Thursday, November 29, 2012

Work Breakdown Structure

“Back in the day”, we used 3-ring binders to keep all of our project information organized. We kept 3 copies of the binders: one in the office; one for the customer and; one for the project superintendent. We asked our customers to bring their binders to meetings so we could keep them updated, and we also “synced” the super’s binder at our weekly staff meetings.

Each binder was organized into categories using numerical tabs. We rationalized a somewhat sequential format that followed the progress of a construction project. Information was organized by code and task description. The binders established the foundation for a coding system that would be referred to in technical terms as, a work breakdown structure (WBS).

With the advent of computers, the office binder was supplemented with folders organized by project, but the information came in many varieties and we were far from paperless. Email, electronic fax, Palm Pilot PDAs, and VPN (virtual private networks) all changed the way we accessed and shared project information.

The “cloud” is the current change affecting the way that projects are managed. I read an article recently about a large homebuilder that has provided computer tablets to their field supervisors. I’m sure I’d find the use of the device to be interesting but, in reality a tablet is just a fancy tool for accessing information. No device can improve efficiency unless the structure and processes for managing the projects are in place first.

Project management is not exclusive to the construction industry. Most construction projects are designed and built by a team of professionals, each with their own specialization. The complexity of managing all of the separate individuals and businesses calls for an organized structure to outline the responsibilities of each team member contributing to the project. The first step in developing a work breakdown structure (WBS) starts with making a list of every task that must be performed to complete the project. All of the tasks are broken down into individual work packages that can be defined and assigned to a team member. In construction these tasks are commonly assigned to trade contractors as a scope of work.

To keep all of the work packages organized within the WBS, a coding system is frequently used. Coding formats that come to mind include cost accounting and within the commercial construction industry, specifications. Commercial construction projects commonly follow a recognized format provided by the design professionals, but residential construction does not share a standard. Following are some recognized standards:

  • CSI - Founded in 1948, The Construction Specifiers Institute authors MasterFormat, the dominant resource of the commercial construction industry. CSI is a product-specific format used by architects and engineers to specify the materials and products used in their projects.
  • NAHB - The National Association of Home Builders has a chart of accounts developed by accountants to enable financial comparisons of the members.
  • ICC - The International Code Council developed the International Building Code (IBC) and additional performance standards as resources to be used by each state for the development of their own building code. The premise behind the code is safety and the best interest of the public.
  • USGBC - The United States Green Building Council is the parent of LEED, the green certifying organization. The LEED organizational format supports conservation, sustainability and environmental awareness.

Review of these formats reveals that none are ideally suited for the residential market. If a coding system were to be created, how might it help facilitate the management of a residential construction project? Consider some of these aspects:

  • Support Integration - A format can be very powerful if it allows the various chores of project management to share the codes. Project management as a profession exists in many other industries besides just construction. Professional project managers use a Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS) and then break down all the tasks into the smallest unit of work or materials. The same codes are used in the estimate, specifications and time schedule and can also facilitate cost control and even the production of working drawings.
  • Chronological Order - Time phased coding makes perfect sense as it relates to a construction time schedule. Most estimators compile their numbers in the same order as a project is built? This is a natural process associated with first building the structure in your head before actually starting construction. A chronological format also enhances a proposal when it's presented to an Owner, enabling them to follow the process and find information easily. In the near future CAD drawings will become 4-D with the 4th dimension being time. Keep an eye out for these future technology advances. It's going to be really cool!
  • Logical Breakdown Structure - Upper level categories break down into subgroups and further down into individual tasks. The upper level categories combine logical task groups that facilitate conceptual estimate comparisons with other projects; for instance, structural or mechanical units costs. Individual tasks should be broken down until each represents a line-item from the detailed estimate, the specifications and the construction schedule.

The full ResConServ format is available for free to anyone within the residential design and construction industry. Our format has evolved over nearly 25 years building custom homes. It has served us well, but may not work for everyone. We welcome comments and encourage collaboration in support of a format that facilitates the organization and management of residential projects.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bidding Strategies

Best Price, Best Quality, Best Service: pick one or two but you can’t have all three. That’s what we are often told, however I challenge the notion and have some thoughts and ideas to share.

