During a typical construction day, more than 35% of a contractor's time is spent on activities other than actual installation work. This could be anything from time spent moving around the job site, mobilizing, and cleaning up to studying the plans, laying out the work, and any other activities not directly related to actual installation. This “non-installation” time is spread evenly over the course of a typical project. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, day-by-day, distributed over the entire crew. More than half of this “non-installation” time is spent on plans, layout, and material logistics.

What if you could shift those activities to the front of the project, to the “pre-planning” stage, if you will? Could those activities be done more efficiently as a dedicated task, rather than in the field a few minutes before going to work? How much money could you save if more of the work was pre-planned? Could you get your crew to work a few minutes earlier? Could you minimize trips from the work areas to the job office or gang box if things were better planned?

Every type of project is slightly different, just as every company is different; therefore, every company's outline of a pre-plan will be different. The following 10 ideas for pre-planning should help you see how your organization can save time and money. Although every idea isn't meant for every organization, you should find a few that will strike a chord within yours.

  1. Under-slab detailing

    You can maximize the savings and minimize the costs if you spend the time to create a detailed under-slab plan, including exact dimensions for conduit stub-ups in walls, detailing footing penetrations, and creating specific plans for equipment rooms with many conduits. Using CAD tools and a color printer can make the drawing much easier to read. The CAD tools will help identify conflicts and will allow you to visualize under-slab routing, before you start installing.

    You will save hundreds of dollars for every conduit run that can be put under the slab rather than being run overhead. In addition, every conduit stubbed up in the wrong place will cost hundreds of dollars to fix. At this point, you may also find opportunities for pre-fabrication work for the stub-ups and supports.

  2. Submittal/installation details

    Many submittals are just for basic fixtures, equipment, and material that we have all installed hundreds of times. Depending on the project, there will also be various specialty equipment and fixtures, which you may not have previously worked with.

    Custom light fixtures are very common, and are often built by small design firms with a focus on the aesthetics of the fixture rather than simple installation. The submittals for these custom fixtures usually don't provide much information about the installation, a situation that can eat up valuable time in the field when you're trying to figure out how to layout the rough-in, what type of ring is required, what mounting hardware is needed, etc.

    The following standard planning practices can help the installation efficiency on these custom pieces of equipment:

    • Contact the manufacturer or go to its Web site ahead of time to get installation detail sheets for all custom equipment. These documents will be invaluable to the field crews roughing in and installing the equipment.

    • Request actual photographs of the equipment. A photo really is worth a thousand words, and it can be an essential component in the planning process.

    • If there are still questions after looking through the photos and detail sheets, find a technical contact at the manufacturer. These companies are usually very small, and their staff will be knowledgeable and helpful. A 5-minute conversation can save hours of valuable time during installation.

  3. Mounting details

    There are all types of devices and fixtures that must be installed, each of which has specific rough-in requirements, depending on the type of device or fixture and the location it is installed in. Some have specific mounting details called out on the plans. For some, you will want to design your own installation detail.

    It should be standard practice to create a spreadsheet that lists all devices and fixtures along with mounting details, including:

    • Ring type, depth, and orientation

    • Layout for mounting

    • Mounting height/location

    • Power feed layout and connection

    • Wall covering

    • Hardware included

    • Other miscellaneous parts required

    • Structural support details

    • Earthquake details

    This spreadsheet can reference specific details and submittal information. All information can be assembled in a binder and easily duplicated for everyone on the project who is doing rough-in. This will keep people from constantly having to go back to the plans to review wall coverings, fixture elevation details, etc., on the project plans in the field office.

    The rigorous process of going through device-by-device, detail-by-detail, and room-by-room will point out problems and ambiguities in the plans early on, allowing you to deal with them now rather during installation.

  4. Light fixtures

    Light fixtures create some interesting challenges. They will usually only be called out as a single type on the fixture schedule, but may actually have several different mounting options, such as T-bar versus hard-rock ceiling mounting. Often, there will be fixtures mislabeled on the plans, which creates a problem with the original fixture counts. Sometimes, specific parts of the fixture are needed in advance for rough-in. All of these little details will come back to bite you during the course of construction. Plan your lighting package better, and you will save money.

    Be sure to consider the following:

    • Room-by-room count and verification of type.

    • Verify mounting orientation in counts.

    • Shipping details — what gets shipped and when.

    • Create a list of lamps.

    • Create tracking sheets for receiving fixtures/lamps.

    • Label all fixtures when receiving with room number.

    • Plan a delivery schedule with slack in it.

  5. Room detailing packages

    In each building, there will be several critical rooms that consume a significant portion of the budget, even though they are relatively small in square footage. These include the electric rooms, mechanical rooms, and data rooms. Because these rooms are not part of the usable square footage of the building, their size is squeezed down as much as possible. Therefore, installing all the equipment, conduit, process piping, lighting, and fire sprinklers, while maintaining all code-required working clearances, is challenging to say the least.

