Over the years, as contractors have shortened construction durations in favor of faster project deliveries, clients have grown to expect speed to market. During the recession, general contractors applied leaner staffing structures in order to compete and remain profitable, which strained their resources and stretched their ability to deliver work faster. Like everyone, we've learned how to do more with less. Likewise, manufacturers became leaner, reducing stocked inventory and overhead, which increased material lead times. This trend has continued since the recession, even as business has picked up.
Specific materials and systems, like lighting, have always required more coordination, and it is not uncommon for other materials, such as flooring, to be custom ordered and fabricated. For interiors construction, where project durations are already short and turnaround is quick, these factors can present real challenges. With material lead times getting longer and workloads increasing, how is it possible to shorten the schedule? The good news is that doing more in less time is achievable. It requires careful planning based on expertise in interior construction, a tight pulse on market activities and integration of the right methods and technology. The following tips can help owners understand which opportunities can aid in achieving schedule savings on your projects.
01. Start with the fundamentals of interior construction
The concept, "time is money," remains true and is the reason clients ask for shorter schedules. Shorter construction schedules have lower general conditions cost, and they are less disruptive to owners' businesses. Thus, the discussion around schedule always takes place within the context of cost. Some options for schedule acceleration, such as overtime, come at a premium, and costs should be weighed against the benefits. However, even overtime doesn't address all schedule challenges, like space constraints and material availability. Before the schedule can be condensed, it's important to understand the standard factors and processes so you can make the best decisions to achieve your goals.
Follow the critical path
When incorporating overtime, it's more cost effective to selectively invest in the activities that impact the critical path than planning for overtime across the board. The diagram below shows the typical workflow of an interior construction project - starting with rough-ins, framing and drywall, then ceilings, flooring and finally, furnishings and fixtures.
Anticipate material lead times
Materials that have always been considered custom include stone flooring, glass and glazing products, lighting and HVAC systems. The higher-end finishes often require additional time just to produce and receive samples. It's important to plan for this time upfront so that resulting implications can be integrated early-on. When faced with long-lead items, owners typically have two choices: 1) Push the start date to keep the shorter duration and get through the procurement process so field staff aren't waiting on materials or 2) Change the material selections. The decision depends on the client and whether the schedule or following the design specifications is more important.
Understand the impact of occupied spaces on the schedule.
If the priority is speed, construction is slowed in occupied spaces. For a faster-paced turnover of the space, swing space within the building or in other offices may be used. Swing space is a temporary place for employees to work while their space is under construction. With the trend toward flexible work schedules, we've even had some clients give their employees options in line with their culture: stay and endure the noise and distractions, relocate in a sister office or work from home.
Even when the space itself isn't occupied, often it is located adjacent to occupied space, so loud and distracting activities are planned during off-hours, before 8:00 a.m. and after 5:00 p.m. If the client chooses not to move their employees during the project, it requires temporary walls, partitions and night shifts, which also mean additional costs.
Sometimes clients are in a hurry to get into the space. While there are ways to sequence the work for a phased turnover, unless it is a larger project with a longer duration, this approach doesn't always add value. It requires a temporary or partial Certificate of Occupancy (C of O), with additional inspections and sometimes added cost.
02. Apply market trend knowledge to the schedule
The laws of supply and demand will always drive how we work. For construction, the shortage of materials and supplies lengthens the fabrication and delivery schedule and increases costs. Staying on top of long-lead times and available resources prevents surprises and opens options for clients to make adjustments early, when it can still positively influence the budget and schedule outcome.
Purchase materials as early as possible
Material availability is the primary driver for how quickly work can begin. Starting field work too early can cause workers to wait on material to arrive, resulting in a loss of productivity. To avoid this, it's important to start the material procurement immediately. Construction managers can plan ahead with subcontractors and the design team for quick submittal preparation and approval.
If material specifications are available early, light fixtures, HVAC equipment, carpet, and other long-lead items can be pre-purchased, prior to the rest of the work. Some materials can also be obtained quicker, if a premium is paid. When preparing the budget, construction managers should understand these opportunities and factor in expediting costs. Particularly when a finish is important to the design, it may be money well spent when time is short.
Look for alternative ways to be efficient
Clients should look to construction managers to propose alternate materials that are more readily available. By maintaining relationships with local trades and looking to local manufacturers, we have been able to find opportunity to receive materials faster and save on shipping.
While waiting for material to arrive, there are ways for field staff to be productive. Activities such as demolition, floor preparation, layout and MEP coordination can be completed prior to the start of construction since none of these activities have material lead times.
Plan adequately for the design
Clients seeking to attract top talent to their organizations are remodeling their offices to match employees' demands. Recent studies have tied worker productivity to healthy work environments and employee satisfaction to flexible working arrangements. This has introduced open-concept and agile work environments, green and sustainable materials and energy efficient systems. How do these trends affect the construction schedule?
With agile work environments, benching or open seating are frequently used, where employees share desk space. These types of environments also include common spaces, such as enclaves, for group meetings and private conversations. The open plan designs are quicker to build because there aren't as many walls to install. However, the shared spaces often have upgraded finishes, and thus present a list of long-lead items. Not only are the costs of the finishes more, the cost of installation is also higher. The total cost per square foot depends on the level of finishes in the common spaces and concentration of upgraded areas.
Another area that impacts the schedule is the technology and security that is incorporated into the space. Turning over the IDF/MDF rooms for Information Technology staff to get their network up and running is critical to the schedule and often required to be completed early. The new space could be completely finished, but without network connectivity, it's not usable for business. Some equipment, such as supplemental AC units and UPSs are a schedule driver and often have long-lead times. The levels of technology vary depending upon the client. Common to all is the minimum requirement for Wi-Fi and the need to plan early.
Use technology and methods when they advance the process
With advancement of 3D technology and mobility, several new tools have entered the construction industry, and with it, new methods for construction. While often beneficial in streamlining installation, many projects just don't have enough time to implement. On interiors projects where preconstruction lasts only a few weeks, followed by a couple of months of construction, there isn't enough time to build a full 3D model. In this case, the quickest way is to coordinate the work in the field. However, technology can still be used for certain aspects of the project.
Laser scanners are a great tool to accurately document existing conditions faster than traditional methods. This technology is particularly beneficial in assessing floor levelness and identifying existing MEPs. The survey of the existing data is overlaid with new design and can be used by the building engineer to determine additional support needs and for the construction manager to obtain competitive bids for floor preparation or as the basis for 3D coordination. Handheld and laser scanners can also be used to verify that prefabricated materials and systems will fit through the path of delivery and in the intended space.
3. Manage the plan closely
Finally, it's always important to account for the permitting process in the schedule. The permitting process in Chicago has gotten more efficient, but it can still take up to four weeks to receive a permit. In interiors projects, that's a lot of time. To accelerate the process, the architect of record can take advantage of the self-certification permit process. Our in-house expediter is also familiar with the city and forms that are used and can help shepherd the project through the process. By following up, we can streamline and eliminate unnecessary delays.
The key to a successful schedule starts with the plan – identifying potential snags and issues before the Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) is submitted. A detailed schedule that starts with preconstruction and extends through completion is a must, and it should be reviewed and updated weekly. Taking the time at the beginning of a project to prepare will mitigate risks and result in predictable outcomes.