Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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September 18, 2006

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The Never-ending Project, or, Self-Inflicted Root Canal for Fun and Profit, or, “I didn’t know it was going to look like that.”

Part 1 of 2 Parts.


One of the side effects of having had a rather busy summer is that the desire to make up for the hiatus has afforded me the opportunity of deciding up front  to examine a subject in somewhat more depth,  and with more continuity than is possible in a monthly one-page publication.  Hence this double issue.


First, a disclaimer.  Any resemblance between what is discussed in this piece and ongoing projects some readers may be working on with the writer is purely coincidental.  As inferable from the title, however, construction projects which drag on and on, or (to add insult to injury) end up totally at odds with a client’s expectations, are not exactly the stuff of glowing recommendations for future work. Not only that, but I’ve not ever heard a single person say that such experiences are ones they’d care to repeat.


What goes wrong?  Is there some formula to avoid such problems, or are they intractably intrinsic to the construction process? Is herding cats any easier? To restate what is beginning to become part of popular culture “How is it (fill in your “favorite” ongoing project) is taking so long when the Empire State building was completed in a little over 13 months?


Well, it’s not that no one has thought about it before.  In fact, there is a formula, or rather a set of tools, to manage the process, which had been developed and formalized only about fifty years ago, by DuPont as CPM (the Critical Path Method) and the U.S. Navy as PERT (Project Evaluation and Review Technique).


While Microsoft’s Project is perhaps the most recognizable current incarnation of this set of tools, I don’t recall seeing very many CPM/PERT networks or Gantt charts on the projects I’ve worked on lately, nor do I think there are very many design professionals who have explained the concept of a project’s Critical Path to their lay clients lately.


No wonder things get so screwed up.


I, ahem, am regularly spoken to as though the schedule of a project is dependent upon my work product, even though such is rarely (if ever) the case.


A few decades back, labor costs had been rising so fast that design professionals regularly turned out partially completed packages with the understanding it would cost less to do the final work and coordination in the field than it would to turn out a more complete package, after union labor contracts had been through their annual renegotiation.  In that environment I became quite adept at winging it.


Things have of course changed, but now I’m occasionally still asked to produce a package overnight, and then watch while the construction proceeds as if the package didn’t exist.  I mean, we need the package to file with various Code Authorities, and to (often, I hope) obtain competitive bids, but then the “actual” needs expressed by the client when construction starts, coupled with the vast experience of his/her Contractor (sometimes) makes the design package just a set of guidelines at best.


What are we all thinking?  The answer, of course, is, that we’re not.


OK, then why did DuPont and the U.S. Navy find it necessary to formalize project management? After all, the Empire State Building got along very well without it, thank you.  The answer to the previous question lies in how a process plant or a Polaris submarine is different from the Empire State Building, and is instructive in our understanding of how to make our projects go more smoothly.


Any of you who have seen The History Channel’s series on engineering ancient Rome cannot help but be struck by the fact that the major difference between a  Roman building and a skyscraper has more to do with structural steel,  electricity, and Otis’s invention of the elevator than with any other basic technology.


That is, that while habitable buildings and the things which make them so, such as lighting, plumbing, and heating systems have been around for a couple of thousand years, the fruits of the Industrial Revolution complicated the construction process in ways which had only begun to become understood by the time high-rise construction exploded in the early part of the last century, and that complexity has found its way into the most humble single family speculative house.


Add the disparate personalities involved, and the relatively far-flung sources for smallest project, and it seems a miracle that anything at all ever gets built.


In fact, while we’ve all been hearing lately about how five years after 9/11, all we have to show for it on the site is a hole in the ground, I’m “lucky” enough to live/work in a building where the pocket park in front of our building has been under reconstruction for some three years now. The last official excuse I am aware of has to do with waiting for special stone benches from somewhere across the ocean, I think. 


This is pretty amazing.  The fancy new stuff (electric wiring, etc.) is in, but stone (as in as old as dirt) has become the Critical Path.  What were/are they thinking?  − I don’t have a clue.


When I write specifications, I always allow “approved equals,” if for no other reason, than to account for the fact that the world is too big for any one person to know about everything that’s out there, and a Contractor’s substitution may be the difference between a project’s timely completion and a project which starts to seem like Bill Murray’s life in Groundhog Day.


Construction practitioners, from ancient Rome to the Industrial Revolution had an intrinsic understanding of the concept of the Critical Path in that, for example, one could not install plumbing pipes until sufficient structure was in place to support them from, and it’s this understanding which obtains today in the average dwelling unit renovation when a GC is trying to coordinate various sub-trades.


Why do we insist on complicating this even further by making changes during construction? 


Some such may be necessary to rectify omissions discovered only after construction has begun, but others seem to have to do with either an obsessive need for perfection, or a “sudden” realization that things are not turning out as expected.  I’m lucky in that most of the stuff I deal with in the design of HVAC/Electrical/ Plumbing/ Fire Protection systems is not seen by the end user, and thus not subject to such sudden realizations.


No, my problem is somewhat different.  That is, while an Architect or Interiors person may be surprised to discover his/her client’s perception as the thing is being built is different from that which was thought to be understood, I just have to make it work.


Piece of cake, right?  See Part 2.

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