Project, or, Self-Inflicted Root Canal for Fun and Profit, or, “I didn’t know it was going to look
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?
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.