An overview of construction project management: Part one

March 16, 2017

by Norman F. Jacobs, Jr.

A project manager must work to balance all aspects of the project, prioritizing risk management and adequate documentation.
Photos © BigStockPhoto

To rank the responsibilities of the construction project manager is, as Winston Churchill put it, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” A person filling this role is walking into a volatile and dynamic business—a construction project is often a one-shot, time-limited, goal-directed major undertaking requiring the project manager to organize, manage, and control skills and resources.

The synergistic project manager is the one person who controls each and every activity on a particular project. The ‘game plan’ belongs to the project manager, and complete success or failure lies in his or her hands. The responsible project manager is the chief motivator of people and positive actions, who must take the initiative for all operations. He or she must prioritize risk management and always ensure adequate documentation is provided.

This article, the first in a four-part series, will give design/construction professionals an overview of what a project manager must do as the project progresses.

Personal qualities of a project manager

The ‘human element’ of project control is the essence of what is attempted in any project control system—superimposing a mechanical control structure on a group of people who are complex, independent, and not always trusting of the strategy. Before project managers can hope to succeed, the other individuals on the team need to understand what is being done, why it is happening, and what benefits they can derive from it. Any project control system will have to demonstrate an ability to really work for them, and show it is not designed to ‘catch’ the team and record their bad performance, but help them achieve good performance.

The project manager is responsible for ensuring an adequate project staff, and must motivate the team to complete any given project on time and within budget. This individual should show and encourage a rekindling of sprit and dedication to the profession of construction project management. In part, this is done through maintaining proper communication links within and outside of the project.

Setting objectives

Today’s bold, complex architectural concepts and technology can influence construction activities in many ways, and the project manager must plan and organize orderly sequences of such activities according to time and resources. The term ‘project manager’ can be used to describe many functions, but this person’s prime purpose is to do exactly what the title suggests: manage the project. His or her priority should be to ensure the project gets done on time and within budget. Project management might also be described as the judicious allocation and efficient use of resources to achieve a desired end—astute project management requires at least as much art as science, and as much human engineering as organizational abilities.

To begin, the project team of planners, designers, engineers, and construction project managers perform the constructability review.

Generally, in performing this review:

  1. Design and construction project managers should be committed to the cost-effectiveness of the whole project, recognizing the high cost influence of early project decisions.
  2. Project managers should use constructability as a major tool in meeting quality, cost, and schedule objectives.
  3. Project managers should bring construction experience aboard early and weigh project risk. This means using experienced personnel who understand how a project is planned and built.
  4. Designers should be receptive to improving constructability. They should request construction input freely, evaluate that input objectively, and study all specifications verbatim.
A successful project manager must be organized and efficient to ensure quality control.

Constructability objectives include:

Once the constructability review is done, the project manager starts the procurement process with a review and critique of the project cost estimate. He or she then negotiates contracts with subcontractors and suppliers, develops the work breakdown structure (WBS), and obtains all input data for the critical path method (CPM) schedule from all contract parties, including the owner and architect. During the procurement period, it is crucial to obtain copies of all insurance policies and evaluate their relationship to risk in all documentation. (Risk management will be discussed in more detail in part 3 of this series.)

Quality control system

The architect is responsible for quality control on all plans and specifications during the process of developing project documents. He or she should also conduct site visits to ensure construction quality, and document those visits with written minutes showing the current status of the project.

The contractor must similarly develop a quality control management plan (QCMP) early in the project, and ensure all subcontractors and suppliers follow its requirements. This plan must involve all materials and work on the project.

The QCMP preparatory phase involves:

The start-up phase of the QCMP must involve:

Project managers and coordination

‘Coordination’ involves comparing documents to reduce errors, omissions, and gaps in logic. At design review meetings, the project manager must organize and communicate document coordination points to all construction team members. Afterward, it is crucial to prepare and distribute meeting minutes. All coordination meetings should be thoroughly documented, with relevant copies sent to the project owner for his or her critique. Not ensuring this coordination documentation is up-to-date will invite costly change orders during the construction phase.

The daily report helps the project manager ensure work is completed on time, avoiding delays and legal risk.

