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7 min read

Organizing Construction Documents: Best Practices for General Contractors

Steven Peterson
Published Mar 28, 2024

I once worked with an owner who painted the ends of the construction plans a different color for each revision. If they found a set of drawings on the construction job site with the wrong color, they confiscated them to ensure that only the correct drawings were used to construct the project.

These days, paper drawings and specifications are a thing of the past, but it is just as important, if not more so, to track and manage document revisions because of the ease of creating and distributing electronic construction documents.

Key Takeaways


  • Organizing and managing construction documentation is critical to good construction management.
  • GCs must develop and follow procedures for creating, organizing, storing, and tracking construction documentation.
  • A good document management system improves communication among the project’s stakeholders.

The 7 Benefits of a Good Document Management System

Documentation plays a critical role in the construction industry and project management. It’s how we communicate the construction project’s requirements from the owners and design team to the general contractors, suppliers, and subcontractors. The construction documents define the relationship among these parties, identifying their roles and responsibilities. Additionally, documentation is used to show compliance with the construction contract and contract documents.

GCs must establish processes for creating, organizing, storing, and tracking construction documentation. A good document management system:

  1. Ensures that your project team members use the most current construction documents.
  2. Ensures that your company provides the documentation required by the contract and other project documents. These include submittals, test results, inspection reports, and close-out documentation.
  3. Ensures you have the documentation to support change orders.
  4. 4. Provides an audit trail, which is required for billing work at cost plus or time and materials.
  5. Allows you to track and monitor the project’s costs and schedule.
  6. Ensures that you manage the project’s legal risk and have adequately documented the construction process in case your company is sued.
  7. Saves time and prevents the headaches associated with missing or incomplete documentation.

Let’s dive into some of the different types of construction documents you’ll be dealing with and what makes an effective document management system.

Types of Construction Documents

The list of documents required to contruct a project is seemingly endless. However, there are five critical documents that GCs should manage.

Reports

Reports are used to document the construction process. They include:

  • Daily reports documenting the activities on the construction job site, including the work performed, the crews and equipment used, deliveries, weather, etc.
  • Weekly or monthly progress reports summarizing the work performed during the period, including problems and their resolution.
  • Progress photos and videos showing the project’s progress.
  • Meeting minutes documenting the items discussed during the owner-contractor, weekly project, and other meetings.
  • Testing and inspection reports showing compliance with the contract documents and the building codes.

Contract-Related Documents

The contract-related documents include the bidding documents and the documents the owner-GC contract requires the GC to provide before, during, and after construction. They include:

  • The signed owner-contractor agreement, including the general and special provisions for the contract.
  • The construction drawings, including site plans, architectural drawings (including floor plans, elevations, and detailed drawings), mechanical drawings, plumbing drawings, and electrical drawings.
  • The construction specifications, including the general conditions and technical specs.
  • The addendums to the bidding documents.
  • The building permit and certificate of occupancy.
  • The payment and performance bonds
  • Insurance certificates.
  • Notice to proceed issued by the owner, starting the construction period and establishing the completion date.
  • Requests for information (RFIs) asking the owner or designer to clarify construction documents or provide additional information.
  • The required submittals, including shop drawings, catalog cuts, samples, etc.
  • Change orders from the owner, modifying the construction documents, cost, and schedule.
  • Punch lists generated from the final inspection identifying the items that must be completed.
  • Operation and maintenance manuals, as-built drawings, and other closeout documents.
  • The final acceptance indicating that the contract is substantially complete.

Cost Documentation

Cost documentation is needed to manage the construction project and support billings when the work is billed at cost plus or time and materials. This cost documentation should be tracked in your company’s accounting system. The cost documentation includes:

  • Purchase orders (POs), which are used to procure materials and identify the agreed-on purchase price and terms.
  • Subcontracts, along with any change orders, which define the scope of work to be performed by the subs, the agreed-on price, and other contractual terms.
  • Time cards that document the time employees work on the project.
  • Equipment time cards that record when the company’s equipment is used on the project.

Other Correspondence

Any other correspondence (such as emails and transmittal letters) among the project’s stakeholders should be retained. All project-related emails should be sent through the company’s email system and retained in case questions arise about the project.

Logs

Logs are used to track documents, particularly those requiring approval or incurring costs. At a minimum, logs should be kept for the following documents:

  • A construction document log identifying the document name, status (such as for review or issued for construction), revision number, revision date, etc.
  • An RFI log identifying the RFI number, issuing party, status, key review dates (such as submission and approval), priority, etc.
  • A submittal log identifying the submittal number, the party responsible for preparing the submittal, the status, key review dates (such as submission and approval), priority, etc.
  • The change order log identifying the change order number, status, key review dates, etc.
  • The PO log Identifying the PO number, date issued, issued by, issued to, approved by, status, etc.
  • A subcontract log identifying the project subcontracts, their status, etc.

