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Archives > November 2014 > What To Expect When You're Expecting

What To Expect When You're Expecting

Understanding the typical construction timeline can help prospective owners worry less and enjoy the building process (and their baby) more. The prospective building owner who refers to the project as "my baby" is clearly onto something.

By: Ralph Agostinelli

The construction process, a complete mystery to first-timers, takes months and months, and most new owners-to-be spend that time experiencing a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. They lean heavily on a support team-led by an architect, design-builder and/or construction manager-and spend a great deal of their time getting ready for the building's "birth" and worrying about whether it will be a) finished on time and b) built right.

These feelings, as the baby books will tell you, are all perfectly normal. And just as they say about the wait for your first child, the more information you have, and the more you realize that everyone who has constructed a building has had similar experiences, the more you can relax and enjoy watching your future building take shape.

THE CONSTRUCTION TIMELINE
Prospective building owners have a lot on their plate during construction, and the possibility that the building is behind schedule (or, for design-bid-build clients, over budget) just adds to the stress. The long time frame is hard for some, because there will be periods when the building site looks like work isn't progressing-or, worse, isn't actually progressing, usually due to weather. Most architects and construction managers will (and all should) offer their clients a detailed schedule in advance and frequent updates at regularly scheduled meetings.

How long a building project takes depends on its size even more than its scope, but for the purposes of this discussion, we'll assume a building of the type that we typically work on-a multipurpose sports and recreation facility of about 60,000 square feet. Even then, our timeline will feature time ranges, as unforeseen circumstances will have the potential to arise at virtually every stage in the process.

When to start clearing trees is logically approached by estimating the length of the job-we'd expect construction of our example building to take between 13 and 18 months-and then working backward from the building's desired opening date. The actual start date will depend on the job length estimate, the successful acquisition of all relevant building permits, the local climate and, if you're working with a design-bid- build firm, the finalization of design. Design-builders, who guarantee buildings at a fixed price, are often able to fast-track the beginning of construction, saving a month or more, since the end of design and the beginning of construction can overlap.

4-8 WEEKS: Sitework and Foundations
The first stage of construction includes clearing of trees, site grading, excavation (including blasting, if necessary) and construction of the foundation (including driving piles, if necessary) and concrete slab. Most of this work could take place in cold climates, though at potentially greater cost and with potentially greater risk of delay due to weather events such as extreme cold and heavy snow. However, construction projects are often timed to start after the frost has left the ground, making spring rains the more likely culprit in construction delays.

This first stage is the riskiest to the project timeline, both because of weather and the possibility of unforeseen site conditions. Sometimes, these situations dovetail-for example, when soils that were judged to be consistent on the strength of core samples taken prior to breaking ground prove unable to withstand heavy rains during excavation, necessitating removal and replacement.

As a prospective owner, you should understand that even the most diligent construction firm will run into the occasional snag-such as that one peak of bedrock that is later found to protrude into a planned pool basin despite meticulous soil boring tests. Because such circumstances can happen to anybody, the important issue is the contractor's ability to deal with the problem. We faced this exact scenario on a job after nearby foundations had been poured; with blasting thus ruled out, the protruding rock had to be painstakingly drilled and chipped away.

16-20 WEEKS: Superstructure
Construction of the steel frame, masonry bearing walls and joists-the bones of the building-can be subject to short weather delays, but is usually very straightforward. As a general rule, the higher you get from the ground, the fewer problems you have.

In spite of its length, this stage is the most reassuring for the new owners-the visible progress is undeniable, and the building will nearly always pass the one-year-from-opening countdown during this time, adding to the anticipation of owners and end users alike.

8-12 WEEKS: Building Enclosure
The creation of the roof and the weatherized but typically unfinished exterior walls can be a race against the clock for projects in northern climates that began in Spring. Beating the first snowstorm or cold snap is imperative if you want to avoid potential delays.

Also testing the nerves of some owners is the persistently rough quality of this stage, consisting of framing, weather-resistant sheathing, vapor barriers and retarders, and insulation. While expansive glass walls are installed at this time, smaller windows are sometimes framed but filled temporarily with plywood, to avoid damage to glass from exterior finish installation or acid-washing.

On the other hand, once the roof is completed and exterior walls are sheathed in a vapor barrier, work can proceed indoors, often prior to the end of this stage.

12-16 WEEKS: MEP Roughing In
Interior walls and ceilings, sometimes framed up at the same time the building envelope is completed, now become the locations for installation of mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems, assuming that the building interior is dry.

For most of this stage, different building trades are working at systems that run throughout the building, with much of the work going on overhead, making it difficult to perform these tasks concurrently. It can be done in a pinch, but it's not ideal- workers' productivity decreases as different trades get in each other's way, and there's a heightened risk of accidents or damage to the building.