Project managers should coordinate all plans and specifications for civil, structural, architectural, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) contract responsibilities. They should know who is responsible for each area of coordination, and ensure the best results are obtained where installation of one part of the work depends on installation of others. They must also coordinate installation of different components to ensure maximum performance and accessibility for required maintenance, service, and repair, while making adequate provisions to accommodate items scheduled for later installation.

Coordinating the development of a project schedule involves brainstorming by the project team, but the project manager’s expertise in the project sequencing is paramount when developing the CPM schedule. Normally, the project manager is solely responsible for this development based on his or her ability to obtain adequate input data from all contract parties and view the project estimate with a set of drawings and specifications, as well as his or her overarching knowledge. All this is particularly important during the design and construction documents phases. The contractor also has the right and corresponding responsibility to manage and control work during the construction phase.

Specifications may generally describe the contractor’s coordination responsibilities, but should not, except in special circumstances, describe specific coordination activities. Similarly, while the contract documents may specify construction milestone dates and the format of the project schedule, detailed construction scheduling as a means of achieving the specified work results is the contractor’s responsibility. Accordingly, coordination and scheduling of submittals should not be tacitly approved as construction submittals. All contract parties must critique all contract documents defining the coordination responsibilities of the architect, owner, and contractor.

Daily reports—one such document—are another crucial tool for documenting the status of the project. The project manager’s daily report will include weather, work activities tied to the CPM schedule, resources, equipment, materials received, subcontractors onsite, and visitors. In the event not enough resources are available and progress may be impeded, top management should be notified so the CPM schedule will not use up float and critical activities will be completed on time.

The daily report also shows new work on change orders, strikes, testing activities, and photo status of work in place, and can be used to monitor safety. It will also document the time required to overcome any delays, and must be signed by the project manager.

Construction project sequence

Project managers should know the construction sequence to better manage the project. The owner first hires an architect to prepare plans and specifications (i.e. contract documents), then chooses the contractor, and the project begins. Project managers should remember the architect owns the plans and specifications, but the owner is responsible for their accuracy. That said, when the contractor has questions and sends the architect an RFI to determine plan intent, the architect is the interpreter of the contract documents. This means all contract parties could have the risk, depending on the situation.

During the pre-construction planning phase, the project manager should organize the project WBS before scheduling, as defining the project plan gives the manager a capacity for risk avoidance with the project schedule. Keeping updated minutes is crucial to this.

CPM schedule planning, examination, and analysis require one to combat any whimsical attitudes regarding CPM schedules. The project manager’s responsibilities in this matter require daily vigilance and meticulous analysis abilities. He or she should be astute, articulate in CPM methodology, and able to provide timely and adequate input.

Submittals are also among a project manager’s most critical responsibilities. The sequence of all submittals is as follows:

  1. Submit.
  2. Approve, fabricate, and deliver.
  3. Install or erect.

The project manager must monitor submittals and follow up on the monthly review of the submittal log. Some submittals may be on the critical path of the schedule, so it is important to check it at each update and to coordinate with the architect to ensure all submittal data is recorded in as-built documents. The project manager must also monitor the contractor’s submittal schedule and log, as stated in American Institute of Architects (AIA) A201-1997, General Conditions of the Contract for Construction (specifically, 3.10, “Contractor’s Construction Schedules”).

Planning project closeout activities is another key aspect of project management, as a prompt and efficient closeout is financially beneficial to all parties on the project. At least 60 days before the projected substantial completion date, the project manager should have an orderly project closeout prepared, including a punch list, as-built drawings, manuals, warranties, instructions to the owner, samples, lien affidavits, surety release, and an as-built CPM schedule.

Handling delays and schedules

Project managers must plan assiduously so they can be prepared to handle delays. Unnecessary delays can mean lost time and money, and possibly a trip to court. To fulfill this responsibility, one must understand the correct use of fragnets (i.e. fragments of a CPM network, used to define delays or disruptions) and time impact analysis (TIA, used to determine time lost on a project). Construction methods have traditionally been characterized by low management technology; planning and scheduling techniques have been rudimentary, and delays taken in stride. It is now possible to mitigate this, so all monthly CPM schedule updates must be critiqued as they relate to delays or impacts.

Project managers are responsible for leading their teams to success.

