1.5 Construction Contractors
Builders who supervise the execution of construction projects are traditionally referred to as contractors, or more appropriately called constructors. The general contractor coordinates various tasks for a project while the specialty contractors such as mechanical or electrical contractors perform the work in their specialties. Material and equipment suppliers often act as installation contractors; they play a significant role in a construction project since the conditions of delivery of materials and equipment affect the quality, cost, and timely completion of the project. It is essential to understand the operation of these contractors in order to deal with them effectively.
The function of a general contractor is to coordinate all tasks in a construction project. Unless the owner performs this function or engages a professional construction manager to do so, a good general contractor who has worked with a team of superintendents, specialty contractors or subcontractors together for a number of projects in the past can be most effective in inspiring loyalty and cooperation. The general contractor is also knowledgeable about the labor force employed in construction. The labor force may or may not be unionized depending on the size and location of the projects. In some projects, no member of the work force belongs to a labor union; in other cases, both union and non-union craftsmen work together in what is called an open shop, or all craftsmen must be affiliated with labor unions in a closed shop. Since labor unions provide hiring halls staffed with skilled journeyman who have gone through apprentice programs for the projects as well as serving as collective bargain units, an experienced general contractor will make good use of the benefits and avoid the pitfalls in dealing with organized labor.
Specialty contractors include mechanical, electrical, foundation, excavation, and demolition contractors among others. They usually serve as subcontractors to the general contractor of a project. In some cases, legal statutes may require an owner to deal with various specialty contractors directly. In the State of New York, for example, specialty contractors, such as mechanical and electrical contractors, are not subjected to the supervision of the general contractor of a construction project and must be given separate prime contracts on public works. With the exception of such special cases, an owner will hold the general contractor responsible for negotiating and fulfilling the contractual agreements with the subcontractors.
Material and Equipment Suppliers
Major material suppliers include specialty contractors in structural steel fabrication and erection, sheet metal, ready mixed concrete delivery, reinforcing steel bar detailers, roofing, glazing etc. Major equipment suppliers for industrial construction include manufacturers of generators, boilers and piping and other equipment. Many suppliers handle on-site installation to insure that the requirements and contractual specifications are met. As more and larger structural units are prefabricated off-site, the distribution between specialty contractors and material suppliers becomes even less obvious.
1.6 Financing of Constructed Facilities
A major construction project requires an enormous amount of capital that is often supplied by lenders who want to be assured that the project will offer a fair return on the investment. The direct costs associated with a major construction project may be broadly classified into two categories: (1) the construction expenses paid to the general contractor for erecting the facility on site and (2) the expenses for land acquisition, legal fees, architect/engineer fees, construction management fees, interest on construction loans and the opportunity cost of carrying empty space in the facility until it is fully occupied. The direct construction costs in the first category represent approximately 60 to 80 percent of the total costs in most construction projects. Since the costs of construction are ultimately borne by the owner, careful financial planning for the facility must be made prior to construction.
Construction loans to contractors are usually provided by banks or savings and loan associations for construction financing. Upon the completion of the facility, construction loans will be terminated and the post-construction facility financing will be arranged by the owner.
Construction loans provided for different types of construction vary. In the case of residential housing, construction loans and long-term mortgages can be obtained from savings and loans associations or commercial banks. For institutional and commercial buildings, construction loans are usually obtained from commercial banks. Since the value of specialized industrial buildings as collateral for loans is limited, construction loans in this domain are rare, and construction financing can be done from the pool of general corporate funds. For infrastructure construction owned by government, the property cannot be used as security for a private loan, but there are many possible ways to finance the construction, such as general appropriation from taxation or special bonds issued for the project.
Traditionally, banks serve as construction lenders in a three-party agreement among the contractor, the owner and the bank. The stipulated loan will be paid to the contractor on an agreed schedule upon the verification of completion of various portions of the project. Generally, a payment request together with a standard progress report will be submitted each month by the contractor to the owner which in turn submits a draw request to the bank. Provided that the work to date has been performed satisfactorily, the disbursement is made on that basis during the construction period. Under such circumstances, the bank has been primarily concerned with the completion of the facility on time and within the budget. The economic life of the facility after its completion is not a concern because of the transfer of risk to the owner or an institutional lender.