Back in the day nearly 20 years ago, we took pride in the high-caliber of our trade contractors. We were faithful to a select group and took good care of them. Generally they did the same for us, but I now think this is a rather "old school" approach. There were some fallacies to the approach that exposed us to certain surprises.

  • Did our vendors give us their best price or did we actually pay more for the loyalty we endowed upon them?
  • Did we compel them to consistently look for new ways of improving their businesses or were we paying for inefficiencies within their organizations?
  • Did we allow our vendors to make their own decisions about the products and installation techniques used in our homes or did we specify clearly.
  • Did we rely on our vendors to provide a high level of quality because we knew what to expect or did we instruct them in the manner we wanted things done?

Loyal relationships are good for every business, but an understanding of human nature likely gives us the answers to all the questions above. If I were to ask these questions to my own organization back in the day, we would all have to admit that we probably weren’t operating as efficiently as we could and were leaving money on the table.

In keeping with the strategy to obtain the best price and service, I have a few beliefs that support the effort:

  1. Solicit bids only from vendors I'm prepared to use.
  2. Use accurate construction drawings that anticipate needs of the vendors.
  3. Provide detailed specifications for the quality and extent of the work.
  4. Create scopes of work for each trade to follow per our company policies.
  5. Never shop bids. Always use the low competent bidder.

Consistent policies that respect the efforts of all bidders and support the needs of the selected vendors, establish a sustainable process for obtaining the best price, quality and service. By creating an environment for success, vendors will recognize your organization as the preferred company with whom they want to do business. - Keith Groninger

Working With Designers - Architect Brains

Learning to work with designers is both challenging and beneficial to your business. The keys to success may be hidden but can open doors of opportunity to builders willing to nurture the relationship.

Design is usually considered to be a right-brain function - the creative side of the brain. However, construction documents need accurate details and organized information; characteristics more common to left-brain function - the analytic side. I can’t deny that some designers possess adequate amounts of both characteristics, but a look at many of the best creative professions reveals this is not usually the case. As a builder given the choice, I choose the one-sided, right-brain, creative designer.

The motivation of this article comes in response to recent negative comments directed toward residential designers, accused of producing less than adequate construction drawings. Since I prefer creative designers, I realize there may be limitations to the documents I receive.

Construction drawings are part of an entire package of information that I use to manage my projects. Additionally, I need contracts, specifications, scopes of work and a construction schedule. I’m extremely good at managing projects my way, hence I like to control all of the information and keep it organized using our typical routines and procedures.

The quality of construction drawings that we’ve worked with over the years have been as varied as the designs themselves. Sometimes we get what we pay for, which may be not much or perhaps more than we need. Keep in mind that great designers may not have a strong aptitude for creating working drawings and this is fine with me.

I want to be the one responsible to ensuring that all of the documents I use have the information that my team needs to perform their duties to the best of their abilities. I need documents that are thorough, complete and accurate, and anticipate the needs of everyone that will be using them. How can I possibly expect an architect or designer or any third party to provide that unless I’ve done a good job of first describing everything I need.

Additional articles will address more thoughts and ideas for working with architects and designers. - Keith Groninger

Friday, November 23, 2012

Preferred Builder Status

Preferred Builder status is achieved when trade contractors and suppliers prefer to work for one particular builder over another. Preferred Builders are often rewarded with the best pricing and service from the companies that work for them. Obtaining preferred status can only be achieved by businesses that are sincerely concerned about the well-being of everybody they work with.

The approach to becoming a preferred builder is actually rather simple. Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.
  • Develop a reputation as being fair.
  • Set high expectations for yourself as well as for others.
  • Provide good information when requesting bids.
  • Select the low competent bidder and respect the effort of all bidders.
  • Be ready to receive work or deliveries when scheduled.
  • Manage an organized project site and allow workers to be productive.
  • Accept responsibility for the success of others working on the project.
  • Communicate clearly about expectations for services provided.
  • Pay promptly when the work is completed correctly.
  • Make sure everyone knows they are appreciated.
These techniques work with any type of business relationship but to be effective must be sincere and part of a company culture.

Cost Saving Strategies

There are some strategies for achieving low initial cost that make sense if followed in steps.

