Lessons in Collaboration

No matter how you define it, experts agree that one of the keys to a successful construction project is effective collaboration by the various participants.

“Collaboration means getting the client or building owner, general contractor and subcontractors, and design team on board, understanding their needs, and making the project happen to everyone’s satisfaction,” said Tony Bonaduce, owner of general contracting firm EBS Builders, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.

Throughout his four decades in the field, Bonaduce has seen the fallout of ineffective collaboration.

“If there’s no collaboration on the front end, you end up with a project that has a lot of change orders and cost overruns, doesn’t stay on schedule and misses deadlines, which creates a lot of contention and finger-pointing regarding who dropped the ball,” he said. “When a client [or] building owner comes to the job site and sees things they didn’t want, expect or even know about, it doesn’t give them a feeling of confidence. Reworking things after the fact, such as opening up walls and ceilings again to redo the lighting, is costly, and those contractors might not be invited back to the job.”

Sebastian Jofre, owner of New York-based Optimal System Solutions, said ignoring collaboration could lead to being left behind.

“I recently saw a contractor forced out of business because he was so lax about collaborating and communicating with his clients,” he said. “The owners would sometimes come to the jobs and had no idea about some of the things being done because the contractor didn’t communicate with them or anyone else on the project, which makes owners feel like they’re not being heard and are only there to pay the bills.

“[Lack of collaboration] can cause projects to take several times longer to complete than they should, not to mention the extra charge for changes, which clients typically don’t want to pay and contractors don’t want to have to absorb. For all of those reasons, collaboration is as important as the project itself. Otherwise the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and the mistakes can be costly,” Jofre said.

A recent Construction Industry Institute (CII) study revealed the cost of rework in the United States can range from 2–20 percent of a project’s total contract amount when all labor, materials, equipment and subcontractors are accounted for­. It is an estimated total of $15 billion annually. 

Much of this overrun is caused by building owners, “but contractors often have to pick up some portion of this, which is difficult for an industry that only works on a margin of 1–2 percent to begin with,” said James Benham, CEO of JBKnowledge and adjunct professor of construction science at Texas A&M University.

With effective collaboration, “the client ends up with exactly what they want, the project completes on time and on budget and everyone on the team—including the [general contractor], the electrical contractor/electrician, and the architect—are recommended to the next project,” Bonaduce said.

Technology rules

Benham supports contractors nationwide in selecting the optimal technology to help streamline their businesses, and his company provides building information modeling (BIM) services for a range of contractors nationwide at various stages of construction.

“We’re seeing greater adoption of [BIM] overall and owners increasingly requiring the use of 3-D/virtual design and construction tools by their contractors and design team,” he said. “More and more, owners want their buildings designed and built virtually before they’re built physically so that they can work through any issues before construction begins.”

A number of IT tools and software packages are available to help contractors better communicate with owners and colleagues and manage projects more productively. Benham’s company surveys thousands of builders and produces an annual Construction Tech Report (available at http://jbknowledge.com/report) listing popular software tools for each phase of construction, including BIM. Benham described the following software examples:

 Revit: “This BIM software is among the most popular solutions for designing in 3-D. Overall, products like these can create highly developed models, which allow users to extract massive amounts of data, including quantities and cost, which are referred to as the fifth dimension, or 5-D models, and which help apply the further dimensions of cost and scheduling. These types of tools allow project participants to find issues before physical construction, when they’re cheaper and easier to solve.”

 Solibri: “This program takes a 3-D model and runs it through ‘clash detection’ in search of two points of geometry that can’t co-exist, such as two pipes in the same space. It also runs a rules engine over the model, overlaying regulatory restrictions in that area, such as ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and other government regulatory compliance as well as local and federal electrical codes, fire codes, etc. … Owners like this tool because it allows for the whole team to collaborate, keeps everyone on the same page and avoids potential problems later.”

