Before a construction project can begin, there is a lot of planning, number-crunching, designing, and scheduling that needs to occur. The bulk of all this planning occurs during the preconstruction phase, and this one phase can set the tone for the entire project. But what is preconstruction, and why is it so important? Keep reading to learn more about this early stage involved in every project.

What is preconstruction?

Preconstruction is the initial stage of a construction project where an idea starts to become a reality. An architect, designer, or design-bid contractor will perform planning and engineering services for a prospective project owner, providing them with the information they need to move forward.

During preconstruction, the designer will meet with the client to define the project. The designer helps the client develop budgets, schedules, potential issues, the scope, and other details related to the planning of the entire project. It’s at this point that the client can determine whether the project is feasible or not. 

The services provided during preconstruction can vary, and they’re based on several factors. Those factors include the type of job the client wishes to undertake, the location of the project, and the scope and size of the job, among others.

The benefits of preconstruction

As one of the most important stages of a project, project owners and contractors realize a lot of benefits.

For example, while the client often has to pay for preconstruction services, the amount is typically minimal compared to the overall project. This means that if the customer and contractor would prefer not to work together, there’s less skin in the game for both parties. 

And, for clients that prequalify their GCs and find something they don’t like, they can move on without sacrificing the whole project.

Preconstruction establishes two baselines: an initial budget and a preliminary schedule. While neither of these is final, they do provide the customer with an idea of how much the project will cost and when they can expect compilation. This information helps the client determine whether the project is feasible for their needs—something that is incredibly valuable to find out early. 

Since the designer and client work so closely together during preconstruction, they’re able to establish a clear scope of work to ensure everyone’s on the same page. They’re also able to establish a chain or matrix of responsibility, which determines who is responsible for every stage of the project. 

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It’s also important to realize that the preconstruction phase gives the general contractor a jump on the project. With a clearly defined scope, the GC can pre-qualify subs and reach out to them for bids and quotes. Should the client decide to move forward with the project, much of the groundwork for hiring subs is already out of the way. 

How long does preconstruction take?

The preconstruction process can take anywhere from two weeks to three months — or longer. The length of time depends on the designer’s availability, the size and scope of the project, and how clear the client is on what they want. 

An outline of the preconstruction process

There are two critical components of the preconstruction phase:

  • The preconstruction manager
  • The preconstruction meeting

What does a preconstruction manager do?

A preconstruction manager organizes and oversees the design phase of a project, before building commences. They’re essentially the main point of contact for the client, providing them with the knowledge and experience to get the project rolling. 

The preconstruction manager will work with the client to develop an understanding of the project and the client’s wants and needs. They’ll also put together the team required to handle the project, from the GC to the subs.

No less importantly, precconstruction managers also help develop a strategy and schedule that works for the client. 

What is the purpose of a preconstruction meeting?

A preconstruction meeting’s purpose is to ensure that everyone is on the same page before the project begins. The client will sit down with the general contractor and discuss their needs and wants. In turn, the general contractor will take that information and determine if the project is feasible.

Feasibility depends on a few factors. First, the preliminary budget and schedule that the contractor develops during this phase need to work for the client. Second, the client’s needs and wants need to be realistic.

Also, the size and scope of the project need to work for the space and meet the municipality’s requirements. The preconstruction meeting will establish many of these points. 

5 steps in preconstruction

Architects generally refer to preconstruction simply as “design,” and break the process down into five steps:

  1. Schematic design
  2. Design development
  3. Construction documents
  4. Bidding/procurement
  5. Construction administration

Schematic design

The goal of the schematic design phase is for the architect to create plans that establish the size and shape of the building (known as massing) and the overall concept. The architect will meet with the client to discuss how individual spaces within the building will be used, and develop floor plans and elevations. These drawings give the client something to picture and provide feedback on before moving to the next stage. 

Design development

Design development picks up where schematic design leaves off, essentially adding more detail and specifics to the established schematic. This includes more in-depth sketches and elevations, as well as choosing finishes and materials. Also, building systems such as the electrical system, HVAC, and plumbing become part of the plans. Interior elevations are also part of the design development phase. 

Construction documents

The construction documents phase is the largest stage of construction project design. It entails the architect creating a full package of drawings for the building that code enforcement will use for permitting. The construction documents phase also involves putting together sets of plans for contractors to review to develop bids. Neither of these plans must be 100% complete at the time of submission, but the architect will eventually develop complete plans for refining bids and addressing code questions. 

