooms and six C-section rooms. The project included mechanical, plumbing and medical gas work throughout the 13-story building, including the subbasement, basement and ground floor, plus 10 aboveground stories.

As construction got rolling on the first floor, the team sent out several thousand piping hangers at one time in crates, and the crew found that it was spending hours searching for that one hanger with a specific tag number. So the entire project team came together, agreed that what they were doing wasn’t working, and came up with a new approach that broke up the piping hanger deliveries into pods based on a 200-square-foot area.

Manpower Projections

Another project management best practice is creating a manpower projection that anticipates and levels out peaks and valleys. Instead of having 40 crew members on site for 2 weeks, then 20 crew members for 1 week, then back up to 40 for 2 weeks, it is better to have a bell curve for manpower (10-15-30-15-10) that maximizes continuity and efficiency over the same 5-week period.

When it comes to better estimating and effective project management, it all comes down to the effort that goes into planning. It is never too early to start preplanning. Even if time is tight, there is always time to do the turnover process in stages. Your project team and your bottom line will thank you in the long run.