Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the September 27,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.

All rights reserved.

Construction Management: Pros & Cons

In his drippingly sardonic book "From Bauhaus to

Our House" author Tom Wolfe discusses the old inimical triangle

of the wide-eyed Owner vs. haughty Architect vs. sly General

Contractor.

Inevitably, he states, the owner has to "just stand quiet and

take it like a man."

To this Eugene Marsh replies simply "Bull." On Thursday,

October 5, at 11 a.m., at Fleet Bank on 200 East State Street in

Trenton,

in a two-hour seminar for Trenton Small Business Week, Marsh will

walk prospective builders through the pre-construction process

including

scheduling, estimates, basic blueprint reading and the horrific

labyrinth

of government applications. Cost: $25 for materials. Go to

www.smallbizweek.com

or call 609-396-7246.

Eugene Marsh is scarcely naive. He says that, since earning his

construction-engineering

degree at Cornell, he has hammered out 25 hard years in the field,

building housing developments from North Carolina to Trenton, a

courthouse

in lower Manhattan and contributing to the $400 million Merrill Lynch

Center in Hopewell. He admits his is a tough trade where government

needs endless soothing and the owner too often is seen as an ignorant

open pocketbook. He merely asserts that with a little training and

the right representation, the entrepreneur can be as tough on the

construction site as he/she is in the boardroom.

It’s a matter of goals and vision, notes Marsh. The owner sees a

castle

for his business on-the-cheap; the architect sees his own castle,

cost be damned; while the general contractor sees a mountain of

headaches

solved only by a fountain of funding. The structure invariably rises

on conflict — a struggle among equals. "The owner,"

insists

Marsh, "needs greater force and authority in the building

process."

His solution, and one that has gained increased popularity this

decade,

is for the owner to arm himself with a construction manager as his

agent.

"The construction management firm is designed to be a one-stop

shop for the builder. The firm can bid-out and supply you with a list

of architects and G.C.’s (general contractors) or he can accept and

work with ones you know." He affords the owner an expert shield,

and affords him as much participation as he wants in the building.

Eugene Marsh’s glowing endorsement of construction managers gushes

forth with no little bias. Two years ago he opened the doors of

Construction

Projects Management, Inc. in Trenton where he has deftly and

profitably

juggled a continuous series of multi-million dollar projects. He

insists

this success comes from his company’s acting strictly as the owner’s

agent.

Sensing the suspicious tingle of a sales talk, I decide to give Mr.

Marsh a test. I tell him I am building a 34,000 square-foot office

building and I don’t want a flat roof. I have surveyed scores of

flat-roof

owners and every one of their roofs leaked. What can you do for me?

While the structure is imaginary, the survey is real. Several years

ago, in an article for U.S. 1, I unearthed the soggy facts of flat

roofs. At that time, when I questioned architects about installing

a more pitched roof, all of them denied the leaks and heartily tried

to dissuade me from the norm. Ten percent total cost increase was

minimum they protested. The general contracting firms winced, rolled

their eyes, and said that if I absolutely had to have it, they would

build whatever I wanted.

Against these, Marsh’s response was refreshing indeed. Ten percent

for a dry roof, to him, seemed an outrageous cost overrun. His plan

was to collect a series of specialty roofing firms, discuss my need

and after winnowing the chaff, let the top contenders present designs

to me. He recounted several low-cost metal examples. By going to the

roofing firms, rather than architects, I would be purchasing a plan

already in this sub-contractor’s repertoire and thus glean savings.

Perhaps having your own problem solver on the job site is not such

a bad idea.

A good manager may allow the owner to stay on the side lines, but

it is still the owner’s game. Marsh demands three pillars of

preparation

from his owner-clients: "Neglect one, and the project falls into

ruins."

Scope. Scope goes beyond need. The owner needs office

space for 50 employees. But what’s entailed? One South Brunswick owner

demanded more under-floor computer wire ducts. The next day he ranted

crazily at the poor worker who had sliced back the carpet and stood

jackhammering the concrete slab to carve a path for the new wire

conduit.

You’ve got to know what you’re asking for, in each step of the

structure.

Basic knowledge of blueprints is essential for the owner.

If you can’t at least interpret a basic floor design, you wander

"like

a chicken among the foxes," laughs Marsh. Don’t just negotiate

walls with your architect, query about wiring, plumbing, materials,

and labor.

Budget. Estimating costs based on square footage alone

is a path to disaster. Again, Marsh tends toward estimating based

on the individual project. "I’ve seen carpenters bid one week’s

work for a job that takes two hours. Nice work if you can get it."

Rarely considered is the cost of government applications and permits.

The owner’s staff time, fees, not to mention work stoppage for

inspections

can fritter away the best borrowed funds.

Scheduling General contractors love to pull men off your

job-site to fill in slots elsewhere. Work slows. Someone, hopefully

your manager, must crack the whip.

Yet just as frequently, owners inadvertently squelch their own

progress.

A stalled bank appropriation is a typical delay. The windows are

arriving

and ready for installation. But your bank won’t release the money

until their inspector gets out there; or until you can show the local

permit for those yet-uninspected walls. You forgot to present the

permits and nudge the bank’s inspector. Oops. Carpenters sit on their

hands.

"It’s all complex and requires expertise," says Marsh,

"but the better prepared the owner is, the smoother it always

goes. And it’s truly a trade where the watchful eye brings

savings."

He recounts how costly change orders can be foreseen and forestalled

by sharp materials purchasing and proper liaison work.

Mike Toth, general contractor and head of MR Construction Inc.

in Cranbury, rebuts this roundly. He claims the greatest saving is

to fire the unnecessary construction manager. "He’s an unneeded

man in the middle." Toth, currently building a 16,000 expansion

of Pierre’s Restaurant in South Brunswick, says that the contractor

and architect alone serve well and amicably the owner’s needs. He

did seem a bit vague, however, when asked who would walk the owner

through the government paperwork.

Cranbury-based contractor Marty Coffey points out that the

construction

manager tends to charge a lower percentage than the contractor, yet

infinite variety is possible. He is currently managing a project for

an owner who is his own general contractor.

After all the arguments are in, I’m still not sure whom I should

choose

to build my dream castle. But Eugene Marsh did teach two things:

he/she

had better be an expert and I had better start making myself into

one.

— Bart Jackson


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