Precision Development Scheduling, Part 2

In this series of articles about a subject that I consider vitally important to getting anything done (and done well) as an architect we’ll discuss the creating of a schedule for the development of your project. For our purposes, we’ll be focusing on development for small and medium private sector projects using design-bid-build project delivery* in the good ol’ US of A. Your specific experiences may vary with other project types, methods of project delivery, places around the globe, and how insane your project team is but generally the issues we deal with as architects in driving development scheduling are the same.

*We’ll have a couple examples of other types of project delivery in here too, but mostly design-bid-build delivery.

“Do the difficult things when they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

Lao Tzu

I love the development process. It’s deeply satisfying to plan out a project from its inception all the way to a completed building or space and check off milestones as you go. The planning of the development process is also a great place for architects to be the generalists that they are trained to be and pull together a disparate cast of characters on the project team. Let’s look at the basic road map I use.

With any development process my goal is to figure out the regulatory protocols and entitlements, integrate those with what I figure out about the site (and existing building, if the project isn’t ground-up construction), and then convert that knowledge into a critical path schedule. When doing this, I always keep in mind that the most important contribution I can make to the project team when scheduling is to set us up so that we’re making the big, cost-driving decisions early on when it’s cheap to decide on these things. Everything in design that goes unresolved past the Design Development phase costs more money, and the later it’s decided, the more it’s going to cost (more on this in a bit). The schedule can also then help inform the client’s spending by forecasting cash flow, among other things. I mention these budget tie-ins because schedules, like budgets, need contingency built into them, so the last thing I do when assembling a development schedule is add in time contingencies based on the team’s collective thoughts and risk tolerance.

Let’s take a look at an example of Precision Development Scheduling at a high level for a generic project, that’s the best way to explain the benefits and the places for an architect to provide big time value to the whole project team.

How It Works

Our bible for project delivery, which is what development schedules attempt to well…schedule, is the CSI Project Delivery Practice Guide, which provides a comprehensive overview of the process. I kinda pretty much use the same terminologies as this book in my work. What we’ll look at in this series of articles is the highest level steps, or phases, in project delivery, but know that proper Precision Development Scheduling should document every other smaller step, or milestone, within each of the phases, and those steps will often be very particular to the individual project. Here’s a quick summary of the top-level phases:

  • Preliminary Planning: This includes project conception, which unlike human conception, can be done with as little as one person, and site selection, which the architect may or may not be a part of — sometimes the client picks a site and then hires an architect and other consultants. There’s also some loose discussion of project budget at this time, and as with site selection it may happen with our without the architect, it all depends.
  • Project Planning: In our bible, Preliminary Planning activities are lumped in with Project Planning. But I separate these because my Project Planning phase is usually when the full project team comes on board and begins participating (kind of typical for small and medium projects). In this phase the project team conducts an assessment of the regulatory conditions that will impact the project, which is ultra important to the success of the project as a whole — I can’t emphasize this point enough. If you don’t thoroughly assess and investigate everything that can happen with the authorities who have jurisdiction over your project, you are going to have major pain and suffering later on from a budget and schedule perspective because codes and regulations aren’t something you can just skip past, you’ll deal with them one way or another or they’ll deal with you. This is also when you would conduct an assessment of the existing conditions, be it a site, a building, or both. The existing conditions assessment is the equivalent of having a mechanic look at a car before you buy it, which brings me to my next point. Do all this assessing stuff BEFORE the client executes a purchase agreement or lease agreement — or at least figure out the basics and big items if time doesn’t permit a full investigation prior to people signing their names and dropping cash. The other massively important activity to happen at this time is the programming of the building or space. It’s critical to completely program everything during Project Planning — things can evolve from the program a bit as the design gets sorted out in the next phase, but get the program settled now, and in sufficient detail before moving into the next phase.
  • Design Development: The phase most people think of when they imagine architects…architecting is Design Development. This is when the project is designed — but not just by the architect, but by the entire team, everyone has something to design right now to help everything run smoothly down the line. It’s also a time to weigh design decisions not only against the program, but against budget and schedule. For projects using something other than design-bid-build delivery, the construction team and their vendors can get involved now to help drive smart decision making with regard to budget and schedule (a construction advisor can help for other project delivery types). Projects where the local jurisdiction may have pre-permit entitlement processes for the project to go through will take care of that red tape during this phase as well. Negotiations with the construction team will start now for projects not doing design-bid-build delivery and continue through subsequent phases leading up to Construction Administration.
  • Construction Documentation: Only after the design receives a final approval from the client (and the jurisdiction where pre-permit entitlements are involved) do the architect and engineers prepare construction documents for the approved design. This is also a time to prepare permitting materials and bidding materials
  • Permitting, Bidding/Negotiation, Procurement: Permits get applied for and go through their plan review processes now. Bidding starts at some point as determined by the team during this phase as well. This is also a time for any procurement to occur for materials and equipment being paid for directly by the client (and/or the construction team for non-design-bid-build delivery).
  • Construction: Build, build build! And verify, verify, verify! If you did all the prior phases properly, that’s nearly all there is to Construction; and if you didn’t follow a process, this is where ungodly amounts of time and money get thrown away, people start yelling at each other, and you hate your life. It amazes me how many architects masochists who’ve been though development a zillion times before willingly subject themselves to this crap every time — fix your development scheduling, people!