    Such tight working conditions impact productivity. In addition, the tight areas leave little room for errors, so re-work is common in these areas to get all piping into place while maintaining code clearances. Thorough pre-planning can eliminate a lot of the challenges associated with these space-challenged rooms. Here are some areas to keep in mind:

    • Use CAD software to make changes easily.

    • Create objects in CAD to match actual submittals.

    • Detail floor plan and wall elevations.

    • Detail under-slab stub-up locations.

    • Check for clearances, fit, and conflicts.

    • Verify every circuit with the plans.

    • RFI conflicts, missing circuits, etc.

    • Create panel schedules ahead of time — correcting conflicts found.

    • Plan homerun and feeder layout.

    • Complete bill of materials (BOM) — factor into budget.

    • Assemble details, BOM, panel schedules, and submittals into binder.

  6. Circuiting and homeruns

    You can gain an incredible amount of productivity by focusing on circuiting the project and laying out all homeruns before the project starts. Don't leave these things to chance, accept the fact that they will be figured out in the field, or assume the plans are correct. It is essential to verify every detail yourself before you start working. Things to look at include:

    • Verify circuiting against panel schedules.

    • If circuiting isn't shown, draw it in during the planning phase.

    • Consolidate as many homeruns as possible.

    • Detail out every conduit run 1¼-inch and larger, checking routing against structural, HVAC, and architectural plans.

    • Put as much work in under the slabs, in the decks, or above the HVAC as possible — wide open equals fast.

  7. Material storage and logistics

    A lot of time is spent on the job site walking around looking for material, making material lists, receiving material, trying to inventory light fixtures, etc. You can minimize this wasted time by planning your material logistics up-front.

    • Don't save on storage and waste manpower.

    • Organized job storage means efficiency on the job site.

    • Standardize your storage setup.

    • Own your storage containers and customize them.

    • Locate gang boxes very close to work areas.

    • Have suppliers keep the storage container stocked.

    • Have a first year apprentice keep the gang boxes stocked.

    • Use master purchase orders for all commodity materials.

    • Create custom equipment receiving forms for major buyout items, fixtures, power distribution, etc.

    • Print special labels for lighting and other equipment, denoting what it is, and where it goes.

    • Verify your fixtures, switchgear, and other equipment room-by-room to make sure there are absolutely no errors.

  8. Pre-fabrication

    Figuring out what parts of the project can be built off-site in a more controlled environment will save thousands of dollars and shave significant time off of the schedule. What can you build ahead of time? Here are some things to consider:

    • Fixtures and whips
    • Fixture mounting framing
    • Large cable runs
    • Box assemblies
    • Support assemblies
    • Forms for site/slab
  9. Value engineering

    The best margin you can make on a change-order is usually the one where you are giving money back. This is called a value engineering change-order, and even the strictest public agencies that only allow a 15% markup on change-orders regularly give away 50% for value engineering proposals. Look for every way possible to give back money, including:

    • Substitute raceway types / fittings.

    • Dig into light fixture and gear packages.

    • Copper vs. aluminum feeders — do the math.

    • Trading schedule time for money.

  10. Foreman files

    Every bit of time you save the foreman on administrative and supervision activities will go directly to the bottom-line. The entire pre-planning process helps in this area. Another piece of low-hanging fruit is to standardize the organization of the foreman's files. Organize all the information they will need to run the project and pre-fill out everything possible. Paperwork done in the field will be 30% of the quality of that turned out in the office and will cost four times as much.

  • Contract summary and scope

  • Subcontractor scopes

  • Project budget

  • Major purchase orders, including terms

  • Major material receiving forms

  • Test forms

  • Project forms — requests for information (RFIs), daily extra work reports (DEWRs), memos, transmittals, material requisitions, and time cards

  • Submittals — including additional install details

  • Standardized file structure for storing information

Practice makes perfect

The last century has brought numerous productivity enhancements to all industries. Construction is one of the most challenging because we work in essentially an “uncontrolled” environment that is constantly changing. Establishing processes, inserting controls, and creating standards is much easier in the relatively controlled environment of manufacturing where the facility can be designed around efficiency in which the same or similar things are built over and over.

With construction, each job site is created from scratch. Although a project may have common elements, it will also inevitably be very different from the last — especially the more complex facilities where architects are constantly pushing the envelope. By putting these pre-planning strategies to work, contractors have a big opportunity to save money on their next project.

Brown is the founder and president of D. Brown Management, Lodi, Calif., a consulting and management firm specializing in project management and operational processes for contractors. He can be reached at David@dbrownmanagement.com.


Sidebar: Bonus Idea

Safety should always be a part of your planning process. You can organize your safety plan by phase of work, and include safety meetings specific to the topic, detail special personal protective equipment (PPE) required, and other specialty forms.

Consider discussion of the following topics:

  • Underground
  • Work on floor decks/roof
  • Branch installation (0 feet to 9 feet)
  • Branch installation (10 feet or greater)
  • Power distribution/large equipment
  • Power turn-on
  • Fixtures, devices, and trim