The General Contractor’s Guide to a Stress-free 2020

February 10, 2020

No doubt, reading that title, general contractors everywhere are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. If that’s you, an explanation is in order:

No, it’s probably not possible for you to have a truly stress-free year in 2020. In fact, if your year was completely stress-free, you’d probably start stressing out trying to figure out why everything is going so smoothly! Reality is, the day-to-day work of a general contractor is incredibly busy, often hectic, and there are countless opportunities for things to go wrong. 

However, there are definitely ways you can optimize your own work and that of the teams you depend on. And, if you do that, you’ll see marked improvements in a number of different areas: 

  • Estimates proving more accurate

  • Projects coming in under budget and within schedule

  • Build quality increasing as rework decreases

  • Achieving more with less across the board… 

  • … all leading to more winning bids

  • And, of course, that all adds up to greater revenue and greater profit

So, what would that do to your stress level in 2020?

You’ve already guessed, we’re painting an idealistic picture here. But, the following tips aren’t based on fantasy or speculation. These are already tried and true, and wherever possible we’ve included case studies to prove it. Realistically, you probably won’t be able to implement everything on this list during the coming year. But, even if you make just one or two improvements and gain the results, it will have been worth it. 

Improving cost planning

Cost planning is a tricky game of balance. You want to come up with a competitive bid, but you need to maintain enough of a margin to pay the crew and keep the lights on another month. If you move too far one way, you’ll never win a project. Too far the other way, and it won’t matter for very long. Beyond that, your estimators are working with figures that are subject to change, sometimes unexpectedly. So, while there’s a science to it, it’s also like art. Or magic. 

There are ways you can reduce the risk, improve the accuracy, and optimize the labor involved in creating construction estimates. And, you may already have some or all of the tools at your fingertips:

  • Invest in estimating software - Researchers estimate that each cell in a standard spreadsheet used for construction estimating has a 1 to 5 percent chance of containing an error. It’s probably not surprising that 90 percent of these spreadsheets contain errors and only 60 percent of errors are caught prior to delivering the estimate. If your estimators are still crunching numbers using Excel spreadsheets or something similar, there’s too much room for human error. Quality estimating software can make a world of difference by automating much of the busy work, offering fast and effective error-checking and establishing a standard approach to estimating across teams. 

  • Create and reuse estimate templates - If your estimators are building every estimate from scratch, they’re doing a lot of rework that’s simply not necessary. Cost history is intellectual property unique to your team’s experiences, and should be preserved. Common cost codes and easily accessible documentation can really come in handy here. Smart cost estimating systems can even factor in differences in locations for materials, labor and more. This practice is especially important at a time when many experienced estimators are changing positions or leaving the workforce. 

  • Incorporate digital parts from manufacturers - Most construction manufacturers, distributors and suppliers are now offering digital catalogs and/or 3D modeled elements of each of their parts. If your estimators are still relying on paper parts catalogs, 3-ring binders filled with fading printouts, or a fresh Google search for each part, there’s another spot where a ton of time is being wasted. Some estimating solutions incorporate managed-content direct from the manufacturer right into the program. 

Learn how Hoar Construction reduced their estimating process from two days to as little as two hours by applying these suggestions.

Facilitating collaboration 

As a construction project moves from the initial bidding and estimating stages, through design and detailing, and into building and beyond, one of the biggest sources of waste is broken communication. You’ve seen it a million times: the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and meanwhile the left foot is walking away while the right foot is tripping on something. 

There are many different reasons why this happens, but most of it comes down to two things: 

  1. The different project phases and professional skill sets have traditionally been siloed, and they still don’t talk to each other nearly as much as they should. 

  2. Everyone’s working with different tools, software, file types, and methodologies, so communication is hampered even if they want to collaborate better.

Everywhere you can break down silos and get people speaking the same language, you create efficiencies, reduce errors, and potentially enhance profit margin by reducing waste. Try this: 

  • Invest in a platform - To get stakeholders across a project talking to each other and freely sharing data, they all need to be able to access one centralized platform that can facilitate that level of collaboration. Collaboration software comes in many forms, but the most effective options for general contractors are those built specifically to support the construction workflow and BIM data. 

