When the staff of Inside Self-Storage contacted me about an article for this issue, I was asked if I would be interested in addressing the topic, “Selecting a General Contractor.” My answer was, “yes and no.”
If you’re going to build a self-storage site, yes, you will need a general contractor (GC). However, this role seems to be ever-changing in our particular industry. More and more, I see facility owners acting as their own GC or construction manager, or putting together some other form of design-build team. The end goal, of course, is to save time and money.
I have been involved in some very successful design-build projects, and I have seen some disasters. What makes the difference? I hate to sound cliché, but the simple answer is cliché: Coordination and planning on the front end. Therefore, a more fitting topic for this issue is “Coordinating a Design-Build Team,” with emphasis on the word team.
What’s Your Problem?
In construction, there are always going to be problems—you can count on it. The difference between “good” and “bad” contractors, subcontractors and suppliers is how they respond to them. The obvious challenge is to eliminate as many of these potential obstacles in the beginning as possible, which is not always easy to do.
There are some issues that seem to show up in construction projects again and again. This article gives me the opportunity to discuss some reoccurring problems that cost all of us time and money. More important, these are some items you can add to your checklist when coordinating with your design-build team.
In the Beginning
To understand today’s construction environment, we must first take a quick look at the traditional role of the general contractor. In the beginning, all that was created came from the architect. He and his engineering team would put together the “bid documents.” These consisted of a very large, very detailed set of plans along with a thick specification book. Every material to be used was specified in detail, including application, testing and warranties. Plans, elevations and details were drawn for every aspect of the project—site work, concrete, steel, finishes, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, etc. Usually, approximately half of the specification book was boiler plate. This section dealt with insurance requirements, billing procedures, change orders, arbitration of disputes, etc.
Why all of the fuss? It was an open-bid environment; these documents would be distributed to anyone and everyone who might be interested in submitting a bid for a project. Suppliers and subcontractors would submit their bids to the participating GCs. These contractors added up all of these bids, put together a total project price, and submitted their bids to the architect. The GC who had made a mistake or left something out had the low bid and was awarded a contract (insert sarcasm here).
The bid documents then became the “contract documents.” These were considered part of the contract between the owner and the contractor, the contractor and his subs, the subs and their suppliers. It was the architect’s job to ensure these plans and specifications were strictly adhered to throughout the project. The architect was in total control from start to finish; everyone, including the GC, answered to him. While this can be a lengthy and costly process, it was designed to relieve the burden of liability from the owner—hence, the detailed plans, specifications and rigid structure of hierarchy.
Take Me to Your Leader
The design-build and construction-management processes can be set up in a variety of ways. In most, the GC takes on the leadership responsibilities. He will select and coordinate the architectural and engineering team. He will hand select subcontractors and suppliers to submit pricing, and even participate in the selection of materials and the design of the project.
Plans and specifications for this process can be less detailed than what would be required for the open-bid situation. The entire team takes on more responsibility and “ownership.” However, the owner takes on more of the liability and risk to ensure he is getting what he paid for. He will also have to take a more active role in job-site visits, scheduling, billings, etc. This can save time and money. The question is how much of his time and resources can the owner commit?
The key is a lot of homework, and even more planning. The amount of time spent on coordination before a shovel of dirt is ever turned will determine the level of success of any building project. The following is a “short list” of issues that seem to come up time and again. These are a good start for a project checklist.
First Things First
How local building officials rate the “occupancy” of your buildings is going to determine everything from the number of parking spaces to the location of firewalls and fire-sprinkler requirements. From the very beginning, it is crucial your architect and/or engineer work with these building officials to show them these are not “occupied” buildings. The tendency is to rate self-storage buildings the same as a retail building or office complex. But these are storage buildings; they are not occupied by the number of people or for the periods of time as other types of buildings.
Often times, zoning or other factors may affect the occupancy rating, and building officials simply will not budge. However, it is most certainly worth pursuing to get them to reconsider your occupancy. If an apartment, office or retail area is involved, firewalls can be used as “occupancy separations.” This will allow for the occupied areas to be rated separately from the storage areas.
It’s My Party
Every subcontractor on your project thinks his part of the work is vastly more important than all of the others and everything must revolve around his schedule and requirements. Without proper coordination, one subcontractor can dominate a project, and his work can get in the way of or adversely affect everyone else. I have seen trades create chaos and cause changes to the work of others, which, in the end, costs the owner money.
