Concrete contractors who hope to execute a successful architectural concrete project, not lose money, and stay out of litigation must understand the process. Successful architectural concrete starts in the pre-construction phase. The contractor must start by developing a relationship with the owner and the owner’s team. This article provides insight into both the philosophical conversation and complexity of detail that architectural concrete adds to a job.
My approach may not be popular with everyone—specifically owners, architects, and general contractors—but they can gain a significant amount of insight if they understand what it takes to satisfy their client’s expectations. We call this communication.
What is architectural concrete? There can be many answers. My definition: any vertical concrete that is exposed to view and meant to generate an aesthetic reaction, create a mood, or simply look nice. But what constitutes looking nice is in the designer’s mind first and must be conveyed to the team. This is the philosophical piece to the equation that we call the owner’s expectation. I have seen two jobs built by the same team with the same quality work where, based on the owner’s expectations, one was acceptable and the other was not.
One of the single greatest ingredients to a successful project is getting to know the customer, even before bidding the job. The customer can have many components: the actual project owner, the design architect or local architect of record, the engineer, the general contractor, or the construction manager. They all will impact the outcome of the project.
The budget is a great way to determine the upward cost of the project. There should be enough detail to allow budgeting of the formwork. Getting a formwork system that works with the building’s design while matching the document details is essential. This is where changes to the document details can be amended to work with cost-effective formwork systems. Call several formwork suppliers and determine systems and pricing. The cost of formwork for architectural concrete can be surprising, often more than 75% of the total in-place cost. Suggesting value engineering ideas can create opportunity for your company. Be careful the competition is not afforded the same information, especially if your company has developed an edge.
Understanding the quality of the concrete finish is the most vital part of the process. An as-cast, smooth form finish is one of the most common terms used in specifications for architectural concrete and also one of the most misunderstood.
Coming up with the final bid for the work can be challenging. I spent several years as a senior estimator bidding all kinds of work, and the paradox is that you need to be low enough to get the job and still have enough money to build the job and walk away with your margin. The two most common mistakes are underestimating the production requirements for getting quality architectural concrete and overestimating what it’s going to take. In the first you lose money, in the second your competitors lose money. The best way to get accurate production rates in the bid starts in preconstruction; next best is to get the field team involved and build it on paper first. Sometimes it makes sense to build a mockup even before bidding. Remember, if the owner’s team doesn’t like it, you are at extreme risk of being required to remove and replace.