Under Control

Given a choice, school districts, teachers, parents, students and communities would desire that construction projects go smoothly, producing high-quality facilities delivered both on schedule and on budget.

To ensure that money is not spent unnecessarily, the overall process must be managed efficiently during all stages: planning/design, bid/award and construction. Containing costs can go a long way toward building a better facility, and may enable you to add some amenities that were previously not in the budget.

Planning and design

The initial phase of your school construction project can put you on the road to containing costs. Some things to consider.

  • Identify the scope of the project and its key stakeholders

    One of the most common causes of rising project costs stems from a failure to adequately define project scope. To accurately define scope, it is first necessary to identify the stakeholders who will be involved in the decisionmaking and specifically define their roles.

    Many school districts choose to involve facilities personnel, school boards, teachers, local business representatives and citizens advisory committees in the building process. Clearly identifying each individual or group participating, their roles and deadlines will minimize confusion and inefficiencies that may push costs upward later.

  • Determine and prioritize educational goals

    When determining project scope, the mission and educational goals of the district must be defined. Once determined, these goals must be prioritized to provide flexibility to deal with economic changes, program adjustments and unforeseen circumstances that might challenge the budget during the design stages.

    Keeping the process moving is critical so you don't waste time and money.

  • Develop a project master schedule

    Key decisions made regarding a project schedule and target occupancy date will directly affect your ability to contain costs. Weather, the school calendar and general economic conditions are just a few examples of factors that can throw a schedule into disarray.

    Establishing deadlines for completion of the design, including the appropriate periods for plan check and agency approvals, can be critical. Make sure they coincide with the best times of the year to bid and build a project.

    For example, if a project is required to start in or work through the winter or rainy season, and the appropriate inclement weather days are not built into the schedule, the builder will be forced to work more overtime or provide a larger-than-normal workforce to meet the schedule. This will drive up labor costs. Developing a solid master schedule that allows an appropriate timeframe for all phases of a project can help avoid such unnecessary cost expenditures.

  • Choose your building team early to control costs

    Bringing an experienced contractor on board at the beginning of a project — before the final drawings are completed — can save substantial amounts of money. Builders can supply informed opinions on the validity of preliminary cost estimates and offer documented information about alternative materials and systems that should be considered.

    Small changes and enhancements to the early design concepts require fewer work hours and less effort than last-minute, bricks-and-mortar changes. These also reduce uncertainty about “owner intent” during the bidding phase and consequently reduce the risk of change orders later for items that were intended but not defined clearly.

  • Do your homework

    Not all project activities are directly controllable by your team's stakeholders. Approval processes (for funding, certificates of need and building permits) can be lengthy and filled with red tape. If you do not get a running start to clear hurdles in the early stages, it might be difficult to speed up the project, simply because of the interrelatedness of certain activities required during the process. Construction, after all, is a momentum-sensitive business.

Permission granted

The bid and award phase also can present opportunities to cut costs.

When choosing a contractor, examine the company's bonding ability, financial capacity, project experience, past performance and the quality of the project team.

Be sure to ask about the company's experience in building the type of facility that you want, and check out the company's performance track record. Also, select a bid date that will minimize conflicts with other projects bidding at the same time to ensure the best response from the contractor community.

If you choose a contractor who takes a job for significantly less than the rest of the bidding field, the firm likely will try to cut corners, and your job could suffer significantly in the end.

Look carefully at the group of bid numbers; if one bid stands out as far too low, the bidder either discounted its numbers on subcontractors or made a major error that will force the company to try and recover its losses later via expensive change orders. Ultimately, low initial bids do not guarantee low final cost.

Time to build

The construction phase is the final chance to contain costs in your building project. For instance:

  • Choose a coordinator

    Building is an interrelated process: you cannot put up the fixtures until the drywall is up; you cannot install the drywall until the electrical and plumbing roughins are in place and so on and so on.

    Because coordination of a specific sequence of events is critical in any construction project, one member of the team needs to take responsibility for managing and overseeing who does what on a daily basis. This person ultimately will be responsible for the management and coordination of all specific sequences and events during the construction stage. Otherwise, chaos will result, which will result in significant inefficiencies — and unnecessary costs.

  • Establish clear lines of authority

    A single source of authority must be identified for each of the three key players on the building team: the school, the architect and the builder. Each of these individuals should be knowledgeable about the project and have the authority to make final decisions.

    Every effort should be made to retain the same representatives throughout the project to facilitate decisionmaking.

  • Use partnering

    Encourage open communication between all team members. Partnering — an informal or formal commitment by a school or university, architect, contractor, subcontractors and consultants to work cooperatively on a project — can build trust among team members. Ultimately, this trust can result in decisions being made more quickly, keeping a lid on costs.

  • Keep control of change orders

    Changes often are disruptive and costly. They should be considered individually in terms of their necessity, cost and impact on the construction schedule. However, if changes must be made, don't delay. Allow maximum time to negotiate and execute all modifications.

  • Make timely payments

    When payment from a school or university is in doubt, a contractor's enthusiasm for a project diminishes. A schedule of monthly payments will keep the construction team motivated.

In the end, you want your contractor to be concerned with getting your school finished, and not worried about getting paid. The quickest-paying institutions and contractors usually can expect to receive positive results in both quality and schedule. Interest for late payments is a waste of money and rarely is factored into the budgeting process.

Henry is vice president, education services for McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., St. Louis. Currently, he is responsible for leading the firm's Education Services Group to provide construction services for elementary and secondary education facilities nationwide.

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