Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction isn’t the kind of company to shy away from a challenge. The firm has set out to build 20 projects over the next two decades that have never been attempted, and they’re already well on their way. Some of the iconic structures in the company’s portfolio include the Salesforce Tower, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts, and Ronald Reagan Library.
The company provides general contracting and project management services in some of California’s most dynamic markets. Over the next two decades, their ambitious plans will see cityscapes transformed all over the Western U.S. But unique challenges arise when you’re breaking new ground. For instance, what does it even look like to estimate, bid, and build concepts that have never been done before? With no point of reference, how do you go about building a schedule?
We sat down with Dinwiddie COO John Cowles IV to discuss some of these challenges, and how the company is doubling down on preconstruction to meet the needs of the future of building.
Invest in dedicated preconstruction resources
Construction companies with formal, standalone departments or dedicated preconstruction staff regularly outperform those that don’t. As Dinwiddie began gearing up for their envelope-pushing 20-year mission, they invested heavily in preconstruction, knowing success depended on building the right kind of team.
“We found that in order to build these iconic buildings, in order to really push the limits of construction, you have to have people who are dedicated upfront to high-performing preconstruction tasks,” said Cowles.
Cowles started with Dinwiddie more than 35 years ago as a part-time laborer during college. At the time, the company’s estimating department consisted of three to four staffers who had minimal contact with the rest of the team. They were chiefly confined to a back room, counting doors and extending those out against unit prices.
“Nobody wanted to be an estimator,” recalled Cowles. “But that’s all changed.”
Today, the company has grown its preconstruction team to 16. And while this staffing up hasn’t been cheap, when you’re building high-performance teams and iconic structures, it’s an investment you need to make.
“You’re not going to be able to roll up eight weeks after bid and start these projects. It takes years of planning, budgeting, and solving problems. So there is a lot of value in investing in dedicated preconstruction teams, explained Cowles.”
But investing in the right people is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving your preconstruction process. It’s also crucial to provide those team members with the technology resources they need to do their jobs effectively. When you’re bringing in that level of talent, a haphazardly assembled collection of siloed point solutions is simply not going to cut it.
Teams want to be able to communicate effectively and consistently. If they’re unable to leverage each other’s expertise, learnings, and data, they’re more prone to errors, delays, rework, missed opportunities, and contractual disputes.
Streamlining and automating estimating processes with software can reduce takeoff errors, improve the accuracy of estimates, and ensure estimate data flows seamlessly to financial management tools. Technologies like machine learning and AI-powered software can improve accuracy and utilize model-based estimating to reduce the time required to produce accurate estimates.
Technology can be put in place to perform all kinds of menial but necessary preconstruction tasks. This frees your team of experts to focus on delivering projects on accelerated schedules in which preconstruction and construction activities overlap. Only without creating risk of productivity blockers in the field.
Start the process as early as possible
The earlier you can start the preconstruction process, the better. The further along a project advances, the harder it is to implement the changes and recommendations that make those jobs successful. The ideal time to begin preconstruction is even before the schematics are designed. This will result in less rework and delays, improved client satisfaction, and greater profitability.
“We’ve started projects before the architect. The earlier in the process we start, the better we can affect the final outcome and the less it’s going to cost the owner to deliver that. The decisions we make in the conceptual and schematic drawing phase really affect the final product, but at a much lower cost than if we made those changes further down the road,” said Cowles.
These days, those preconstruction changes extend beyond cost. In response to client demand, Dinwiddie has begun incorporating carbon footprints into their estimates, evaluating the impact the building process will have on the environment. Cowles points out that preconstruction has morphed into a more holistic look at the built environment, which has required the company to change their ways, expand their thinking, and get the right people solving these issues earlier in the process.
Have a Formal Preconstruction Process
One way contractors can speed up bidding and contracting is by investing in formal preconstruction processes. Using a digital bid management system, for example, can streamline bidding and provide real-time communication with subcontractors. Automated contract management processes can reduce the time required to finalize contracts. And forecasting and capacity planning tools will ensure resources are allocated efficiently and reduce the time required for project completion.
When these processes are clearly defined, it enables companies to deliver more detailed project information earlier on. Dinwiddie’s process includes creating a budget at each design phase, from the conceptual model to the schematic design, and all through its final development. Part of this process involves examining each budget and comparing them back to previous ones to pinpoint what changed and why. This allows the company to offer detailed, in-depth explanations to owners at a project’s earliest stages, providing greater transparency and securing their credibility.
Cowles admits the increase in labor and materials costs in recent years has led to some difficult budget conversations with owners. But by having the data, the budgets, and the dedicated personnel to back it up, Dinwiddie has been able to navigate this potential relationship minefield.
“It’s really hard to have to go to an owner and tell them hey, what we gave you last time is up $20 million. But having the detail and being able to tell the story, you work your way out of it. Nine times out of 10 we heard ‘well, we don’t like it, but we get it.’”
Involve all project stakeholders
Preconstruction works best as a team sport. If your precon team is playing a solo game, they’ll lose out to a team every single time. Having formal processes in place is essential for success in preconstruction, but you also have to involve all of the stakeholders. This is particularly true as the industry shifts from a confrontational, hard-bid mentality to a more collaborative, get-it-done mentality.
One way of achieving this is by leveraging technology that enables you to improve communication and collaboration. This includes both internally, among your preconstruction, operations, and financial teams, and any external stakeholders like owners and subcontractors. Each group brings their own perspective and knowledge base, so by bringing everybody into the discussion you can leverage their collective brainpower.
In a collaborative environment enabled by technology, every stakeholder is able to bring their unique skills to the table. A preconstruction manager scans budgets for scope gaps or double-ups. A project manager turns their keen eye towards business terms, and the superintendent focuses on workforce schedules, safety, and the field team.
“Without any one of those people in the room, it’s really hard to get your complete focus and buy-out,” Cowles said.
Involving all stakeholders in documentation and communication also pays dividends when it comes to handoff between course of construction and preconstruction. Effective technology helps eliminate double-entry and duplicated effort with software that can automatically transfer data between phases. This facilitates a seamless transfer of project knowledge between precon and ops teams, ensuring everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal.
Leverage technology to streamline the process
As construction projects have gotten larger and more complex, the volume of data and information shared between preconstruction and throughout projects has grown exponentially. Disconnected systems require manual re-entry, which greatly increases the risk of mistakes, especially between preconstruction and course of construction. Bringing everything under a single, unified platform helps companies improve collaboration across all stakeholders, better leverage their data, and optimize the preconstruction hand-off.
Your backlog may be full, but is it full of projects that align with the portfolio you’re trying to build? Adopting the right technologies can help you build on your reputation as a leader in the types of projects in which you specialize, and support a virtuous cycle of successful project outcomes.
Leveraging the right preconstruction technology will strengthen your precon process, reduce errors, enhance effective collaboration, and allow you to consistently deliver successful projects on time and under budget.
Whatever size projects you’re working on, having the right tools, technologies, and processes in place ensures an effective and productive preconstruction phase. Setting yourself up for success ahead of time is essential. Aligning your team and resources will save time, reduce the likelihood of errors, and burnish your reputation as a forward-looking company that knows how to use technology to do better, more consistent work.
Consistency is key in preconstruction. An inconsistent preconstruction process can ding a company’s credibility over time.
“We all know the worst thing that can get hit in our industry is credibility. It takes a long time to build, and even more time to rebuild after you’ve made a mistake,” Cowles warned.