14-18 WEEKS: Finishes And Equipment
After MEP is completed, interior walls and ceilings can be fully enclosed. Drywall is usually first on the list, given the amount of dust it produces through multiple phases of installation and finishing, and floors are the last, to avoid damage to them and to give other trades (such as carpenters) space in which to work. Tile floors and walls, such as in restrooms, are installed at this point, as are toilet partitions, plumbing fixtures and the like.

 
  ADDED COMPLICATIONS
When a project incorporates more than just new construction, the timeline can get complicated very quickly. One such project, at Philadelphia University, demonstrates how much coordination and communication is necessary when more than one project type and multiple firms are involved. One firm was responsible for the construction of a three-level parking garage, while Stanmar handled design and construction of the Gallagher Athletic and Recreation Center—located on top of the garage—and the renovation and adaptive reuse of an older gymnasium/cafeteria that shared a wall with the garage. Each portion of the project had to be carefully phased, and to add to the degree of difficulty, this all ran concurrent to the construction of the new Kanbar Campus Center next door.
 
  What expanded the timeline was not so much the working around the needs of the building users, but the merging of the different firms’ schedules. For example, our schedule—and for that matter, the structural integrity of our rooftop building—was dependent on another firm’s successful completion of the parking structure, so in a sense their difficulties and delays became ours. Elevators and other infrastructure that were part of our building had to be designed and partially constructed in their building—their roof was our floor—during their construction.

Concurrent or phased projects require flexibility on the part of the building owner, as well as more active involvement in the building process. In situations like these, an engaged and informed owner is better equipped to help keep construction on schedule.
Gallagher Athletic and Recreation Center takes shape on top of a new parking structure at Philadelphia University. Photos courtesy of Stanmar Inc.

At this point, the building seems complete-but there are still weeks to go! This is the stage in which all built-in units are constructed or installed, such as doors, windows, check-in desks, modular workspaces, counters, cabinets, gym equipment, lighting, security equipment, saunas-you name it. Floors and surface treatments come next, followed by furnishings and cleanup.

2 WEEKS: The Punch List
Typically, this last stage overlaps with move-in, and it involves tying up any loose ends created by a process that involves scores of workers in different trades. We walk the building throughout construction as each trade finishes work in an area, keeping detailed notes, and then, close to move-in, we walk the building with the new owner. A scratched ceiling tile, a stain on a carpet, a light switch wired incorrectly, a light fixture that flickers-these are some of the minor, typically cosmetic things that have to get fixed before the Grand Opening.

The last pieces of equipment are installed only when the owner has received the Certificate of Occupancy-computers, printers, telephones-anything at risk of disappearing prior to the owner being presented with the key.

DOING THE MATH
Many unexpected circumstances can derail the building timeline. Although we are on site, scheduling and organizing the appearance of various subcontractors, occasionally a subcontractor becomes temporarily unavailable due to earlier delays or bottlenecks, or even goes out of business. It is imperative, in these situations, to act decisively, even if it means a higher up-front cost. Waiting for a subcontractor to become available sets every other trade back, and risks subcontractor commitments falling like dominoes.

As an example, during construction of a new recreation facility at Eagle Hill School, central Massachusetts was hit with unusual early-season extreme cold-too cold to install the specified vapor barrier-and the subcontractor scheduled to begin installing clapboard siding after the vapor barrier installation was becoming antsy. We made the decision to purchase, at our cost, a more-expensive vapor barrier that could be installed in temperatures below 25 degrees, just to keep the clapboard siding installation on schedule. Using more-costly materials allowed us to avoid an even more costly last-minute switch in subcontractors.

An owner whose building is behind schedule will find there are opportunities to make up time, sometimes at added cost to the owner or the construction firm. The easiest way to make up time is for crews to work overtime; while this usually costs more, there are instances where crews will work longer hours and not charge for it. This sometimes is the case with roofers, who have a large backlog and need to work overtime to get their jobs done. Another way to make up time is to rearrange the sequence of activities or to have multiple trades work in the same area at the same time if safety permits. Sometimes, using more costly materials-for example, higher-strength concrete that sets more quickly-can accelerate the schedule.

It would be rare for each stage of a building project to hit either the minimum number of weeks or the maximum number of weeks. Nevertheless, using the ranges above, if construction on our 60,000-square-foot example building began in early March, foundations were completed in April or early May, the superstructure was finished sometime in August or September, and the building was enclosed by October or November. The building would be ready for occupancy sometime between May and August of the following year. There are times during construction when owners feel that the job is at the mercy of many things they can't control-the weather, building trades, suppliers. But in fact, there's really not a lot over which an organized construction manager doesn't have control. While the weather or things below the ground that can't be seen are always variables, successful design and construction firms should be able to manage all the other risks associated with building a facility-and by doing so, allow owners to enjoy the process.

Photos by Chris Phebus Photography

 

 

About The Author
Ralph Agostinelli

, PE (ragostinelli@stanmar-inc.com) is senior project manager at Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Mass., design-build firm specializing in athletic and recreation facilities for private colleges, universities and secondary schools nationwide.

 

 

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