We have all been there. Get a set of plans, open them, take a look, and wonder what possessed the team responsible to perform the way they did. I started my career in the offices of a developer/builder. I got to see firsthand how the process goes, as well as the changes that must happen. The journey often ends up with something completely different than originally planned.
I wrote this article for many of the younger entrants into the civil world to help shed light on the process. This may make weird site plans a little more understandable.
There are two types of builder groups; public and private. For this discussion we will look at private work. Private work can be further broken down into commercial and local. This article covers commercial builders.
In the civil construction world, commercial development relates to projects done by a large company in different geographic areas. Think of a big box store or restaurant.
Here are some general specifications:
- They have centralized operations and often work on sites they may never visit.
- Their staff does a lot of projects. Operations are streamlined and efficient. When they get busy, questions can sometimes take too long to get answered.
- They have little emotional investment in the process.
- Deadlines and opening dates are the only thing that matters. I have seen corporate firms do full redesigns to placate local building officials without blinking an eye.
- They are not afraid to spend money to get things done. The fast-track construction concept came about just for big box retail.
- They are not used to dealing in your area. Try not to suggest, “we do it this way around here.”
- Junior people handle stuff first. Get used to clearly explaining an issue so the next person up the ladder has all pertinent data.
The biggest factor in commercial work is the time from land acquisition to opening day. Pay and bonuses for employees involved are measured by expediency of their work. A month delay for a big retailer translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. They still have a bottom line. Quick decisions to problems are important to keep in mind.
Over 15 years ago, I wrote an article for a magazine that included the thought, “all the good dirt is gone.” The nice flat building sites with well compacted soil and no garbage were all developed and all that is left is the stuff that is expensive and difficult to work with. The land is acquired by the company and the process begins. For this part, both commercial and private work follow the same course.
The selection of an engineering firm takes one of two roads. The company has a nationally registered firm, meaning they have people with a license in each state they work in. The other track is to contact a local firm that has experience in the area to get things going. I have not seen much difference in the choice. An advantage of a local firm is that if you get the job, communication could be smoother.
Next, a survey of the property is performed and submitted to the engineer and owner. These will be ALTA Surveys. This means they conform to the American Land Title Association guidelines that follow strict standards for real estate transactions. I remember a job involving a McDonald’s restaurant in Las Vegas that had three surveys performed to verify the plot. The land was priced by the square foot, so every little bit made a difference for all involved.
The survey is just 2D and clearly outlines the property boundary. At the same time, a topography map is usually made to provide the engineer with a starting point.
We all know what a Wal-Mart or Home Depot looks like. When it comes to the area surrounding the building, this is where things must conform to the site purchased. The process being backwards, at least to us civil types. The footprint of the building is decided. How big a structure needs to be built to supply the anticipated traffic. From there, the civil engineer takes the job. There are fixed and fluid variables that enter into the site design equation, and many of them are decided by local codes.
- Drainage needs to be sorted first. Knowing how big the building is, how much of the project do we need to dedicate to drainage? Most local codes will let you work in cubic feet of storage, meaning deeper basins that take up less area. Some require a percentage of the site have allocated green space, which also can be retention basins.
- Number of parking spaces may be called out by ordinances. Handicap spaces are also controlled that way. This is the reason you may see a lot of accessible spaces in some parking areas and not many in others. Local codes adjust that. The only requirement is they do not allow less density than the ADA guidelines outline.
- Access is next. We would love every entry to have a nice long decel lane, wide access driveways, and plenty of entrances and exits. The site will restrict this as well as the roads they enter.
- The owner and engineers will need to look at the aesthetics and curb appeal of the project. Nobody wants to enter an unwelcoming site. Green space, trees, and easy access are all key.
- There is no such thing as a great parking lot design. All ideas have drawbacks. Make something easy to navigate and somebody will find a way to gum things up. Useable area has the biggest impact on one way or two-way lot lanes, nothing else.
With these less than desirable plans in your hands, you bid the job. The hard bid was won, and it is time to work. I have seen many a small to medium contractor do a bang-up job for an owner and get asked to do more on a negotiated basis. Keep that in mind when you look at this type of work.
My best advice is to submit your concerns right after being rewarded the job. You already have the list of concerns that was made during the takeoff, estimate, and bid where contradictions and confusing details were presented in the plans so this should be easy. Addressing concerns at the start will accomplish two goals, it shows that you’ve studied the plans well and gives you the chance to bail if you do not like their answers.
Change orders are normal. Do not hesitate to fully explain the problem and solution. Your submission will most likely pass through two or three people before it gets approved.
- Fully explain the issue requiring the change order.
- Propose a fix and the cost associated. Remember, never ask a question without providing your own best answer.
- Make your submittal stand on its own. In other words, if I read your change request and have any questions, you did not do your job well enough.
Site selection, design and construction are all handled by different people. Seldom does one person follow a project through. Make sure everything is written down. Communicate with all stakeholders so that there is no misunderstanding when things get handed off.
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