Essay to “Owners”: don’t waste your money, get started well

The Wilkinson Project Group

(For purposes of this document, planning, design, construction, and development of real property (a.k.a. buildings) will be referred to as the “AEC” industry.)

Seattle, WA waterfront and marketplaceIt is common that many customers to services in the AEC industry seldom do business there and in many cases the project undertaken is a "one-off." Furthermore, these customers find themselves in the position of attempting to manage many intertwining contracts while all at the same time successfully operating the business that brought them to needing more in the way of property (buildings). These conditions, in and of themselves put up barriers to success, but there are more equally significant obstacles lurking at the outset.

Though integration of services in the AEC Industry is a rising trend, many Owners find themselves attempting to operate in the unfamiliar territory of “design, then bid, then build.”

(See the article entitled “Why design build is Hard and Owners should insist”) . Not infrequently, as the project moves into its early moments, Owners will find themselves attempting to sort out competing claims made by various parties (architects, builders, construction managers, real estate advisors…), that they are the most qualified party to lead the process. Interestingly, there is no single answer to the question of who is most qualified to lead, but there is a more critical question: what do you do to get started properly and not waste a lot of time and money?

The so-called "front-end work" is the answer to the question.

If done well, this process can be characterized as: spend a little, get a lot. The AEC Industry has some standards of practice for the work products that should be created during front-end work. In a general way they are: i) a preliminary project description, ii) preliminary plans, iii) a cost plan, iv) a whole project chart of accounts, and v) a chunky time plan.

A preliminary project description (PPD) is a collection of words that capture the overall nature of the solution sought including key metrics such as size, functional pieces and parts, purpose etc. A lot has been written about the PPD framework. The architectural design community sometimes calls the PPD the program documents. A more detailed description of the PPD is out of the scope of this document.

Preliminary plans show in the diagrams what the PPD represents in words. The architectural design community often refers to preliminary plans as early schematics.

The cost plan lays out budget ranges for the ideas recorded in the PPD and preliminary plans. Successful cost planning is high art and the subject to additional writings by this author. As a general matter, successful cost planning must be based on verifiable history and market conditions. Additionally, the whole project chart of accounts records all costs the Owner will bear during the project development time period. Design and construction costs are subset to the complete list of project costs.

Lastly, the time plan should layout in large blocks the actions of complete development from the earliest moments of front-end work to substantial completion and turnover for use.

A solid front-end work package gives the Owner the essential basis to confirm feasibility (or not) and to make informed decisions about how to select, contract for, and administer the project team. Naturally, the size of the work effort for an appropriate front-end varies according to the size and complexity of the proposed project. Nonetheless, these five components are the essential pieces. As a general matter, only experienced professionals can lead and guide this process. Teams should not be "associations of convenience" but rather verifiably experienced. It is not uncommon for various of the proposed team members to want to "Be at the front of the line,'" the de facto" leader. The Owner should guard against making purely relationship-based selections and instead look with clear eyes for verifiable examples of similar projects completed.

As Owners contemplate a project, many forces compete for executive attention both in the areas of the proposed project and the underlying business itself. Undertaking the necessary critical front-end work requires a steady experienced hand.

To get started well, spend a little, and get a lot.

Other related stories by this author posted on LinkIn:

• “The New Owner (Representative)”

• “Ethics in Design-Build Planning”

• “Silly fight… designers and builders have a lot in common”

• “Why design-build is Hard and every Owner should insist”


(Revisions and update 031019….)

The rapid of evolution in communications platforms is fundamentally changing how we work and in many cases this changes point towards efficiency and effectiveness. Minneapolis recently had record snowfalls and is interesting to note that many of the parking ramps were near empty. What was going on? Of course in many cases folks just took a "snow day." But this writer believes that also in many cases the remote workers just stayed off the road, and connected to commerce "on the wire."

Only recently, videoconferencing required many tens of thousands of dollars of special equipment in the conference room. Now, the laptops and some broadband access provides videoconferencing for mere pennies. These interactive features combined with online data sharing and document management change everything.

The era of the virtual assistant is rising. This has interesting implications for the traditional (and emerging) Owner Representative roles. Now, the well connected owner representative can provide services in real time without the unnecessary overhead expense of driving across town in traffic or copying documents.

This advisory group is “well-wired” and experienced.


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