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Construction firms are pretty adept at sharing lessons learned regarding safety and estimating, but what about scheduling? Not so much, according to Anthony Gonzales, managing principal of Spire Consulting Group, Austin, Texas, which provides proactive and forensic project management assistance to owners and contractors.  

“The top end construction companies do a great job of centralizing their estimates and capturing lessons learned in a database that can be used regionally,” he says. “But most well-run companies don’t have that from a scheduling and planning perspective. Instead, staff members are making these decisions at the project level and they don’t have a guide to help them out.”

Considering the average project duration is one to two and a half years, firms do a disservice to concurrent projects by having a scheduler share his or her experiences with colleagues only at the end of each job. Capturing and communicating those lessons learned should be done at least once a month, Gonzales says. 

“The most common problem project teams encounter is recognizing that adjustments to planned activities in a schedule can have a cost impact,” he adds. “Often a contractor may adjust downstream activities in the hopes of having an on-time completion, assuming they can make up that time along the way. Sometimes that works out, but sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a tipping point where a contractor can no longer adjust the schedule without impacting others, and often there’s a fear of communicating that impact to other parties.”

No surprise, communication is the root of most construction challenges and the linchpin to realizing a team’s vision of an on-time, on-budget project. Successful businesses hire people who fit within their corporate culture. The same intent is there at the project level, but less focus is given to ensuring the owner, architect and contractors share the same culture of communication, according to Gonzales. 

“Creating more of a collaborative environment and getting project information from stakeholders at a much earlier stage are catalysts for better communication,” he says. “Everyone starts a project with good intentions. But a truly intelligent project aligns expectations, accountability and transparency across different teams and within each team.” 

In terms of transparency, most project managers focus on what’s coming down the pipeline rather than seeking an understanding of what occurred previously. “A team’s ability to look both retrospectively and prospectively is paramount to a project's success,” Gonzales says.

On that note, check out how four winners of Associated Builders and Contractors’ Excellence in Construction® awards are carrying their project planning and collaborative best practices through to other jobs. 

COUNTERACTING DELAYS

The Task
Design and build mechanical and plumbing systems for a LEED Gold 24-story Class AA core/shell office building (1401 Lawrence) at the “gateway” of downtown Denver. The $6.9 million job, owned by First Gulf, took 22 months for MTech Mechanical, Westminster Colo., to complete in coordination with The Beck Group and Beck Architecture.

MTech’s scope of work was primarily concentrated in the penthouse level and upper roof level, which housed the central chilled water and hot water plants, life safety systems and central air handling systems.

The Challenges
The project was more than three months behind schedule due to weather and concrete delays when the penthouse floor was turned over to MTech to start its mechanical installation. Significant schedule compaction ensued. The original schedule between penthouse rough-in and the dismantlement of the crane was reduced from four weeks to two weeks. As a result, every piece of mechanical equipment for the penthouse had to be hoisted in that time period.

The Keys to Success
“Engaging in a true design-build project where Beck was the general contractor and the architect made it possible to have a direct line of communication with the primary project stakeholders, allowing for quicker decision-making with a more collaborative approach,” says MTech Project Manager Matt Reilly. “There was also a true team approach with all of the trade partners on the project. By pre-planning with all of the different trades, we uncovered synergies that benefited the team and ultimately the project.”

The team also had a colocation office. For technology, Trimble was used throughout (e.g., to set the location for duct hanger inserts in the floor pours), and NoteVault was the solution for project documentation; plus field managers used iPads to pull up drawings. 

To reduce the amount of installation time, MTech prefabricated all hot water, chilled water, and condenser water piping systems and hanger assemblies, and the CAD team’s coordinated BIM model allowed for a clash-free installation. Field crews utilized a hybrid prefabricated piping system that included both mechanical coupling joints and weld joints to keep the number of field welds to a minimum. Additionally, ductwork was pre-assembled in multiple joints and then hoisted into place with a crane.

“Through pre-planning and prefabrication efforts, we were able to cut our field installation time in half from 11 weeks to six weeks,” Reilly says.

The Outcome
The project finished under budget, with MTech’s team logging nearly 50,000 manhours onsite with only one recordable accident in the last month of the job. 

According to the Beck Group: “In an industry that all too often errs on the side of combative, the partnering mentality of MTech representatives was a refreshing change. MTech and its employees met challenges head on at every point of engagement. It seemed there was no challenge too large to be managed or too small to be given proper deference.”

