Mike Sherman doesn't send the Green Bay Packers out without a game plan. Similarly, an experienced owner needs a “game plan” for a quality construction project. Preconstruction is the key play.

Preconstruction is the arduous honing process of creating the construction project documents and setting the project budget and schedule. The construction management team works with the building owner, architects, engineers, and related consultants to help facilitate the building design process. The final result is a smooth transition into a predictable construction period with no surprises.

Learning the Jargon

An owner can avoid common, and potentially costly, mistakes by making changes to a piece of paper during preconstruction rather than waiting until construction has begun or, worse yet, waiting until a building already has been built. The first move toward effective, early decision making is to understand the terminology describing the step-by-step preconstruction process. It is important that the following steps be completed in sequence and given their due diligence, as shortchanging any step can lead to bad decisions.

Programming. This is the process of listing detailed requirements of rooms and spaces, including their desired size and any special requirements an area might need. This process develops the building's gross and net square footage.

Conceptual design. This is the project team's initial creation of the building's mass or shape, as well as its basic floor plan and site plan ideas and studies. This is a great place to begin laying down basic overall cost parameters and to think about relationships between spaces and rooms or departments.

Schematic design. During this phase, the refinement of the chosen concept plans begins. At this point, the scale and relationships between rooms, areas, and buildings are determined. The owner and the project team begin to discuss mechanical, electrical, and structural systems in relatively general terms. The design phase is an owner's best time to test his or her options.

Design development. This phase starts after the owner's approval of the schematic plans. From there, the plans are refined even further to allow more specific budget and schedule estimates. At the end of this phase, drawings are approximately 35% completed and include enough detail to show how the building will function. The drawings also include a clearer definition of the scope of systems in the building, as well as the room-finish schedule with basic materials. The end of this phase marks the project design's completion.

Construction documents. Construction documents are contractual documents defining a project in its greatest detail. They are also the final drawings and specifications that the project team relies on for bidding out work to subcontractors.

Avoiding Miscommunication

By knowing the preconstruction jargon described above, an owner can avoid simple misunderstandings. This is important because commitments are made as the preconstruction process proceeds.

Here's an example of how such a misunderstanding might occur: An architect explains to an owner that the preconstruction team has passed the schematic design phase and is now into design development. In a designer's mind, this means the owner has committed to the current design, but if the owner is not familiar with the jargon, he or she might assume this is just an update and might not realize how far the process has progressed.

It's also important for owners to know the roles of each individual on the project team. Many times owners with new projects are unfamiliar with the design and construction process and do not understand the roles of a designer or project architect. Part of the preconstruction process is asking questions and clarifying project responsibilities, which owners should be encouraged to do.

Keeping Design Development in Mind

One thing both owners and architects can be guilty of is shortchanging the important design development portion of the preconstruction process. This phase is critical to the success of a project, because it shows the owner exactly what he or she will be purchasing.

During design development, an owner's specific project loses its generalizations and comes to life. However, because of budget and time constraints, this phase is often shortened or overlooked before construction documents are finalized for bidding.

When rushed, an architect might expedite the design development phase to accommodate an owner's schedule and budget. However, any good construction manager will make sure all elements of preconstruction get the attention they deserve.

Owners should know that design development is beneficial for keeping budgets in check and making sure drawing details correspond with the intent of their projects. During this phase is the time to discuss all of the systems and infrastructure in the building. A well-run design development phase can easily reveal extra money in the budget that can be reinvested into the project.

To put it frankly, if the construction and design team members don't plan properly during preconstruction, they're going to be forced to spend more money solving problems in the field instead of up front. Although it seems like common sense, design development is commonly overlooked.

Stopping Surprise Costs

At the end of the preconstruction process, an owner will not only have a total project budget, but also a construction budget. Sometimes 35% of a construction budget is “soft costs.” These can include anything from legal fees to asbestos-abatement costs to the costs of artwork and signage. An owner's failure to take into account these related costs in the total project budget could derail a project down the road. Good construction managers will support an overall project budget that reflects all costs.

The Importance of Owner Organization

As is the case in many situations, an owner's high level of organization during preconstruction can go a long way toward preventing future problems. While this might sound obvious, organizing people, or herding cats, is not always so easy.

For example, the owner should designate an ultimate decision maker on every project. When this is not done, the lack of leadership results in countless, time-consuming debates on concept versus functionality versus layout, etc. If the owner has a committee overseeing the project, there should be a committee chairperson who understands that his or her role includes making some tough calls.

When the initial discussion about a new project ensues, so should discussion about who will make the final decisions.

Love Your Team

Finally, some words of wisdom for owners: The most important aspect to consider when hiring a construction manager is “chemistry.” Your construction manager will be making extremely important decisions with you for years to come about the function and design of your building. Take the “smell test”—ask whether you will be able to live with the construction manager for years.

A good analogy to describe how to select your construction team is to relate it to the process of planning a long trip. The architect is the travel agent, making your plans and reservations, and the construction manager goes on the trip with you. The better connection there is between your personalities, the better communication will be and, therefore, the better the project will be. After all, you have a better chance of winning the game if you love your team. HD