My business is in central Georgia, about 70 miles south of Atlanta. High-rises are few and far between. There were four 15-story buildings built in the early 1970s, and since then we have only had a few projects constructed in the 8- and 9-story range built in the last 10 years. Nothing I would really classify as a high-rise per se.
My personal experience is what you might classify as commercial low-rise four-stories and down. Not too challenging logistics-wise, but, depending on the schedule, can be a little taxing on manpower, especially if all floors are moving at the same time. However, this pales in comparison to a recent visit to a high-rise jobsite in Atlanta.
Within PHCC there are Enhanced Service Groups, peer groups of PHC contractors who work in like markets. The one I was affiliated with for a number of years was the Construction Contractors Alliance, a group of larger residential and commercial new construction contractors who are all PHCC members. A couple of years ago we met in Atlanta and toured two jobsites that Miller Mechanical and Engineering was doing the plumbing on. They were 25-story apartment buildings that were in the Midtown part of town, which translates into a lot of traffic and zero lot lines with no place to park or store material. I told the owner, Eddie Miller, that after visiting these jobs, if I were working on a project like this, I would stay awake at night thinking about how quickly you could lose money if you did not know what you were doing.
What makes these projects so challenging? As most contractors know, labor is the biggest risk on any construction project. And navigating 25 floors with that labor requires you to plan like a general going into battle. And, to a lesser extent, material handling and logistics are crucial as well. Let’s look at some of these topics in detail.
I mentioned earlier about the characteristics of the location of the two jobsites that we visited. Storing materials on site, except for what you are working on for perhaps the next week or so, is not an option. When the estimate is being prepared for a high-rise project, every system is taken off by floor, and then when trading with the supplier, the deliveries are made that way. There may be a truck load of cast iron on the project, but the supplier is going to have to store the material at their place and ship several flatbed loads to the jobsite at different times.
The jobsites we visited had a buck hoist on the side of the building for getting personnel and tools to the floors and a tower crane to place bundles of material onto the floors. At the peak of a project like this, I could envision 15 different trades being on the job at one time, each trade having an average of ten people. Each trade has materials that need to go to the different floors, and there is only one crane to accomplish this.
Therefore, deliveries must be scheduled, and those schedules adhered to strictly. Telling a supplier to be there at 7 a.m., but they show up at 8:30 is a recipe for disaster. There are two scenarios that will happen — either the delivery person will be told to leave and come back tomorrow on time or the truck will sit there until there is a window available for the crane to pick the material. Each scenario results in lost productivity for the crews.
Accurately locating floor penetrations for mechanical systems is of the utmost importance in a high-rise building. Sleeves must be set as the floors are framed. With the pace of construction today and the technology available, sleeve drawings must be generated and GPS layout (Trimble) used to place the location of those sleeves. The idea of coring holes after the fact is foolish; that would take up much more time once the slab is poured and put you behind the eight ball to meet the construction schedule.
My experience is that when erecting multi-story buildings, once about three floors are poured out, then work can begin on lower floors. Remember, there are numerous trades in the same space with you at the same time, and if you do not keep up, then you could delay their work. If you get blamed for delaying the progress of the project, you’ll have to work overtime to get back on track. If you get too far behind and cannot catch up, then you could wind up with a delay claim brought against you by the construction manager. They can contractually do that, and hiring a lawyer to fight them is expensive.
Every labor database that we have used has factors that need to be added for work on upper floors, starting at about the fourth floor. On the jobsite I visited, there were two ways to get to each floor — ride the buck hoist or walk the stairs. If you have a worker on the 15th floor and they have to make multiple trips to get what they need from street level, I would say that you could easily lose one manhour of productivity every time this occurs. Therefore, planning is essential to maximizing productivity and reducing the inefficiency of lost time.
Kirk Alder is a well-known expert in the mechanical trades who works with PHCC to do management training for all levels of the mechanical trades. In his training of project foremen, Alder says that they should spend the first hour or so of their day making sure all the crews are lined out and are clear on what they are to do. Then they should spend the last hour or so of the day making sure that ALL the materials that the crews need for the next day are there, and if they are not, make arrangements to get them to the work area the next day. This is the type of planning that is essential if your labor force is going to maximize the time on the job every day.
When I was president of PHCC, I had the privilege of touring Iron Mechanical’s operation in Sacramento, California. A similar company to Miller Mechanical, Iron Mechanical does a lot of multi-family high-rise facilities in Northern California. One of the owners, Terry Risse, was kind enough to give me a tour of his facility. He showed me a job they had in progress where they were in the process of doing BIM coordination drawings for that project. He then took me out to the shop where they were doing prefabrication for a project.
Risse has it down to a science. He showed me where they were cutting pieces of cast iron for the tubs and shower waste branch lines. They have spent the time drawing the job (BIM modeling) and are confident that what is drawn is right, allowing them to fabricate in their shop a large majority of the rough-in for the project. His field guys love it, and when they have a project that is not done like this, they complain.
I have heard about the three P’s of planning: people, process and product. If you develop the right team (people) and develop a process (a way to do it that others can replicate to accomplish a task) then you can deliver a quality product. But there are also the three P’s for a project or task failure: poor proper planning. Doing high-rise construction is not for the faint of heart. It requires someone always looking ahead to what will have to be performed next day, next week, next month. Making a plan and working through that plan can be the difference between a successful project or one that winds up costing your firm a lot of money!