The Takeaways
“Working on a vertical building in the center of downtown Denver, we learned that being successful with material handling is the key to project success,” Reilly says. “We have implemented material handling processes that have helped reduce the amount of non-productive time we have on similar vertical projects.”

For example, on a 28-story mixed-use apartment building in the heart of Denver that wrapped up in February, MTech zeroed in on palletizing materials and getting them on the floors early, sometimes even before the next deck was poured. 

Another important best practice is being strategic about field workers’ break times so they’re not wasting time waiting on elevators and hoists or being away from their workspaces for long periods of time.

A YEAR OF PLANNING FOR FIVE DAYS OF WORK

The Task
Plan and execute the demolition and replacement of three multi-zone air handlers at the fully occupied Dixie Terminal South building in downtown Cincinnati in just five days. As the design-builder, The Cincinnati Air Conditioning Co. self-performed three-quarters of the $995,000 contract for its client, Great American Insurance Group. 

The Challenges
The mechanical room walls were built around the existing air handlers, so the old units had to be disassembled and removed in small enough pieces to fit through a double-door, with the new air handlers brought in the same way. One major hitch: The four-story building was fully occupied, so The Cincinnati Air Conditioning Co. couldn’t just go in and shut off the air for a few weeks. The best option was to cram all the work into the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday break.

The Keys to Success
The project took a little over a year to plan and coordinate all the trades and individual components. 

“During this time, we worked side by side with the building owners to be sure we covered all aspects of the project—from communications to all their affected employees and use of the facilities to utilities, security and parking,” says Matt Seiler, a project manager/mechanical designer with The Cincinnati Air Conditioning Co. “We detailed each trade’s scope, activities and timelines and compiled them into one master schedule that everyone reviewed. Planning and scheduling, along with expertise and dedication, is what it takes to pull off a task of this magnitude.”

Because it was critical to make sure the air handler sections fit through openings, down corridors and into the mechanical rooms, the engineering department utilized Autodesk’s Architecture Engineering and Construction Collection (which includes AutoCad MEP, Revit, Navisworks Manage and the Carrier Hourly Analysis Program), as well as Microsoft Office Projects for Gantt charts and scheduling.

“We devised a plan to demolish and remove the old parts across the floor to the south freight elevator, while the new sections would come in through the north elevator lobby window and move across the floor to the mechanical room for reassembly,” Seiler says.

The Outcome
Nearly 4,500 manhours were logged over five days, with 95 percent of the work completed in just 72 hours. The startup went flawlessly.

The Takeaways
In early 2018, The Cincinnati Air Conditioning Co. completed a total building HVAC system installation on another aggressive schedule at the new AC Hotel by Marriott.

“Being in the same downtown Cincinnati locality, this project faced some of the same issues with logistics that were on the Dixie Terminal South project, from setting up a crane lift to getting materials and equipment in the building,” Seiler says.

Crane lifts had to be carefully planned, as the outriggers were located on 6-foot by 6-foot pads directly atop existing parking garage structural columns. Additionally, the hotel’s 180 rooms were almost 100 percent complete by the time the delayed vertical terminal air conditioners were delivered. 

“We coordinated with all trades so that when they arrived everyone knew what their timeline was in the installation,” Seiler says. “This coordination actually reduced the VTAC installation time frame and kept the project on schedule.”

NEXT-LEVEL PLANNING AND PREPAREDNESS

The Task
Build a sophisticated ecological data gathering facility, including a 26-foot steel tower and a 160-square-foot instrumentation hut, in the desolate tundra more than 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s North Slope. Construction of the $6 million Toolik Ecological Observatory—led by the team of Milender White, LEO A DALY and Paul J. Ford & Company for the National Ecological Observatory Network—had to have a minimal environmental impact.

The Challenges
Planning for safety and weather were the largest concerns for Milender White.  

“Each task we planned for in our job hazard analysis had to account for the possibility that our team was the first responder in the event of an emergency, so we had a full-time medic on our crew,” says Milender White Senior Vice President Shane Fobes. “Medical facilities were at least four hours on a bumpy road if it was open, or by helicopter if the weather allowed.”

Additionally, the closest location to purchase equipment and supplies was 400 miles away, so it was imperative for everything to be accounted for and inventoried prior to mobilization. “We counted every bolt, washer and screw before arriving onsite,” recalls Milender White Project Superintendent Richard Mullinax.