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Bidding/procurement

The bidding stage, also known as procurement, is where the owner will begin selecting contractors to handle the job. They may either choose a contractor they know or accept multiple bids. The architect may assist the project owner in assessing the bids and choosing qualified contractors, however, owners should prequalify their contractors as well. 

An important part of the bidding and procurement phase is the architect answering questions proposed by contractors. They’ll respond to RFIs about materials, specifications, and drawings to help the contractors develop accurate bids.

While project owners often select the lowest qualifying bid, this can cause real problems for contractors who try to compete on price alone.

Construction administration 

While the overwhelming majority of the supervision occurring on the job site is the responsibility of the GC, construction administration is the architect’s job as well. During this phase, the architect will survey the project periodically to ensure that construction is going to plan. They’ll also answer questions from contractors and serve as the middleman between the contractors and the project owner.

What to expect during preconstruction

While there isn’t anyone driving nails or pouring concrete during the preconstruction phase, there is still a lot of work involved. The following are some of the outputs contractors and clients can expect from this stage of the project.

Scope

The first aspect of the plan that will come from the preconstruction phase is the scope of work. This becomes a balance of the client’s wants and needs, the contractor’s ability to deliver them, and the practical limitations of the site, schedule, and budget. The scope also includes everything from the design to the level of finish desired. 

Budget

Part of the preconstruction phase is establishing a preliminary budget. This budget is something the contractor will come up with based on their experience, the client’s needs and wants, and the current state of the market. In many cases, the budget will include cost-saving alternative materials and designs. 

Project details

With the scope and budget nailed down, the designer is able to drill down to the minutia of the project. This includes sorting through the various materials, mechanical systems, the building layout, and more. The designer will create the plans and rendering for the client at this point, as well.

Assembling the project team

One of the critical aspects of the preconstruction phase is assembling the project team. Once the client decides to move forward with a contractor and design, the general contractor can start reaching out to subs for bids and quotes. The GC can also determine what availability might look like and keep them on notice that this project might be coming down the pike.

There can be a lot of value in these interactions, as finding a crew and collecting bids takes time. Letting these subs know ahead of time keeps the process moving and gives the contractor some familiar names to call upon. It also provides the contractor with enough time to prequalify their subs, possibly ensuring that the subs aren’t causing expensive headaches for the client. 

Required materials

When it comes to materials, there isn’t any time to waste. The preconstruction phase helps nail down the materials before the project breaks down, giving the client time to choose several backup options, and the contractor enough time to secure financing and order them so subs aren’t waiting for them to arrive. This portion of the phase might seem small, but the potential time and money savings down the road are anything but. 

Permit and inspections

The time for performing inspections and pulling necessary permits is the preconstruction phase. Inspecting the site to perform environmental tests and surveys helps ensure the project is feasible and that an agency won’t shut the job down. Likewise, waiting for building permits when subcontractors are already on-site is an expensive mistake. Pulling those permits once the drawings are ready is key.

Established communication

The most essential aspect of the preconstruction phase is establishing effective lines of communication between the contractor, designer, client, and the rest of the project team. This phase requires input from many sources, forcing the parties involved to communicate to work toward a common goal. The degree of communication should continue and the project moves forward.

Preconstruction checklist

  • Preconstruction meeting
  • Designing and planning the actual project
  • Preliminary budget with suggestions for saving money
  • Developing the scope of the project
  • Identifying, avoiding, and preplanning for potential problems
  • Scope and site feasibility
  • Environmental tests 
  • Evaluating utilities 
  • Determining tools and equipment required for the project
  • Outlining communication and contingencies for all parties

Outcomes of preconstruction phase

Assuming that the project keeps moving forward, clients and contractors can expect three outcomes from the preconstruction phase:

  1. Budget
  2. Schedule
  3. Scope

With these three important factors nailed down, breaking ground and bringing the project to life can be a smoother process.

Managing financial risk during preconstruction

The preconstruction phase isn’t without financial risk for those involved. At this point in a project, the property owner or developer probably hasn’t secured financing for the project yet, so you are relying heavily on their individual creditworthiness to be able to pay.

In addition, many projects never proceed past the preconstruction phase. Plans are deemed unfeasible, or the developer may have trouble getting financing. It can all fall apart before anyone actually breaks ground.

Depending on the laws in the state where the property is located, unpaid businesses may be able to file a lien for unpaid preconstruction work.

However, mechanics lien laws typically only kick in once the property has been “improved.” If the project fails before it starts, the architect or GC may not have lien rights on the preliminary work they performed.

As a result, it’s best to secure any fees upfront. If that isn’t possible, make sure you take all of the steps you can to protect your payment.

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