La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona is believed to be the world’s longest-running construction project—and when it comes to communications issues, it’s had them in spades. We looked into some of the common problems the cathedral and other projects frequently encounter, gathering expert insights into how they can be fixed.
Lost documentation is a familiar issue, but La Sagrada Familia probably holds a record in this regard. For a start, although it applied for a construction permit in 1885, it was not until 137 years had passed that officials discovered the permit had never actually been granted.
There was no fax, email or telephone communication back in the late 1880s, so tracking the existence of the permit involved literally hunting through paper archives dating back decades.
Keep Track of the Conversations
Today, there are multiple electronic forms of documentation. However, without proper correspondence management systems, paperwork can still be hard to find, according to Robert Hudman, director of digital construction strategy consultancy Knight Solutions.
There can be significant time lost looking through individual Outlook email inboxes trying to find a specific email when communication processes are fragmented, he said. The complexity of the contemporary construction process further contributes to this.
“The construction process has become increasingly fragmented; everyone is in their little silos. Everyone’s got their own little carrier pigeons and fires off their messages.”
“The original builders of major projects like cathedrals were called master builders, and they were a one-stop-shop. They designed and built the project,” Hudman said. “But the construction process has become increasingly fragmented; everyone is in their little silos. Everyone’s got their own little carrier pigeons and fires off their messages.”
Bring Everything Together
The advance of technologies, such as faxes and emails, has been simultaneously a blessing and a curse, he admitted. Being able to send communication quickly can mean inboxes and in-trays become cluttered.
To be effective, project communications need to be centralised to one point so that everyone who needs to have access can gain access.
“When they are all in the same place and you can see all of them, it builds confidence, transparency and collaboration,” Hudman said.
“There are so many people involved in a project, you need to bring them together with very specific tools.”
Hudman said that there are two distinct types of construction communications—the day-to-day site and project matters and communications that have contractual and legal implications.
The latter kind can be a major source of construction disputes if not managed correctly. It is exactly these communications the Procore Correspondence tool is specifically designed to capture.
“If it’s not on paper, it never happened. That is the way contracts work.”
“As a project manager, I would tell my people ‘if it’s not on paper, it never happened’. That is the way contracts work,” Hudman said.
Contracts stipulate that specific communications need to be carried out using electronic means. In the late twentieth century, that meant faxes until emails entered the picture. In the twenty-first century, project management software, collaboration platforms, and other digital tools are taking centre stage.
Manage Project Documentation
La Sagrada Familia experienced a major blow to its progress in 1936 during an era of political upheaval in Spain. Anarchists broke into the site office and burned a large proportion of the building’s architectural and engineering plans as well as the hand-made architectural models.
Paper plans are inherently vulnerable. Luckily, in most cases, the industry has now moved on to digital plans and drawings. Even La Sagrada Familia is now digitised, with Arup joining the project in 2014 to create a digital structural engineering and construction project coordination solution.
Hudman stresses that all the important aspects of a project must be documented in a way that is transparent and traceable.
In today’s industry, that means keeping the information in the cloud. The servers that host platforms like Procore are “backed up and backed up and then the backup of the backup is backed up,” Hudman said.
The fear of losing key information is therefore removed, as are the risks or inconvenience associated with needing to undertake manual backups at the site office or the head office.
“When it comes to communications, security is important.”
Hudman noted that some construction communications legally require a response within a certain timeframe, as they may be subject to “time bars” under the contract. This may be a period of five days, for example, between sending a Notice of Delay and the sending of an Extension of Time response.
However, having to hunt through an email inbox to find and track those communications can be both time-consuming and ineffective.
A centralised system like the Procore Correspondence tool means a query can be carried out requesting all the delay notices, making it easier for a project manager to stay on top of all time-critical matters.
“It is about being responsive,” Hudman says.
There are other communications he describes as a “one-way street” where no action is required. The tool allows for sorting those into their own category.
Keep it Professional
Hudman said style and tone are both important when it comes to project communications. While it might be tempting to fire off an angry email, he applies the old safety adage: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
“A lot of people write things in emails they wouldn’t say in person,” he said.
Emails should be used as a tool for conveying information, and not as a back-and-forth conversation.
“Projects are built by people, not by emails.”
There are times when a phone call, or having a face-to-face conversation is the right approach. Hudman explains, “Digital is never going to replace the banter in the site office or the conversation between the site manager and the workers on site. Projects are built by people, not by emails.”
When dealing with a difficult matter, for example, a negative event on site or some other tricky issue, Hudman recommends making a phone call first to advise the person you are about to send an email about a specific issue.
Then, after the email, follow up with a phone call to chat the matter through.
“A phone call can resolve two hours of email back and forth.”
Email Etiquette Matters
In drafting an email, stick to facts, not feelings. Or, as Hudman puts it, “play a straight bat”. There’s no place for opinions. Using common sense and courtesy is important, he added.
“Treat people like people.”
While emails and written communications should be factual, they do not need to go to the extent of “dear sir or madam.” It is acceptable to use a sign off like “cheers” or “thank you very much” instead of the more old-fashioned “yours sincerely,” he said.
And, of course, all those emails also get retained and managed within the Correspondence Tool.
Bring People Together
Connecting directly with team members as people remains an important part of project communications. Particularly with the advent of COVID-19 and limits on face-to-face gatherings, more companies are taking team communications to the “next level” with platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams and other virtual meeting or collaboration platforms.
“A construction project is people coming together—it can’t be done by just one person,” Hudman said.“You need to pick the right tool.”