Many private corporations maintain a pool of general funds resulting from retained earnings and long-term borrowing on the strength of corporate assets, which can be used for facility financing. Similarly, for public agencies, the long-term funding may be obtained from the commitment of general tax revenues from the federal, state and/or local governments. Both private corporations and public agencies may issue special bonds for the constructed facilities which may obtain lower interest rates than other forms of borrowing. Short-term borrowing may also be used for bridging the gaps in long-term financing. Some corporate bonds are convertible to stocks under circumstances specified in the bond agreement. For public facilities, the assessment of user fees to repay the bond funds merits consideration for certain types of facilities such as toll roads and sewage treatment plants. The use of mortgages is primarily confined to rental properties such as apartments and office buildings.
Because of the sudden surge of interest rates in the late 1970's, many financial institutions offer, in addition to the traditional fixed rate long-term mortgage commitments, other arrangements such as a combination of debt and a percentage of ownership in exchange for a long-term mortgage or the use of adjustable rate mortgages. In some cases, the construction loan may be granted on an open-ended basis without a long-term financing commitment. For example, the plan might be issued for the construction period with an option to extend it for a period of up to three years in order to give the owner more time to seek alternative long-term financing on the completed facility. The bank will be drawn into situations involving financial risk if it chooses to be a lender without long-term guarantees.
For international projects, the currency used for financing agreements becomes important. If financial agreements are written in terms of local currencies, then fluctuations in the currency exchange rate can significantly affect the cost and ultimately profit of a project. In some cases, payments might also be made in particular commodities such as petroleum or the output from the facility itself. Again, these arrangements result in greater uncertainty in the financing scheme because the price of these commodities may vary.
1.7 Legal and Regulatory Requirements
The owners of facilities naturally want legal protection for all the activities involved in the construction. It is equally obvious that they should seek competent legal advice. However, there are certain principles that should be recognized by owners in order to avoid unnecessary pitfalls.
Activities in construction often involve risks, both physical and financial. An owner generally tries to shift the risks to other parties to the degree possible when entering into contractual agreements with them. However, such action is not without cost or risk. For example, a contractor who is assigned the risks may either ask for a higher contract price to compensate for the higher risks, or end up in non-performance or bankruptcy as an act of desperation. Such consequences can be avoided if the owner is reasonable in risk allocation. When risks are allocated to different parties, the owner must understand the implications and spell them out clearly. Sometimes there are statutory limitations on the allocation of liabilities among various groups, such as prohibition against the allocation of negligence in design to the contractor. An owner must realize its superior power in bargaining and hence the responsibilities associated with this power in making contractual agreements.
Mitigation of Conflicts
It is important for the owner to use legal counselors as advisors to mitigate conflicts before they happen rather than to wield conflicts as weapons against other parties. There are enough problems in design and construction due to uncertainty rather than bad intentions. The owner should recognize the more enlightened approaches for mitigating conflicts, such as using owner-controlled wrap-up insurance which will provide protection for all parties involved in the construction process for unforeseen risks, or using arbitration, mediation and other extra-judicial solutions for disputes among various parties. However, these compromise solutions are not without pitfalls and should be adopted only on the merit of individual cases.
To protect public safety and welfare, legislatures and various government agencies periodically issue regulations which influence the construction process, the operation of constructed facilities, and their ultimate disposal. For example, building codes promulgated by local authorities have provided guidelines for design and construction practices for a very long time. Since the 1970's, many federal regulations that are related directly or indirectly to construction have been established in the United States. Among them are safety standards for workers issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, environmental standards on pollutants and toxic wastes issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, and design and operation procedures for nuclear power plants issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Owners must be aware of the impacts of these regulations on the costs and durations of various types of construction projects as well as possibilities of litigation due to various contentions. For example, owners acquiring sites for new construction may be strictly liable for any hazardous wastes already on the site or removed from the site under the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability (CERCL) Act of 1980. For large scale projects involving new technologies, the construction costs often escalate with the uncertainty associated with such restrictions.
