F. Joshua Millman, AIA, LEED AP, CFM | 4 Min Read
Every owner of a building project is in a hurry; not one has directed me to take as much time as I need. Yet I was unprepared for the schedule that I was presented at the kickoff meeting for Project Thrush. Our regular client had agreed to pair our design acumen with the landlord’s preferred general contractor, coincidentally another client of ours. This arrangement was accepted by all in part to minimize any learning curve between the parties.
After quick introductions and a few reminiscences of recent projects together, the contractor rolled out his Critical Path Method (CPM) schedule for how occupancy could be achieved for a requested move-in over Fourth of July week. Once I confirmed that end date, my eyes shot up to the bars representing the end of the design period. The renovation construction had to begin six weeks from today.
Of course, that didn’t mean we had six weeks to complete the drawings. Review and approvals by the building code officials would need to occur, requiring up to 30 working days (6 weeks) per Pennsylvania law. That was the same as the design period length. Construction could not begin until the building permit was in hand; move-in could not begin until a certificate of occupancy was issued.
I began to layout my proposed approach to the problem to my project team members:
First, there were three (3) sequential steps to a project like this: design, approvals, and construction. We had to both shorten the execution time of each of these and then manage to overlap their durations.
Second, the time needed for code approvals was identified as being the hardest to control but also the greatest opportunity. For years both this client and I diligently stewarded our relationship with the local code official, as diligently as the client maintained regular contact with the local police and fire fighters. With enough advanced notice, I predicted we could schedule time in the code official’s calendar to have the review complete in two weeks or less. The other alternative was to have the code official allow us to line up a third-party reviewer who could reserve time for a quick turnaround
Next, how to complete the design in four (4) weeks or less was examined. Here, an “end focused” approach was taken. All we needed was for, what could be, reasonably-complete drawings (which would conform to building code) to be sealed. Certainly, these drawings could be revised and resubmitted to update the permit as we refined our approach to meeting the building requirements. If we forewarned the code official of our intent to update the permit monthly, she would likely be more agreeable than if we appeared to be doing a bait-and-switch with the permit drawings. There were risks to this approach: at some point she might reject the proposed design changes, halting construction until we revised the drawings; or an onslaught of building permit applications may require all 6 weeks to receive the updated permit.
Fourth, we agreed to design with materials that the contractor could receive most readily. The contractor had masons available, so the partitions would all be concrete block. 12” deep bar joists were also available on quick ship, so our structural engineer would designate spacing of bearing walls to use those lengths.
Lastly, we would finalize portions of the design as the contractor needed direction. For example, we would need to have the restrooms designed early so the contractor could begin to cut the concrete slab for pipe trenches just as soon as the building permit was received. We would need final locations for the bearing walls next in order to cut in foundations for these.
The project executed pretty close to plan. At 8:00 meetings each morning of the design period, we quickly exchanged questions and answers. The code official was pleased to support our effort and would be swinging by the site weekly to ensure the construction did not get ahead of the approved updated permit drawings. We delivered sealed drawings to her in 4 weeks, and a permit to start was issued within a week after. For the first two months of construction, addenda were issued weekly and permit updates nearly that often. Very little construction needed to be reworked. Construction was completed on time for the July Fourth move and the company-sponsored cookout.
As the move ended and we switched to adult beverages, we started reminiscing about the job. We identified the following components that made this project so successful:
The designer and contractor worked together on many projects beforehand, so there was little learning curve.
The code official was apprised of the plan early on. Having been in regular contact before this project with the project owner, designer, and contractor, she was comfortable that everything would be done by code and by permit, and she would hear about any slips before she noticed them in her weekly site reviews.
The owner, designer, and contractor picked materials to use based on functionality, availability, and budget. Compromises were made.
The focus was on finalizing design features to the schedule required by the contractor, rather than the usual luxury of completing the entire design and permitting before construction started. More compromises were required here too. The final layout may not have been optimum, but the schedule and budget were met, and any reduced functionality was unlikely to affect our client’s overall profitability.