Earth to Owner
When laying out a storage facility, the goal is to get as many square feet as possible on a piece of property. Many times, the slope of the property is not taken into consideration, and the buildings are situated against the natural drainage pattern. It is much less costly to rearrange the buildings than it is to rearrange the shape of the earth. Simply evaluate the cost of the dirt work compared to the resulting increase or decrease in rentable square feet.
When building a project in phases, always consider if there are some things that can be done now that will save time and money on the next phase. More important, consider what you might be doing that is going to cause problems later. Don’t paint yourself into a proverbial corner. For example, ask your electrical and security subcontractors what new innovations may be coming in the near future, or what upgrades you may want to consider that you can run the underground conduit for now. Or you may want to grade, compact and secure the entire site to allow for boat and RV storage until such time you are ready for the next phase.
Set in Stone
Most metal-building suppliers will provide certified concrete and footing design along with their steel shop drawings. If an outside engineer who is not familiar with storage buildings—especially “stick framed”systems—designs the concrete based on conventional steel construction, you can end up with a lot of concrete.
If your building supplier does provide concrete and footing design, verify that local requirements or a local inspector does not require something above and beyond what is required by the governing code. If your engineer is providing concrete and footing design, be sure he is familiar with standard details for sheeting notches and recesses for the roll-up doors.
The Reinvented Wheel
Involve your building supplier during the planning stages. Building suppliers will provide complete, certified steel shop drawings as a part of their packages. These drawings can be included with the architect’s and engineer’s drawings to be submitted for permit. If your architect or engineer comes up with his own building-framing design, materials and layout, and a building permit is issued per these plans, the building supplier either has to revise his system to conform to this design or the supplier’s drawings will have to be resubmitted for approval. It is always less expensive to go with the suppliers’ standard materials and details.
It’s Not a Leak
Metal-roof panels will condensate. During freeze-thaw cycles, in humid environments and during a rain, condensate will form on the bottom side of metal-roof panels. A simple (and inexpensive), vinyl-faced fiberglass blanket under the roof panel will eliminate this problem.
Your Ducts in a Row
A common conflict developers run into is having to adjust soffit-system heights for airhandling units and duct. To save time, many mechanical contractors will build the ductwork off site. Often times, purlin depth, soffit framing, electrical conduit or sprinkler systems are not accounted for when the size of the duct is determined. Or the size and location of the air-handling units vs. the height of the soffit is not taken into consideration. Yes, it is a problem to lower the soffit after the system is on site. Also consider where you are going to locate the air-conditioning condensing units.
I was recently involved in a project where the fire-sprinkler system was not clearly laid out prior to construction, and the fire-sprinkler subcontractor was given free reign. I received a call from the owner, informing me the buildings were too short. I quickly referred to the plans and confirmed the building heights were correct. I asked why the height was a problem, and the owner said he could bump his head on the sprinkler pipes. When I arrived at the job, I found a complicated maze of sprinkler pipes crossing the buildings in every direction. These pipes penetrated almost every unit partition, and large holes had even been cut through the hallway and door-filler panels. There was nothing I could do at that point, and the next call from the owner was to ask, “Where am I supposed to run the AC ducts with these sprinkler pipes everywhere?”
Simple, complete plans and coordination with the sprinkler, mechanical and building subcontractors prior to construction could have eliminated this problem.
Shocking, Isn’t It?
Where are you going to locate the electrical- service panels? Remind your electrician the conduit will remain exposed. It does not take much effort to run conduit in a straight and orderly fashion rather than crisscrossed inside the hallways and units. Keep the exposed conduit out of the hallways whenever possible.
Have your electrician and security-system installer coordinate all of the underground work required. You would be surprised how many times new concrete gets cut to install underground conduit or other underground lines.
To Name a Few
These are just some current issues that come to mind. Most, if not all, of these problems can be avoided by planning and communication on the front end of a project. Have all of your subcontractors and suppliers communicate with each other to coordinate their work. Get all of this information on a set of plans. Remember, these plans are your contract, so “get it in writing.”
As you see, planning and coordination is not always as simple as it sounds, especially in construction. If you do not communicate, to quote Rabbi Bob Cohen, “all that you are doing is nothing.”
L. Bruce McCardle is the Eastern division manager for Mako Steel Inc., a supplier and installer of storage buildings from coast to coast. Mako focuses on “building relationships,” with more than 80 percent of its business coming from repeat customers or their referrals. Mr. McCardle enjoys working with first-time facility builders from design through grand opening. He has been involved in almost every aspect of the metal-building and construction industry for more than 20 years. Look for his presentation at the upcoming ISS expo in New Orleans. He can be contacted at 888.795.7594.