Not only are realistic project schedules useful to you during the preconstruction stage, they're also vital to successfully coordinating the day-to-day activities of a project.

Want to make your job site life easier? One way is to put together a detailed and realistic project schedule. And, don't wait until you're on the site to do it. You should begin as soon as you've signed your construction contract. Why? Because in today's fast-paced construction industry, it's crucial to use your time, materials, and manpower efficiently.

Many project managers don't take time to plan a project thoroughly, or do so in a haphazard manner. The result is unnecessary delays, poor quality workmanship, cost overruns, and low worker moral. This may lead to arguments or claim litigation with the owner, client, or other trades.

Realistic and regularly updated schedules help you finish on time and within budget. In fact, most companies realize that project scheduling helps them stay competitive and save money on manpower and materials. Today's easily affordable computer technology and software also increase reasons for the popularity of project scheduling software.

Conflicts can occur over many issues during the course of a construction project. Design changes, labor actions, poor weather conditions, and delivery problems are common conflicts. With these potential problems, courts now consider network-based schedules as acceptable evidence when arguments occur over project completion dates, delivery dates, or the formal coordination of project participants.

Getting started. First, you should set up meetings with vendors and key personnel to coordinate timing requirements for labor, installation drawings, material lists, and anything your company needs to complete the job. Then, draft a preliminary plan based on the input involved. You should include delivery and construction milestones.

Finally, you need to meet with the general contractor (GC) or construction manager (CM) and compare your project schedule with their schedules. In this step, you should iron out difficulties by setting all milestone dates and clarifying any terminology.

Milestone dates. The GC or CM may know the major milestones, but they may not be aware of the extent of work for each project activity involved or the requirements of each subcontractor or prime contractor. Here is where you describe your requirements and include them in the project schedule. If the GC or CM hasn't prepared a detailed project schedule by this time, you'll be able to provide the information needed to coordinate their activities with yours and the rest of the trades. For example, a typical requirement at data processing centers is to run bare copper cable running around the building perimeter and bond it to structural steel and re-rod at these locations. You may need more access time for a building's footer and column bases than normally expected, because you're required to install an extensive grounding system.

Terminology. If you think it's unnecessary to agree on the meaning of typical construction terms such as "start-up, rough-in, cleanup, temporary power, completed, branch, or conduit," think again! For example, to you, the word "startup" may mean the first application of power. The GC or CM, however, may think it means full functional operation of the completed project. This is a huge difference in time, labor, and material. This is why it's necessary to have a complete understanding of appropriate terms by all parties involved. Besides, it will help you in the long run if you're forced to file a claim for nonpayment of completed work.

Because some conflicts in scheduling always seem to appear, you may need a follow-up meeting with the GC or CM. By the time of this meeting, you and the GC or CM will have adjusted the respective project schedule. Now, all parties can confirm the proposed schedule as accurate and realistic.

As an electrical contractor, you should be accustomed to being the last trade on a job. But with building automation and Information Technology Systems becoming commonplace, specialty contractors are now the last trade group on site. If your contract places the responsibility of correct operation of instruments and controls on you, make sure the schedule allows enough time for system startup and debugging. This is important because most specialty contractors underestimate the time needed to debug their systems.

Following the schedule. Once the GC or CM sets the schedule and all parties agree with it, the actual construction work begins. Now you can begin making system installation drawings and purchasing decisions, as well as scheduling labor and management manpower. Also, you can begin any preparation work before moving to the job site.

You and the GC or CM can use a computer-based system called the critical path method (CPM) system. It has many benefits, including easy updating and detailed information by department (purchasing, engineering, and project management). Basically, you use a computer to prepare weekly master schedules and individual schedules for each department. You send the latter schedules to the respective departments, who, in turn, provide regular updates on their respective responsibilities. Then, you enter these updates on a daily basis and print out a monthly master schedule.

Then, you or your project manager layout a schedule for the next two months and send it to your superintendent or general foreman, who in turn sets up daily schedule. This agenda should describe, by activity, needed workers and required materials and tools.

While your superintendent or general foreman know what materials have arrived, areas of the project available for access, available workers, and other detailed information, they can adjust the daily schedules as needed. However, adhering to the overall timing dictated by the master schedule is critical.

Usually, the GC or CM has weekly job meetings where every trade discusses its progress versus the master schedule. After this meeting, you should relay to the home office and enter any job site changes affecting worker output and efficiency into the CPM.

