By: Greg Brooke
With Contributions by Ian Daniels, Taylor Garick, and Kyle Stark
As builders, we like to think that the structures we build will stand the test of time. That we’re making a permanent impact on communities and skylines. Of course, not every building lasts forever. Sometimes hospitals need to be replaced. Empty office buildings are torn down to make room for mixed-use developments or residential towers that will better serve growing communities. But some buildings do make an impact and become legacies. When those kinds of iconic buildings need renovations or upgrades, it becomes a much more involved and complex project then a demolition/new build.
On a new, ground-up project, design teams and preconstruction teams are able to work together to identify everything it will take to build the project — from site work equipment to the exterior skin materials. They’re able to design, estimate, and give owners a reliable budget and schedule.
With a full-scale renovation of a legacy or historic building, it’s not that simple. Why? Unforeseen conditions. That’s a blanket term for everything in a building that is either not on the as-builts or has changed during the life of the building. Buildings age and their infrastructure can become damaged and, unless they’ve already started to cause major issues, you can’t know what kind of condition the interior of your building is in until you tear back the walls and look. This presents a challenge for owners trying to set a budget on their renovation. Imagine your design is complete, you have your project cost, and then every day your contractor is telling you about new structural damage or issues that have to be added into the budget. It can get very frustrating, and very expensive, very fast.
That being said, we love a renovation. There’s something special about being able to bring a historic hotel back to its original glory for new generations of guests to enjoy. Or transforming an abandoned federal building into a modern office park that pays homage to its original purpose. The purpose of this blog is not to dissuade owners from tackling a renovation, it’s to share some of our best lessons learned on how to take on a large-scale renovation while keeping your budget and schedule within target.
1. Expect the Unforeseen
As we’ve already said, all older buildings have unforeseen conditions. That could be renovations that weren’t added to the original as-builts. Or it could be deteriorating concrete or steel behind the walls that hasn’t cause issues yet — but will. When hiring your design team and general contractor, look for teams who have experience with renovations. You can’t predict every condition that they’ll find, but an experienced team will be able to add time and cost into the project to remain flexible during the length of the project. And they’ll be able to react and evolve the design and project plan as they go. If you go into your project expecting there will be plenty of unforeseen conditions that can only be discovered during demolition, you can add that padding into your budget and schedule up front.
2. Plan the Work, Work Your Plan
If you know that there will be unforeseen conditions, it makes sense to start demolition with a plan in place on how you will catalog the conditions, assign the work, and get approval for the cost associated. Do you really want to field phone call after phone call or face a flooded inbox every day with new issues that will require more work and money? Doubtful. Besides being a wasteful and frustrating process, that approach creates a lot of room for error and quality issues. Instead, make sure your project team has an organized plan in place on how they will approach unforeseen conditions.
On one of our recent hospitality renovations, our project team had success using a process similar to the Punch Process, or final walkthrough. With more than 300 hotel rooms to renovate, we used our construction management platform to create a standard inspection form. We then walked each room, identified the issues that needed to be resolved that couldn’t have been included on the design, detailed how those conditions needed to be repaired, and the cost impact. Our owner’s representative was able to review each form and sign off, allowing us to release our trade partners to work. The result was an organized, streamlined process that allowed us to tackle thousands of unforeseen conditions efficiently.
3. No Such Thing as Too Early
When should you select and hire your general contractor? As early as possible. We believe that early contractor involvement during the design phase is valuable on every project. But it’s critical on a large-scale renovation. Architects and builders have to be able to work together during a renovation to update the drawings as necessary. Maybe the design called for using existing plumbing throughout the building, but during demolition the team uncovers significant damage to the pipes. If you empower your design and project team to work together early, from the beginning, they will be able to react and create solutions with less steps and fewer headaches.
Often, the most challenging projects turn out to be the most rewarding. We’ve found that’s true on all our renovations of iconic or historic buildings. The right team can help you tackle any challenge. Try using these lessons learned as a starting point to hire your next renovation project team. In our experience, keeping these steps in mind will help you and your team turn unforeseen conditions into expected issues, quickly identified and resolved — without blowing your budget and schedule out of the water.