  1. Design the home to be inexpensive to build.
  2. Evaluate needs and reduce emotional desires.
  3. Establish “preferred builder” status.
  4. Develop detailed specifications and work descriptions.
  5. Shop for the best price.

There are also strategies to consider to keep operation and maintenance costs in check.
  1. Capitalize on solar orientation and passive solar design techniques.
  2. Reduce energy demand and increase energy efficiency.
  3. Select low-maintenance products and use durable construction techniques.
  4. Follow Florida-friendly landscaping and irrigation recommendations.
  5. Perform routine maintenance and periodic performance checks.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dynamic Project Information

Information on a construction project is constantly changing. The processes for keeping everyone informed can enhance performance, or not. Information requirements range from summary to intricate details. An efficient information system through use of the Work Breakdown Schedule can provide information relevant to the needs of the responsible parties.

  • Specifications should not ever change. These are the original requirements agreed upon between the Builder and Owner, and included in the contract price of the home depending on the type of agreement.
  • Addendum are changes to the scope of the project during the bidding phase. Upon award of the contract to the Builder or subcontracts to the respective trade contractors, the preferred method would be to incorporate all the changes into the specifications.
  • Green certification requirements can result in necessary changes to the specifications and the trade contractors' scopes of work. Likewise, the most effective method would be to incorporate all of the proposed green elements into the specifications.
  • Changes will likely occur after the contract has been awarded to the Builder and they can be one of the most difficult aspects of a project to manage. Information processes need to ensure that changes are incorporated into the project scope as efficiently as possible to avoid omissions or mistakes.
  • Notes are added to each category as reminders or additional bits of information. During the project it seems like something always comes up that we don't want to forget or overlook.
  • Scopes of Work are the specific requirements of each of the trade contractors. These may be your own company standards included in the trade contractor agreement. While specifications may be unique to every project, the scope of work should remain constant.
  • Selections are the information received from the Owner. Selections like roofing or garage doors could be kept here, although it may not make sense to list all the appliances or tile selections. The status of the selection and where to find the information would be entered here.

A good routine to develop is to review the project information weekly as the schedule progresses. We hold our staff meetings on Thursdays each week. Support staff always looks a couple weeks forward to make sure that the project supers have all the updated information. Meeting on Thursdays allow the supers to review unmatched invoices and give staff a day to make sure the next week's plan is in place.

Building Science

Building Science is the study of buildings and construction techniques as they apply to the performance and sustainability of the structure. Many of the products and techniques associated with green construction are considered good building science.

The housing construction industry ranks among the worst in research and development. The independent nature of small builders combined with market pressures, have previously put the science of building at a low priority level. Rising energy costs and interest in green construction, have fueled the interest to learn a little more. 

Additionally, it's apparent that many consumers are demanding higher quality and performance from their builders. Recognized performance standards and third-party inspections are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Assurance that the structure and its systems are sustainable and performing correctly, has only been recently offered within the industry. Prior to recent awareness, there was no means for the consumer to really know what they were purchasing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Construction Management

Consider Construction Management as an alternative to the traditional contractual relationship between owner and builder. The CM relationship promotes trust and productive communication.
  • Fee-Based: A fee for services is negotiated at the beginning of the project and disbursed as construction progresses.
  • Flexible Services: Services are provided to manage construction of a project as directed by the owner. The owner can choose the range of services provided to suit their needs.
  • Open-Book Transparency: All proposals, invoices, payments, account statements and project reports are accessible and shared openly.
  • Information and Resources: The construction manager (or builder) is responsible for educating the owner and making recommendations in the best interest of the project.
The key to success of a construction management relationship is the negotiated fee for services provided. When the mystery surrounding the builder's fee is removed from the picture, the builder can shift focus towards providing services in the best interest of the owner. Information flow is enhanced when everything is shared freely without hidden business agendas.

Estimating 101

At times, estimating can be as much an art as it is a science. In its simplest form, an estimate is a list of all costs associated with a project. A thorough estimate might also list everything that it doesn’t include. Since the most common estimating error is omission, the ability to communicate valuable information can be challenging. As a tool to provide information, an estimate can have different forms.