Pitfalls of poor or absent scheduling. You can expect new construction projects (instead of retrofit jobs) to be the most complicated because they require so many trades on the site at one time. And since not all sub- or prime-contractors use scheduling techniques, you may run into problems in area and equipment availability.

For example, your GC may supply a scissors lift or mobile boom for use by all trades for elevated work. However, this equipment may block access to the floor - making it impossible for one contractor to work on the floor while another works at the ceiling. Or, you may need the equipment to install light fixtures or ceiling-run conduit, but it's in use elsewhere. Now, your superintendent or general foreman must quickly reassign other tasks to installers, which may be impossible for that day.

Another problem involves access to corridors, equipment rooms, tunnels, or other locations where you have to install electrical equipment or pull cables. If another trade occupies that area, you may find it impossible to gain access for your work.

A typical problem is when one trade gets to the job site at 6 a.m. to "take possession" of certain areas or equipment. This can lead to heated discussions, hard feelings, and possible retaliatory tactics. The worst-case scenario: workers looking for something to do or even being sent home.

Everyone can avoid these problem areas if the GC or CM sets up and administers a master project schedule that accounts for the need of critical equipment and area access by all trades. Remember, it's relatively simple to rearrange schedules to suit each trade - provided each contractor plans ahead and communicates its specific needs.

Creating a realistic project schedule will save you time and money and prevent claim litigation. If you do it right the first time, clients, superintendents, and contractors will be free of the problems associated with poor scheduling.

Sidebar 1: When It All Began

Scheduling isn't new. It's been around since the 1950s. In fact, the E.I. du Pont Nemours Co. developed a CPM schedule in 1956 using a UNIVAC computer for construction of its $10 million chemical plant in Louisville, Ky.

About the same time, The U.S. Navy used a Performance Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) network schedule to manage the development of the Polaris missile. PERT and CPM, both network-based scheduling systems, were also used throughout the 1960s by the Army Corp. of Engineers, NASA, the Atomic Energy Commission, RCA, General Electric, the Apollo Program, and the Veterans Administration.

Early on, these formalized schedules were used only on very large projects and were run on large, mainframe computers, which, by today's standards, were very difficult to operate. With today's wide scale-use of PCs (with their simplified hardware and software), sophisticated owners, designers, and construction professionals commonly use network schedules.

Keep in mind that scheduling not only applies to construction. Many industries, including business, manufacturing, and publishing, use scheduling for successful and efficient production.

Sidebar 2: Using Scheduling in Claim Litigation

According to Frederick Gould, in his book Managing the Construction Process (Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-352337-3), scheduling is "the process of listing a number of duties or events in the sequence that they will occur. It is a timetable, and it formulates the activities that must be accomplished to reach a certain goal or objective." The book highlights the importance of scheduling in fighting the war of construction claims. Christopher Noble, a construction attorney with Hill & Barlow in Boston, contributed this valuable and informative material. Basically, if your work was disrupted or delayed, you may have a chance of collecting additional compensation if, and only if, you can show the causes and effects of delay through clear, graphic, schedule-based documentation.

You can solicit the help of specialized claims consultants or other experts to analyze, quantify, and present your claim and defense. As noted in the above book, these experts usually base their analysis on a comparison of three types of construction schedules:

• An as-planned schedule, which shows how you intended to construct the project within the originally set contract time;

• An as-built schedule, which shows what actually happened at the construction site; and

• An adjusted or impacted schedule, which shows how various delays and disruptions affected the as-planned schedule and/or contributed to the as-built schedule.

There are three kinds of delays, and each has very different legal and financial impacts:

• An excusable delay, which is not the fault of the owner or you (the contractor). It usually allows you an extension of time but no additional compensation.

• A non-excusable delay, which is due to your fault. It usually results in no extension of time to you but may allow the owner to collect actual or liquidated damages from you.

• A compensable delay, which is due to the fault of the owner. It usually entitles you to both an extension of time and additional compensation.

Suppose there are concurrent delays. What happens then? Often, they will cancel each other out, resulting in no compensation or damages to you or the owner. But, there may be circumstances making it possible to apportion the effects of the concurrent delays, or give one type of delay precedence over the other. Here, the strength of your or the owner's defense may depend on how skillfully each party's scheduling expert can show the causes.