Construction project database for proposal preparation
Fred W. Lacerda.Jr., Modern Continental Construction Co., Inc.
The Reasons Why
Submission of unimpeachable qualifications for design/build competitions can normally be described only as an extremely time consuming and, most often than not, very fast track to boot. Most of the time, unfortunately, that should be devoted to the technical approach of a given proposal is spent throughout the organization in a perpetual chase after project information, which may not be readily available once projects are completed and archived. Many firms do not realize until later, to their dismay, that, in presenting data to potential clients who go to the trouble of checking all references and information presented, failure to present enough of the required project data or less than superior quality control can significantly undermine their competitive advantage in pursuing new projects. Many clients, on the other hand, do not seem to realize that they may be requesting much more information than they arguably require to make an informed decision about a proponent’s ability to deliver the required product.
At Modern Continental (“Modern Continental”), a Cambridge, Mass. group specializing in heavy construction, transportation, and real estate (in the U.S. as well as in a couple of overseas locations), experiencing explosive growth, we struggle continuously to provide the best possible information about projects under oftentimes very short timetables. The disparity of requirements can be found within any industry ranging from public transportation and infrastructure to private real estate. Sometimes the differences in requirements are very small, sometimes not, for certain categories of information. Or we may be required, at times, to present information on projects more than 20 years old about which very little technical information may be readily available in a few days’ notice. Another client (a foreign public agency, for instance) will accept nothing short of an extraordinarily detailed notice of completion by the client of a given project, duly notarized either at their consulate or embassy. And then there is the issue of terminology, not always crystal clear either in English or in another language.
This is not a call for global standardization of project data collection and reporting, but rather an acknowledgement that there will always be opportunities for improvement in proposal preparations to improve on what we do best: actually deliver the best construction value for the client. But to get there, we first have to show qualifications and submit a cost proposal. (It is beyond the scope of this paper the impact of different cost bid formats—low bid vs. best value, etc.—on proposal preparation or project data collection.) The objective of this paper is simply to discuss more effective preparation of proposal qualifications, which normally comprise from 60 to 90% of qualification packages.
A secondary, but by no means less important, objective of this document is to instill a sense of the importance of keeping handy a minimum of accurate, up-to-date information about projects, for those times when there will be a crunch to get a proposal off the ground. Time is of the essence when preparing for a design/build submission. The last thing needed is to waste time and effort chasing after project information instead of writing about the technical approach necessary. Having solid project information behind them can give proposers the confidence that the message about their capabilities will come across much more easily. And that, in the end, can mean all the difference in convincing a potential client to award you a new job.
This paper argues for the adoption of a basic set of standards for summary data reporting on construction projects to expedite the preparation of qualifications, particularly for design/build project proposals. Particularly for governmental entities, a standard set of specifications for project description could ensure much better and consistent proposals than those responding to the multiple “wheel re-invention” exercises that characterize so many requests for qualifications (“RFQ”) or requests for proposals (“RFP”).
The database in question is the quintessential work in progress. These notes are a direct outgrowth of user notes prepared over the past year to help expedite updating of underlying information and to encourage others to learn about the database and adapt it, particular its reports, to their own needs. Most of the cost and schedule data come from monthly cost-to-complete reports prepared by many others in the Company. There is very little originality in the concept of such a database; all the effort to date has been concentrated on making it a more useful, responsive tool to our needs in the design/build group and to other divisions of the Company involved in business development and qualifications for bidding.
The database will have been even more generously tweaked by the time this paper is presented, but its major components have firmed in place and withstood over 100 proposal preparations in the previous two years. It started several years ago as a spreadsheet, morphed into a basic flat file and evolved into a larger hybrid relational/flat file developed in MS Access (any other relational database program such as Paradox or FileMaker would have done quite as well). Although project photos and larger document files are stored separately, we have been experimenting over more than a year with web-based collaboration software programs and are in the process of porting both the database and all its supporting files to a dedicated intranet web site.
Exhibit 1. Sample Screen for Basic Information Tab
Based on recent proposal preparation experience over the last two years, seven blocks of information seem to be the minimum necessary for basic project listings:
• Identification (name, location, contract numbers)
• Costs (initial, current, and final contract values)
• Changes (full listing, types, reasons)
• Schedule (start, current end, and final end dates)
• References (owner, owner’s project manager, designers, etc.)
• Work categories (from yes/no types to synoptic descriptions)
• Statistics (quantities associated with particular work categories).
Some clients may request a greater level of detail for particular projects, in which case more information may be needed to explain cost and schedule performance, team composition and structure, and a host of additional questions centering particularly on Safety records (prepared by a separate division of the company and outside the scope of the present database, which is not to deny the vital importance of such data for project procurement). Other requests may range from Constraints and achievements (what makes the project particularly challenging or noteworthy for selection) to Commissioning process (for governmental contracts), and Performance evaluations (if any).
