Timing Your Construction Project

As with many things in life, the timing of your construction project can be critical to its success. Construction tends to be a seasonally-driven industry, with the prevailing goal being to avoid breaking ground during the winter rainy season. This is not a hard-and-fast rule of course – there are notable exceptions which we will discuss. To best understand the ins-and-outs of project scheduling, this article will outline the design process, from selecting your design team, to how permit processing can impact your project schedule, to ball-parking how long it takes to build a construction project.

When Should You Start Designing Your Project?
In order to understand the factors impacting the timing of your project its necessary to understand the steps necessary to the process. From start to finish, the process of designing and building a project sorts into the following discrete phases:

  1. Predesign Phase: initial activities including regulatory research, defining project goals and objectives, and project team formation.
  2. Schematic Design Phase: conceptualize and develop the building design schematically.
    Construction Documents: prepare the drawings and specifications detailing the requirements for construction.
  3. Permit Processing: submit, process, and obtain required regulatory approvals.
  4. Contractor selection: the process of letting the project to bid and negotiating the contract for construction.
  5. Construction Phase: breaking ground, constructing the project, and achieving your occupancy permit.

For larger projects, or if your permit processing requires lengthy planning reviews, you’re best off starting in mid-to-late fall so you can break ground near the beginning of the following construction season (i.e. mid-April / early May). For smaller additions and/or exterior alterations, you can get away with starting in the late fall or even well into winter and still be on track to make the construction season.

For clients contemplating to break ground on a completely new house, or more complex projects e.g. net-zero energy or green-certified remodels in mind, you should plan about one year (on average) for all the design, planning, approvals, and contract negotiations. Therefore, starting in the summer or earlier in the year is ideal.

Project which don’t involve the exterior building envelope (i.e. don’t compromise the weather-tightness of the building) – a bathroom, kitchen remodel, or an all-interior remodel – are impervious to weather impacts and so will be able to start any time of the year without adverse consequences.

Finally, even if you are contemplating a major project and your timing turns out to be out-of-sync with the seasons, you still have the option of designing your project, obtaining permits, and then sitting out the rainy season. This put you in the position of having “crossed all your t’s” and “dotted all your i’s” up to a full year in advance of breaking ground, and doing so while proceeding at a more measured and less stressful pace.

When Should You Break Ground on Your Project?
No matter when you start your planning, it will be lowest-risk for you to break ground and proceed with construction during the appropriate of year. In particular, starting additions which compromise the exterior envelope during the rainy season never optimal and can be downright problematic. You’ll want your house to be water-tight before the rains come. It’s better to get an early start on the design process by selecting your architect earlier rather than later, setting a relaxed, stress-free schedule for the design process, and then starting construction the following year than it is to break ground during the rainy season. Although in some years the winter rains hold off until mid-winter and even into January, one never knows what will happen, and you do not want to rely on luck. So it is highly recommended to observe the traditional San Francisco/ Monterey Bay Area construction season.

Choosing Your Team
Getting the right team together is the first thing you should do. Architect selection is usually the first order of business, followed by engagement with other consultants necessary to the project including surveyor, civil engineer, structural engineer, etc. depending on the specifics of your project. Bringing a contractor onto the team early-on has decided benefits, especially in the arena of cost-control. If you already have a trusted, capable contractor they would be the entity to complete your team. If you don’t, your architect will be capable to provide you a referral to a reliable candidate.

The Design Process
In parallel with assembling your team, in the case of a remodel one the architect’s first activities to measure your house. This is called the Existing Conditions (or As-Builts) phase. After the Existing Conditions are captured, the design can begin in earnest. This is the Conceptual Design Phase. At this stage your architect will be working on the flow of the building, the admission of light, connection to nature, the massing, and the preliminary proportioning, composition, and materiality. Once you’ve reviewed a few conceptual designs, the architect will invite your honest criticism and feedback. Providing clear direction about what you like, don’t like, and would like to add helps move your design forward efficiently. The objective is to get going in the right direction, based on informed decisions, from the get-go. It’s relatively easy to change the designs early in the process; changes get progressively harder as the design process progresses.

Once everyone has agreed on a single design the Schematic Design Phase can initiate, followed by what are known as Design Development and Construction Documents Phases. From the initiation of schematics the duration of the design process will vary significantly between projects. Some projects can go from start to contractor bidding in 6 weeks, while others can take 6 months. Larger and more complicated projects – for example, those needing coastal zone approvals – can take much longer, perhaps on the order of 12-18 months or more.

Regulatory Approval Process
The permit process sorts into two phases, Planning Approval and Building Approval.

A separate Planning Department review may or may not be called for, depending on project specifics. For example, a relatively small remodel may not trigger Planning review. Conversely, even a minor remodel in, say, the coastal zone, an environmentally sensitive area, or a visual corridor can trigger a separate Planning review. If so, given that it may add significant time to the production schedule, it is important for the architect to identify this potential very early in the process and plan your production schedule accordingly.

Once the Planning Department approves the project, the Building Department also needs to review your design for conformance to the building codes. They also usually distribute your plan sets to other departments e.g. Public Works, the Fire Department, the Environmental Health Department, etc. Depending on the project and the jurisdiction, your building approval can be as quick as over-the-counter (instant approval) or as lengthy as 4-6 weeks for the first round of comments. Each member of your project team (e.g. your structural engineer and architect) will respond to their comments in timely manner and re-submit to the Building Department for what is hopefully their final review and approval after which you will be notified that your permit is ready to issue.

Entering into a Construction Contract
Once the drawings are at the appropriate level of completeness for your project, contractors will need anywhere from 3-4 weeks to create accurate fixed-price bids, or maybe a bit longer for a complex new house project. This is true whether you’re competitively bidding the project or just asking one contractor to bid. You’ll probably spend another couple of weeks agreeing on a contract and signing it. This can be done along-side of project design and documentation if you enter into a negotiated situation with a contractor instead of bidding the project competitively once drawings and specifications are complete.

Actual Construction
Construction time varies significantly depending on the project. A kitchen replacement might be done in as little as 3-6 weeks, an extensive remodel/addition could take 4-6 months (or longer if the project is extensive). Variables include the contractor’s ability to schedule your project balanced against other projects on his/her calendar, the ability of his/her subcontractors to commit to the project, and even what season of the year the project is being built (since weather can impact the construction schedule). Construction scheduling is an art and science unto itself, and formally is managed solely by the contractor. For this reason the construction schedule is usually referred to as the “Contractor’s Schedule”. It’s often set up using a Gantt chart or other scheduling software, and done in advance of actual construction so that the Contractor can organize and manage the construction process responsibly.

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