Pitfalls to Avoid During Station Construction

(This is part one of a two-part series.)

There are people in the world that learn from their own mistakes and experiences, and there are those who learn from others’ mistakes and experiences. Those in the latter category tend to have a longer, less stressful life. If your future includes a new or renovated station project, it makes sense to learn how others have encountered challenges in the process so that you can attempt to avoid the same problems.


The planning, design, and construction of your station, whether new or renovation, is one of the most rewarding endeavors that you will ever take on. Yes, it will be stressful at times, but when all is completed you will hopefully look back on the process with satisfaction. If difficulties in the project are encountered, they are most likely to occur during the construction phase. It seems that construction phase challenges are more prevalent than ever before in today’s construction climate. There are many reasons for this, including but not limited to;

  • The recent “Great Recession” was catastrophic to most building contractors and resulted in many quality companies going out of business. Many of the companies that did survive the recession lost their older, more experienced personnel.
  • Now that the building industry is booming again, many builders have more work than they can proficiently perform.
  • 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.
  • The ever-increasing technology systems added to facilities require more pre-construction and construction coordination than ever before.
  • The customer’s expectations are higher, including the demand for shorter construction schedules and project deliveries.
  • Project delivery methods that only consider the lowest possible bid in the selection of the builder — often don’t result in the most qualified builder.

So let us consider some of the most prevalent construction phase pitfalls that municipalities and fire departments encounter, along with suggestions on how to avoid them.

Unqualified General Contractors

Just because someone can qualify for contractor’s license and bonding, does not mean they are qualified to build your next station project. Like many citizens in your community, many contractors have the misconception that building stations should be easy. After all, “they’re just a big garage for parking trucks in,” right? Wrong! Emergency response stations are more complicated than ever. Plus, they are facilities that should legitimately be expected to serve the community for 50 to 75 years. So taking all possible steps to vet the general contractor before they are awarded your project is paramount. Just because the contractor may be a master at building big-box stores doesn’t mean they will deliver you the best station project.

Many municipalities and departments employ additional means of contractor evaluation, or even different project delivery methods in an attempt to ensure better general contractor selection. Some will “pre-qualify” bidders instead of allowing all who legally qualify to bid. Increasingly, project owners are using delivery methods such as Construction Management (CM) or Construction Management at Risk (CMAR) to evaluate the builder’s qualifications, and not just their bid day price.

While these and other processes or project delivery methods have proven value, none of them guarantee good results in selecting a qualified general contractor. Most of the “low-bid” general contractors, who have disappointed the project owners, would have appeared qualified in the documents that they submitted in these other selection processes. Whatever selection process is used, additional vetting should be performed prior to awarding the project to any builder. For instance, almost any contractor can provide five “good” references. But how much more you would learn if you asked them for every public safety project that they have built over the past five years, and then actually speak with each of these references? You should consider going to visit those stations to evaluate the construction quality.

Qualified Design Team Construction Observation

There is much to be considered in this phrase. First is the importance of having the station designers involved during the entire construction phase. Some project owners employ separate managers or observers in an attempt to make sure that the contractors meet the design intentions. Most fire departments have one or more members with construction experience who will volunteer their oversight during this phase. While these can be valuable supplements to construction observation, they do not replace the value of having the design architects and engineers protect the original design intent. Necessary design interpretations, and even changes will occur in the field. The designers are most likely to identify all the ramifications of any modifications.

It is also important to ensure that the design team is actually qualified to perform construction observation. There are many, very talented designers that unfortunately have very limited construction observation experience. Therefore, their cutting edge design solutions may lack constructability. Plus, the likelihood of them catching problems during construction also suffers. The Project Architect that worked with you throughout the design process knows why the design decisions were made. That person should be involved with construction coordination to help protect the project integrity. Often the design firm will also have a full-time Construction Administrator who will play a major role in the process. That person’s experience and credentials should be evaluated as well.

Setting the Proper Tone for Interaction

In order for the construction process to be successful, all participants — owner, architect, and contractor — must be team players. Everyone must recognize and protect each other’s goals in order for the project to be successful. The owner’s major goal is to get a quality facility with little to no additional expense. The architect’s goal is help protect the owner’s goals and see a project built that they can be proud of. The contractor’s goal is to provide a quality product and to make a profit. If they lose their opportunity to make a profit, for whatever reason, the project is far less likely to go well. So the owner and architect should actually want the contractor to make a justifiable profit.

As team players, all three parties must work together and not against each other. One of the architect’s roles during construction is to set the proper interaction tone between all parties. Mutual respect and honesty are a must. If one or three of the parties began to violate those principles, they should be called out and given the opportunity to correct their course. If the offending party or parties do not change their approach, the architect’s role of mediator will become prominent for the remainder of the project.

Submittal Reviews

Before the contractor begins ordering all of the materials and systems — everything they will use to build the station — they are required to prepare and send in documentation to the design team. This documentation, also known as submittals, confirms that the contractor is actually ordering and using what the designer specified. If some products are no longer available, then substitutions are suggested and approved. Some decisions like colors and styles are made during the submittal process. Sometimes the data provided with the submittals will reveal that a design modification is necessary to accommodate conflicting elements. By identifying these conflicts during this early phase, the design modifications can usually be made with little to no additional cost.

Because the submittal process is so important to the proper construction phase, there are two major principles that should be followed.

First, the contractor must prepare and provide the proper submittals in a timely fashion. Because the submittal process can take time, and include multiple rounds before approval, the contractor and their subcontractors should began as soon as they are awarded the project. If not, the construction schedule will likely be adversely impacted. Also, the submittals should match what has been specified as closely as possible. Submitting non-specified items will guarantee delays in the process. Only if the specified items are truly not available should deviations be submitted.

Second, the design team should quickly review the contractor’s submittals for compliance with the specified items. If the design team finds that the submittal is not accurate or that the general contractor prior to sending them to the design team has not reviewed subcontractor submittals, they will reject the submittal and the process starts over. The design team should require the contractor to submit items in the order of construction needs, and then review the submittals in the proper order.

Early Identification of Scheduling Problems

Obviously it is always advisable to make a completion date part of the construction contract. You add teeth to the requirement by establishing “liquidated damages.” Liquidated Damages (LDs) are normally set monetary penalties that the general contractor pays or forfeits for each unexcused calendar day past the required completion date. Therefore, the required completion date is established as part of the contract. Shortly after the contractor is awarded the project, they are required to submit their construction schedule that shows all of their deadlines necessary for meeting the final completion date.

Each month all parties should evaluate progress based on the contractor’s originally submitted construction schedule. Extensions to the schedule due to any defined weather delays are normally considered each month. If the onsite construction activities do not match the schedule for that month, then the contractor should be required to immediately submit a “make-up” schedule that shows how construction will be brought back into schedule compliance. Accurate, up-to-date construction schedules should be a requirement each month prior to the contractor’s payment application being approved. By identifying scheduling problems early and often, there will be much more opportunity for addressing delays in a manner satisfactory to all.

In the next issue, we will discuss more pitfalls to avoid during the construction phase.

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 250 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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