Conceptual - Similar to a feasibility study, the projected cost and scope may be needed to support a project’s viability. A conceptual estimate should provide enough information to allow an owner to determine whether a proposed project is feasible. The best sources of this information come from historical cost records of completed projects. This step is often necessary prior to committing to design or professional services fees. A good conceptual estimate should provide enough information for the owner to have a clear understanding of how much home they can purchase for their money.

Preliminary - When a dimensioned floor plan is available, preliminary cost estimates can be started. The accuracy of the estimate is dependant on the level of detail available. It’s not uncommon to produce several preliminary estimates as the design progresses and decisions are made regarding finishes and features of the home. Unit cost pricing, consultation with trade partners and historical records are beneficial for providing information, and can be used to help the owner establish a reasonably accurate budget during the design phase.

Detailed - A detailed cost estimate is usually started when the design is complete and the construction drawings have commenced. Even though some costs may not be available until engineering of the drawings and building permit documents are ready, the detailed estimating process can begin. In order to avoid surprises and potentially expensive changes, detailed specifications and written scopes of work should be completed, and provided to trade contractors and suppliers. This will facilitate accurate pricing from competing trades prior to awarding any of the work.

Dynamic - Once construction begins, the estimate should be converted into a working budget and constantly monitored. The budget should always be reviewed before any work is ordered or scheduled. Procedures should be in place to ensure accurate payments are made and surprises are avoided. A good cost-coding system will support organized management of project funds and eliminate misappropriation. Budget status reports should be provided on a routine basis and the Owner should be kept informed of any changes as they occur.

Debrief - A powerful estimating process that is often overlooked by most builders, should take place after each project is complete. Every project has the potential to provide valuable information for future customers. The completed home should be broken down into individual cost components and analyzed against other projects of similar scope. Cost debriefing provides information to builders that wish to improve their processes and provide valuable services to their customers.

The Green Certification Process

Each of the green certifying programs uses similar checklists for tracking the green components of a home and calculating the overall performance rating. In general "Green" can be categorized into: 
  • Property Characteristics; 
  • Site Development; 
  • Water Conservation; 
  • Energy Efficiency; 
  • Smart Resources; 
  • Durable Construction; 
  • Indoor Health; 
  • Environmental Awareness; 
  • Waste Management; and
  • Operations and Maintenance.
Each comprises several methods of varying values that meet the intent of the category. The process is an integrative whole-building approach where points earned in one category may benefit or impede performance elsewhere. 

A preliminary analysis can be performed during the home design phase so that goals can be established for development of the project. Some of the most cost-effective and beneficial results can be obtained by incorporating green decisions into the early design phase. 

Death by Email

Today, email and electronic communication has become part of our lives. The messages pile up in our Inbox and many of us have difficulty keeping track of it all. Without good systems to manage the information we might all become buried under the sheer volume.

I recently worked with a talented architect-builder that was very busy as a result of his award-winning designs. His construction manager had become overwhelmed by the information associated with the increased workload. I discovered that he had 2000 emails in his Inbox with over 600 of them were unread.

Contrarily, another builder I know refuses to accept emails from his customers. Knowing him, I just thought this was his arrogance. That certainly would reduce the number of emails but personally I wouldn’t be comfortable with such a drastic approach. However, I do recognize that protocols (rules) can be applied to messages without eliminating the use of email altogether.

The risk to our business relationships is the implied responsibility we assume through the exchange of emails and the almost certain failure that will occur as the messages become too numerous. Perhaps the use of email within project management needs a look. One of the goals is to reduce the volume but still maintain some of the convenience.

Back in the day (before email) we had just completed drywall on a project when the customer contacted us because she thought windows in her closet were missing. At some point during the design process, windows had showed in the Master closet but the final drawings did not include them. She brought up conversations and discussions that we had months prior.

We immediately adopted a protocol and added it to our pre-contract customer orientation. Upon authorization of the contract set of plans and specifications, all previous conversations and information are archived and removed from the project scope. We encourage the customer to review their plans and specs thoroughly. Once the contract is signed, we are obligated to build only what is represented within the documents. Essentially this creates a fresh start on the project and allows the construction documents to be passed from sales to the construction department. This works just as well with a paper-based process.