When numbering documents, they should be prenumbered sequentially, as are checks, so that they are easy to track and it is easy to determine if one is missing.

Even small projects can generate a significant number of documents, so GCs always need to have procedures for tracking and managing construction documents.

🔎 Dive Deeper: Foundations of Construction Project Management

Keys to Managing Documents

When setting up a document management system, one should consider the following four items:

1. Create Documents Quickly and Promptly

The document management system should allow employees to create the needed documents quickly and encourage them to do so promptly. Daily reports and meeting minutes should be prepared while the events are fresh in the employees’ minds. Other documents (such as RFIs, POs, and subcontracts) will delay the entire project if they are not completed on time.

The system should allow employees to access the correct construction documents quickly and from anywhere they are needed. This includes searching to find older documents, such as submittals from the start of the project.

2. Establish Standard Procedures

The document management system should include standard procedures for the document workflow, such as:

  • Who is responsible for creating the documents?
  • What should be included in the documents?
  • Where are the documents stored?
  • Who can access the documents?

You should train your employees in these procedures so that they understand what is expected of them. Additionally, auditing procedures should be in place to ensure that these procedures are followed and that the proper documentation is created, stored, and accessed properly.

3. Establish Document Standards

Document standards ensure that the documents contain the proper information and that the most recent documents are being used. Constructing a project using a drawing, which has been replaced in an addendum, wastes time and money. Here are a few things to include in the document standards:

  • A standard naming convention for the documents that identifies the document type.
  • Standard procedures for numbering revisions and identifying revised content. Documents often pass through several revisions before they are finished. For example, several versions of the construction documents are created during the design phase, including schematic design, design development, and construction drawings or final design, each with its own set of drawings. If the GC provides support during the design phase, they will prepare cost estimates for each of these. GCs need to be able to track these revisions and maintain a record of them.
  • Standard templates for common documents (such as daily reports, change orders, and POs) to ensure that needed information is not inadvertently left out.

4. Store Documents Properly

Creating proper documentation is worthless if you can’t find the documents when you need them. A critical part of a document management system is a storage system that safeguards the information and allows easy access. Here are a few things to consider when selecting a system:

  • The information should be kept at a central location. It is hard to find the needed documents when they are stored in several offices or hard drives.
  • The storage system should provide several levels of access control that allow only those who need the documents to access them. The levels should include the following: administrator access, which allows employees to create and manage the data storage system; read-only access, which allows employees only to access and read the documents; and other levels in between, which allows employees to create and modify documents.
  • The data should be stored in an organized file system. For example, there may be a folder for each year, which includes subfolders for each job. Each job folder contains folders for the different document types (such as POs and subcontracts). The correct folder structure is the one that works best for your company.
  • The documents should include metadata so that they can be searched. Metadata is hidden data in electronic files that describe their contents. Keywords are a common type of metadata that can be added to many files to improve their searchability.
  • Data storage needs to be backed up to prevent data loss. Data backup should follow the 3-2-1 rule: three copies of the data should be stored in two media formats (cloud and hard drive), with one copy stored offsite.

6 Suggestions for Effective Communication

You need to notify suppliers and subcontractors when new construction documents become available. As with most things in construction, effective communication here is key. Here are six ways you can make sure your communication about contruction documents is clear and effective:

  • Develop a communication plan that identifies the lines of communication, including an approved point of contact and preferred method of communication with each stakeholder.
  • Use collaboration software (such as MS Teams) or project management software (such as Procore), which facilitates communication among team members and keeps a record of it. If you communicate by email, you should only use the company email system and never delete an email. When you use the phone, you should maintain a written record of the call.
  • Hold regular project meetings. After the meeting, prepare meeting minutes and distribute them to the attendees.
  • Use standardized forms for common types of communication to ensure they contain the needed information.
  • Require the subcontractor to acknowledge receipt of the communication. If they don’t respond promptly, you should follow up.
  • Include the communication requirements in the subcontract.

Benefits of Using Project Management Software

Project management software (like Procore) can help GCs create, track, and maintain project documents. These systems offer several benefits, from helping GCs manage the set of construction documents efficiently to ensuring everyone can access the most current copies of the construction documents. They also store all the documents in a centralized location, automatically backup the data and automate the task fo sending notifications when new documents are available.

Final Thoughts

Establishing procedures for creating, managing, and accessing documents takes time. However, this time is a good investment, as it will save you more time and headaches in the long run. Pause for a moment and think about how much time and energy you spent last week looking for the documents you needed. Start making your life easier today by developing the procedures for one document. When you’re done, start on the next. Before you know it, your document management system will be up and running like a well oiled machine.


Author
Steven Peterson

Steven taught construction management, estimating, and accounting at Weber State University for 22 years. Before teaching, he spent 10 years working for small and medium-sized general contractors and now works as a consultant. Steven is the author of Construction Accounting and Financial Management, Estimating in Building Construction, Construction Estimating Using Excel, and Pearson’s Pocket Guide to Construction Management.

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