Acceleration should not be overlooked either. This occurs when a contractor’s work is expected to be completed earlier than the contract’s period (whether the original contract or an extended version). It is a fundamental principle of construction law a contractor is entitled to the entire contract time—along with any justifiable extensions—to perform and complete the contract. Therefore, when an owner reduces a contractor’s allotted time to perform any schedule activity, forcing the contractor to finish said activity prior to the CPM schedule date, this is called acceleration.

The doctrine of construction acceleration stresses the importance of timely, properly requested extensions of time. In order for a contractor to prove construction acceleration occurred, it must demonstrate proper notice of the delay was given to the owner, and that an extension of time was requested. Failure to adhere to these notice requirements may preclude a contractor’s constructive acceleration claim. For example, in District of Columbia v. Organization for Economic Growth, Inc., 700 A. 2d 185 D.C. App. (1997), a contractor had to waive its constructive acceleration claim because it did not provide written notice of the claim within 20 days as required.

The owner’s order to accelerate need not be a specific and direct command to do so. Rather, the primary inquiry is the degree of pressure or coercion imposed by the owner upon the contractor to accelerate its work. In one case, Hurst Excavating, Inc., ASBCA No. 37351, 93-1 BCA CCH 25,893 (1993), the owner’s introduction of interim milestone dates that were not originally part of the contract qualified as a directive to accelerate the project, entitling the contractor to the acceleration cost.

Properly updated CPM schedules are a useful tool for documenting acceleration claims. In fact, most project managers use some form of CPM schedule for managing and assessing project performance with respect to time. These schedules are admirably suited to the construction industry, because they provide a more precise approach than the conventional bar chart that previously formed the basis of construction planning and control. The effective management of a construction project, as well as the successful presentation of an acceleration claim, hinges on analysis of the project schedule.

The use of CPM techniques to demonstrate and evaluate time-related claims on construction projects is widely accepted. For example, TIA can be used to support acceleration claims, as well as those relating to impacts or delays. At the outset, the contract parties must look at the contract and scheduling specifications for guidance on the presentation and evaluation of such claims, and study the different scenarios required to prove any impact or delay on the project.

Implementing network techniques such as TIA can provide some crucial advantages, as follows.

  1. Network schedule techniques allow critical activities of work to be identified. Various critical paths are visible, and those impacted by delay can be easily recognized. Float time—including float time that expires as project conditions change—can also be identified.
  2. Network schedule techniques provide a basis for isolating the planned performance time of each party involved in a project.
  3. TIA provides a means for proving certain work was delayed, as well as isolating and quantifying delay periods.
  4. When impacts or delays occur, TIA can assist in determining corrective action.
  5. TIA aids in creating and preserving evidence of plans, delays, impacts, and actual performance.

In the next installment[5] of this four-part series, this author explores the project manager’s role in document and contract management.

Project managers manage projects, while program managers manage a portfolio of projects. Programs also usually span a far greater duration than projects. These might seem like arbitrary differences, but managing a program involves long-term strategic planning not required with a project. The ongoing nature of programs also means they require continuous process improvement, and program managers are often responsible for delivering results tied to the organization’s financial calendar, as budget planning, management, and control is significantly more complex in this context.

Additionally, programs are typically governed by a senior board providing direction, oversight, and control—program managers must have influence at this level. They must facilitate resolution of disagreements between executives, and ensure the governance board provides achievable objectives. Projects have a similar structure, but are less governance-intensive, and typically have a more straightforward budget.

Finally, program change management is an executive leadership capability. Projects employ a formal change management process, but program change is more difficult to manage, as this is driven by an organization’s strategy. Programs are subject to market conditions and changing business goals. All project managers must know the strategies and ‘game plan’ of the program manager in order to protect their position.

[6]Norman F. Jacobs, Jr. formed Jacobs Consultant Services in 1981 to provide a variety of construction services including cost management, schedule control assistance, project management, and claims preparation and negotiation. Prior to this, Jacobs provided design-build, construction management, and general contracting services for over 30 years, in a variety of capacities ranging from estimator to president and board member. He has chaired Virginia’s Associated General Contractors (AGC) Documents Committee, has presented seminars on construction legal subjects with the Virginia Bar Legal Committee, and is a past president of the CSI Richmond Chapter. Jacobs can be reached via e-mail at[7].

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