Crunch Time for Royal Electric at the Port Columbus International Airport

Greg and Susan Ernst run Royal Electric as co-presidents today. They gained direct knowledge of the intensive, snowballing effects of job compression through their experience at the Port Columbus International Airport. Originally built in 1928, the airport is just six miles from downtown Columbus. It’s grown to serve 3.4 million passengers this year (up from 1.8 million in 1990), with 22 carriers in three concourses and 32 gates. The Airport’s 20-year Master Plan includes new runways, control tower, parking facilities, new concourses in the existing terminal, food and retail renovations, and a completely new terminal building. The comprehensive plan also included construction of a spacious, well-lit permanent enclosed atrium (PEA) at the airport entrance. Designed to be retrofitted on the existing terminal, the four-story, vaulted structure offered a new entryway for the public from the new parking garage and main entrance. The design called for people-mover sidewalks, escalators, glass elevators, and top-quality lighting of the public areas and featured artwork in the middle of the atrium. The PEA was one phase of the airport modernization. The project is being completed in seven phases in order to minimize disruption to the airport and its operations. The Gilbane Company was selected as construction manager on the PEA by the Columbus Port Authority, who manages the airport. Enter Royal Electric Royal had been working at the airport on various projects for more than five years before winning the public bid for the electrical work on the PEA. They had installed fiber for flight information systems, and had wired restaurants, retail shops, concourse renovations, generator installations, and more. Royal acted as a prime contractor under Gilbane on the PEA. The 13-month original construction schedule for the project, from August 15, 1998, to September 21, 1999, included 9,500 hours of electrical work from Royal Electric. This involved new electrical service for the area, new lighting, power distribution panels, fire systems, sound, and paging systems. The lighting work included linear fixtures hung on cables, down through the parking garage tunnel and along the walkways. It also included large floodlights on the walls shining into the first level of atrium and high hat fixtures on the ceilings. Lighting fixtures were purchased and stored in Royal’s warehouse facility so they would be available at each phase of the process. Today, the PEA greets all Port Columbus passengers and traffic, but the actual finish date was February 28, 2000—with a total of 18,000 hours put in by Royal Electric over almost 18 months. What happened? Delays began almost immediately after the coordination meeting in August of 1998. The structural steel detailer failed to provide his work on a timely basis, resulting in fabrication delays. Auger cast pile work was improperly completed by the general contractor, who then compounded their problems by leaving the existing skin on the building. This meant that the skin had to be penetrated at specific locations to get measurements. That made the measurements inaccurate, which caused more steel problems. The result? A five-month delay in the schedule. Steel erection was originally to begin December 21, 1998, and be completed February 5, 1999. It finally started in July of 1999. “Oh, there were advisements that work was being impacted by all these holdups, but we only started discussing a compressed schedule in September—more than two months after steel erection finally began,” said Susan Ernst. Contractors started a compressed schedule—without negotiations being completed for compensation—in the beginning of October. The whole PEA project was completed in February 2000, after five months of schedule compression. “That’s an awfully long compression schedule,” said Susan Ernst, who noted that neither the NECA Manual nor the Means Manual had inefficiency factors for that extended a schedule compression. “It was tough at the end for all the contractors. We were stacked badly, and it made things even more inefficient,” said Greg Ernst. “Many trades were packed in a small area, with everybody on top of one another. Painters were trying to paint while we were putting wire in walls. The flooring installers were told to put ceramic tile down before we got our lights up...” After planning the original, detailed compression schedule, things fell apart. For example, after the metal studs went up, Royal would follow with a piece of conduit to rough in the wall immediately. Right behind Royal’s installers would be the drywallers, then the drywall finishers, then right behind them would be the painters. As it turned out, coordination was too confined to be able to synchronize the work. “It got to the point where we couldn’t wait and we were putting finish devices on before painting was complete. The painters would remove them and we’d have to re-install,” remembered Ron Coleman, Royal’s senior project manager. Compression cost negotiations begin Along with other contractors on the PEA project, Royal asked the construction manager for additional funds for the job compression in the fall of 1999-about the same time they began the compression schedule. To complicate matters