Electronic communication like email, texting and “the cloud”, provides easy access to our information, but can actually make our lives more difficult if the managing processes aren’t in place. I admit to my love for technology but I try to keep my processes as simple as possible. I want technology to enhance my life and certainly not increase the burden.

I remind myself that even the highest quality cooking appliances won’t make anyone a better cook if they don’t know how to read the recipe. In the next post about this subject I’ll start to list some ideas for streamlining electronic communication and managing the information.

Green vs. Sustainable

Perhaps you've heard the term Sustainable used in conversation about Green construction. Like Energy-Efficiency or Water Conservation, Sustainable Construction is an aspect of many Green homes. But a home doesn't have to be green in order for it to be Sustainable.
Sustainable Construction refers to the aspects of a home that contribute to its long-term use. Products used within a home that have a long lifespan are sustainable. Likewise a product or feature is sustainable if it requires less maintenance or if can be recycled at the end of its life.

Sustainable construction focuses on minimizing the impact that buildings have on the environment with a key emphasis on durability and longevity. If a home is built to last a long time, additional resources won’t be needed for repair or remodeling. Sustainability saves money and reduces the time spent on maintenance; side benefits that everyone likes.

Has the Term "Green" Been Over-Utilized?

I've occasionally observed confusion and resistance surrounding conversations about green construction and lifestyles.  I wonder why some people stumble while others are jumping on the green bandwagon, so I’ve decided to remove “green” from the discussion.  Here’s a list that I compiled of potential benefits related to the design, product selection and construction techniques that might be considered when planning a new home or renovation project:
  • Community Impact
  • Durable Construction
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Environmental Awareness
  • Health and Comfort
  • Operations and Maintenance
  • Property Characteristics
  • Resource Utilization
  • Site Development
  • Waste Management
  • Water Conservation
What factors do you use in the decision-making process? 

LEEDigation and the Real Risk of Building Green

LEEDigation is a new term used to describe “green” litigation related to the apparent failure of some building projects to meet green performance standards. Legal discussions highlight the risk taken by builders that agree to obtain a level of green certification but fail to perform as expected. In the referenced case, arguments ensued because the construction specifications prescribed methods and materials that did not meet the performance standards necessary to obtain the “green points” required for the certification. The project failed to meet energy performance requirements and deadlines that would have qualified it for substantial tax breaks and incentives. (Shaw Development vs. Southern Builders)

The contractor had agreed to meet a silver level of certification but argued that the specifications for the project prescribed products, materials and methods that were contrary to the performance goals. The contractor had foolishly agreed to meet performance goals without control of the specifications that would enable the completed project to perform as required. Actually, this is not a green issue but a lesson about the difference between prescribed and performance standards. All said, the potential for LEEDigation has many contractors wondering how to protect themselves.

The real risk in building green is the failure to meet expectations of the project requirements. What happens when green point requirements are overlooked or the proper verification and documentation is missed?

Strategies to avoid LEEDigation:

  • Define clear responsibilities of Architect, Builder and Owner.
  • Avoid  performance requirements.
  • Establish clear prescriptive requirements (specifications).
  • Develop a timeline and checklist to avoid omissions (schedule).
Green building and renewed interest in energy efficiency pose new challenges to the construction industry, typically slow to change its thinking. Not only do we need to update our processes to include the added steps required by green certification, but we also need to update our understanding of building science and integrated building systems; another interesting topic for discussion.

Construction Management is Changing

Construction Management has evolved. It’s easy to see that the housing industry has changed and there are many new ideas and considerations. The driving forces of these changes include:
  • Green Certification
  • Building Science
  • Cloud-based Management
  • Increased Energy Costs
  • Declining Home Values
The slowdown in the economy has created an opportunity to shake out the deadwood and as the market returns, seek progressive new processes for managing our businesses. All industries will likely delay hiring additional staff until maximum productivity is achieved with current employees. Everyone will be looking for ways to access and share information in a flexible and convenient manner. The ability to adapt to new methods will separate successful businesses from those that are left behind.