Notice how there’s a lot more to explain in those early phases and that the explanations get shorter as you go? It’s not a coincidence. The early phases aren’t the work most people think of when they think of architects, but it’s the most important work of the project delivery cycle as they lay the groundwork for a success down the line. It’s those later phases that the big bucks get spent, so the more effort you spend preparing before you get there, the less likely you’ll be to waste money (more on that in part 3).

Now, bring the activities of these phases together with some rules about how to proceed through them in a linear manner and here’s all of those considerations turned into a Precision Development Schedule:

Baseline vs. Actual

What we looked at in the example above is how the baseline development schedule is made and how it works for the team. In addition to that, you’ll want to run a parallel development schedule that has live dates to show the actual progress. The baseline is frozen in time and the actual schedule is a living record. The two work together to provide you a picture of how the project’s development is progressing and allow the team to see when things are falling behind or running ahead of schedule. Formulas can be made from milestones identified in the baseline to drive future dates. For example, if a part of your development schedule baseline identified a regulatory process like a plan review that always takes 5-weeks to finish, your actual schedule can use a formula that adds 5-weeks to the actual start date you enter once your project hits that milestone and be further adjusted as you go, while the baseline stays put for a comparison.

How Schedule Drives Budget

As mentioned, the earlier that design decisions are made, vetted, and approved, the less it will cost overall. This means it’s vitally important to lock in design decisions BEFORE you start Construction Documents. When design continues past Design Development, it costs more money and takes more time (and time is also money). Yes, revisions are reality, but it’s important to follow a process for making revisions and, to the extent it’s possible, handle as many as possible before the project is bid. The lowest pricing you’ll ever get from a GC is when they’re competitively bidding your project. After they’re awarded the project there’s far less incentive for them to sharpen their pencils as they price revisions, so avoid doing that if you can and build the milestones of your Permitting, Bidding/Negotiation, Procurement phase to reflect this workflow — don’t stray from this path!

Automate This!

Just like you have a BIM template, you’ll want a template for building your development schedule. You can create this in whatever software you like, but you’re probably seeing from everything discussed so far that the ability to program formulas is a critical feature. Microsoft Project is a big player in this type of work, but on my projects my favorites for this work are Microsoft Excel and the web-based tool Smartsheet. I especially like how these two play nice with other software to connect the development schedule to other parts of the project. Smartsheet, in particular, is almost magical in its ability to automate scheduling and connect it to other parts of project delivery.

Another thing that can be done specifically for chain concepts who prototype and then rollout en masse is that the entirety of a development schedule with all the individual milestones can be templated in great detail. Specific projects can easily add or take away individual milestones, but all the hard work of mapping it out is already done once, and done well for repeated use.

Here’s an example of a chain concept’s project development schedule template set up in Smartsheet — all this complexity and even built in automations behind it were made once and then used repeatedly for each new project the chain built.

In this template excerpt, Smartsheet’s formula and linking capabilities were leveraged to make creating a baseline schedule and then updating the actual schedule as you go completely automated. This kind of automation is vitally important once a project team is in the midst of delivery on a project as it pushes out schedule changes that won’t happen for weeks or months now, as they’re impacted by current events. There is high-level tracking of phases along with individual milestone tracking that expands from under each phase. All of the milestones are linked out to other trackers in Smartsheet that drill down into even more detail for project team members who need that kind of reporting. This makes technology an invaluable resource in Precision Development Scheduling.

I’ll be writing about how to use Smartsheet for project delivery in more detail in future articles, so if you like what you see, there’s more content on the way.

Next Up…

In Part 3 we’ll look at a project-specfic example of Precision Development Scheduling in action and see how both time and money get spent when the client DIYs it versus when Precision Development Scheduling is used.

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