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John Kately first joined C.W. Driver, a general contractor and construction management firm in Pasadena, California, in 2000 because, after being born and raised in Illinois, he was looking to live somewhere warmer. When a friend in California suggested he interview with Driver, Kately jumped at the chance. Now, 22 years later, Kately is a project executive, proud of the breadth of work he’s been able to accomplish. 

“I think some people can kind of fall into niches, whether a school builder or residential,” Kately says. “I’ve been pretty fortunate to test just about every kind of building you can think of over my career.”

In this exclusive interview with Construction Executive, Kately discussed project management, including what it takes for projects—and companies—to succeed.

CONSTRUCTION EXECUTIVE: What are some of your favorite projects?

John Kately: I built Knott’s Berry Farm’s Perilous Plunge ride when I first moved out to California; it was pretty exciting to build an amusement ride. I built an amphitheater and a softball complex in Palmdale, as well as a project for NBC Universal. I’ve done several K-12 school projects throughout my career. I worked on the Henry Mayo Newhall hospital in Santa Clarita, and I’ve done several senior living projects in Los Angeles.

One thing I appreciate is that a lot of people could spend a lot of time in a career and not have a lot to show for it. And I can walk away and point you to addresses.

CE: What’s your normal process like?

JK: Typically, I’ll have anywhere from five to 15 teams that I’ll oversee or work with. Each of those projects will have their own project manager and superintendent. So, I’ll work with those teams, and I also work on pursuits and preconstruction.

CE: Do you rely primarily on technology, human interaction or both?

JK: It’s a mix of both. I think technology from when I started to where we are today is taking a huge leap. When I first started, for a single request for information [RFI], we had to copy, fax and mail, and now it’s a couple clicks of a button and you can CC the entire world.

So, I think technology has given us some amazing tools over the years that have improved efficiency amongst our teams, so they can do more and do better at what they do. But the human interaction and just being on the jobsite daily—that’ll never go away.

CE: How is management of a modular build different from an onsite build?

JK: Typically, on an onsite build, I’d be writing anywhere from 50 to 70 subcontracts to hire all the individual trades to construct it. Conversely, with the buildings themselves being primarily done by the modular contractor, that shaves off several of those trades. Then, the overall management of it differs.

Instead of being in control of every subcontractor individually, their tasks and the materials procurement, there’s a lot of reliance required in working together with a modular contractor due to the amount of the actual project that they’re responsible for.

CE: Do you prefer one method over the other?

JK: My preference depends on what the overall objective is. If you’re looking for speed, modular is quite impressive. If you like being in control, talking to every trade and feeling like you have a little bit more control—even though you don’t really have much control, because everyone still has to get materials and is involved in the same world, and there are materials procurement delays and [workforce] issues that everyone has and can have—I feel there’s a little more, I guess you can call it “perceived” control, dividing the trades up individually in an onsite build.

CE: Do you think the amount of modular projects is increasing?

JK: Yes. It seems to be taking a lot of popularity just with the speed-to-market that you can get with the product. I hear about it a lot more today than I did a couple years ago.

About 20 years ago, one of the school projects I did had a modular project with an “A” number. That was typically what was done with modular previously, until it started moving into a lot of the residential that everybody’s seeing today. I think it started with the schools and building classrooms, and I’m currently working a modular project in Los Angeles.

Recently, the modular we’ve seen or have been working on has been a lot of either apartment or affordable housing.

CE: Do you think that the construction industry is getting the most that project management firms have to offer? Or are those firms underutilized?

JK: I’d probably say most project management firms are hired during preconstruction—and what I mean by “preconstruction” is when a general contractor is brought onboard.

When I first started, an owner would hire an architect and, after about three or four months, we’d get brought in to work with the design team and the owner to coordinate work through constructability issues, planning and site logistics.

Lately, it feels like we’re brought in shortly after an architect is brought onboard, and preconstruction periods can range from six months to a year-and-a-half. I think [the industry] is moving toward utilizing more of what general contractors can offer to an overall project and team. It’s a pretty good approach to bringing the general contractor onboard a lot earlier and utilizing what they have to offer.

CE: How do you think contractors can best leverage a project management firm?

JK: I believe preconstruction is what’s really going to help a project be successful, whether it’s looking at the overall project or collaborating with the design team to work through constructability issues in design.

It’s a good idea to have a contractor pricing a job while it’s being designed, so that it doesn’t get designed and you find out you’re over budget and then have to go back to redraw.

Estimate while you build a budget; that has definitely helped a lot of projects stay on track.

CE: Are there mistakes you think that owners generally make when hiring a project management firm?

JK: I personally don’t believe in the design-bid-build mentality, because that means the whole project isn’t using everybody’s input and/or expertise to its best.

When you have the architect, the owner and design team onboard early, you can collaboratively work with that group to make sure you’re looking at it from a design perspective, make sure the owner’s getting what it wants and make sure the contractor can build it. I think there’s three key elements there, and only having two of the three puts any job at a disadvantage.

I would also recommend that owners, which don’t know construction as well as they know investing or developing, bring on their own consultant along with the general contractor, so they have an extra set of eyes from their perspective. The more heads you get involved, the more you achieve a successful project.

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