Finding your footing in project planning

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By Kimberly DiPinto

“You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site.” — Frank Lloyd Wright.

What is the difference between the eraser and the sledgehammer? As Frank Lloyd Wright so eloquently states, it is all in the planning. According to Rick Porcelli, VP of construction at The Allied Group, a national hospitality renovation company, “How you start a project dictates how it goes.”

No two renovation projects are alike, nor do they produce the same experience or outcome. Why? Much of the reason lies long before a boot hits the ground on the job site. “The industry is changing. Renovation budgets are tightening due to the rapid escalation in labor and material availability and cost,” says Porcelli.  With projects running within a leaner framework, processes need to be efficient and preconstruction planning emphasized to gain the best footing at the start of each project.

Preplanning, or Beginning with the end in mind, is not a new concept. Stephen Covey includes it as Step Two of his highly successful business self-help book “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.”  According to Stephen Covey, “Begin With the End in Mind, is based on imagination—the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot see with your eyes.  It is based on the principle that all things are created twice.  There is a mental (first) creation and a physical (second) creation.  The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint.”

So, how do we ensure that blueprint is abundantly clear, cohesive and comprehensive while adapting to these new economic parameters that have become an industry standard? All parties must collaborate early and often. This includes GC project management, design team/architect, procurement, logistics, ownership group, management and hotel operations. Porcelli believes, “Ultimately, more information for the general contractor (GC) earlier in the process equates to better execution of the project by site leadership, tradespeople, suppliers and subcontractors. These are the boots on the ground that will take the renovation concept from paper plan to reality. This helps circumvent unnecessary mistakes, excess costs and misdirected time, ultimately hurting the project outcome and all stakeholders in the project execution.”

How much time does a GC need to be successful in project setup and execution? Ramp-up time provided to a GC can vary and depends on the complexity of the project. The more complex a project, the longer the preconstruction activities should be allotted. Typically, however, there seems to be a sweet spot of time to set a project up for success. “Ideally, a commitment from the ownership to a GC 90 days before the start date of construction is the most desirable ramp-up time.” urges Porcelli. “At this 90-day preconstruction mark, a project should be owner approved, brand approved and city or Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) concept approved. Ninety days also allows time for city approvals, permitting, submittals, long lead times for materials and subcontractor commitments.”

Allied encourages and regularly participates in project planning and development months before having a commitment from ownership. For Allied, these efforts are a good faith, value add demonstration of commitment to blue-chip hospitality clients whether awarded the project or not.

Prime start dates and detailed information are ideal, but sometimes “ideal” is cut at the budgeting table. Rick Porcelli and David Sierra, seasoned project managers from The Allied Group, have a few suggestions that will help you through this and all your projects in general:

  1. Documentation – Advocate for the documentation you believe is necessary to make your project run at its best and continue to keep your project well-documented. Sierra stresses the importance of knowing both GC and ownership contracts comprehensively. In addition to contracts, study the bid, the plans, and devote time to fully understanding the scope.
  2. Written communication – When multiple people are involved in a project with many moving parts, verbal communication leaves much room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Sierra recommends getting it all in writing. Confirm and clarify verbal communication with ownership and design groups via email and keep that communication log filed throughout the process.
  3. Question – Porcelli makes it a point to ask lots of questions; the more, the better. “Be humble, ask questions, and acknowledge mistakes immediately when they come up. It’s all about accountability.  Holding yourself, the project team, suppliers and all stakeholders in the project accountable to the plan. This is the true success formula.”
  4. Stand by decisions – Sierra and Porcelli believe knowledge is gained through experience. If your experience tells you the best way to do something, trust that intuition and stand by it. Never compromise your knowledge. If you are a true expert in the field, act upon your expertise.
  5. Look ahead – Sierra stresses the importance of looking ahead regarding project management and for the entire project team. Take time to balance the communication, documentation, and feedback you’ve received from your team to create “look-aheads.” This will allow you to plan your next right steps for tomorrow, next week, two weeks and further ahead.

“There is something deeply gratifying about tearing down what was once old and building or renovating it into something new,” says Sierra.  “It’s what keeps you in this fast-paced, demanding business, seeing that final product,” adds Porcelli, “I’m a builder, a carpenter; I love what I do. But it’s not always easy. Spending more time at a project’s planning stages in preparation allows me to do what I do best—build.”

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