Construction Phase Advice for the Newbie as Well as the Experienced

The construction phase of a new facility, or the renovation of an existing facility is an exciting time. By the time your project has reached the point of starting construction, much has already been accomplished. You have likely planned the project for years. The budget has been projected and funds are secured. The design work is complete and construction bids have been received. Now it’s time for dirt to start flying and hammers to start swinging!


One of SCNA’s full-time team members is a licensed general contractor who serves as the director of our construction administration department.

While there are many easily recognized activities and practices during the construction phase that will require your attention, there are several procedures that many novices to construction are not aware of. Even the construction experienced project owner can benefit from a refresher on some of the challenges to come.

Yes, construction can be exciting, even thrilling, but be aware that if difficulties in the project are to be encountered, they are most likely to occur during the construction phase. Almost all litigation for projects results from issues during the construction phase. So, setting proper expectations and procedures will not simply save you some headaches, it will likely protect the project and your department.

The construction phase of a project is more challenging now than ever before for a variety of reasons. While there are many great construction contractors today, there are also plenty of unqualified builders. For the past several decades, the role of the general contractor has become more of a “broker” of subcontractor services than a “performer” of construction activities. This results in the project outcome relying less on the qualifications of the general contractor, and more on the quality of the specific subcontractor’s crew sent to the job site. Another challenge is that the ever-increasing technology systems, materials and techniques require more pre-construction and construction coordination than ever before.

Most of the points in this discussion will reflect on the traditional Design-Bid-Build delivery method, where the project owner hires the designer to develop design and construction documents so that construction bids can be solicited from general contractors, who in turn have their own contract in place with the project owner. While there are other delivery methods available for construction, the Design-Bid-Build method is by far the most utilized. The items discussed serve all delivery methods at many levels.

Construction Start-Up

The construction phase generally begins after the project owner and the general contractor have established an agreeable contract sum that the architect will use to prepare the owner/contractor contracts. Once the construction contracts are signed, a Notice-To-Proceed authorizes the contractor to begin construction activities and initiates the prescribed allowable construction period.

Public meetings are an important method for keeping your neighbors informed before construction begins.

Public relations with your citizenry and neighbors to the project site are critical to the success of your project. Hopefully, these important people have been kept informed of the project during the previous design phases. Now that they are about to start seeing construction activities, it is advisable to keep them informed of what and when they will experience for the next several months. Try to respond to their concerns and let them know that you want to be a good neighbor during construction and for many years to come.

There should be a Pre-Construction Conference (Pre-Con) prior to the initiation of construction activities. The proper Pre-Con will include the project owner, members of the design team, the general contractor, major sub-contractors and material suppliers, special inspectors, and others. The overall purpose of the Pre-Con is to establish or reiterate everyone’s role and responsibilities, to discuss proper procedures and lines of communication, and to answer any known coordination questions. It is advisable to conduct many smaller Pre-Cons during construction prior to specific activities such as site work, utilities installations, masonry work, interior finishes and many other work divisions.

Construction Observation and Monitoring

It is important that there be adequate observation and monitoring of the construction process and progress. In an attempt to save money, some project owners opt not to have the design team perform observation and monitoring. This is not advisable since no one knows the design as well as those who designed it. They are the most likely ones to recognize deviations from the construction documents and to alert everyone when there is an apparent lack of construction coordination.

Beside the designers, there are several other parties who should be observing and monitoring construction, including; local building inspectors with the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), third party Special Inspectors (SI), Quality Control/Quality Assurance (QC/QA) inspectors from the General Contractor, Sub-Contractors, and material suppliers, along with many other parties. By the way, if your project falls into the building code requirement for SI, it is required by law to be hired directly by the project owner, not the general contractor or design team. This is a budgeting item that you should plan for.

As the eventual end user of the facility, the project owner performs a critical role in construction observation and monitoring. The project owner may see something that they wish to modify, even if they have previously authorized it. The earlier that any construction revisions can be made, the less costly the change will likely be.

There should be scheduled meetings on site, including a regularly scheduled Owner-Architect-Contractor (OAC) meeting. These meetings provide an excellent opportunity to discuss important issues, such as how construction work is progressing, current contractor payment applications and all known coordination questions and clarifications.