1.8 The Changing Environment of the Construction Industry
The construction industry is a conglomeration of diverse fields and participants that have been loosely lumped together as a sector of the economy. The construction industry plays a central role in national welfare, including the development of residential housing, office buildings and industrial plants, and the restoration of the nation's infrastructure and other public facilities. The importance of the construction industry lies in the function of its products which provide the foundation for industrial production, and its impacts on the national economy cannot be measured by the value of its output or the number of persons employed in its activities alone.
To be more specific, construction refers to all types of activities usually associated with the erection and repair of immobile facilities. Contract construction consists of a large number of firms that perform construction work for others, and is estimated to be approximately 85% of all construction activities. The remaining 15% of construction is performed by owners of the facilities, and is referred to as force-account construction. Although the number of contractors in the United States exceeds a million, over 60% of all contractor construction is performed by the top 400 contractors. The value of new construction in the United States (expressed in constant dollars) and the value of construction as a percentage of the gross national products from 1950 to 1985 are shown in Figures 1-6 and 1-7. It can be seen that construction is a significant factor in the Gross National Product although its importance has been declining in recent years. Not to be ignored is the fact that as the nation's constructed facilities become older, the total expenditure on rehabilitation and maintenance may increase relative to the value of new construction.
Figure 1-6: Value of New Construction in the United States, 1975-1995
Figure 1-7: Construction as Percentage of Gross Domestic Product in the United States, 1975-1995
Owners who pay close attention to the peculiar characteristics of the construction industry and its changing operating environment will be able to take advantage of the favorable conditions and to avoid the pitfalls. Several factors are particularly noteworthy because of their significant impacts on the quality, cost and time of construction.
In recent years, technological innovation in design, materials and construction methods have resulted in significant changes in construction costs. Computer-aids have improved capabilities for generating quality designs as well as reducing the time required to produce alternative designs. New materials not only have enhanced the quality of construction but also have shortened the time for shop fabrication and field erection. Construction methods have gone through various stages of mechanization and automation, including the latest development of construction robotics.
The most dramatic new technology applied to construction has been the Internet and its private, corporate Intranet versions. The Internet is widely used as a means to foster collaboration among professionals on a project, to communicate for bids and results, and to procure necessary goods and services. Real time video from specific construction sites is widely used to illustrate construction progress to interested parties. The result has been more effective collaboration, communication and procurement.
The effects of many new technologies on construction costs have been mixed because of the high development costs for new technologies. However, it is unmistakable that design professionals and construction contractors who have not adapted to changing technologies have been forced out of the mainstream of design and construction activities. Ultimately, construction quality and cost can be improved with the adoption of new technologies which are proved to be efficient from both the viewpoints of performance and economy.
The term productivity is generally defined as a ratio of the production output volume to the input volume of resources. Since both output and input can be quantified in a number of ways, there is no single measure of productivity that is universally applicable, particularly in the construction industry where the products are often unique and there is no standard for specifying the levels for aggregation of data. However, since labor constitutes a large part of the cost of construction, labor productivity in terms of output volume (constant dollar value or functional units) per person-hour is a useful measure. Labor productivity measured in this way does not necessarily indicate the efficiency of labor alone but rather measures the combined effects of labor, equipment and other factors contributing to the output.
While aggregate construction industry productivity is important as a measure of national economy, owners are more concerned about the labor productivity of basic units of work produced by various crafts on site. Thus, an owner can compare the labor performance at different geographic locations, under different working conditions, and for different types and sizes of projects.
Construction costs usually run parallel to material prices and labor wages. Actually, over the years, labor productivity has increased in some traditional types of construction and thus provides a leveling or compensating effect when hourly rates for labor increase faster than other costs in construction. However, labor productivity has been stagnant or even declined in unconventional or large scale projects.
