It Don’t Come Easy!

Construction management in a nutshell is the planning, organizing, implementing and controlling of a project’s time, costs, resources and cash flow. Construction projects are made up of hundreds of interdependent tasks that have a specific order that they must occur. Success in construction management begins with a well thought out plan for the unfolding of events. The secret to a good plan for construction; build it before you build it. Without first a good plan all else is chaos.

Following establishing a good project “plan” is the organization of that plan into tools that can be used to implement the project. Examples of project organizing tools are budgets, schedules, cash flow diagrams, manning charts and resource schedules. The secret of success here is that they must be realistic. Unrealistic tools tied to an unrealistic game plan is a sure way for construction project failure. Successful construction management always starts with a realistic organized plan.

The organized tools, tied to a realistic plan, are used to implement the construction project. These tools are the sheets of music that each member of the construction team will play from. The secret to success here is having the right team in place to implement the project. The “right” team is one that is operating in sync with the other members and the organized plan. Leadership is key to the success in the implementing of a construction project.

Construction projects never unfold exactly how they are planned; this is a given! Success in construction management allows for deviation from an organized plan as it is being implemented. The key to success here is the timely revisions to the project plan, updating the tools accordingly and then implementing the changes without missing a beat in the orchestrating of the project. Here again, leadership is key. Construction project leadership comes with experience.

Successful construction management does not just happen. Any construction project failures, the results of which are overrun budgets, costly court battles, project completion delays and poor project quality, could have been avoided if time and effort were put into these principles of succesful construction management. It don’t come easy!


Putting Facilities Construction Estimating in Context


The First Line of Defense against Cost Overruns is an Accurate Budget Estimate

Lighthouse in ocean

Bell Rock Lighthouse–built in 1810

On Bell Rock off the coast of Angus, England sits the world’s oldest surviving lighthouse. This 116’ tall granite structure was built by Robert Stevenson starting in 1807. The project was completed and functioning by February 1811. The construction duration approached 5 years and the cost exceeded the original budget estimate by 60%.

Just another example of a public funded project exceeding budgets of time and money?

Did I mention that the Bell Rock is a treacherous sea-washed submerged reef, located 15 miles off the coast, and the base of the lighthouse is 12 feet underwater at high tide, 4 feet above water at low tide? Did I neglect to mention that during construction the rock was hammered with brutal storms 5 months out of the year and that labor shortages were on-going due to a war with France? Compounding these issues, the granite specified for this project was not native to the area and had to be brought in by wagon at a premium expense.

Context Matters: The engineer’s plans and specification were well defined for the Bell Rock Lighthouse. The baseline budget was established. The project was seemingly straightforward when viewed from the two dimensional form of the Architect/ Engineers (AE) plans and specifications.  Lighthouse with base submerged in oceanThe budgetary estimating lessons learned here are not too different from those that continue to frustrate facility managers today. The accurate estimating of construction goes well beyond the project drawings (things always connect together neatly on drawings) and must include an accounting of the realities of the environment where the project is constructed. The fact is: project context matters!

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Costing Construction

Let’s start with a little bit of sarcasm. Imagine an advertisement for the latest construction estimating software; “….. With click and drag speed you can choose from thousands of line items of unit cost national average data and build accurate cost estimates….blah, blah, blah! ” This is not a real advertisement; I made it up to make a point. Thrifty, speedy estimating software coupled with unit cost construction data does NOT an accurate estimate make!!!

There is No Time: Let’s be honest; we all get lazy particularly when we are pressed for time. We are always looking for shortcuts in our “means” to get to an “end.” The facilities manager is already strapped for time with another demanding tenant, tight timelines, on-going operations, and emergency fixes. Budgetary estimating is just another pesky necessity that gets in the way of progress. The problem is that decisions on facilities issues are generally made based on cost considerations. There is always someone asking “how much is it going to cost?” The budget estimate is just another task that takes from the already limited time in a day.
The truth is that when time is tight, shortcuts are taken. Sadly, some budgets are derived from a “click and drag speed” application of software. Unit pricing is thrown at a project from a data source with little thought given… verbatim! It is then “ipso-presto” and another budget cost estimate is ready to wreak havoc on a project as reality is revealed. Just because it comes from a published resource and is well-known does not make it correct for your project. Choosing, Clicking, and dragging is not construction estimating. Much like the old adage “you always get what you pay for” for accurate budget estimators this is “you get the accuracy from it from the accuracy you put into it.”

