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Tips for Fast-Tracking Construction Projects Responsibly

By Elizabeth Jenkins, PE, QCxP, LEED AP

“I wanna go fast!”

The well-known tag line expressed by Will Ferrell’s title character in the 2006 movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby could have been based on a line reading from any number of different property developers I have known over the years. It is a common refrain heard by the project team from the owner each time another compressed construction schedule is introduced. With advances in technology and process improvements, large scale construction projects can be delivered in a shorter calendar window than they could have even a decade or two ago. It is hard to blame these owners for wanting to put the pedal to the floor on these schedules, but is there a danger in pushing too fast and compressing too much? Can it really be faster to go slower?

Driving the CxA Pacesetter Car

Before the building process is off to the races, commissioning authorities (CxAs) are often brought on board at the beginning of the construction phase of a project, if not sooner. This gives us the opportunity to gain from lessons learned repeatedly observing the construction phase from beginning to end. While there is a wealth of opportunity to gain efficiency and value by involving the CxA starting in the pre-design/design phase, this article primarily focuses on the construction phase.

Chasing the Checkered Flag

There are many reasons an owner may introduce a condensed program; perhaps a penalty is involved if the site is not ready for assets or people prior to a specific date. Maybe the construction start date pushed out and the owner does not want to push out the turnover date accordingly. In these cases, it can be difficult to push back against the direction to compress the schedule as this direction may come from much higher up than the Owner’s construction project manager. Whatever the reason, it is important to understand the potential consequences and pitfalls that compressing the schedule can generate. Below are just some of the problems that can arise when trying to move too quickly:

Warning Flags to Watch

Flag #1 – Fatigue: Working long days, weekends, and night shifts for extended periods of time can result in both mental and physical exhaustion. When humans tire and are pre-occupied with counting down the hours until they get home, several negative behaviors can start to emerge. Inhibitions can drop resulting in bad decision making. When people are tired, work gets rushed, miscommunication happens, and small (but important) steps are skipped. These not only negatively impact quality of work but can also be a major safety concern.

  • Case Study: Following installation but prior to energization, an electrician repeatedly working long hours left a tool in a piece of electrical gear. In the rush to meet the tight energization schedule, a proper pre-energization step by step (SBS) procedure was not followed. Consequently, nobody noticed the mistakenly leftover tool, and the energization of the equipment was much more eventful that it should have been.
    Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the gear was damaged and required full replacement. This meant having to wait for the new gear to be procured and re-installed. All in all, the push to compress the schedule in this case resulted in doubling the duration of installation as well as the associated costs of obtaining new gear. Time also had to be devoted to a root cause analysis and retraining of the contracting team on SBS procedures.

Flag #2 – Reduction in efficiency: Sometimes adding additional teams to perform field work can speed up operations; however, that is not always the case. There is quite a bit a truth in the old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Working with multiple teams in one location requires a significant amount of coordination, perhaps more time and energy is spent on coordination than is actually gained by running the work sequence as originally scheduled. Add in fatigue and the potential for miscommunication means having multiple teams working in parallel can result in majorly detrimental effects on efficiency.

  • Case Study: The original schedule called for the mechanical equipment to be functionally tested followed by the electrical equipment with no overlap between the trades; however, due to a schedule crunch, the owner directed both mechanical and electrical testing to occur simultaneously. Inefficiencies immediately started to occur as the testing plan had to be revised to ensure the work being done by each trade would not interrupt or interfere with work being done by the other.
    Despite all this planning, there were still issues when something as simple as an automatic transfer switch (ATS) transfer was initiated by an electrical contractor without informing the mechanical team testing the downstream cooling equipment. Multiple tests that required a considerable amount of set up were interrupted and had to be restarted. Not only did this drive inefficiency but it also drove a good deal of frustration amongst the teams.

Flag #3 – Increase in the number and severity of issues found during commissioning: The CxA is meant to serve as the final line of defense to catch issues caused by faulty equipment or human error installation. In theory, prior to the final functional testing of any equipment or system, the contractor or vendor has successfully completed their start-up process and should feel confident at that point with handing a functional system over to the owner.

With compressed schedules, vendors can sometimes feel so pressured that they hand over “pencil whipped” documentation where they go through the motions of startup but do not get a chance to back check their work (or the formal startup procedure simply does not get completed at all).

Work may also be completed in a piecemeal manner such that the owner directs the CxA to complete what they can on a piece of equipment and come back later to finish the remainder. The issue here (no pun intended) is that not allowing the vendor enough time to appropriately finish their work prior to bringing in the CxA for functional testing will often result in more deficiencies found. These deficiencies must then be documented, reviewed, discussed, and resolved through re-testing. (This warning flag is SO important and potentially impactful I have included two case studies).

  • Case Study 1: The controls contractor always gets the short end of the stick since they often are the last one able to do their work on a typical construction project. Equipment must first be installed, energized, and started up before they can “talk” to it. This means they are often at the mercy of the installing contractor. On this particular large but fast-tracked project, the controls contractor was squeezed so much that they did not complete any real check out of their devices or sensors prior to functional testing. Because of this, over 500 controls-related issues were identified throughout the build. Instead of giving the contractor the time they needed to do an appropriate checkout, each issue (albeit very minor in most cases) had to be discovered by the CxA during functional testing which slowed the process. The result: Each issue had to be tracked, reviewed, and re-tested.
  • Case Study 2: Despite recommendations to the contrary, the CxA was directed by the owner to test the functions that were deemed ready to test at five sets of switchgear while the vendor continued to work on completing the remainder of the startup on an opposite shift. Each of the five sets of gear took approximately 5 days to test what had been deemed to have been ready. Once the remainder of the gear functionality was completed by the vendor, the CxA circled back and started testing those additional functions. At the first set of gear, an issue was found with the operation of those later completed functions which required an update to the firmware. This left all the previous testing (about 25 days’ worth!) invalidated. Those 25 days had to be made up in the (no longer so compressed) schedule.

How to Cross the Commissioning Finish Line as a Winner

It is important to get true buy-in from all parties and set realistic goals in relation to scheduling early in the project and carefully consider the consequences that compressing an already fast track schedule can have. Anytime it is tempting to condense the project schedule, review the potential implications with all stakeholders and consider if it might really be faster to go slower. To deliver a project on time, it is important to keep a foot on the gas, but also to remember the brakes are there too for when issues arise. Finding the right speed limit for your project may not only help to improve the quality of the deliverable but may also have positive impacts on overall team safety, morale, project cost, and may even get you over the project finish line earlier!

Beth Jenkins’ expertise includes system commissioning of mission critical and commercial facilities, retro-commissioning, and HVAC design. She shares her expertise in articles like this to further ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment.

Want to learn more about the benefits of process standardization and how ESD can help make your project successful? Reach out to the Commissioning team.

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