“Why does construction take so long?” This is a typical question you would expect from a first-time client building their first home. As a general contractor, you are most likely used to construction taking longer than planned and you’re ready for it. A client building their first home isn’t, and they are easily frustrated with even the smallest delay.
Now imagine that you aren’t building homes but, rather, buildings: large, complicated and sometimes tall buildings. Now imagine you are building those buildings in NYC. Delays are part and parcel of construction in NYC, and the frustration with those delays is exacerbated by the fact that the GCs are, in most cases, powerless to do anything about it.
You may have seen the time-lapse videos of the hospital built in Wuhan, China in 10 days to treat the coronavirus. We were amazed by the coordination, precision and speed of building a 360,000-square-foot building at such a pace. Here in NYC, you couldn’t get a two-car garage built that fast. Why is that? What makes NYC so challenging to build in, and why is it even more challenging to stick to a schedule? What can you do as a GC to mitigate these delays?
For starters, the NYC building code is different from most of the country. It has its own quirks and nuisances, which can drive a sane individual insane! If the building code would stay consistent, it probably would be easier to navigate as you become accustomed to it. The problem is, it is forever evolving. And that’s not to mention the standalone NYC fire codes, energy codes, noise codes and even bird codes (yes, bird codes, which are designed to prevent builders from building glass towers so clear that birds might fly into them).
Assuming you got all of the codes worked out through plan exam, and after an exhausting six- to eight-month building department review you are finally approved, you’re ready to build, right? Wrong. Now comes DOT, and on most jobs, they require a full plan submission as well as exam meetings before they will issue their permits, which you can’t really get anything done without.
By the time all that is done, you had better hope you already have your neighbor access agreements in hand. This is a new racket in NYC where owners spend large sums of money to get their neighbors to allow them the privilege of protecting the owners’ properties. Although the code requires that you protect your neighbor’s property, the DOB is powerless to get you that permission. Your neighbors, having realized you need this permission, have turned this into a full-time business, charging ridiculous licensing fees and sometimes forcing you into court to get permission to protect their properties.
Construction has finally begun, and you’re off to the races — well, not quite. You still have nonstop visits from the DOB, DOT, FD and OSHA inspectors looking for the smallest of infractions to shut you down. All this is coupled with the inherent logistical challenges you have building in a cramped metropolis such as NYC. You can easily see how those months just fly by and why schedules are so difficult to maintain.
I know I’ve painted a dire picture, but the truth is, I wouldn’t trade building in NYC for any amount of money. Yes, it’s challenging, mind-numbing and super frustrating at times, but when you’re done, you have accomplished quite the feat.
Building in NYC may be on the more extreme end of things, but no matter where you’re building, these tips will help keep your project on track:
• Remember to control expectations when dealing with your clients.
• Use technology to coordinate, manage and document your projects.
• Get involved early in pre-con so you can use your expertise to reduce procedures or processes you know will cause delays.
• Remember to fully document everything. Proper documentation will save you a lot of grief both with city agencies and your clients.
• Don’t allow your clients to make changes. Changes kill momentum and progress more than anything else.
• Don’t let your clients wrangle control of the project from you because they think they know better; they don’t.
• Don’t let your clients interfere in your sub-contractor management. They are bound to mess things up. Make sure your clients understand that the ship can only have one captain. If they wanted to do it themselves, they shouldn’t have hired you.
• Don’t lose your cool. We all have hard days in this industry. In fact, I believe we have more hard days than easy ones. But losing your cool means losing control, and losing control means failing yourself, your employees, your subs and your clients.
If you stick to all of the above, you still won’t build a 360,000-square-foot building in 10 days (or 10 months, for that matter), but you will get the job done on a schedule that at least will keep you from losing money, your mind or a client.