The Consequences: Starting a project with a poorly thought-out project cost plan is simply setting the project up for budget overruns, under runs and run away froms. Failing to plan is planning to fail! In the long run it is easier to put the time in up front to establish a correct budget then it is to deal with the project in a crisis mode as the job unfolds. The first crisis will occur when the contractor bids are greater than the budget estimate. Ooops! It is here that you can ask the customer to cut scope or return to the funding source and ask for more money. Good luck on either account.  Accurate budgetary estimating requires a thought out effort of building the project before the project is built. All scope, quantities and unit pricing must reflect the realities of the project or suffer the consequences.

Construction Costing: The process of construction cost estimating starts with scope and ends with the pricing of the project quantities. Pricing the project is a lot more than a spreadsheet and unit prices from an average cost database. Contractors have pricing sources such as vendors, subcontractor’s, suppliers and their own historical costs. They are usually secretive about these prices because they reflect their own discounts and productivity…things that make them competitive. Budgetary estimators must rely on their own sources such as the internet, select vendors and published cost data. Published costs are not generally site specific and they reflect an average job, with average productivity and average hassles. This is typically not your project. Unit costs will have to be adjusted away from an average to fit the realities of your project. Unit costs for direct activities include material, labor and equipment. These are the direct costs; directly attributable to the physical final project. Then there are the indirect costs; these are all the cost items that support to the direct activities.

Direct Costs: The direct construction costs are those that are attributable to any of the direct activities or tasks required to put the components of the project together. The hard costs for construction materials, labor and equipment are the direct costs. Many of the national average published cost data unit costs are focused only on direct costing of construction in a place of average productivity in an average context working environment. Average is the starting point. The estimator will have to make necessary adjustments to the average unit construction costs to fit the complex specifics of the project being estimated. These adjustments come from knowledge of the “average” of the database and how the project deviates from that.
Then there is the issue of bare costing or total direct costing. Bare is exactly that; it is the bare cost of the direct activities less any mark ups for labor burden, taxes, bond, overhead and profit. The total unit direct costs should then include all the direct additions to labor, materials and equipment. Labor is adjusted for necessary “burdens” such as social security (fica), federal and state unemployment (futa, suta). All direct costs are then adjusted to include home office overhead and profit for the installing contractor. All these adjustments to bare direct construction costs can get complicated and must be understood as applied to the specific job but also understood in the published unit cost data. Are they included in the data or do they need to be added? The adjustments to very bare direct costs can be 40% to 50% higher depending on the mix of labor and material. The misunderstanding of direct costs and published cost data is usually where the first mistakes are made in construction costing.

Indirect Costs: The indirect costs are those project costs that are indirectly attributable to all the direct stuff. Site specific indirect costs include site superintendent, site trailers, permits, temporary utilities and other support for all the direct activities. Site overhead costs can be 5% to 15% of the overall project cost. Other indirect costs include performance bond, payment bond, sales taxes, contingencies and markups for overhead and profit for the general contractor. This markup is over and above what a subcontractor will mark up for overhead and profit on the direct costs. This double mark up of overhead and profit is the reality of construction and construction costing.

Costing Construction: You can see that a simple application of unit costs from a national average cost database from a quickly applied software module is not construction estimating. Costing construction is much more than just an application of unit prices. Don’t get me wrong, estimating software is great and helpful. Published construction cost data is also very helpful for budgetary estimating and for checks and balances in bidding. It is in the application of the software and unit costs where some budgetary estimates go very wrong.


Losing Your Shirt Under Perfect Control

I heard the Critical Path Method (CPM) defined once as a management technique for losing your shirt under perfect control! Not so funny if you have ever been at the management end of a tight timeline, in an old facility, around on-going operations with the concrete truck on its way and the formwork delayed because the backhoe is out of fuel!! Welcome to the world of construction; stuff happens! With construction nothing is ever really under “perfect control” but with the right systems in place you can get close. 

