Using Early Collaboration to Improve Construction Project Delivery

Written by Kendall Jones, Content Marketing Manager at ConstructConnect

The construction industry is rapidly evolving. Clients are expecting higher quality projects while at the same time demanding shorter construction timelines on tighter budgets. There’s also an increasing focus on sustainability, resiliency, and energy efficiency in new construction and renovations. Innovations in technology and advanced building systems are reshaping the way buildings are designed and built. All of these are leading to increasingly more complex construction projects.

As construction projects become more complex, effective collaboration has become a key factor in completing projects on time and within budget, while delivering a quality product to the client. Strong collaboration leads to many benefits like innovation, time and cost savings, added value for the client, reduced errors and eliminating unnecessary rework.

Unfortunately, this growing need for stronger collaboration between clients, architects, and contractors doesn’t mesh well with the traditional design-bid-build project delivery method. With design-bid-build, the client hires an architect or design team and works with them through the various design phases. Once the architect and engineers have the construction documents prepared and permitting completed, they’ll work with the client to bid the project out to general contractors who, in turn, must sub-bid the project out to trade contractors.

Collaboration should begin in the early planning stages of a project. Bringing in the major players on a project--owner, architect, engineers, general contractor, and key subcontractors--can lead to better design and decision making. These stakeholders should have some say and input on scheduling, coordination, materials, etc. during the design phase. It starts everyone on the same page and sets the tone for the project.

The problem with the design-bid-build is that it’s too siloed to keep pace with construction’s current evolution and doesn’t really work to facilitate true collaboration on the project. To meet the needs and wants of clients, there’s been an uptick in the use of alternative contracting methods that rely on early contractor involvement such as Design-Build, Construction Manager at Risk, Integrated Project Delivery, and Design-Assist.

  • Design-Build – a method where there is a single contract between the client and a design-build firm or joint venture formed by a contractor and architect firm to design and build a project.
  • Construction Manager at Risk – the CMAR works as the client’s representative to deliver a project at a Guaranteed Maximum Price and works with the architects and engineers on value engineering and cost estimating.
  • Integrated Project Delivery – an approach to project delivery that integrates all project teams working together to share knowledge, expertise, and experience to optimize project delivery from design through construction.
  • Design-Assist – general contractor or construction manager provide knowledgeable input and advice on construction methods, scheduling, cost estimating, and constructability to aid the architect in designing a project.

These contracting methods focus on bringing the client, architect, and general contractor together earlier so they can work together starting the design phase and carry on that collaboration all the way through project completion.

Collaboration & Compromise

One of the great benefits of early contractor involvement is being able to lean into the expertise and knowledge base of the entire project team which can result in true innovation in approaching any construction project. A well-integrated team will lead to better project performance and reduce risks for all involved. Part of the collaboration process can include allocating risks to the parties best equipped to deal with them.

Architects expect contractors to transform their vision for a project into reality. This means following the plans and specifications exactly as they are drawn and written. Seems simple enough, but it doesn’t always work out that way in the real world.

Sometimes what the architect puts on paper or the products they specify either aren’t feasible, aren’t available, or the contractor thinks that going in another direction would be a better solution. By engaging general contractors earlier in the design phase, architects can leverage their experience and expertise which can lead to better design. Contractors can advise on everything from value engineering and cost estimating to determining the best construction method and the selection of building materials.

On the flip side, a general contractor’s role isn’t to dictate how a building should look but instead aid in enhancing the constructability of the architect’s design. By leaning on a general contractor’s expertise and experience in the field, architects can apply that real-world experience in developing project documents that can be better realized on the job site.

It would be a bit short-sighted to assume that just because collaboration is taking place early in the process that everyone is going to be in agreement at all times. Leadership on the various teams involved needs to facilitate open discussions and meetings that is respectful of everyone’s insights and perspectives. Egos should be checked at the door—keeping in mind that the goal is to solve the problems of design and constructability, not create new ones.

Disagreements will happen but they should lead to discussions and collaborative problem solving rather than discord and finger pointing when issues arise. Getting architects and general contractors together early on allows both parties to start building a relationship together and establishing a rapport. Respecting the opinions of others and leaning into the expertise and experience of all the teams involved should be the order of the day.

If architects and general contractors can get to a level of mutual understanding and respect in the early stages, they’ll start to rely on each other’s insights and recommendations. This means working together as a team rather than separate companies working toward the same goal but with conflicting ideas on how to get there.

Architects and contractors are often thrust together against their will with the only thing in common being their client. Every relationship starts with an introduction, so schedule some time to get together to discuss the project and establish some common ground. When working through the project be sure to rely on each other’s strengths and expertise. As work progresses, trust will be built between the architect and contractor which will strengthen the relationship.

Communication & Documentation

Collaboration goes hand in hand with good communication and keeping everyone together on the same page. It revolves around trusting all parties and valuing their input as integral members of the team. This can be accomplished by having a solid documentation and communication plan in place.

It’s important to determine a chain of command for documentation and communication throughout the project. These are typically spelled out in the contract documents and usually require the owner and general contractor to communicate with each other through the architect. With early contractor involvement, this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes the general contractor is communicating directly, or in tandem with the architect, with the client. The architect might be communicating directly with the various engineers and consultants on the project and the general contractor is likely communicating directly with the subcontractors and suppliers.

By documenting every step of the project from design through construction everyone stays on the same page and reduces the risk of misunderstanding and disputes. A good way to do this is by using a cloud-based document management system to act as a central repository of all documents that everyone involved on the project can easily access the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Establishing a clear line of communication that includes identifying points of contact with contact information for key team members is vital to ensuring that information is getting to the right people in a timely manner. Collaboration will fail if there’s a breakdown in the documentation and communication process.

Impact of Early Collaboration

As construction projects become more complex, effective collaboration earlier in the process is increasingly becoming a key factor in completing projects on time and within budget while delivering a quality product to the client. Good collaboration leads to many benefits like innovation, time and cost-saving, added value for the client, reduced errors, and unnecessary rework.

Early project collaboration goes beyond everyone completing tasks on schedule. It involves building a strong relationship with all stakeholders based on trust and respect to work together to successfully complete a project. Being able to cooperate and coordinate efforts to improve productivity is essential.

True collaboration between architects and general contractors can greatly reduce the amount of request for information (RFIs), change orders, and costly rework. Identifying and resolving issues prior to the start of construction will go a long way in mitigating schedule delays and cost overruns.

Achieving true collaboration can be tricky, it requires careful planning, coordination, and buy-in from all parties involved on the project.

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