 Synchro: The element of scheduling is often considered the fourth dimension within the design and planning process. “This program applies a schedule to a 3-D model and animates it for enhanced visualization, essentially turning the construction process into a movie,” Benham said. “This allows teams to quickly explore alternatives in the pre-construction phase and ensure that the project stays on track during construction.”

 Revizto: A number of web-based tools are available that enable project partners to review plans on a web browser as opposed to downloading them. Among these, the highly shareable Revizto “allows colleagues to log onto models via an iPad and brings owners and contractors onto one technology platform so that they can work together,” he said.

 Facility management software: “[After construction,] we encourage building owners to put their physical building data and virtual model into any of a number of robust facility management software tools on the market to help properly maintain their buildings so that their systems don’t wear out too soon,” Benham said. He added that many buildings are poorly maintained, which undermines the original investment in their construction. Information exchange specifications, such as Construction-Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie), make it possible for building professionals to place data populated in their BIM into their facility management software.

Field notes

Our experts offered the following additional tips to help promote greater collaboration in construction.

Assemble the team: At the start of a new construction project, “there should be one or more meetings between the building owner/client, general contractor, electrician or electrical contractor, and designer so that the team can get a feeling for the job’s needs, layout and expectations,” Bonaduce said.

Electrical considerations may include everything from wiring for security systems installed in doorways or concealed in floors to speakers, fire alarms, and building management systems that enable heat, air conditioning, lighting and other building systems to be controlled from a central headquarters.

“Depending on the complexity of the project, it might be beneficial to also bring the architect and/or engineer to the initial meetings; otherwise, you can bring them in once you have something conceptual to deliver to them,” Bonaduce said.

Communicate regularly: “We give all of our clients a weekly update so that they know what’s going on from the beginning to the end of the project, along with images,” Bonaduce said. “Everyone on the team needs to commit to this process, including and especially building owners/clients, many of whom aren’t necessarily aware of all of the behind-the-scenes systems that need to be put in place during the construction process. We’ve found that email, phone calls and in-person discussions are effective ways to keep this process on track.”

Jofre said building owners need to be visible participants in the process.

“They have to be engaged in the project and stop by the job at least occasionally to introduce themselves and make themselves more approachable,” he said. “It’s important that they clearly express their expectations and work directly with the general contractor, who’s responsible for coordinating all of the subcontractors from there.”

Put it in writing: Though construction teams are often focused on meeting deadlines at all costs, Jofre said that waiting can sometimes save time and money.

“We’re not just going to do something on the plan if it’s wrong; we’ll wait for new plans,” he said. “Ideally, everything needs to be documented on the plan, even if the change is hand-drawn in and signed with the date.”

Details covered in phone discussions may be forgotten later. Also, professionals can turn over in the course of a project. You can always go back to anything in writing.

Be resourceful: Despite everyone’s best intentions, issues do arise on jobs, and when they do, contractors should be resourceful in the field.

“Sometimes there’s structural damage or concealed building conditions that weren’t anticipated and are only revealed after the Sheetrock is torn down,” Bonaduce said.

Other times, another contractor’s work may need to be fixed.

“We were recently called into a retail store with 20-foot ceilings where the previous contractor had installed lights that were too far from the floor and didn’t light the space or merchandise well,” Bonaduce said. “We came back with a solution of LEDs that hung from pendants so that we could get them closer to the space. In a case like that, it helps for a contractor to test and demonstrate the fixtures in the space before installing them.”

Tap into technology: “Contractors need to recognize that the use of technology in construction delivers [return on investment],” Benham said. “These tools help enable less to be spent on rework, delivering benefits in the form of the cost of the mistakes you don’t make. A good suite of technological tools can reduce the occurrence of issues that result in additional direct and indirect costs and enable contractors to make more profit in a low-margin business. Building owners and even residential property owners should require the use of these tools and the process of virtual design construction and collaboration because everyone benefits from it.”

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