The construction industry has been changing rapidly over the past decade as new construction technology, materials, and techniques become common. Among those changes has been a profound and continuing shift in the relationship between owners and contractors.
“Owners expect more from contractors today,” says Joseph Lombardi, a superintendent at Shawmut Design and Construction. Lombardi has been in the industry for more than twenty years, since before he was old enough to drive, and he’s watched the change happen in real time.
Meet Joseph Lombardi: Joseph is a Superintendent with over 20 years of experience. Based out of Boston MA, he has worked with Shawmut Design and Construction for 7 years, primarily on Academic-type projects between $15M and $100M. Joseph believes that technology won’t replace Superintendents, but Superintendents that use technology will replace Supers that do not.
“It starts with email before the project even begins,” he says. “The owner wants to be involved in the design process, wants to be involved in changes on the site, wants constant walk-throughs, wants transparency, and expects everything faster and better than before.”
That’s a shift from the days when the owner hired a contractor and largely expected them to do their jobs with periodic updates and a smooth handover.
Now, the owner expects involvement at every stage of the game from bid to handover. Here’s what that looks like from a contractor’s perspective.
The Preconstruction Phase
On a traditional construction project, the bid phase is straightforward. The architect, at the owner’s direction, develops a set of plans and GCs submit competing bids. The owner and architect choose a contractor based on the bid and the reputation of the GC, and the project begins. It becomes a race on the contractor’s part to deliver according to specifications and on time, while making as high a profit margin as possible.
Some projects today are still run this way, but in other cases, the bid phase has become much more collaborative. Increasingly, owners ask GCs to come into the project during preconstruction and to help the architects and engineers identify potential problems, save money, and improve the process, materials, and methods.
“We love to be involved in precon,” says Lombardi. “It benefits us and the client and the project. But it can also be risky for the contractor.”
In the traditional approach, the owner, architect, and engineers “own” any problems that may exist in the plans. When there is a conflict or a constructability issue, the contractor can push the responsibility back to the design team.
When the contractor is involved in preconstruction, however, they take ownership for any constructability issues that may arise.
Additionally, involving the contractor in the early stages can add time to the schedule, which isn’t always feasible.
When scheduling isn’t an issue, however, involving the contractor early in the process provides clear benefits. It helps to solidify the project team early. Having the superintendent and project manager working together from an early stage to shape the drawings and define the scope leads to smoother projects and better outcomes for everyone.
The Execution Phase
Traditionally, during the construction phase of a project, owners have had very little visibility into the process. They might visit the site and enjoy walk-throughs, but without specific construction expertise, they were at the mercy of the GC to trust that the process was going according to plan.
Today, a combination of new construction technology and changing relationships makes the process much more transparent to the owner, and many owners expect to have their fingers in the project throughout.
The owner-contractor relationship has shifted greatly, with owners being far more involved than in the past
“We employ a regular communication cadence with the owners and architects, much more than we used to,” says Lombardi. “We get everyone in a room every week, for updates and to discuss progress.”
While some contractors might view this greater involvement as a hindrance, companies like Shawmut embrace it along with the technologies that enable it. Lombardi says it benefits them as much as it benefits the owner.
Today’s technology makes it possible to track every RFI, submittal, schedule change, and communication. This transparency of hard data means there’s never a question about who is responsible for what, and reduces the amount of back-and-forth conversation around changes in cost or schedule.
The increased transparency also improves the speed of communication, so that contractors get questions answered and approvals made faster, meaning they can get on with their jobs more efficiently.
Lombardi adds that this impacts punch listing as well. “Everybody’s involved,” he says, “the client, subcontractor, building manager, everyone, and the turn-around is much faster.”
The greater transparency and better collaboration during execution improves everyone’s confidence. It also improves checks and balances.
“My job is to maintain schedule, to make sure we finish on time, while paying close attention to quality,” says Lombardi. “Today’s technology means we can keep everyone in the loop and resolve any differences quickly.”
Construction Technology and Walk-Throughs
In today’s construction environment, owners tend to be more hands-on, and that often includes expecting more frequent and more thorough walk-throughs with the GC.
Technology makes it easy for contractors to embrace the owner’s involvement, and to make it more productive than ever before.
“We get in a room and go through everything, demonstrate what we’re doing and what questions we need answered, so we can get ahead of them,” says Lombardi. “We bring in BIM modeling to show the client areas of concern before we go on site, so that they’re familiar with what they’re looking at during the site walk-through.”
In some cases, on the other hand, the technology actually reduces the number of walk-throughs that the owner requests, thanks to 3D and 4D rendering and virtual site tours that allow them to monitor progress remotely. This can be a time-saver for construction crews, who can use that time to focus on construction.
Traditionally, the handover process can vary widely in how much information was provided to the owner, and how accurate that information was. Maintaining up to date as-built plans was not always a priority during construction, and owners didn’t necessarily expect it.
Today, technology makes it possible to track and maintain up to date as-built drawings and models of every aspect of the building, and to hand those documents to the owner seamlessly upon completion.
This has multiple benefits for the owner, ensuring that they have accurate data on the details of their building for maintenance, repair, and updating purposes. It also protects the GC, who now has a detailed paper trail to show what they did and why they did it, in case of any disputes regarding quality of construction.
Case Study: Harvard Renovation
A renovation project at Harvard University provides a clear example of how the owner-contractor relationship has evolved in recent years. This $5 million project was originally conceived in an architect’s office, with nothing more than a floor plan and an idea to install a fold-up coffee bar.
Shawmut worked closely with Harvard University's Project Owner through all phases of the project
The project owner interviewed several contractors for the project, and hired Shawmut. In the preconstruction phase, the $5 million project quickly grew to $15 million as the owner decided to add a kitchen, courtyard renovation, mechanical system upgrade, and second floor renovations. Because Shawmut was involved from the beginning, they were able to help advise on construction materials and techniques to improve the project outcomes.
During construction, the building manager was heavily involved in inspecting both the mechanical and construction aspects of the project. Because it was an old building with no as-built drawings, the project ran into many necessary changes as they uncovered piping and structural elements that were not visible during design.
Thanks to construction technology and a close relationship with the project owners, Shawmut was able to communicate these changes quickly and gain approvals as necessary to avoid excessive delays.
“When you have a client like this that’s very engaged,” says Lombardi, “it’s easier to make these changes. Instead of installing a mechanical system in the field to give the client a feel for how it will look and operate, instead we model it in 3D and review it with the client or the design team before we release the subs to install it. This allows for the entire team to comment on the design prior to putting the work in place. This collaborative approach sets the expectation for the client and reduces the amount of work in the field, which saves on schedule and budget.”
At the conclusion of the project, the owners received a complete set of as-built drawings to improve maintenance and ensure the next update doesn’t run into unexpected issues.
There’s no question the industry is evolving fast, and the relationships among stakeholders are shifting with it.
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