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Superintendent’s Guide to Knowing When to Ask for Help


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It’s not easy for superintendents to ask for help managing construction projects when they’re expected to be superhuman. But not asking can lead to disaster. The best approach is to recognize that you need help and be proactive in seeking it out.

If you read the job descriptions many contractors use to detail what a superintendent is responsible for, you quickly notice a big departure from what’s realistically feasible. These job descriptions require supers to handle every aspect of managing a project while also being responsible for, well, everything. In fact, if the super could do everything the job descriptions say, the contractor wouldn’t need anybody else on staff.

Giving management an early heads up will not only demonstrate that you understand the project, but that you also understand your own capabilities. 

Most superintendents are happy with their jobs even though they work very long hours. But everyone needs some time off to recharge and tend to their life outside of work. When the demands of a project exceed your availability, chances are, you’re in over your head.

Here’s a guide to the telltale signs that you’re not going to be able to do it all alone.

Just How Good Are The Plans?

Once you have reviewed the plans, it's time to take them out to the field and compare them to what is already on the ground. On new construction, the site plans will be all over the map. Some are highly detailed with topographic elements and elevations, while others just show the bare minimum. This is your first glimpse into the quality of the design documents. Look carefully at what the plans show and compare that to what actually exists. Check to see whether utilities are correctly shown and visualize the access issues to the site. Consider the surrounding area and the potential challenges of nearby businesses, residential areas, and even other construction.

If the project is a renovation, then you have even more to consider. It's likely the plans you're looking at are the original building plans with changes made to account for the renovation. That means that any mistakes in the original plans, as well as anything that was left out of the as-builts are potential issues for you.

There is also the aspect of wear and tear. To save time and money, owners very often spend little time on discovery. This comes back to bite you, especially with hidden items like plumbing, electrical, drains, and HVAC. If the tenants have used acid-based drain cleaners on cast iron drainpipes, for example, it's a good bet those pipes are corroded. If the structure is old, there's a real possibility there hasn't been an accurate discovery done. So, you could even face changes to the structure.

Is the Estimate and Schedule Feasible?

In another stage of plan review, it's a good idea to test the assumptions that others have made before you. A key place to look is the estimate. Rather than a random assessment, get specific. Start with critical foundation aspects and compare the work breakdown structure to the plans. The plans should show each part of the finished foundation. So if the plans call for a 10 square-yard slab but the work breakdown structure doesn't include concrete scoring or expansion joints, then there is potential labor, equipment, and material shortfalls. Do some quick checks on each early phase of construction to see just how closely the estimate is lining up with plans.

The initial schedule can also give you a heads up on potential issues. If there is no time allotted for inspections or required quality control tests, then a whole range of subsequent activities is affected. If there are tasks shown that don't have resources assigned, you have to wonder how long before you will know those resources. As you go through this portion of plan review, you are looking for trends that show planning is not adequate. It is the aggregate of all the issues that will tell you not only that you need help, but also where you need help.

What Partners Offer the Biggest Surprises?

The chances are when you are doing a project that doesn't require subcontractors, then you’ll find the scope and requirements more fitting for a lone superintendent. The larger the roster of subcontractors though, the greater your time requirements.

In an ideal world, the subcontractors on the job will have and maintain the appropriate insurance coverages throughout the project. They will astutely manage their aspect of the project and will deliver the quality called for by the design documents. But, when those things don't happen, your job just gets bigger and bigger. So before construction kicks off, it's a good idea to review the subcontractor roster and look for potential issues. To do this, start with the known. Review each subcontractor based on what you already know about them. Assuming you have worked on other projects with them, you already have an idea of how they operate, their skill levels, their flexibility, the typical level of quality they deliver, and their adaptability to changing work requirements.

When you consider their abilities relative to the plan reviews you've already done, you can see how they are most likely going to perform on the project. You can also assess potential issues that could arise.

If the subcontractors are unknown to you, then rely on other sources of information. Other people in your company, material suppliers, people you know in construction circles, are all potential sources of information that can help you understand the subcontractors’ abilities.

Perhaps You’ve Been Too Optimistic in Your “Super” Expectations.

Once you have done all of your early assessments and you view your research in its entirety, you will have a good idea as to whether the project is something you can handle alone, or if it’s one where you will need help. There are two other critical pieces of information you will also have at this point. You will know where you need help, and you will have the evidence that you need help.

As you lay out your reasons to management, you can point out where you found your workload unrealistic. That's not to say things can’t change once construction gets underway. In fact, you may even find that once early problems are resolved, many of the later issues you identified will evaporate. Giving management an early heads up will not only demonstrate that you understand the project, but that you also understand your own capabilities.

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