Under the present litigious climate in the United States, the public is increasingly vocal in the scrutiny of construction project activities. Sometimes it may result in considerable difficulty in siting new facilities as well as additional expenses during the construction process itself. Owners must be prepared to manage such crises before they get out of control.
Figure 1-8 can serve to indicate public attitudes towards the siting of new facilities. It represents the cumulative percentage of individuals who would be willing to accept a new industrial facility at various distances from their homes. For example, over fifty percent of the people surveyed would accept a ten-story office building within five miles of their home, but only twenty-five percent would accept a large factory or coal fired power plant at a similar distance. An even lower percentage would accept a hazardous waste disposal site or a nuclear power plant. Even at a distance of one hundred miles, a significant fraction of the public would be unwilling to accept hazardous waste facilities or nuclear power plants.
Figure 1-8: Public Acceptance Towards New Facilities (Reprinted from Environmental Quality - 1980, the Eleventh Annual Report of the Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, December 1980.)
This objection to new facilities is a widespread public attitude, representing considerable skepticism about the external benefits and costs which new facilities will impose. It is this public attitude which is likely to make public scrutiny and regulation a continuing concern for the construction industry.
A final trend which deserves note is the increasing level of international competition in the construction industry. Owners are likely to find non-traditional firms bidding for construction work, particularly on large projects. Separate bids from numerous European, North American, and Asian construction firms are not unusual. In the United States, overseas firms are becoming increasingly visible and important. In this environment of heightened competition, good project management and improved productivity are more and more important.
A bidding competition for a major new offshore drilling platform illustrates the competitive environment in construction. As described in the Wall Street Journal:
Through most of the postwar years, the nation's biggest builders of offshore oil platforms enjoyed an unusually cozy relationship with the Big Oil Companies they served. Their top officials developed personal friendships with oil executives, entertained them at opulent hunting camps- and won contracts to build nearly every major offshore oil platform in the world....But this summer, the good-old boy network fell apart. Shell [Oil Co.] awarded the main contract for [a new] platform - taller than Chicago's Sears Tower, four times heavier than the Brooklyn Bridge - to a tiny upstart.
The winning bidder arranged overseas fabrication of the rig, kept overhead costs low, and proposed a novel assembly procedure by which construction equipment was mounted on completed sections of the platform in order to speed the completion of the entire structure. The result was lower costs than those estimated and bid by traditional firms.
Of course, U.S. firms including A/E firms, contractors and construction managers are also competing in foreign countries. Their success or failure in the international arena may also affect their capacities and vitality to provide services in the domestic U.S. market.
Contractor Financed Projects
Increasingly, some owners look to contractors or joint ventures as a resource to design, to build and to finance a constructed facility. For example, a utility company may seek a consortium consisting of a design/construct firm and a financial investment firm to assume total liability during construction and thereby eliminate the risks of cost escalation to ratepayers, stockholders and the management. On the other hand, a local sanitation district may seek such a consortium to provide private ownership for a proposed new sewage treatment plant. In the former case, the owner may take over the completed facility and service the debt on construction through long-term financing arrangements; in the latter case, the private owner may operate the completed facility and recover its investment through user fees. The activities of joint ventures among design, construction and investment firms are sometimes referred to as financial engineering.
This type of joint venture has become more important in the international construction market where aggressive contractors often win contracts by offering a more attractive financing package rather than superior technology. With a deepening shadow of international debts in recent years, many developing countries are not in a position to undertake any new project without contractor-backed financing. Thus, the contractors or joint ventures in overseas projects are forced into very risky positions if they intend to stay in the competition.
"Lean manufacturing" had a revolutionary effect on many industries, especially automotive assembly companies. Characteristics of this approach include:
Lean construction is intended to spread these practices within the construction industry. Of course, well managed construction projects already have many aspects of lean construction. For example, just-in-time delivery of materials is commonplace to avoid the waste of large inventory stockpiles. Green building projects attempt to re-use or recycle all construction wastes. But the systematic attention to continuous improvement and zero accidents and defects is new.
