Even if your project has been designed by the best MEP engineers, you must make sure that the completed building matches the design documents. Project management is a complex topic that involves technical aspects, human resources and even finance.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) deals with the topic extensively in its Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). In simple terms, the work of project managers can be summarized in three goals:
- Completing the full scope of the project.
- Meeting the project deadline.
- Not exceeding the project budget.
Project management requires balance between these three elements: scope, time and budget. For example, you can increase the staff of a project to complete it faster, but this leads to higher labor expenses.
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Note that project management does not apply only for the construction industry. For example, information technology (IT) professionals use it extensively to manage complex projects.
Importance of Planning in Project Management
Building projects require inputs such as construction materials and mechanical equipment, as well as skilled labor from many professional fields. However, projects follow a logical sequence where resources are not used all at once, and the project plan allows a visualization of how resources are consumed. Project managers can also estimate the time required to complete a building based on the sequence of activities.
Project managers normally use a Gantt chart to map all the activities involved in a project, and how they are related with each other. Consider the following examples:
- Electricians cannot install wiring if there is no conduit yet. Therefore, the Gantt chart will show these two activities sequentially - wiring installation after conduit installation.
- On the other hand, activities that don’t depend on each other can be carried out simultaneously. For example, electrician teams can install lighting fixtures and power receptacles at the same time.
The planning process can be completed for all building systems, and at the end you will notice that some activities have a time allowance, called slack in project management. For instance, if an activity has a slack of 2 days, that specific work can be completed two days late without affecting the deadline.
Some activities do not have slack, and delays affect the entire project. When a sequence of activities with zero slack covers the entire project schedule from start to finish, it is called the critical path. All projects have at at least one critical path of activities, and project managers must be aware of these tasks to given them high priority.
Assigning Resources to Each Activity
Once a project has been mapped from start to finish in a Gantt chart, project managers can assign resources to each activity - materials, equipment, skilled labor and funds. This process yields plenty of valuable information:
- Construction materials usage: Project managers can schedule procurement based on when certain materials or equipment are required. For example, if a one-year project involves no electrical installations until the 4th month, there is no need to purchase conduit and wiring during the first three months.
- Skilled labor requirements: The same logic applies for skilled labor, since there is no need to crowd the project site with technicians that cannot start working yet. For example, if the project is not ready for mechanical installations, HVAC contractors accomplish nothing by sending their staff.
- Construction equipment: Equipment that is not currently required can be used in other projects. If leased equipment is involved, the project schedule can be used to minimize leasing periods and reduce expenses.
The project schedule can also be used to determine a cash flow schedule, based on the resource costs of each activity. For example, if the construction of a $120-million building is scheduled for one year, developers can’t simply assume that $10 million are spent each month. Based on individual activity costs, some months will have higher expenses than others.
With financial planning, developers can manage their budget more effectively. Instead of setting apart all the capital for one project at once, developers can allocate funds among many projects, as long as each one has enough funds for its ongoing expenses.
Risk Management During the Construction Process
Risk management is a unique topic, since it deals with events that will not necessarily happen. However, when project managers have contingency plans for negative events, their impact can be mitigated if they occur. Project risks are normally analyzed in terms of their impact and probability:
- For example, tools are often damaged or lost in projects (high probability), but this is not an event that threatens project completion (low impact).
- On the other hand, a major earthquake can cause severe damage (high impact), but is not a common event (low probability).
- Delays in major equipment deliveries affect some projects (moderate probability), and they can lead to missed deadlines (moderate impact).
These are just three simple examples of how construction risks can be categorized. Project managers can then develop contingency measures for each case. Risk management may seem subjective, dealing with possible events rather than actual work, but it pays off by preventing significant expenses or even project failure. Risk management also leads to safer construction environments, since accidents are less likely to have human consequences.