Today’s construction market is challenging. Just a few short years ago, banks were generous, developers were bullish, and contractors were booked solid. Successful projects could be created even if their construction costs were higher than optimum. Today, the “new normal” has changed. If projects are to proceed, they must be cost competitive.
Opportunities to reduce construction costs without compromising scope or quality often can be found. To maximize the chances of moving a project forward, builders should seek them out, including some of the following proven strategies.
Provide useful design input
General contractors frequently sell themselves on their ability to provide preconstruction input to the design team, but sometimes their ability to provide useful information is lacking. The contractor’s input becomes marginally helpful at best, and counterproductive at worst. Successful general contractors will offer more than just a cost estimate. They will focus on developing a skill set that enables them to provide valuable input to architects and engineers in the early stages of design without the need to resort to subcontractors, who are typically unavailable until later in the process. This saves the project time and money and makes the contractor a more valuable member of the team. For example, the relative price of a structural framing system changes with time. A general contractor experienced with different structural systems and familiar with the construction nuances and relative cost of each can prevent the design team from heading down the wrong track, only to discover too late that a different system was less costly and more compatible with other project requirements.
Once the system is selected, assisting designers in detailing it for construction efficiency can enhance savings. Early input to the structural engineer regarding optimum concrete pour sizes can translate into designs that don’t require relocation of construction joints and closure pours at the eleventh hour. Structural engineers can locate construction joints and closure pours on their drawings consistent with the contractor’s preferred pour size and construction sequence. A savvy designer will listen carefully to ideas and advice from contractors, including the jobsite foremen and field personnel, whose suggestions for improving construction details come from years of hands-on experience.
Help create buildability
The creation of a buildable and contractor-friendly design is enhanced by knowledgable contractors who can offer useful input during the design phase. Congested rebar cages often are difficult to detect on paper. An experienced contractor who can identify possible problems and offer suggestions before construction starts is a valuable addition to the preconstruction team. As is all too well known, costs escalate quickly when designers create complex designs with insufficient attention paid to buildability. If contractors are involved early enough to assist the structural engineer and other team members in identifying and improving these complex details, many field problems can be avoided.
An understanding of current material availability, preferred systems in the region where the project is located, and local labor availability associated with these materials and systems is also key to a successful project. When contractors have a thorough understanding of the cost differences between different materials, construction systems, and details, they are better able to offer cost-saving suggestions. The goal is not to cut scope or quality. Instead, the objective is to achieve the desired scope and quality less expensively.
In the field of concrete structures, one of the best strategies for reducing cost and improving buildability is to maximize formwork labor productivity. Forming costs are typically as much as 90% labor and can represent up to 40% of the entire structural frame cost. Accordingly, developing a structural layout compatible with modern, high production forming systems can reduce significantly the structural frame cost, while simultaneously accelerating the schedule, simplifying construction, and reducing the likelihood of costly field errors. Again, contractors contribute heavily to a project by understanding the nuances, availability, and pros and cons of different forming systems. This allows them to offer suggestions to designers that contribute to the chosen forming system being used to its highest productive potential.
Contractors who take the time to build and nurture relationships with design firms will find themselves recommended more often for the projects they seek. Architects and engineers frequently are asked their opinions on contractors, and those contractors who have spent time developing teamwork and trust with these designers will find themselves recommended more often. Experienced designers know that useful input is more likely to come from contractors with whom they have good working relationships; thus, the time spent building these relationships is time well spent.
Also, many developers and owners welcome proactive business development on the part of contractors. The key is these business development efforts remain focused on giving something of value in each encounter—useful ideas, pricing updates, new product information, and more—so the business prospect’s time is not wasted. Business developers who make a habit of providing something of value each time they touch a prospect will soon find themselves welcome at that prospect’s door.
Capitalize on new research
Traditional ways of construction are not always the most efficient or economical ways. Now, when the market is still recovering, is an excellent time for contractors and other project team members to look beyond tradition and investigate new ideas.
On the design side, Bellevue, Wash.-based structural engineering firm Cary Kopczynski & Co. (CKC) has been working with researchers at the University of Michigan to develop design methods for the use of steel fiber-reinforced concrete in shear walls. In sufficient quantities, small steel fibers mixed integrally with the concrete allow significant reinforcing bar reductions at locations of congestion, including link beams. This greatly improves shear wall buildability and reduces cost. As the market recovers, CKC is incorporating this innovation into the design of several projects that will benefit from its use.
High-strength reinforcing steel is another strategy for improving structural economy. CKC recently collaborated with a major steel company to develop a 90-ksi reinforcing bar for use as seismic confinement in shear walls and columns. It was incorporated into several recent projects, with a resulting improvement in buildability and reduction in cost.
Higher quality and better economy often come from embracing new research. Find it and capitalize on it. By staying on top of new technology, contractors can gain the competitive edge owners, developers and designers are looking for when seeking a builder.
Stay mentally connected
Prior to the closing years of the last century, contractors planned projects with little more than a pad of paper, a pencil, and the skill and imagination they brought to the table. The lack of sophisticated scheduling software and mapping tools required that they create estimates, perform calculations and solve complex problems manually. This demanded continual mental connection to the work. Contemporary computer software, on the other hand, can disconnect one’s mind from the problem at hand. Blind faith in computer output, without the operator’s good judgment, can lead to erroneous work and higher costs. Therefore, it is important that contractors remember for all its speed and power, the effective use of modern technology still requires the imagination, skill, and synthesizing ability of the human mind. Don’t let your computer shut down your thinking and keep your head in the game.
Today’s marketplace is not as forgiving as it was a few short years ago. By offering valuable input well before field work commences, contractors can have a strong hand in directing projects toward timely, cost-effective and successful completion.
Cary Kopczynski (firstname.lastname@example.org), PE, SE, FACI, is president and CEO of Cary Kopczynski & Co. Inc. P.S. (CKC), a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm providing structural engineering for major projects throughout the United States.