  • Go mobile - More than ever before, it’s a mobile-first world. And, there’s no arguing the value of being able to access your entire project’s data while you’re standing onsite, looking at a problem that needs to be addressed. So, choose all your software with mobile capabilities in mind. Specifically, your collaboration software needs this capability so that hard-won lines of communication don’t break down the moment someone leaves their office. 

  • Partner with your subs - If you, like most GCs, have a stable of subcontractors you routinely work with, have a heart-to-heart about them investing in the same solutions (or alternatives that integrate seamlessly with yours.) In fact, the best bet may be to seek out an ecosystem of solutions that all play well together so your trade partners can work with tailor-made software that helps them build efficiencies in their own corner of the world, while also facilitating what you’re trying to accomplish at the larger project level. 

Check out what a fully-connected and collaborative project looks like with VolkerWessels. 

Utilizing prefabrication 

While it’s been around for decades, prefabrication and modular construction are enjoying a kind of renaissance now that may just evolve into widespread adoption in the future. That’s because the technology has finally caught up with the potential and companies are seeing incredible returns when they take full advantage of it. 

  • Review your traditional workflows - In many cases, companies aren’t taking full advantage of prefabrication simply because they don’t realize where it can fit into their standard workflows. Work with a local fab shop to review your workflow and the kinds of projects you routinely take on, and seriously consider every potential inclusion of prefabrication they suggest. 

  • Invest in design and detailing solutions that support fabrication - Not all popular drawing or even BIM solutions were built with prefabrication in mind. And, even if they’re built to design for prefab, they may not be able to output the file types your local fabrication shops need to take full advantage of the machines they use. Again, partner with the fabrication shop to figure out what will work the best, then use that information when shopping for designing and detailing solutions and/or staff. 

Learn how ACP Sheet Metal, a busy design and fabrication shop, saw dramatic increases in productivity and a 60 percent reduction in waste on behalf of their clients. 

Optimizing layout and construction

Layout represents a huge investment of time and effort during the initial stages of every construction project. 

  • Utilize robotic technology - If you’re still relying on a strictly manual layout process, you’re leaving money on the table. A Robotic Total Station (RTS) dramatically improves the speed and efficiency of the layout process while cutting down on costly human errors. 

  • Setup office-to-field communication - Adding another dimension to the power of using robotic layout, consider the way communication is enhanced between the office and the field. Because you are performing layout from a preloaded 3D model, you no longer have to wonder if you have the latest designs. Have an issue during the process? You can take a picture and report it back to the office for an RFI or model change. 

Learn how Trans Gulf Electromechanical saw a jaw-dropping 1515 percent increase in layout speed and efficiency while enhancing office-to-field data sharing in Dubai. 

Mastering project management

On top of everything else, it’s the GC’s responsibility to manage the overall project and keep all those moving parts working harmoniously. This isn’t an easy task on the best of days. But, once again, there are ways to make the whole project easier to visualize and manage by leveraging technology. 

  • Invest in a platform - If you’re sensing a pattern, you’re right. You’re going to have to research your options, so we recommend settling on a solution that integrates seamlessly with whatever individual applications you need to manage the entire project. If it can work with the solutions used by your subs, even better. There are numerous construction project management solutions on the market, but only a few that offer that kind of wide-ranging ecosystem behind them. 

  • Talk up the benefits - Once you have a platform in place, talk up the benefits of tapping into that platform as you’re bringing subcontractors into a project. Some mobile apps are user-friendly and inexpensive, but they carry a lot of risk when it comes to the traceability and accessibility of data. Project management data is created minute by minute, and if you’re not able to trace every transaction quickly and accurately with the system you’re using, you may end up paying the price in the form of a legal dispute. Without fail, integrated solutions save time and money for everyone involved, and they improve traceability as well. It just takes some forethought and effort up front to set everyone up for success. 

Learn how Hensel Phelps utilized a mobile quality control solution to cut inspection times by 75 percent and finish a $190 million fast-tracked project months ahead of schedule. 

Again, it’s not realistic to try and tackle all these tips at once. But, someone wiser than you or I once said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step.” if even one suggestion jumped out at you as something your company can prioritize and potentially achieve this year, you’ll notice significant improvements in your bottom line and your stress level by year’s end.

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