1.9 The Role of Project Managers
In the project life cycle, the most influential factors affecting the outcome of the project often reside at the early stages. At this point, decisions should be based on competent economic evaluation with due consideration for adequate financing, the prevalent social and regulatory environment, and technological considerations. Architects and engineers might specialize in planning, in construction field management, or in operation, but as project managers, they must have some familiarity with all such aspects in order to understand properly their role and be able to make competent decisions.
Since the 1970's, many large-scale projects have run into serious problems of management, such as cost overruns and long schedule delays. Actually, the management of megaprojects or superprojects is not a practice peculiar to our time. Witness the construction of transcontinental railroads in the Civil War era and the construction of the Panama Canal at the turn of this century. Although the megaprojects of this generation may appear in greater frequency and present a new set of challenge, the problems are organizational rather than technical. As noted by Hardy Cross:
It is customary to think of engineering as a part of a trilogy, pure science, applied science and engineering. It needs emphasis that this trilogy is only one of a triad of trilogies into which engineering fits. This first is pure science, applied science and engineering; the second is economic theory, finance and engineering; and the third is social relations, industrial relations and engineering. Many engineering problems are as closely allied to social problems as they are to pure science.
As engineers advance professionally, they often spend as much or more time on planning, management and other economic or social problems as on the traditional engineering design and analysis problems which form the core of most educational programs. It is upon the ability of engineers to tackle all such problems that their performance will ultimately be judged.
The greatest stumbling block to effective management in construction is the inertia and historic divisions among planners, designers and constructors. While technical competence in design and innovation remains the foundation of engineering practice, the social, economic and organizational factors that are pervasive in influencing the success and failure of construction projects must also be dealt with effectively by design and construction organizations. Of course, engineers are not expected to know every detail of management techniques, but they must be knowledgeable enough to anticipate the problems of management so that they can work harmoniously with professionals in related fields to overcome the inertia and historic divisions.
Paradoxically, engineers who are creative in engineering design are often innovative in planning and management since both types of activities involve problem solving. In fact, they can reinforce each other if both are included in the education process, provided that creativity and innovation instead of routine practice are emphasized. A project manager who is well educated in the fundamental principles of engineering design and management can usefully apply such principles once he or she has acquired basic understanding of a new application area. A project manager who has been trained by rote learning for a specific type of project may merely gain one year of experience repeated twenty times even if he or she has been in the field for twenty years. A broadly educated project manager can reasonably hope to become a leader in the profession; a narrowly trained project manager is often relegated to the role of his or her first job level permanently.
The owners have much at stake in selecting a competent project manager and in providing her or him with the authority to assume responsibility at various stages of the project regardless of the types of contractual agreements for implementing the project. Of course, the project manager must also possess the leadership quality and the ability to handle effectively intricate interpersonal relationships within an organization. The ultimate test of the education and experience of a project manager for construction lies in her or his ability to apply fundamental principles to solving problems in the new and unfamiliar situations which have become the hallmarks of the changing environment in the construction industry.
- Au, T. and C. Hendrickson, "Education in Engineering Planning and Management," Proceedings of the ASCE Conference on Civil Engineering Education, Columbus, Ohio, 1985.
- Barrie, D.S. (editor), Directions in Managing Construction, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1981.
- Lean Construction Institute, http://www.leanconstruction.org/
- Bonny, J.B. and J.P. Frein, Handbook of Construction Management and Organization, 2nd Edition, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1980.
- Hasagawa, Fumio et.al., "Built by Japan," John Wiley & Sons, 1988.
- Lang, J.E. and D.Q. Mills, The Construction Industry, Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1979.
- Walker, N., E.N. Walker and T.K. Rohdenburg, Legal Pitfalls in Architecture, Engineering and Building Construction, 2nd Edition, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1979.