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
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
in a two-hour seminar for Trenton Small Business Week, Marsh will
walk prospective builders through the pre-construction process
scheduling, estimates, basic blueprint reading and the horrific
of government applications. Cost: $25 for materials. Go to
or call 609-396-7246.
Eugene Marsh is scarcely naive. He says that, since earning his
degree at Cornell, he has hammered out 25 hard years in the field,
building housing developments from North Carolina to Trenton, a
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
for his business on-the-cheap; the architect sees his own castle,
cost be damned; while the general contractor sees a mountain of
solved only by a fountain of funding. The structure invariably rises
on conflict — a struggle among equals. "The owner,"
Marsh, "needs greater force and authority in the building
His solution, and one that has gained increased popularity this
is for the owner to arm himself with a construction manager as his
"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
Projects Management, Inc. in Trenton where he has deftly and
juggled a continuous series of multi-million dollar projects. He
this success comes from his company’s acting strictly as the owner’s
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
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
from his owner-clients: "Neglect one, and the project falls into
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
You’ve got to know what you’re asking for, in each step of the
If you can’t at least interpret a basic floor design, you wander
a chicken among the foxes," laughs Marsh. Don’t just negotiate
walls with your architect, query about wiring, plumbing, materials,
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
can fritter away the best borrowed funds.
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
A stalled bank appropriation is a typical delay. The windows are
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
"but the better prepared the owner is, the smoother it always
goes. And it’s truly a trade where the watchful eye brings
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
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
to build my dream castle. But Eugene Marsh did teach two things:
had better be an expert and I had better start making myself into
— Bart Jackson
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