The Metrics: Just the knowing that a project is out of control is crucial to keeping a project under control. Put another way; isn’t it good to know you are going bankrupt as you are going bankrupt?  At least then you can make some adjustments to avoid the disaster! The secret is in the knowing first and reacting second!  Projects that spiral towards failure are those that can’t break out of reacting because the “knowing” is incorrect or it does not exist. Knowing what? Knowing where the key project metrics such as timecosts, resources, and cash flow are relative to a datum (the project plan). Good project managers will always know where these project metrics are because they are indicative of the immediate health of the project. In a project management cycle the metrics are Planned, ImplementedMeasured (actual vs. budgeted) and then reacted to, correcting for deviations by making changes to the original plan.  This is the project control cycle and it is continuous as a project unfolds. It is inevitable with all the things going on in construction; stuff just happens! Plans must change. The project control cycle will show the deviations to the plan which will help in making corrections as long as the original project plan was accurate. Comparing project “actuals” to a false plan will lead to poor corrections that can spiral the project more out of control. A poor plan for time, costs, resources and cash flow is sometimes worse than no plan. Good planning matters!!


Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail:  Imagine a trip from Seattle to San Diego using a road map to Dallas, Texas. As you travel south the road signs point you in a direction that does not match the plan causing great consternation to the driver. Hasty plans make for troubling travel.  Failing to plan a project (correctly) is like setting your project up for failure. We have all been at that place where the physical project must start because time is tight (it always is) and “there is no time to waste.” Myself, I would much rather “lose” a few weeks at the upfront in properly planning a project and regain that time many times over as the project unfolds. All good projects are built several times before they are finally physically built.  Absolutely!  Poorly planned projects are often found spiraling downward into a reactive mode which will just add to the lost time, increased costs, inefficient implementation of resources and negative cash flow. As the saying goes….failing to plan is planning to fail!


 Cost Control:  In the project control loop the projects actual costs are measured against budgeted costs. This measurement will show the deviations in planned vs. budgeted which is key to controlling a projects cost. With a well thought out “cost plan” (the budget) the deviations will be manageable and adjustments can be made to minimize the impact on the final cost of the project. If a project budget does not exist or is poorly thought out, then controlling costs is difficult (someone please explain this to the executive branch of our federal government). At the heart of and crucial to controlling costs is an accurate cost estimate which translates into a cost budget. A cost estimate then is very important to cost control. The four phases of cost estimating and in turn accurately budgeting a projects cost are:

Scoping Phase: The best approach to scoping a project is to think through building the project from the ground up. Think like a contractor and include the scope of means and methods for executing the work as well as the scope issues relative to the context (location, weather, traffic, safety measures, economic conditions, availability of resources…) of where the project is built. Construction scope is much more than that which is spelled out in plans and specifications. Anticipating context and execution scope are often times overlooked in budget estimating. Scope, scope, scope!! The best estimators that I have ever worked with are those that come from the field because they know scope from the ground up. A prerequisite to construction estimating and budgeting should be the working at a trade to learn the field end of construction which is so important to capturing correct scope. Scope is the foundation to every other phase of construction estimating. If scope is wrong a project budget is wrong. Enough said!

Quantify Phase: Quantity take-off is the converting of all tasks of scope into quantities so that they can be priced. Mistakes in quantities can be significant. Common errors are generally with math or converting units from one measure to another. If the scope is well thought out, then quantities will follow. Quantities should always be checked and double checked.

Pricing Phase: Pricing is the application of accurate unit costs to the project task quantities. Common mistakes are applying unit costs where the units are different from the quantity take-off (i.e. Cubic Yards vs. Cubic feet). Note also that a project’s overall cost goes well beyond just the direct costing of direct activities. A project cost should also include the indirect costs such as site specific overhead (indirectly attributable to all the project direct costs and can be 5% to 15% of project cost), home office overhead, profit, bond, sales taxes and even certain contingencies.

Double Check Phase: All good cost estimates are checked and double checked prior to establishing it as the project budget or bid price for a project. An estimate double check is always most effective by putting the project down for a day and return with a fresh mindset.

Keeping Your Shirt Under Perfect Control:  At the foundation of project cost control is an accurate cost estimate. In actuality the foundation to any of the project metrics of time, costs, resources, and cash flow is also an accurate estimate. Time schedules, resource schedules and cash flow plans all come from a well thought out cost estimate. Building a project before a project is built!  Having a complete and accurate plan for a project is the secret to keeping your shirt under perfect control!