Post #8- Interview of Jason Smith- Does Front End Planning Pay Back in Construction?

The way our the 1.5 trillion dollar construction industry is set up is that it offers the owner, designer and contractor a lose-lose scenario. Every project that goes out for bid everyday is destined for the same fate. Still we wake up every morning anxious to go to work only to be thrown into the vicious cycle of losing. At least there are a few great souls, like Jason Smith from southern California, who passionately work to be a part of the solution and always determined to defeat the problem using effective front end planning.

Jason has been performing Constructability Reviews for 11 years now, and prior to that he worked for Swinerton, Clark and a couple other GC’s throughout his career. He has also authored 3 books, published some training videos and, most recently, partnered with a Scopes Database software program called Bid Scaler.

Recently I had an opportunity to ask Jason a few questions on this topic and he kindly shared his thoughts with me that I am going to share with you. Let me know if you agree or disagree with Jason’s thoughts!

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Zul: How does program quality affect design and documents quality and results in redesign that affects designer’s business goals?

Jason: A good architect can design anything, so this really boils down to an Owner’s ability to know what they want, make decisions and stick to them. Changes never seem like much at face value, but the reality is that every change creates a chain reaction that causes the design team to change track. This takes time and money, which isn’t planned for. In the end, the reality is that design team’s have “X” amount of dollars in their budgets and that’s how much effort they’re going to put into the construction documents. So the more time they spend dealing with changes and inefficiencies = the less time they spend cranking out details.

Zul: What can a owner do to write a clear and detailed program and help the designer and contractor avoid redesign, rework, and lower project cost?

Jason: Know what they want, make decisions and stick to the decisions. Writing the program is something that really needs to get into the intricacies of the project. Programs are often very thick with a lot of language, but they don’t get into the intricacies of the project. I’m trying to help fix this problem with what I call my Baseline Program, which is a spreadsheet that scopes every material and system on the project. Not only does this provide the Architect with clear direction on the Owner’s desires, but it also helps the Owner maintain control over cost.

Zul: How does drawing and specification quality affect construction quality and results in rework that affects contractor’s business goals?

Jason: There is a common misconception that if a GC has something covered in their budget, then it’s good and the design team doesn’t need to draw it. There are 100+ Subcontractors on a project and an exponential number of lower tier subcontractors, manufacturers and suppliers. Direction needs to be coordinated and disseminated to all of them and the only efficient manner of doing this is with the drawings and specs. When this info isn’t in the drawings and specs, it is issued as ASIs, RFIs, submittal comments, etc. All those extraneous pieces of paper make it incredibly difficult to get all those 100’s of companies on the same page.

Another common misconception is that we can prevent change orders by covering items of work with an allowance and figuring them out later. But allowances do not prevent change orders. Allowances are simply budgetary placeholders for anticipated change orders. Allowances are still billed against with “change order pricing”.

Zul: How can a designer do to avoid redesign and ensure high quality of documents?

Jason: This is a double edged sword and a problem that is industry driven. If a design team includes enough money in their proposal to provide a complete, solid, great set of drawings = they’re going to be way more expensive than their competitors and they’re not going to win the job. In order to win jobs and stay in business, design teams need to play the game. GC’s are always saying “this architect is awful” about every architect, but the reality is that every architect isn’t awful. The reality is that they only have enough money in their contract to provide a bare minimum permit set of documents, which is typically about 85% CD’s.

What I propose to combat this is to tell architects in the RFP that a constructability review will be performed and that all comments must be incorporated into the drawings during the CD stage of the design. I.e., in their lump sum for the CD’s, not during their cost-plus CA work. This will ensure that all architect’s include a complete construction set in their base proposals.

Zul: What a contractor can do to avoid rework when the documents are good quality and when they are not so good quality?

Jason: The GC needs to plan the project and stay ahead of it. During the structural phase the GC needs to be neck deep in planning the skin. But we have a similar industry driven problem here, in that GC’s don’t include enough staff in their projects to efficiently and effectively manage a project. If a GC includes a sufficient staff, they’re going to be way more expensive than their competitors and they won’t win the job. They have to play the game, or they won’t stay in business. The reality is that these “lean” staffs can barely keep up with a project and can only react to problems after they occur.

What I propose to combat this is that the Owner and architect to prepare a planning schedule for MEP coordination, Ext Skin Coord, Submittals, etc. and hold the GC accountable to it. If a GC falls behind, their payments are held up. This needs to be made abundantly clear to all bidders, so they all include it in their estimate.

Zul: Would you like to add something from your thoughts?

Jason: So what I’m saying is that an Owner needs to actively seek an architect who is going to be a lot more expensive than the current norm, and then encourage the GC to increase their general conditions significantly. This is a pretty tough financial pill for an Owner to swallow. In hindsight, at the end of a project, after all the change orders have been paid, an Owner will think this is a great idea. But at the front end of a project when an Owner is trying to make their pro forma work, this never seems like a good idea.

What I’m also saying is that our industry has evolved such that architects can’t provide a complete set of documents and contractors can’t effectively manage a project. There’s a big hole there that we as an industry need to work together to fill.

The problems we’re seeing are industry driven. Individual architects are not to blame and individual GC’s are not to blame. We have a lot of great designers and a lot of great contractors. But the current industry standard practices are hobbling them all.

The discussion with Jason ends here- and it sounds like the construction industry needs a shake up! Owner, architect and contractor- all need to spend a few buck for front end planning that will payback in multiples at the end, if it is done right as suggested by Jason!

Do you have any suggestions? Please feel free to share it in the comments box below.

This post has been edited for clarity and vetted by Jason Smith. If you would like to find out more about him, you may visit his website at