Compressed Schedules Require Going The Extra Mile

By Mark S. Gilbert, Vice President, Frank L. Blum Construction Company, Winston-Salem, North Carolina | September 28, 2010

When Wake Forest University hired Frank L. Blum Construction Company to gut and completely renovate the 12,000-square-foot student dining facility commonly referred to as "The Pit," it had one major requirement: The entire job had to be finished during the university's 12-week summer break in 2005.

Thanks to months of advance planning and crews working around the clock, Blum Construction finished the job 2-1/2 weeks early — and within budget. It happened because the Blum team did its homework before construction ever started. "Planning, planning and more planning," says Mike Lancaster, a senior project manager for Blum.

"For every hour of work, there were two hours of planning," Lancaster says. "We started meeting with Wake Forest, the architect, and many of our subcontractors in December. It was crucial to plot the critical path of how the job would be done, including what items linked together, what had to be finished before something else could be done, when the HVAC system needed to be roughed in, when the city inspector needed to visit. We had to have backup plans for where we could continue working even if there were unexpected hiccups — and there were a few."

Even while Blum Construction was in the bidding process, the company got buy-in on the compressed schedule from crucial subcontractors. "The subcontractors selected for the job had to be willing to do whatever it took to finish on time, even if it meant working three shifts, and they had to provide workers for third shift who had the same level of expertise as those on first and second," Lancaster said.

Early buy-in from subcontractors was critical in another of Blum's compressed-schedule projects in 2008. The renovation for Republic Mortgage Insurance Company covered seven floors of mostly office space in the Park Building in downtown Winston-Salem, but the most challenging aspect was the installation of a data center in the basement. "We explained up front to the subcontractors what the expectations were," said Justin Swanson, Blum's project manager for RMIC. "They had to price the work for a seven-day-a-week schedule, so that there would be no arguing about overtime later on."

Blum's advance planning for the RMIC job was so detailed that the proposed schedule filled 20 pages of the bid proposal, Swanson said. The schedule was driven by the fact that RMIC had a deadline for moving out of its former office space, yet the company could not move until the data center in the new building was up and running. Before that could happen, HVAC and electrical equipment to power the system had to be installed. The data equipment itself had to be programmed by engineers from Hewlett-Packard, and the dates for their visit were scheduled far in advance and could not be changed.

Adding to the stress was the fact that much of the equipment for the HVAC and electrical systems had to be custom-manufactured in another state and shipped to Winston-Salem. By the time Blum was awarded the RMIC job, this process was already off to a late start.

"We actually sent the manufacturer's local sales representatives to the factory to make sure they were making the equipment on time!" Swanson said. "Once it was manufactured, we tracked the shipping and paid extra to have it shipped directly from the factory to the job site."

The challenges weren't over when the equipment arrived. "The dry cooler compressor had to go on the roof, but we could only do that on Saturday because we had to block off part of a major downtown street," Swanson said. On another occasion, the building's power had to be turned off entirely during the installation of electrical equipment, which required Blum to coordinate the shutdown with the building's other tenants.

Despite these numerous setbacks, Blum finished the job only one week behind schedule — "and that was only because one piece of electrical equipment was delivered late," Swanson said.

The key to success with a compressed schedule is that a construction company must be willing to do whatever it takes to meet the client's deadline, Lancaster said. "A tremendous amount of planning up front, strong communication with subcontractors and the client, and working around the clock to finish the job — all of these components are necessary to keep a project on deadline and within budget."