further, the 13-week compression schedule turned into a 20-week compression. No one anticipated the last seven weeks. Royal tried to negotiate additional money for a13—week job compression. Their negotiation points included: * Two non-working foremen to keep everything operating. * Some 4,000 hours of overtime after doubled manpower, beyond the original 9,500 hours. * The cost for added platform lifts, which were required during the compression. * Labor inefficiency factors. Royal managers used the Means Manual and NECA Manual to calculate compression inefficiency factors. But even with those factors, the construction manager wouldn’t accept them. “We weren’t well-versed enough in schedule compression to know for sure if the numbers were correct, either,” said Susan Ernst. The construction manager significantly reduced compression costs. “The length of the negotiations strapped us financially to meet payroll, so we were forced to concede for cash flow purposes,” said Susan Ernst. There was still the option of re-negotiation if the company could prove the compressed schedule cost was what the Means and NECA numbers indicated. As it turned out, the Means and NECA numbers were correct, and Royal has had to go back and prove that to the construction manager-months after the project was completed. Lessons learned Looking back, the Ernsts and Royal Electric realize several things they could have done differently. “We were too lenient with our inefficiencies,” said Greg Ernst. “We did not figure them all, like too few tools for the number of men working, not enough project management from the office, materials and staging problems, and too many people working in too confined a space. “Lloyd Rinehart, our general foreman for the project, led the field effort. Without his supervisory experience in the field, we could have had a catastrophe. Lloyd did an outstanding job and deserves a ‘Foreman of the Year’ award. In addition, Gary Gercic, IBEW 683’s local business representative, was invaluable in supplying qualified manpower for our ever-changing staffing requirements.” In initial negotiations, they neglected to factor in costs for additional tools, which became a critical problem during the compression. They know now that they should have been more knowledgeable about schedule compression costs and better able to negotiate their position before the compression took place. They realize that a 13-week compressed schedule was unrealistic, given the constraints of the job. They also believe they should have negotiated a full-time project manager on site during the entire compression. “Unfortunately, without having any experience with compression, we didn’t even know to negotiate it,” said the Ernsts. “It really aggravated the circumstances because we had just recently taken over management of the company, right in the middle of the project. We were thrown into these negotiations,” said Greg Ernst. “We ended up having to settle just to make our payroll.” Royal Electric pushes on Royal will continue to pursue contracts at Port Columbus. Their number of journeymen with badges makes it easier to secure work quickly. It can take weeks and even months to obtain a badge. The company plans to bid on the airport’s new air traffic control tower soon. Because Susan Ernst owns 51 percent of the firm’s stock, Royal qualifies as a woman-owned disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE). This makes the company eligible to bid on the Airport’s new air traffic control tower, which will be built without public bids, using only DBE contractors. To be located at the southeast corner of Sawyer Road and International Gateway, the new tower is needed to handle future growth, and the existing tower technology is dated and unsuitable for upgrades. The new tower, a 224-foot-tall, 39,000-square-foot building, is estimated to cost $17.6 million and will be 100 percent federally funded. A fact of life for contractors Compressions and change orders are a fact of life for electrical contractors. Most jobs require additions, reworks, and modifications, and are subject to other trade and materials problems. The labor-intensive electrical industry often makes contractors vulnerable. A minor change can cause a substantial loss in efficiency. No matter what their length or scope is, compressions and changes have a significant ripple effect on schedules, costs, and efficiency. Unfortunately, their impact is also the most difficult to manage and quantify. The additional costs from Royal Electric’s experience are to be expected, according to many studies of schedule compression and acceleration. One study, Strategies for Minimizing the Economic Consequences of Schedule Acceleration and Compression, by Drs. H. Randolph Thomas, Jr. and Amr A. Oloufa, found example projects that took an average of 25 percent more hours than projected. In today’s deadline-intensive work environments, there are many examples of compressions like the one at Port Columbus International Airport. The key is to be prepared for them, with experience, foresight, and correct documentation. MAHAFFIE, a frequent contributor to Electrical Contractor, is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md. He can be reached at (301) 320-3488 or by e-mail at

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