Shared challenges: Why preconstruction is suddenly so important
Lump sum. Bid and buy. Read and rip. These were the terms that dominated preconstruction before the pandemic.
“Our industry historically has been driven by the traditional construction manager at risk model, where the owner will start with the architect and begin design before bringing the GC onboard,” said Nathan Lingard, director of design phase at Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction. “This planning and design phase of the project is a period of time where there is high uncertainty.”
Informed largely by siloed partners and a disjointed handoff, that approach to preconstruction — measured roughly as the period from a project’s initial concept to its groundbreaking — was always fraught with discord and miscommunication between project stakeholders.
But industry watchers say that all changed when COVID-19 hit.
As projects shuttered amidst shelter-in-place restrictions and global supply chains collapsed, designers, owners and GCs found themselves collectively back at the drawing board, having tough but ultimately fruitful conversations on how to get things done.
“The pandemic helped to slow things down in a way where we could focus resources and attention on things that were challenging projects,” said Eric Orquiola, director of preconstruction at Denver-based PCL Construction.
“We are in a much more transparent and open communication dialogue with designers and clients to date, and bringing trades as well as suppliers to the table, too,” Orquiola said. “The movement away from the hard bid model has been about shared communication, shared planning and shared challenges, and it’s something that we are starting to see quite a bit.”
Earlier starts, closer communication
Since the pandemic, the adoption of more progressive and inclusive delivery models have shown promise in alleviating preconstruction strife. Lean construction and flow scheduling have helped to boost communication and shorten project durations, and integrated project delivery models bring parties together contractually to share in ownership and risk as a way to motivate goodwill.
That’s a good thing, since when a project goes south, imperfect preconstruction triggers all sorts of plan and drawing inconsistencies, inefficient supply and material purchasing, poor trade coordination and often heavy cost and schedule overruns that only reinforce the animosity between already isolated stakeholders.
Regardless of delivery model, general contractors say preconstruction project collaboration is happening much earlier, and with greater transparency and communication, than before the pandemic.
“It starts with the first interview. Now more than ever, the owners want to meet the preconstruction and estimating and project management teams,” said Matthew Verst, vice president of cost planning and estimating at Cincinnati-based Messer Construction. “It’s changed the whole philosophy of what preconstruction entails. Twenty years ago it was ‘Build me a budget and check in when it changes.’ Now the real-time communication of information amplifies what the construction manager can do for the client, and likewise drives what the client’s expectations are from the GC.”
Increasingly, client expectations are to complete projects faster. Even as generators, transformers, switch gears and other large-scale infrastructure items continue to face year-long supply chain delays, the newfound ability of project team collaboration to overcome supply and scheduling snafus has owners looking at preconstruction as the Rosetta stone for speedier market delivery.
“Coming out of the pandemic, everything, including delivery in general, has been supercharged and moved up faster,” said David Alford, regional vice president of preconstruction for St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Cos. “But it put us in the fast lane of where we were already trying to go anyway: Bringing GCs on earlier in the game had been something we had been pushing for a real long time.”
He added that getting teams in early to collectively address supply chain challenges has been an added bonus.
At Mortenson, Lingard estimates that preconstruction timelines have shrunk by a third post-pandemic, putting more pressure on designers, planning and material procurement specifically. “It condenses the window and makes it more critical to really be aligned and focused,” he said. “We don’t do our project teams any favors by delivering a design or plan that is half-baked for them to figure out how to build.”
Alford agrees, and said preconstruction strategies can help find efficiencies across the design-build lifecycle, even if the preconstruction discipline per se remains somewhat immune to the time squeeze.
“We don’t want people rushing and producing an output that is not as great,” he said. “Preconstruction is so critical to teeing up a job that is right that it’s better to take a couple more days when you need it most to get a great design that is constructible versus just rushing it.”