The following section presents a detailed discussion of how a business development group can keep track of project data for the first seven groups above. In the main database form, for each record, each group is displayed in one or two tabs, or pages, with an average of ten to twelve fields of information per tab. (Exhibits 1 through 4 present sample screen displays of such tabs.)
Assembling the Puzzle
There are about five numbers tracked in this database, of which the client assigns only two. The first of these two is the contract number, sometimes referred to as project number, but which specifically identifies the construction contract between owner and contractor. The second number is a project number in case the contract is only one among several packages comprising a larger whole. In the case of the Central Artery/Tunnel project in Boston, Mass., a project such as “C-17A2” is the overall umbrella for several contracts, including one for design and one for construction. In the case of C17A2, the construction contract number is “95430.”
Of the other three numbers, the MC Project Number is assigned by Estimating or Accounting, another is set for Marketing purposes, and, lastly, one number is generated for database purposes. The latter is based on a year-first format (to facilitate sorting by date), followed by the same sequence within any given year as that of the MC number; and also including more information into it such as company division (not covered by the MC number).
Exhibit 2. Sample Screen for Project Changes Tab
The actual name used in the database may be the same as indicated in a RFP or RFQ or Notice to Bidders form or, quite possibly, changed to reflect more details from the scope of work that could better characterize the work. The project names below were changed to reflect the more detailed description of the work in their respective Notice to Bidders sheet:
• International Gateway—Terminal E Upgrade—Logan International Airport
• South Boston Piers Transitway Tunnel Construction at Russia Wharf and Fort Point Channel.
Among notable contracts MC has been awarded, several are part of a single project subdivided in smaller contracts: e.g., Central Artery/Tunnel or Boston Harbor projects, to name but two. It is important at times to know exactly the client’s project name under which a contract is awarded, because to the outside world it will be oftentimes the key reference remembered. Regarding job locations, if work is done in a particular neighborhood, distinct enough to have its own post office denomination (e.g., East Boston, Dorchester, all technically part of the City of Boston), then use that neighborhood as the Location of the work. For State (or province), use abbreviations whenever possible.
In terms of contract amounts, the basic information required almost 90% of the time is the Initial Contract Amount (as of Notice to Proceed [“NTP”] date), the Current Contract Amount (as well as the date such information was obtained), and Percentage of Work Complete (as a function of earned revenue). Other information collected, as appropriate, is the Contract Type, Final Contract Amount (after project closeout), Subcontracts (total or percentage of initial contract or current, as the case may be, indicate which one), Contractor Status (whether our company is a prime, sub, or joint venture entity in the project), Joint Venture Share (indicating MC’s share of the work; e.g., 50%), and Self-Performance (indicating MC’s percentage of work self-performed).
Changes to Contract
There are many ways to slice this particular onion, and this one is a particularly tricky one, necessitating extra care and practically a paper all to itself to cope with it. Individual jobs will have different, oftentimes much more detailed breakdowns, but for proposal preparation purposes the following fields should be more than sufficient. The first field is for Time and Materials Amount, followed by Potential Claims Number and Potential Claims Amount, and by Approved Contract Modifications Number (sometimes also referred simply as change orders) and Approv. Contr. Mod. Amount. Also included are Issues/Dispute Resolution Number and Issues/Dispute Resolution Amount, as well as the Status of Dispute Resolution Items.
Dates needed start, not surprisingly, with the Start Date Scheduled (which may or not coincide with NTP), followed by the effective Start Date (for all practical purposes, the NTP date), Completion Date Original (as set in original contract), Completion Date Forecast (most current estimate of completion date available) and Completion Date Effective (substantial completion date). Also necessary are the Original Contract Duration, Approved Time Extensions, and Total Contract Time, all in number of days, as well as the Duration Day type (five-day per week, etc.).
Exhibit 3. Sample Screen for Project Schedule Tab
The name of the game in technical qualifications, at least in the U.S., is references, references, and references. Some prospective clients will indeed call a very great number of references listed. It is absolutely critical that names and phone numbers be as up-to-date as possible; clients must not have any difficulty reaching any name listed as a possible contact.
Proposers should always ensure that their records are never more than two or three months old for key project references, particularly from owners. To be on the safe side, we’ll call routinely all references as we finalize proposal forms to verify if phone numbers are still valid. Owner references are asked more than 95% of the time, followed by designer and contractor references at roughly 10% of the time each. The groupings below correspond to tabs in the main database form.
All of those tabs will have basically the same type of fields: entity name and address, as well as contact name, title/position, telephone and fax, and contact address (if in a field office, for instance, different from the main address above). Some tabs, such as for project owners, will have all indicated fields. Others, such as the construction manager tab, may have only the entity name, contact name and telephone in it.
• Owner (all fields above; for the key project manager during construction or overall construction management overseer)
• Client (almost always the same as owner; left blank if this is the case)
• Construction manager (for internal convenience only; never asked for in any of our recent proposals)
• Designer (all fields above for lead designer or joint venture responsible for the project, represented by either the project manager overseeing the project)
• General contractor (rarely asked for; for other proposers, this tab can be as detailed as the owner tab).