The Keys to Success
The team spent three months preparing an exhaustive construction approach with a focus on safety and risk management. Key subcontractors from Alaska were identified and actively engaged in the planning and procurement process. Due to the cost and time required to ship tools and equipment to the site, the entire team collaborated to ensure every detail was covered.

GPS emergency beacons were used onsite and CB radios were the communication tool of choice among crews. Satellite phones were necessary to contact the outside world, with FaceTime improving morale during the six and a half months employees spent away from their families at the Toolik Field Station.

The Outcome
Milender White safely delivered the observatory with minimal impact to the natural environment. Through extensive pre-planning and pre-task safety meetings, not so much as a single Band-Aid was needed to complete the project. 

The facility is successfully gathering and transmitting ecological data to enable users to tackle scientific questions at scales not accessible to previous generations.

The Takeaways
Milender White regularly discusses the importance of pre-planning every activity by sharing Toolik stories. “Working in Toolik reinforced why we are a process-driven company. The remoteness amplified the consequences of mis-coordination,” Fobes says. “Milender White manages projects through schedule milestones. We have found that sole reliance on complex critical path method schedules creates confusion within the project team. Simple milestones allow project teams to focus on immediate goals that tie to the critical path. It is all about clear communication and holding each team member accountable.”

The company also believes in the power of a positive attitude. “It is possible to work in negative 20 degree temperatures as long as you maintain a positive attitude. When you break focus and let negativity into your head, it gets real cold real quick. This lesson applies to everything we do.”

EXCELLENCE IN RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT

The Task
Widen 2.6 miles of a rural two-lane highway (LA-20) to four lanes with controlled-access crossing points and modern traffic signals in order to accommodate an uptick in congestion caused by residential and commercial development in Thibodaux, La. Duplantis Design Group put a plan together for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Barriere Construction Co. L.L.C., Metairie, La., won the public bid process, coming out 60 percent ahead of competitors on schedule and nearly 5 percent on cost.

The Challenges
Barriere had to maintain two-way traffic and access to local businesses throughout 244 days of construction, as well as coordinate changing traffic patterns. 

“The schedule required a significant amount of resources from a variety of trades,” says Andrew Wilson, a heavy civil project manager at Barriere. “Drainage, base, concrete, asphalt, electrical, striping, erosion control, traffic control and disadvantaged business enterprise subcontractor crews all had to work in tandem for the duration of the project.”

The Keys to Success
In a display of true partnership among the owner, engineer and contractor, the project team hosted a town meeting to communicate traffic plans to the public and kept the surrounding businesses updated with any upcoming phase changes or outages. The design plans were thoroughly reviewed prior to groundbreaking, and their accuracy was critical to making sure the project stayed on schedule and minimizing issues during the construction phase.

Barriere also used familiar subcontractors and suppliers, including procuring 27,000 tons of stone from Vulcan Materials, St. Rose, La.

“We developed detailed daily, weekly, and monthly schedules and milestones for each work type to make sure the proper resources were allocated to keep the entire project moving forward and not have one trade affect another,” Wilson says. “The variety of trades also fit well with Barriere’s internal resource pool, as we were able to self-perform more than 85 percent of this project.” 

Additionally, Barriere used GPS technology to capture and communicate daily quantities to the LADOTD during the busy construction phase, which was helpful because the project was on a time factor of $3,000 per day. Monthly cost-loaded schedule updates to demonstrate progress and ensure the long-term schedule was current also were required per the LADOTD time factor. 

The Outcome
The $10 million LA-20 expansion finished on time, on budget and with no lost-time incidents. LADOTD Area Engineer Chris Rogers called Barriere’s schedule management and coordination of work scopes a “complete success” and commended the company on its punctuality, prompt resolution of concerns and lack of public complaints. Also, Barriere earned several quality bonus incentives from the LADOTD for its work on the project.

The Takeaways
Barriere began construction on another $16 million LADOTD project upon completion of the LA-20 job—an 11-mile stretch of roadway along US-90 that consisted of 36 J-Turn installations for safer controlled access, as well as an overall mill and overlay of the existing highway. 

The management team applied the same detailed production planning and scheduling tools as the LA-20 project—including using 3D models that were loaded into equipment and field employees’ tablets to reduce the amount of survey time and resources required—which resulted in completing the US-90 job six months ahead of the original completion date. 

“We built a 3D model with the roadway’s finished elevations and then created offsets for each level, such as sand,” Wilson says. “Each machine could adjust to each elevation and cross-slope automatically, so we didn’t need folks out there checking grades and pulling string line. It makes the whole operation a lot more efficient.” 

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