You will find failure factors front-loaded into many construction projects. These factors often elude detection until it’s too late, hidden behind assumptions and optimism. By paying close attention to these failure factors before a shovel hits the ground, you will short circuit failure.
Hidden Existing Conditions
I was superintendent on a project that had mysterious underlying conditions that building managers just couldn’t explain. For one, there was water in a natural gas line feeding multiple buildings. People had to pump it out periodically with a hand pump.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were plumbing fixtures wrapped with unidentifiable material. There were unusual electrical boxes, and there was water in some in-floor heating ducts. And all of these factors were just some known conditions we were aware of before even doing a thorough destructive inspection. What could possibly go wrong?
From experience, I know that anytime you have a project with strange known conditions, you will probably be in for a rough ride if you don’t ferret out all the existing unknown conditions before starting construction.
Research the property’s history, concentrating especially on earlier uses that foretell environmental issues. Review the original or remodel as-builts. Use observation and destructive inspections to find issues hidden in walls and beneath floors. Get cameras into drain lines and get a professional assessment of the building’s systems.
In an ideal world, everything a designer dreams up is readily available, fit for the purpose, and clearly noted. While contractors specialize in fitting materials with proven methods, many designers have little real-world experience with the same.
So, it’s very likely that you will come across material specifications that don’t fit the standard methods. You want to use methods familiar to your crews. You also have experience with many material types and the knowledge of which ones deliver the best value. After all, you don’t want callbacks and warranty claims.
When you encounter a specification that stretches the boundaries of tried-and-true methods, you can always suggest alternatives. Likewise, when you know your sources of supply might have difficulty getting a particular item, you can try reducing uncertainty by asking for approval to substitute. Whenever specifications are not clear and called out in the contract documents, lower your risks of rework, and change orders by asking for clarification. For the maximum benefit, though, do these things early.
Hidden Aspects of the Scope
Sometimes projects are not completely thought out. Other times conditions change between when the project was envisioned and when the contract is awarded. If the differences are large, the parties often must adjust the contract. But sometimes, the differences are minor and not entirely clear. That’s when it’s crucial to take time to think about all aspects of the scope and how the pieces fit together.
Have verbal changes in scope crept into the preconstruction phase? Do the contract documents hint at including alternatives to the established scope? Have you received direct requests to alter components? Is the owner asking for the final construction to include accommodations for future uses? In these cases, you might need to build differently than specified in the original contract documents. Suppose you don’t carefully consider the not-so-clear aspects of these “unofficial” scope modifications early enough. In that case, new costs or schedule problems could surprise you when you get to those portions of the project.
Mismanagement is always lurking in construction. It often arises seemingly out of nowhere, when you least expect it. Most people don’t intentionally mismanage, but everyone has limits to their management abilities. If you don’t match the size and scope of the jobs to the managers’ experience, it’s only a question of time before somebody won’t be able to carry their load.
It’s common for construction company job descriptions to read like a requirement for a superhero, complete with magical tools and adoring helpers. These requirements are just not realistic. You cannot expect a project manager or superintendent to work unlimited hours just because their job description calls for them to do the work of four people. If you don’t match the manager to the job and maintain realistic expectations of their abilities, mismanagement is unavoidable.
When you address these four failure factors early in the project, you sidestep a wide range of troubles. The attitudinal keys to tackling these factors are tempering your optimism and questioning your assumptions.