How to Make the Most of the Preconstruction Phase

Preconstruction (AKA “precon”) is the planning phase where the “what” of and “why” of design gets paired with the “how” of constructability reviews and the “when” and “how much” of the schedule and budget. 
  October 10, 2023
construction design plans

Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

We know in construction that the design plans that a team has labored over for months or even years are essential, but just as important is how those static lines and figures on a page will manifest in the real world in the hands of the construction team. Preconstruction (AKA “precon”) is the planning phase where the “what” and “why” of design gets paired with the “how” of constructability reviews and the “when” and “how much” of the schedule and budget. Your attention and efficiency in this phase could be the key difference maker for a profitable job for you and a successful project for your client. Neglect could mean a frustrating project for the whole team and a lot of red in your ledger.

So how do you get the most out of the precon phase?

In this article we’ll walk through the three main areas you can address to make sure what happens in precon doesn’t come back to bite you.

Get Your Bidding Down to a Science

Your bidding process should feel like a science, with mostly predictable and attainable outcomes. Instead, many contractors bid jobs using their best guesses. Inevitably, something gets off track somewhere and they’re left with a razor thin margin and a real struggle to keep their cash flow positive.

So how do we improve the bidding process?

The core of accurate bidding on construction projects is making sure you have a system in place to not only estimate the cost at the beginning of a job, but also accurately and consistently “job cost” or, tie all your expenses back to the specific project they came from and then evaluate how profitable that type of job actually was. Job costing of course includes direct labor and material cost — the time your subs or PMs spent on the site and the materials put in place — but it should also include any general conditions and overhead costs that can be associated with that specific job.

When you are able to consistently and accurately job cost, you can start to prove out the accuracy of your bids and shore up the areas where you may be underbidding or tighten up spots where you’re overbidding. This not only makes you more competitive on price, it opens up a path to healthy growth for your company, because your costs become more predictable and reliable.

When it comes to bidding or quoting a job, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have an organized index of historical costs that you can compare to your estimates?
  • Are you tracking the costs on your current jobs with a sufficient level of detail to inform your next opportunity?
  • Are your costs tracked in a way that allows you to uncover the source of inefficiencies and bloat?

Check out this article on implementing a job costing system.

Tighten Up Your Costs

Once your bidding process is under control, take a look at your costs. There are three big categories your costs can be divided into: direct costs, indirect costs and overhead.

Direct Costs

Essentially this is all material and labor that will stay with the project. Whether the labor is self-performed or subcontracted and regardless of who is paying for the materials, these costs should be the most straightforward and easiest to track.

For the portions of work that are self performed, it’s essential to track your labor costs because it shows how efficiently a team can put material in place. This gives you the information you need to reduce both wasted materials and wasted time.

Subcontracted work is no different. When you accurately track those costs back to the job, you uncover areas where you can reduce the amount of time that is wasted by poor process or poor work. This will go a long way to keeping your costs stable and competitive. These efforts will be evident in the quality of the work you deliver and lead to more work in the future.

Success here largely depends on your efforts in the preconstruction process to properly plan the sequence of the work and to coordinate the logistics in a way that makes the work feel seamless. Success also demands clear and consistent communication and tracking of any changes in the plan.

To uncover areas where you can tighten up your direct costs, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you looking for trends in your labor costs to find and eliminate waste?
  • Are you cultivating healthy business relationships with vendors and subcontractors that encourage them to give you the best price?
  • Are you tracking changes in the work with change orders so you don’t lose money to items outside the scope of the project? Can you streamline the change order process to create more consistency?

Indirect Costs

Indirect costs are those costs that might not be clearly reflected in the plans, but are just as essential for getting the job done. These include both the general conditions (supervision costs and project management costs that are part of every job) as well as general requirements (more specific to a project). While lower costs are generally better, you shouldn’t be afraid to spend on things like an experienced PM or regular job site cleanings to protect installed work. Experience and good maintenance protect your costs in the long run and result in better quality work. Better quality work equals a better reputation which will open you up to more work in the future.

Using the same criteria for categorizing these costs on every project will help you find the sweet spot to not only project your profit, but also keep the work progressing on schedule with assured quality.

To tighten up your indirect costs, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you balancing the level of experience you really need in supervisory roles against their cost?
  • Are you investing in things like regular jobsite cleaning and other protective measures for installed work to avoid costly mistakes or rework later?

Overhead Costs

When you bid a project, you’re generally pricing based on: cost of the work + overhead + profit.

If you’re already able to accurately estimate the costs associated with the work, the second biggest way you can impact your bottom line is to properly account for your overhead costs. Low overhead costs are keys to both staying competitive in your market and staying profitable as a construction business.

Most often, overhead costs are tracked as a flat percentage spread across all projects and then factored into the markup when quoting or bidding a job.

Not every job takes the same amount of resources and many of those resources will fall into the “overhead category”. If you are going to understand the full cost of a job (and the risk associated with it), it’s super helpful to be able to attribute certain overhead costs to specific jobs. This enables you to identify which projects require more overhead resources than others and better protect your profit margins.

To uncover areas where you can improve overhead costs and tracking, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you able to easily monitor overhead costs for any unhealthy trends?
  • Does your accounting system allow you to easily break down company overhead costs for specific projects?
  • Is your tech stack made up of helpful tools that work together, or are there redundancies and bloat that could be more efficient?

Forget the race to the bottom on pricing. In preconstruction, your aim isn’t to be the cheapest—it’s to be the best fit. Treat it like a two-way job interview where both you and the client vet each other and collectively define the work to be done.

Once your bids are accurate and your costs are tight, the next step is to implement a solid vetting process. This is your strategy to ensure each project is profitable, fits your team’s skill set, and comes from a client that’s actually good for your business.

To do that, you need to define three things: the right project, the right team, and the right client.

most profitable construction jobs diagram

The Right Project

The more you do a specific type of project the better and more efficient your teams will be at doing them which means more money in everyone’s pockets at the end of the day. Perhaps more important, it reduces the risk of those projects because you’ve refined your processes around the unique needs of that type of project. When you’re screening projects for the “right ones”, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the job in your wheelhouse?
  • Is the project schedule attainable?
  • Are there any job risks that you’re not sure you can mitigate?
  • Is the design or plan defined well enough for you to assess it?

The Right Team

Something can be the right type of project for your firm but if you don’t have the right team or the right team isn’t available, it might cause more pain than it’s worth. Things to consider here are:

  • Does your team pair well with the design team?
  • Do the folks you have available have the right experience and temperament for the job?
  • Does the team have experience on similar projects?

The Right Client

While perfect clients might not exist (still holding on to hope they appear one day), there is a difference between good and bad clients for your firm. Things to think through here are:

  • Do they communicate clearly and timely?
  • Is the financing clear and will they pay on time?
  • Do you already have a relationship with them from past jobs?
  • Are the performance expectations clear and fair?

Trust the Data

Most contractors I’ve met have a gut feeling on most of the things I’ve walked through in this article, but really healthy growth comes when you can gather real data that helps you answer all the questions above.

Make sure that you have a process in place for gathering the data you need and translating it into reports you’ll actually look at. With all the variables in the construction industry, this is the only way to keep growing without taking on unnecessary risk and it’ll make the preconstruction phase a whole lot easier and more efficient.

The CrewCost Team

Written by The CrewCost Team

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