As soon as the five men wearing matching sweatshirts — reading "Tales from the crypt" — on top of their dress shirts and ties walked onto the stage during the Construction Management Association of America's National Conference & Trade Show, the audience knew. This wasn't going to be a typical presentation.
The experts said they wanted to share their construction management "horror stories" with the attendees to help them avoid the same pitfalls and mistakes. The CMAA fellows — long-time veterans of the construction and architecture industries — said the session title was also applicable to their more mature ages. "We’re old guys with a lot of experience," said Blake Peck, president and COO of MBP, who moderated the panel.
And with those decades of experience, the construction professionals have seen their fair share of frustrating, difficult, and unexpected situations. The following are some of their most memorable projects, and the lessons they learned as a result:
1. Hindsight is 20/20
Bob Fraga, VP and regional manager of MBP, recounted the story of a high-profile renovation project on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He worked with an architect who wanted to bring more natural light into the building with several skylights and a "grand glass staircase."
The architect's vision was approved and admired by everyone involved with the project, and the team built the staircase as planned. Within a week of the staircase's opening, however, Fraga said he received a frantic phone call asking him to bring tarps to the museum as soon as possible.
He soon found out that — given the fact that middle schoolers and high schoolers were some of the most common visitors to the museum — young boys had been standing underneath the glass staircase to look up women's skirts. As a result, the museum needed to temporarily cover up the staircase with a tarp, and later modified the stair design to rectify the problem.
"In retrospect, this is so obvious, with the kind of clientele that goes to that museum," Fraga said. But at the time, no one had put themselves in the shoes of museum visitors. Fraga said his takeaway from the incident was, "You really need to understand who you’re designing for."
2. I solemnly swear...
Chuck Thomsen, a construction consultant, told the story of an important project proposal meeting with an architect who wasn't fully convinced the project was a good idea. Thomsen met with the designer and other possible stakeholders and discussed the possibility of working together.
Thomsen said that, during the meeting, he used some profane language, but didn't think twice about it. "I'd been in the Marine Corps. I'd been to a lot of construction sites," he said. "Once in a while I wasn't careful about what I said."
After the meeting was over, Thomsen thought it had gone extremely well and that they would soon be working together. The architect, however, gave him a stern look and told him, "Well, we're not going to be working together." Shocked, Thomsen asked why he was so sure. The architect responded, "I've been troubled about this project, and I was looking for a sign from the Lord about it. And I didn't like your language."
Thomsen said this jarring revelation taught him two important lessons: "Know your client. And never use profane language in a professional setting."
3. 3rd time's the charm?
Chuck Kluenker, VP of Vanir Construction Management, discussed a problem-filled medical center project he worked on in his early 30s, when he "was just a pup." He said that project taught him "everthing [he] needed to learn about the business."
His firm was hired mid-project to work on a 100,000-square-foot building owned by 83 "activist doctors." The company came on board after the investors fired the first architect halfway through construction and hired another, who was friends with one of the investors. Soon after hiring the second architect, the size of the planned building grew to 144,000 square feet and continued to expand.
Kluenker's firm told him that with the size increase, the project was significantly over budget. But the architect refused to accept it and wouldn't cooperate. Eventually, the owners, construction manager, and other stakeholders decided they needed to terminate that architect's contract — despite the fact the project was 26 months away from its completion date. Although starting over with a new designer was a risky move, Kluenker said it was necessary for the project.
"When things just aren’t working early in a project, don't be afraid to cut the chord and start over," he said. "The customer isn't always right, and they often have unrealistic expectations. If reason fails, sometimes conflict is necessary."
4. Big plans, shallow pockets
Fraga said he would "never forget" a pro bono project his Chicago architecture firm worked on early in his career. He was helping to design a new Lutheran church, but the minister and church board "couldn't come to terms with the fact they had a limited budget and couldn't do the things they wanted to do."
Reaching the boiling point of frustration, his boss at the time told everyone to stop their arguing, hold hands, and pray for a miracle — because divine intervention was the only possible way the project would be completed. Fraga said he was terrified the church leaders would fire the firm after his boss' extreme display of frustration.
But, it turned out his brash act "shook them into understanding they just couldn't go on like this." All parties then calmed down, made compromises, and were able to resume work on the project. "If you ever have a client that's being unreasonable," Fraga told the audience, "remember, pray for a miracle."
5. Coming to terms with reality
Rocco Vespe, VP of Hill International, discussed a major bridge project that had clear problems along the way. Construction of the bridge involved two main paths: producing the precast segments and erecting seven piers that would eventually receive those segments. As the design-build manager on the project, Vespe said, "We could recommend, but we couldn't demand that things be changed."
That role came into play when Vespe, who was in charge of reviewing schedule updates, noticed that the duration the contractor had listed for building the piers was half as long as the time they had been taking to complete the piers. "I kept telling the contractor that duration didn't reflect reality," he said. The contractor countered that if he increased the duration, his crews would take that much longer to build them — which Vespe considered a poor excuse for a schedule discrepancy.
As a result, the precast segments were built much faster than the piers, and work was halted as the yard holding all the segments filled up, and there was nowhere to put them. The contractor then had to lay off his segment crew because no work could be done while the piers were still unfinished. "This was an example of a failure to communicate," Vespe said.
6. The best laid plans...
Fraga also told the story of a federal courthouse construction project on Long Island. The agency in charge of the project hired an internationally known architect, or "starchitect," for the designs.
Two significant problems arose during the project. First, the architect would not approve the subcontractor's mock-up that included visible gaskets on the curtain-wall design. The subcontractor warned that without the gaskets, the building would run the risk of not being watertight. But because the architect had such a big name in the industry, the decision-makers told the subcontractor to do as the architect advised. And, as expected, "From day one when the building was completed, the building leaked," Fraga said.
After solving this problem post-completion, however, the building faced another unexpected consequence. The architects chose a pristine white exterior — which was their design trademark — for the court house building. However, it was located near the Long Island Sound, which is home to scores of seagulls. Shortly after opening, the super-white exterior of the building transformed into a shade of gray, as the birds nested in the building and pooped all over the structure.
"Sometimes, you have to let common sense prevail over architectural vision, even if you have a star architect," Fraga advised. "And as an owner, you have to exercise your authority."