How to create productive working relationships

Understanding how to properly communicate with decision-makers is key to a successful building project.

By Richard D. Miller, PE, LEED AP BD+C, FASHRAE December 19, 2017

In 1930, a major construction project was started on the island of Manhattan in New York City. It was completed in 1 year and 45 days later, which was ahead of schedule. The reported height of the building to its tip is usually given as 1,250 ft (not including the lightning rod). It took 57,000 tons of steel to construct the steel skeleton. The building has 6,500 windows, more than 100 floors, and at peak times, as many as 3,400 workers at one time. The total cost of this iconic building—the Empire State Building, if you haven’t already guessed—was approximately $24 million. 

The question is how was it possible to complete a project of this magnitude in little over a year? Perfectly issued construction documents? Not likely. Mobile phones? Not in 1930. Internet access? No such thing. It wasn’t around yet.

The answer may lie in an old photograph showing the contractor’s general superintendent next to the project’s structural engineer in the field office as they stood over an inclined work table covered with drawings. It is pretty obvious from the photo they were heavily engaged in conversation rather than just shooting the breeze. This is the first step to a project’s success: communication.

All the technological tools that are available now provide incredible benefits in the construction industry. But getting out in the field and meeting one-on-one with the constructors of a project is vital and invaluable to the project’s success.

Improving the line of communication

Consider a scenario with a contractor and consultant. Solving an issue via mobile, text, or email isn’t the best solution—going out to the job site is.

There is no 

good substitute for visiting the site and walking the project with the field engineer, general superintendent, and/or the subcontractor’s project representative and discussing the construction problems that inevitably come up. Interferences, substitutions, the inspector’s notices of correction, and value-engineering options are just a few of the many different matters that are best talked out and viewed in the field.

Here are three tips for fostering a more productive working relationship with the contractor that can contribute to achieving a successful project.

  1. Upon request for input in a matter dealing with field issues, volunteer to visit the site and meet with the contractor’s personnel who are involved with the issue.
  2. Encourage field staffing to offer recommendations to resolve any construction problems. This input may result in a low-cost or no-cost change order.
  3. Reiterate your willingness to visit the site on an as-needed basis and commitment to work with the contractor’s field people to meet the mutual goal of satisfying the owner’s expectations for the project.

Pesky change order requests add dollars to the project and make for an unhappy client. There is a much better chance of reducing the cost or eliminating a change order via a site visit, where you can talk it out and work it out in the field.

Get out in the field, walk through the project, and talk out the issues with those constructing the project. The more communication and collaboration there is with the contractor, the better. By taking the initiative of going onsite and collaborating with everyone involved with the project, you can improve the process and the ultimate outcome.

Richard D. Miller is a construction-engineering consultant in Las Vegas. His expertise is in the design, construction, and management of projects within private and public sectors.