I read an article recently about a large homebuilder that has provided computer tablets to their field supervisors. I’m sure I’d find the use of the device to be interesting but in reality a tablet is just a fancy tool for accessing information. No device can improve efficiency unless the structure and processes for managing the information are in place first. While the technology has advanced, some of the same procedures we developed back in the day of the 3-ring binder, still apply.

As designers and builders, it’s our job to, extract information from our customers; document the information on the plans; organize the information in specifications; distribute the information as scopes of work; and finally, coordinate everything correctly during the construction process. It’s all information management.

In another article I’ll describe how a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) can be used to coordinate information between the major components of a project:
  • Estimate
  • Proposal
  • Specifications
  • Scopes of Work
  • Cost Control
  • Schedule
  • 4-D Design (3-D plus a time component - the future...)

AC Ducts in the Attic

The Greenhouse Effect causes a typical attic to become super-heated in the summertime. For this and other very important reasons, we now realize that AC ductwork doesn’t belong in a typical vented attic. After 50 years of installing AC ducts in the wrong place, why are we just realizing this now? 
First a little history lesson...

In 1947 mass-produced, low-cost window air conditioners became possible as a result of innovations by engineer Henry Galson, who set up production lines for a number of manufacturers. That year, 43,000 window air conditioners were sold in the United States. By 1969 more than half of new automobiles were equipped with air conditioning and most new homes were built with central AC.
(Ref. National Academy of Engineering.

In 1952, in Pompano Beach Florida, the metal plate connected engineered wood truss was invented and patented. The invention marked the beginning of the truss industry, that is still dominating building construction all over the world. (Ref. )

It’s interesting to note that nearly all of the renowned Florida architectural styles pre-date World War II. After costs doubled during the 40’s and early 50’s because of increased cost of labor and materials, many new homes were downsized and simplified.  These modest homes proliferated across the American landscape. It was an extremely significant time in our country’s history with returning veterans from World War II and the Korean War, creating a huge need for simple, secure housing. Tract home communities sprang up across the country, and the suburbs were quickly filled with new homes - all part of the American dream.

Additionally during this time period, mass-produced concrete blocks became readily available and spurred the growth of Florida concrete industry giants, Rinker and Florida Rock. At the time concrete block seemed like an ideal building material to fill the need for low-cost housing also fueled by population migration into the state. Hence, the now well-known basic Florida construction style developed: slab-on-grade; concrete block walls; and engineered wood trusses for the roof structure.

Since most homes in Florida were built without basements, the attic became a convenient place to install the AC ducts. Energy was cheap and air-conditioning was a welcome necessity, so until recently AC ducts have been going into a typical attic and few builders and designers ever considered otherwise.

There was a brief interest in increased energy efficiency after the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970’s, but it quickly faded as the affluence and growth of the American economy influenced the purchasing decisions of home buyers and builders. In another post, I’ll discuss how this same affluence has degraded building performance and brainwashed the consumer into comparing homes using cost-per-square-foot analysis.

Florida Building Science

It can be argued that Central-Florida may not have ever developed without Disney and the invention of air-conditioning. The hot, humid climate makes life without AC nearly unbearable.  Our unique environment creates demands on buildings that are unlike anywhere else in the country. Actually, some requirements within the national building code are incorrect as they apply to homes built in Florida.

Until the recent interest in “Green”, residential construction materials and methods have advanced little since the advent of air-conditioning and insulation. Roof trusses, plywood and PVC piping are some of the only significant changes prior to green awareness. In the last decade we’ve seen advances in building science, but not without some potential negative consequences.

Unknown to many consumers and even some building professionals, there are common construction techniques that can damage the structure and even create an unhealthy environment for its occupants. Climate conditions that are unique to Florida necessitate a strong understanding of building performance and the role that each material plays in the overall building system. Building science has improved because of the realization that all the components must function together as an integrated building system design.

Some science definitions and a little history lesson may provide an understanding of why a complete building system design is necessary.

The “Greenhouse Effect” is responsible for keeping our planet warm. Solar radiation warms the surface of the earth and our atmosphere keeps the heat from escaping. Upset the delicate balance and global warming or climate change may ensue. This is the same process that heats a greenhouse or makes the inside of our automobile hot on a sunny day. This process is also the reason why a typical attic gets so hot in the summer.