Challenges Facing Today’s Construction Managers

Published July 22, 2016 by Whirlwind Team


Managing construction is a lot like herding cats. Everything you are responsible for is moving in a different direction, and you need to wrestle it back in line. You have to deal with:

  • Workforce and Labor
  • Safety
  • Time constraints
  • Environmental and other changes

Many of the challenges are a direct result of construction operations, but others are less direct: legal issues, government regulations, environmental concerns, and socio-political pressure.

A successful project meets cost, time, and resource allocation requirements while also meeting quality metrics as the owner defines them. This success depends on managing the many activities required to produce a unique product.

Construction project management tries to achieve this goal through “planned expenditure of resources that meet the project’s quality, cost, time, scope, and safety requirements.” As construction manager, project management is one of your many hats. You are in the ring daily, deflecting, controlling, and mitigating the impact of anything that could block the completion of a successful project.

Let's take a closer look at the specific issues construction managers face.

The changing nature of construction

As areas become more built up and existing structures age, construction includes more retrofitting, rehabilitation, and restoration (aka RRR), in addition to new construction.

RRR brings more risk into the project because you may have no access to as-builts, you must maintain the existing facilities as you work, and you have to integrate the old with the new.

More challenges come from working within an urban environment; utilities must be maintained and surrounding properties protected. Significant service disruptions could drive a construction company into bankruptcy; no pressure there.

Work force challenges

A construction manager must also be a talented people manager. You need the right number of both skilled and unskilled workers who are available at the right time. Skilled labor is particularly difficult to find since fewer young adults join the construction labor force as apprentices or journeymen. Construction has come to seem an undesirable vocation. It's seen as dirty, dangerous, and difficult. Technology work looks a more attractive option.

This leaves the industry depending on unskilled labor and more immigrant or foreign labor, which brings its own risks. There can be language or cultural barrier that increases safety risks through miscommunication.

Time factor challenges

From the owner’s perspective, every day the project is incomplete is a day of lost revenue because ROI is delayed. The result can be a problem with cash flow. Delays also damage client and tenant relations as well as marketing efforts. The situation isn’t helped by the need to make extended interest payments.

As the construction company sees it, delays lead to further overhead costs and cash flow problems that can place significant limits on bonding capacity and the ability to bid more work.

Inefficient time management costs more in labor and equipment; if a company gets a reputation for late completions, fewer owners, laborers, and subs will want to work with it.

Environmental issues

These days it seems there are endless regulations and permitting requirements to enforce and meet to protect all levels of life. Any failure to comply with regulations results in further project delay and even termination. Your company could be disqualified from future work, face fines, civil action or even criminal prosecution.

The construction manager, therefore, must become an expert in the major federal environmental regulations:

That’s just at the federal level; states, counties, and municipalities may have more laws or stricter regulations. The construction manager is responsible for everything from erosion and sedimentation control to hazardous waste disposal, lead paint and asbestos removal, and noise control.

Legally speaking

The construction industry has some of the highest risks for liability and legal issues. Claims and suits have been on the rise for several years.

To clarify, a claim is a request by a contractor for additional compensation or a time extension for an occurrence beyond the contractor’s control. The contractor must prove entitlement and quantify the associated damage.

A change in scope or unexpected site conditions are two typical grounds for a claim, which can take the form of:

  • Delay/disruption
  • Extra work
  • Acceleration
  • Impossibility of performance
  • Defective design
  • Interference

Meanwhile, the industry continues to look for ways to resolve disputes outside the courts through Alternative Dispute Resolution or ADR, including arbitration, negotiation, and mediation.

The construction manager is key to avoiding claims and reducing the need for expensive resolution activity. Critical to claim avoidance are good administrative procedures, open and honest communication, and timely troubleshooting.

Government regulations

As always, the government requires compliance to an alphabet soup of building codes:

  • BOCA - Basic/National Building Code
  • UBC - Uniform Building Code
  • SBC - Standard Building Code
  • IBC - International Building Code, replacing UBC and SBC in 2000
  • NEC - National Electrical Code
  • Life Safety Code by NFPA under ANSI

There are permitting requirements, licensing laws, quality of code administration, and on and on. Delays are caused by waiting for inspections, and red tape runs rampant. But wait, there’s more!

Social and political challenges

These seem to have more impact now than in the past.

Adjacent property owners are crying, “Not in my back yard!” The public wants to weigh in more than ever on any construction planning. Existing businesses and institutions are at odds with construction. Pressure even comes from civic organizations and community groups, which are more highly organized than in years past.

Citizen advisory boards are more engaged during early project initiation, design, and construction. You, the construction manager, are accountable for all of this.

Successfully navigating the future

An excellent construction manager understands:

  • The new reality
  • The need to master obstacles to gain competitive advantage
  • Transforming risk into opportunity
  • The business, legal, and social aspects of construction
  • The applicable laws and ethical practices

A successful construction manager values the employees and avoids or resolves conflict. The construction manager must be a responsible steward of the environment while constantly adapting to changing business, social, and legal environments.

Above all, a construction manager leads. Such complex endeavors as construction require nothing less.

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