We also keep a separate tab, MC Info, for purely internal information useful to track more data about the project. Key company personnel involved in the project is listed in this section, starting with the particular division of the company doing the work, to the vice president overseeing the project, project managers and job superintendents, as well as other team members (cost and schedule engineers, etc.). Phone numbers and specific job site locations are also included. Subcontractor and consultant listings should be also included, if possible, to strengthen write-ups on team member’s previous experience in working together. It is always useful to point out with certainty—and quickly—if, and how many times, a subcontractor or consultant has worked with us.
These tabs are the main project description and classification section of the database, consisting of general, descriptive work category fields (short, medium, and long sizes, roughly 250,500, and 1,500 words long maximum) and of many (over 30) yes/no category fields. The Work Category field is simply a listing (without any verbs or adjectives; keeping it simple and clear) of key points of the work completed or to be done. It should have 200-250 words maximum. The Long Island Expressway (I-495) Rehabilitation job, for instance, was summarized as:
Exhibit 4. Sample Screen for Work Categories Tab
“Rebuilding of 22 bridges, superstructure replacement w/ prefab units (12,600 SM); deck replacement (6,200 SM); full-depth concrete pavement (110,000 SM); asphalt overlay (80,000 SM); sound barriers, utilities, intelligent transportation systems (ITS).”
The other category fields include over 30 category types most useful to summarize our general work experience. They are especially handy for larger, summary presentation spreadsheets derived from the database. Work Scope is a field extracted directly from a RFP or from a Notice to Bidders. This will be, oftentimes, the only material available for elaboration of project fact sheets, either general or proposal-specific. Short Project Description (at around 450-500 words) is generally a rewrite of the work scope to fit most project descriptions for proposals or fact sheets. Long Project Descriptions (at 1,000-1,500 words) have been prepared for a couple of dozen projects where clients required a greater level of detail.
This is perhaps one the most important groupings of information, among the most difficult to gather, but critical for several of our competitions. Recently, for instance, a Notice to Bidders requested experience with cable-stayed bridge construction with a minimum span of400 feet, or balance cantilevered pre-cast seg-mental bridges with minimum spans of 120 feet. Unless we can verify precisely and quickly how much of a particular kind of work we do in our jobs, we cannot provide timely responses to potential partners or other MC teams bidding for new work.
Most types of work have their own set of statistics. At this point in time, we are beginning to compile separate lists (very much works in progress resembling Swiss cheese ...) reflecting the cumulative request of clients for information about our projects. In case of doubts when collecting information about a project, it is advisable, if one has additional statistics about a job, to provide it. It is better to err on the side of caution, in order to minimize the mad scramble for statistics every time a new bid pre-qualification process starts.
There are a lot of statistics, mainly about materials, that are common to the great majority of heavy civil construction jobs. The most important ones are listed below, with a sample of more specialized ones presented after that.
• Earth Excavated (volume)
• Rock Blasted (volume)
• Rock Drilled (volume)
• Cast-in-Place Concrete (volume)
• Pre-Cast Concrete (volume)
• Steel Installed (weight)
• Road Work (length, area)
• Track Work (length, gauge)
• Tunnel (length, width/diameter)
• Cut/Cover Tunnel (length, width/diameter)
• Utility Pipes (length, diameter)
• Microtunneling (length, diameter)
• New Building Construction (area)
• Building Renovation (area)
• Site Work (area)
For each significant diameter of pipe, the following sewer construction statistics below can be helpful, such as Pipe diameter,Pipe length, Average pipe depth, Pipe purpose (water, sewer, etc.), and River/marine Crossing Length (how much of this pipe is underwater). For microtunneling, we have added the following information to the sewer statistics mentioned: Drive length, Equipment Model, Geotechnical Conditions, Water Level, Dewatering, Jacking Pit Characteristics, Other Conditions and Equipment Used (other equipment).
Spreadsheets with project information are no match for databases with powerful query capabilities. The ease of data search and manipulation of information provided by relational databases is remarkable, but more so for the lack of their use on a daily basis in most of the construction industry, as opposed to other planning tools like CPM network analysis software. To the author’s knowledge, there is no other primary software application (after word processing and spreadsheets) so essential to fast turnaround of proposal information in the form of customized reports and forms. As stated in the beginning, time is of the essence when preparing for a design/build submission; databases are indeed very powerful tools to expedite the process.
Effective use of databases for proposal preparation also involves striking the right balance between the minimum number of fields (around 150, in our case) to permit rapid customization of reports and forms and the difficulty of update the database. With a need to find information on projects going back over twenty years, we had a very difficult time, to put it mildly, to start assembling the basic data that resulted in this database. There are many gaps, admittedly, but they are much less glaring now. Facing very inconsistent requirements from a wide range of project owners in different countries, we are better prepared to quickly customize our responses to them and to save our time for preparation of the technical content of proposals.
Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston,Texas,USA