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School Construction 2004

August 12, 2004

Fast-track school projects require careful planning

  • Four steps design teams can take to make life easier for contractors
    Coffman Engineers


    The construction phase of K-through-12 educational projects presents many challenges for architects and engineers. Construction must be planned around the academic calendar year, which results in a typically aggressive schedule. There is very little, if any, "float time" in the schedule.

    The construction schedule for a new elementary school on the site of an existing school is typically 15 months. Construction starts as soon as school is out, usually the latter part of June, and must be completed by the end of August the following year.

    Once time is allowed for commissioning, inevitable last-minute changes as a result of final agency inspections, punch lists, installation of the owner's telecommunications equipment, computers and furnishings, the time remaining for actual construction is very short. This compressed schedule requires the design team to place special emphasis on the construction phase of the project.

    There are several procedures a firm can follow to enhance the success of the fast-track construction phase of a project:

    Plan ahead

    A few extra hours up front can save your firm hundreds of hours of effort during construction.

    Adopt a quality management plan that emphasizes continuous quality control throughout the design process. A few extra hours up front can save your firm hundreds of hours of effort during construction, as well as save your client thousands of dollars in change orders. Without a complete and coordinated set of construction documents, there is little hope that a fast-paced construction project will go smoothly.

    When establishing a management plan, make "quality" everyone's ongoing responsibility, not just the responsibility of the person doing the final review of the documents. One person cannot possibly coordinate an entire set of construction documents in the last few weeks of a project.

    Also, educate your staff regarding the importance of continuous quality control. Emphasize that even a relatively small change can result in a substantial delay claim if the change is on the critical path of the contractor's construction schedule.

    A company's quality-control process is often discussed, but too often overlooked as the deadline for a project approaches. To be successful, a firm must do more than talk about the importance of quality control, it must become a part of its corporate culture.

    Construction administration first

    Adopt a company-wide philosophy of "construction administration first." Many designers have a tendency to concentrate their efforts on new design challenges and procrastinate when it comes to solving problems that arise during construction. Educate your staff regarding the importance of providing timely direction to the contractor.

    Requests for information and required reviews of shop drawings, submittals and change proposals all require timely responses to avoid delaying the project.

    The need for prompt answers should be balanced with the need for complete answers. A hastily prepared incomplete answer results in additional questions from the contractor.

    If the response to a particular question is going to take a longer response time due to the complexity of the question or the amount of input required from other people, let the contractor know the issue is being resolved.

    Open communication

    Meet with the contractor at the start of the project to open the lines of communication. Always give the contractor a second point of contact, in the event the project manager is unavailable.

    Contractors are usually more willing to work out small problems if they know there is a person they can contact who is knowledgeable about the project and who can respond to their questions. Good communication and a willingness to work with the contractor team is the simplest way to avoid having a "small" problem become a "big" problem.

    Another way to improve communication with the contractor is to schedule regular site visits to review the progress of the project. Problems discovered during each stage of construction are much easier and less costly resolve than problems that are not discovered until the end of the project. A contractor is much more willing to work with you to solve a problem if you discover them and work out a solution together.

    Designer involvement throughout

    Assign the person who designed the project the job of handling construction administration. This ensures that the person who is most knowledgeable about the project is working with the contractor. Avoid the temptation to put "junior staff" or someone who is not familiar with the project in charge of construction administration. There is little time for someone to get up-to-speed on an accelerated construction schedule project.

    Paul Jones is a principal electrical engineer with Coffman Engineers, and specializes in the design and construction of educational facilities.

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