a creative cost-effective concept for medium-sized construction projects

Project Management in Action


Thomas Eckert

Partnering, which brings together all parties at a project's inception and creates synergies that benefit everyone involved, will become more and more prevalent in the 1990s. It is the solution for meeting today's special challenges of maintaining quality, cost-effectiveness and flexibility. Partnering also can be as effective for medium-sized construction jobs as it is for those with large budgets.

A case in point is a recent successful project in the Capital Region of New York State, made possible through partnering of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Rensselaer); She-pley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, a Boston-based architectural firm; and MLB Industries, a construction management company from Upstate New York that had demonstrated the benefits of a partnering interrelationship with Rensselaer on a previous project.

Rensselaer, world-renowned for its science and engineering programs, hired MLB in 1987 for work on the Quadrangle Dormitories on its Troy, New York, campus. The positive experience of meeting scheduled milestones and fulfilling commitments on the student housing project created a level of confidence between constructor and client that led to development of the partnering approach for another significant campus undertaking. The college's Cogswell Laboratories, vital to the institution's research operations and graduate-level instruction programs, had to be renovated and modernized.

It is a three-story chemistry laboratory with approximately 79,138 gross square feet of space for research and classroom activities. The HVAC system is designed to use 100 percent outside air supply, which, in turn, is totally exhausted through the laboratory fans. The capacity of this system was moved from 95,000 CFM ro 125,000 CFM in addition to substantial renovations and modifications.

Before new construction, the building was handling approximately 95,000 CFM. The original steam absorption chiller was rated at approximately 670 tons. Low-pressure face and bypass heat coils were in use, along with a separate hot water reheat system.

Rensselaer turned to MLB and a partnering approach because the $3.5 million, 15-month project presented some particularly difficult challenges: keeping the chemistry labs fully operational throughout the renovation and addressing special concerns for replacing its major ventilating, heating and air conditioning components all within one calendar year. Timetables for specific work had to be precise to avoid disruption of research or teaching activities.


Considerations such as these had to be resolved before beginning the design in April 1990. Thus, Rensselaer officials, along with the architect and MLB, established a partnering relationship to concentrate on meeting budget and schedule constraints that required mutual understanding and effort.

The major challenge was to undertake the renovation without interrupting the research under way in the laboratory. The lab is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is used by 135 students and faculty members. Acceptable temperatures and air flow had to be maintained throughout the construction.

Among the most difficult tasks was upgrading the lab's HVAC system while keeping the supply and exhaust fans operating, involving structurally relocating fans to a temporary position on the roof while installing the new system. This was achieved by scheduling the work over Thanksgiving vacation, as suggested by the school's dean, when work in the building would be at its lowest level during this brief period. The following summer, the facility was shut down for two weeks for installation of nine new fans, stacks, coils, and filters, and rehab the existing equipment that was not being replaced.

These challenges would not have been effectively met without all parties coming together and working out potential problems in the early design stages. As an owner/client with unique needs, Rensselaer was aware of its role of being closely involved in decision-making and problem-solving, particularly regarding the need to integrate work schedules with seasonal demands of the building and the scientific activity of its occupants. For example, since construction began in the fall, everyone concentrated on designing, purchasing and installing the cooling system so that it would be operational by spring. This took precedence over the heating system, which would come later.

With partnering, all parties agree-at the outset-on their individual roles and how they will interact. The commitment must come from the management level. Monthly meetings among the principals, with reports from the field representatives, kept everyone informed, including the occupants. All were aware of the job's status and anticipated problems that might need immediate attention.

Partnering allowed Rensselaer to effectively continue the building's operations and proceed on schedule with contracted research. MLB's construction work could not interfere with long-term research agreements, existing grants or previously established deadlines. Dealing with the researchers on a daily basis became a significant part of the effort by MLB's project managers to maintain project momentum.

Involvement by the Institute's planning and facilities officials and the chairman of the chemistry department were important to the partnering process. Portions of the laboratory had to be vacated for short periods of time. It was important that the department chairman participate, along with the occupants and relevant contractors, in decisions on the room-by-room work schedule. When necessary, the work sequence was adapted to accommodate researchers.

There were numerous meetings before the renovation began. This was both cost-effective and invaluable to good working relationships throughout the project. It was, the client estimates, successfully completed almost $250,000 under budget, even though the owner was able to add scope to the project within the initial budget and time agreements.

Because partnering relies, more than anything else, on the use of common sense and a commitment to working together, communication among all interested parties is enhanced, resulting in significant savings in costs associated with labor time spent waiting for answers or materials that required lead-time scheduling. Shop drawing reviews were handled on a priority basis and, when appropriate, discussed at joint meetings.

Also, claims and litigation were avoided. Too often, owners, designers, contractors and subcontractors wind up in disagreements that can turn what should be a cooperative venture into a nightmare. Sadly, parties end up entangled in lawsuits, rather than celebrating the outcome of their hard work. By emphasizing the milestones as critical to all participants, disputes were handled expeditiously and with greater good faith effort by all parties.

An interesting sidelight of the Rensselaer project was the high level of confidence established between the college researchers and the contractors. This was accomplished by achieving early milestones in a professional manner and keeping the building at a comfortable temperature and air flow range.

Subcontractors also find partnering effective. William Tougher of Tougher Industries, the mechanical subcontractor on the Cogswell project, hailed “the trust that was developed among everyone involved.”

Tougher reviewed with the owner, architect and construction manager the exact pros and cons of different pieces of equipment and different engineering designs. “We discussed openly and decided as a team, knowing what the cost impact would be to all involved. In the end, it's nice to know that you were a partner in the overall success of the project, that you contributed and that you are recognized for your effort,” Mr. Tougher explained.

Partnering is a process that continues throughout a project. The effectiveness of the process is reviewed and evaluated periodically by all participants-not just the contractor or owner. Evaluation can be in periodic written form, through regular meetings of the key players and periodic executive meetings.

Above all, partnering helped maintain the important milestones in the Rensselaer project, despite some obstacles, any of which might otherwise have derailed it. For example, the MLB construction manager suffered a heart attack, Rensselaer's contract manager passed away and a mechanical trades strike of 11 weeks occurred at the height of the renovation during the summer months.

With the construction industry facing formidable challenges in the 1990s, partnering should be an important concept. While it may be appropriate for all projects, those with special needs are particularly well suited for partnering.

As more owners realize partnering benefits-earlier starts, flexibility, greater involvement, ability to shape work to unique needs-they will insist on its use.

As more constructors appreciate the opportunities from teamwork, reduced risk, ability to maintain a mix of negotiated and lump-sum work and related benefits, they will encourage the concept. Their participation up-front with the designer and owner to solve construction problems saves everyone involved time and money.

As architects and all other parties acknowledge the positive aspects of shared goals and objectives, commitment of principals and improved allocation of resources inherent in partnering, the industry will be better served.

Partnering has been proven successful in major projects. However, its application for medium-sized jobs—such as Rensselaer's chemistry labs-demonstrates its potential for enhancing the entire construction industry in the coming years.

For the economically uncertain, quality-conscious 1990s, partnering is a concept whose time has come.

Note: This article is a modification of one originally written with Oliver S. Holmes, P.E., associate director of facilities planning and design for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; and Oliver Egleston, A.I.A., a principal in the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott. ❑

PMNETwork • September 1994



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