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Top Things to Know About Preconstruction Planning

Before Breaking Ground: What You Should Know About Pre-Construction Planning

How Proper Planning Can Put Your Project on a Path to Excellence

A new construction project is an exciting endeavor for the owner who contracts the building, the workers actually erecting the structure, and the community at large who gets to watch a potential landmark as it goes up. Although much of this excitement comes from the physical construction process and the end result, it’s important to stay focused during pre-construction planning to keep your project on track and on budget — from start to completion.

There is much more involved in planning than simply having architects and engineers draw up the design and hiring contractors and subcontractors to complete the project. In fact, pre-construction design services alone could cost between 8-15% of the total cost of the project, but if problems or concerns are identified before construction begins, overall cost savings can be massive. Besides financial concerns, without a solid planning process, you leave your project open to liability from confusion resulting from poor documentation, and increase the likelihood that your project schedule will be delayed

Like all professionals in today’s construction industry, we strive for quality and efficiency in each and every project, and the pre-construction stage can be just as important as the actual building phase to ensure this. With this in mind, we’ve identified several of the top pre-construction planning considerations for your next building project.

Understanding the RFP Process

Whenever the building owner sends out a Request for Proposal (RFP), they already have the budget in mind, a building program specified, schedule, and information on whether the competition, or bidding process, should be private versus public. It’s then up to the architects to compete for the project, which could take weeks or months depending on the scale of the build. Although the building owner may have an idea of the basic style and design they want for the building on a particular site, they might also be open to creative designs and expect the architect to fully determine what the building will incorporate. As with any other art form, architects have individual styles that can be evaluated by reviewing their portfolios and past projects. Needless to say, architect’s should take the direction of the RFP and create a proposal that showcases their individual talents as a professional, as well as keenly consider the needs of the owner and building. Depending on the size of the project, an architecture firm competes against multiple other firms and craft models and master renderings to essentially pitch their idea to the building owner. At the end of this process, it’s up to the ownership group to choose the firm they believe best fits the scope of the project.

Ultimately, the RFP process is similar to an interview between the owner and the architect and can be an important process on both sides of the spectrum. Just as the owner wants to find the right fit, the architect needs to be sure they have the right skillset to address the project’s needs. The right architecture firm for a project should meet the following criteria:

  • Are they keeping within the proposed budget?
  • Does the proposed schedule meet your building requirements?
  • Do past projects/portfolio fall in line with the intended project?
  • If creativity or community integration is important to your project, did the firm present innovative and visually appealing renderings/models?
  • If the building needs state-of-the-art technology integration, does the firm have the capacity to manage quality execution?

Managing the Design Process

Once an architectural firm is selected for the project, the exciting, yet complex, design phase will begin. At this point, architects start to hire design consultants, such as mechanical engineers, structural engineers, and landscape architects. During this time, the architect is responsible for laying out a preliminary set of drawings for what they are thinking with the spaces in the program by the owner. Taking this initial direction from the architect, the consultants design  according to their specific building systems such as HVAC, electrical, and plumbing in the footprint and the outline of the architecture, with oversight from the architect.

During the construction document (CD) phase, the architect acts like a quarterback in the whole process where they are collaborating with the design consultants and building owner, to ensure their systems integrate with the building they are designing. Improving efficiency and coordination is a high priority for all stakeholders involved during design, as it’s critical for maintaining finances and preserving timelines. Migrating away from paper and email for coordination is a good start to increase efficiency during the design phase. Using tools that help mobilize your workflow and coordination processes will, in the end, result in a better product and happy owner and design team.

Understanding and Anticipating Building Owner’s Needs

As mentioned, the project’s needs are usually clearly defined in the original RFP. Regardless, things are bound to evolve and change slightly — especially in the design phase. To ensure that design intent and schedules are met, the architect will have to work very closely with the owner in the design phase. It’s an intense process, so it’s not uncommon for it to last months or a few years depending on the scope and size. Keep in mind that there are likely to be many revisions that arise during this time when the owner realizes an earlier decision wasn’t completely anticipated. Such issues can be problematic to fix after construction is completed, but fairly simple to address if realized in time in pre-construction planning. As with most other issues, experienced architects, are able to foresee such problems based on previous projects. By anticipating an aspect of the building that isn’t going to suit the building’s end needs, the changes can be made efficiently rather than having to rebuild work which was already finished.

Work Permits

At the end of the design process, design teams are required to submit their documents to the city before bids for contractors and subcontractors begins. Having the city involved is a whole other approval process that can take a lot of time during the design phases. If designs don’t meet code, the city has the authority to not give their stamp of approval. In this situation, the design team must take some time to make sure all permits are met.

To ensure plans are up to standard and don’t have to further altered, anticipating and understanding common requirements for work permits will minimize the total risk of a project. For this reason, keep the following in mind:

  • Building is ADA compliant
  • Project complies with city municipalities
  • Design meets public safety codes
  • Plan includes seismic codes
  • Documents specify fire protection plans

Working with Contractors and Subcontractors

Once the city has fully approved the design, it’s time to start hiring contractors and subcontractors to execute the work. But before anything is actually built, the owner takes the approved permit set and final specifications and prepares for the bidding phase. Only once a general contractor (GC) has been selected does the owner hand over the approved set of documents so that the GC can use them to initiate the project buy-out process with subcontractors.

With this set of documents, the contractor then requests that specialty subcontractors bid for packages of work like the drywall and building mechanics. One of the key objectives for the GC during the pre-construction and planning phase is to make sure that their own internal team is set up and staffed properly. As subcontractors are brought on, the focus shifts to aligning in terms of expectations, collaboration, and the overall plan of execution. Similar to any project, a team that is very tightly aligned around a mission and how to execute has the most opportunities for success. Therefore, getting buy-in and cohesiveness from all major subs (e.g. MEP, drywall) before construction begins, ensures you will be successful together and shifts focus on the larger goal of completing the project on time and within budget.  

Fundamentally, it’s important to understand that the pre-construction phase is really the only time when the GC and subs are able to focus on “planning the work” together, trying to identify and mitigate any major risks. In essence, once the ground breaks, the focus shifts entirely to “working the plan”, so full alignment ahead of time limits major setbacks that could have easily been avoided with adequate planning.

Make Your Pre-Construction Planning Smarter

Ultimately, the pre-construction planning phase is very complex and will vary greatly depending on the nature of the project. The day-to-day coordination of the many stakeholders, including the owner, architect, designers, and contractors, involved in the planning can be stressful and complicated due to many moving parts during design — and even more in the actual construction phase. However, proper planning in the pre-construction phase from understanding the bid process, working with contractors, and having the right tools to efficiently complete the job is essential to help prevent obstacles from becoming problems. This ensures you can oversee the project from paper to real life.  

Ross Wagner

Ross is the Lead Architectural Consultant at PlanGrid. He helps implement PlanGrid with companies and projects up and down the West Coast. When not working, Ross loves exploring new cities, talking architecture, and seeing live music. He has a Five-Year Bachelor's Degree in Architecture and a Minor in Business from the University of Texas at Austin.

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