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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Let’s Talk: Project Communication

I’m the president of a 14-story, 138-unit Queens cooperative, and over the past few years the board has had bad experiences on several big projects, including a roof-replacement job and a heating-plant upgrade, both of which ran way over budget and took much longer to complete than expected. Each time there was a lot of finger-pointing, among the managing agent, engineer, contractor, and (I must admit) the board itself. We now have major Local Law 11/98 repair work planned for the coming construction season. What are the key issues the board should address to avoid the confusion and acrimony that hindered our previous projects?

 

One of the biggest reasons for a badly run project is poor communication among the parties involved: the board, managing agent, contractor, and engineer/architect. If the parties are communicating candidly and regularly, they may disagree on any number of issues, but at least the discussion is out in the open. However, without a clear understanding of who is responsible for what and what is specifically expected from each person, the project is headed for failure.

As the one designing and administering the project, the engineer/architect is responsible for laying the groundwork for open communication and fostering it throughout the project. To start things off on the right foot, the engineer/architect should first meet with the board and managing agent to determine the board’s objectives for the project and how those fit in with other projects and priorities on the board’s agenda. This is the time to talk about what reasonably can be accomplished and to advise against any unrealistic expectations. An extensive Local Law 11/98 repair program, for example, cannot be completed in only a few weeks, nor can replacing a deteriorated roof prevent leaks from continuing if other defective exterior conditions are not fixed.

The board may also have a dollar amount in mind that falls short of what the project is expected to cost, so the engineer/architect must be flexible enough to present repair options that work within the board’s budget. For its part, the board must recognize that a reduced scope may mean putting off some necessary work that will likely be more extensive – and expensive – down the line. A problem arises when the engineer/architect downplays the expected time and cost of the project to placate the board but only to incur its displeasure when the project runs over time and budget. An upfront discussion about a realistic scope of work, repair budget, and timeline is the best way to avoid false promises.

The specifications and drawings that the engineer or architect prepares for the project can also be a cause of poor communication. These construction documents are used to solicit bids from qualified contractors, one of whom will be hired to perform the work, so it’s crucial that the plans be thorough and detailed. Unclear and/or incomplete documents leave too much room for error and disagreement between the contractor and the engineer/architect about what, where, and how the repairs are to be made. The board and managing agent should review the plans with the engineer/architect and make sure they reflect the agreed upon scope of work and budget before signing off on them.

Next, the engineer/architect should schedule a pre-bid site meeting at the building for the prospective contractors, with the managing agent and someone from the board also attending. This will give contractors the chance to walk through the site and ask questions about the project and the bid package, which they will have already received from the engineer/architect. This walk-through meeting gives the contractors a better sense of the project scope, which results in more accurate bids.

When the bids are in, the engineer/architect reviews them and should provide the board with a written recommendation on the contractor award. The board and managing agent should then interview the contractors under consideration and make clear the board’s objectives, voicing any special concerns or issues (as well as trying to negotiate a slightly better price) before making a final selection. Once the hiring decision is made, it’s imperative to have a written contract, prepared by the board’s attorney or engineer/architect. An oral agreement is open to misunderstandings and disputes about who said what, and it’s nearly impossible to hold a contractor accountable for his performance on the project without key provisions in writing, such as insurance, bonding, retainage, and liquidated damages.

Before construction begins, it’s essential to stage a project initiation conference. All the responsible parties should attend – engineer/architect, managing agent, building superintendent, contractor, and a member of the board – to share necessary information and make sure everyone is on the same page. To avoid confusion, it’s important that each party has one main contact person.

Key issues to discuss include scheduling, access, security, storage locations, working hours of building staff, emergency telephone numbers, and any potentially disruptive items such as dealing with noise or dust. The contractor should also bring insurance certificates, current licenses, a project timeline, material submissions, and other necessary documentation. Everyone should leave the project-initiation conference clear on his or her responsibilities and the expected protocols and procedures.

Once the project begins, the contractor should contact the engineer/architect regularly to report daily progress and also provide written weekly updates. The engineer/architect should visit the site at least twice weekly (more frequently for larger projects) ideally with the managing agent and/or a board member present, and provide written reports with findings and recommendations.

A good site-visit report focuses on the quality of the work observed, provides instructions for correcting defective or improper work, lists other issues to be addressed (such as paint-color selections and scaffold relocations), and notes the date of the next scheduled visit. Reports should be distributed to the board representative, managing agent, and contractor. The board and managing agent should also alert the engineer/architect of any problems they come across so that they can be promptly addressed.

Very large projects or multiple projects may call for a full-time construction manager, separate from the engineer/architect and contractor, to oversee all the work and ensure effective scheduling and coordination. While hiring someone to manage projects full-time is costly, it may be worth it in the long run by preventing cost overruns, excessive change orders, and blown time lines.

In addition to the engineer/architect’s visits, it’s a good idea to hold periodic job meetings at the site, at least once every two weeks. All the parties should attend to review the status of the project, discuss any changes to the scope or time line, point out work items or instructions that appear to have been neglected, and resolve any other problems. It is important to hold these meetings on site so that conditions and disputed work items can be viewed firsthand.

Even on projects that start off well, one or more of the parties can lose focus later on, causing it to flounder. To ensure that no loose ends are left hanging, the engineer/architect should compile a punch-list of items that the contractor must address before the project is signed off on.

Also, make sure the engineer/architect provides you with a Certificate of Substantial Completion, which establishes the date when only incidental punch-list items remain. This date is used to establish the starting point for warranties and stops the clock on any liquidated damages. In addition, drawings of the completed work, manufacturer’s guarantees (such as No Dollar Limit warranties on roofs), and any necessary governmental agency or manufacturer should be provided before the contractor packs up and leaves.

Proper communication goes beyond the parties immediately involved in the project. Residents should be notified about upcoming construction work so they won’t be alarmed when they see a man with a hammer outside their bedroom window or their water is turned off for several hours. To minimize inconvenience, the board should take into consideration residents’ schedules, especially those with special needs, such as the elderly, parents with small children, residents with health issues or physical limitations, etc. Doormen and building staff should also be given a “heads up” so workers, engineers, agents, and other authorized personnel are given proper access.

As a courtesy, keep your neighboring buildings’ staffs informed about upcoming construction work. Projects may impinge on adjacent properties with noise, dust, vibrations, sidewalk sheds, vehicles, machinery, reduced sidewalk access, and the like. Letting the managers of surrounding buildings know your project plans and your intention to limit disturbances buys you greater cooperation and gives them a chance to make necessary preparations. A mutual good-neighbor policy will also benefit your property when a building next door undertakes a large-scale project of its own.

With so many people involved on a typical repair or upgrade project, each with different roles, tasks, and responsibilities, the lines of communication can break down anywhere along the way. By striving to keep all parties informed and avoid surprises, boards, managing agents, engineers/architects, and contractors will create a smoother working relationship among one another and greatly increase the likelihood of a successfully completed project.

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