Advances in technology has brought many conveniences to jobsite observation and monitoring. The specifications can include the requirement for one or more strategically placed cameras that show current activities, along with a video record of the entire construction phase. All parties with permission are able to observe construction activities from anywhere with internet access. The use of drone photography has also improved observation abilities and construction records.

As the project owner, how much time per week during the construction phase should you expect to invest in the project? The answer can vary greatly depending on such factors as; the size and complexity of the project, the quality of the general contractor, the quantity and timing of secondary work being performed by separate forces hired directly by the project owner, etc. Project owners on small to medium sized projects tell us that they range from one to six hours per day performing their necessary role.

Construction Contingency Allowance

It is advisable that you plan for a Construction Contingency Allowance (CCA). The CCA is a predetermined sum of money designated for a yet to be determined issue that can change the scope of the work during the actual construction of the project. Quite simply, it is a pocket of funds that will be used to cover unknown conditions or events, when authorized by the project owner.

Often the CCA sum is equivalent to five to 10 percent of the construction cost, depending on the project scope and likelihood of discovering unknown conditions. “Unknown Conditions” are the most likely issue to create a need for the CCA. And for most projects, unknown conditions are most commonly subsurface conditions such as rock and unsuitable soils. Therefore, the discovery of unknown conditions and expenditures from the CCA are most likely to occur early in the construction phase, during the earth moving procedures.

Other common uses for the CCA include; modifications required by the AHJ building inspector that were not requested during permit review, project owner revisions requested after construction bidding, and design clarifications or modifications. Some project owners keep the CCA separate from the construction contract, but most include it in the contract in order for it to more clearly be part of the construction costs, and so that the sum will already be covered by the general contractor’s bonding.

Personnel Changes for the Construction Team

A common challenge to the construction phase is a change of personnel by the builder on your project. The qualifications of the builder’s project manager and site superintendent for your project should be carefully evaluated prior to contract award. The general construction contract should state that you as the project owner, along with the architect, should have approval authority for any changes in the key personnel positions

The day you’ve been dreaming of!

Furnishings, Fixtures and Equipment (FFE)

This category of elements will be necessary for you to operate in the new or renovated facility, but they are items that do not necessarily require that the builder provide them. The list is long, but includes items such as; desks, chairs, tables, beds, lockers, loose kitchen appliances, compressors, IT servers, etc. Should you purchase FFE items directly, or should you make them the responsibility of the general contractor?

Some project owners put as much of the FFE in the construction contract as possible in order to avoid having another budgeting category, and in an attempt to pass on the coordination efforts to the general contractor. What we’ve typically seen is that the larger municipalities with less limited financial resources will tend to put more of the FFD into the general contract compared to some of the smaller project owners with tighter budgets who will typically purchase FFE outside of the general contract. Ultimately, the general contractor will buy the FFE from the same vendor that you will. But they obviously will add profit and overhead to the price. So, you can often save seven to 15 percent by purchasing it yourself. You will still want many self-purchased items coordinated and installed by the builder.

Construction Closeout

The completion of the construction phase includes many procedures. One of the more important of these is the “punching” of the project. Near the end of construction, the design team will prepare a punch list of items to be completed by the contractor prior to final payment. The architect will verify that the punch list is completed prior to issuing the recommendation of substantial completion and acceptance to the Project Owner. The architect should also coordinate the collection of all operation manuals and as-built drawings for the project owner.

Most projects require a one-year warranty period against defects in materials and workmanship by the contractor. The Architect will return to prepare another punch list to be completed by the contractor eleven to twelve months after the Project Owner occupies the facility. Some components may carry much longer warranties, such as twenty-years for the roof.

While the construction phase can be challenging, the results can certainly be rewarding with the proper selection and performance of the design team and builder.

Since 1988, Ken Newell, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, IAFC, has earned a national reputation for the programming and design of Public Safety Facilities that are functional, practical and budget-conscious. He has been directly involved in the planning and design of over 275 Fire Stations, EMS Stations and Public Safety Training Facility projects designed by Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects. Since 2000, his practical approach to station design has led to him being a featured speaker at national Fire Station Design Symposiums and State Fire Conferences.

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