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  • Chris Holland

An Owner's Guide to Commercial Construction - Pre-Construction

Pre-construction, simply defined, is the preliminary planning stage of a project. Not only does it have one of the greatest impacts on the overall construction process, but it sets the tone and lays the groundwork for a project's success. The most important aspects of this phase include design, budgeting, scheduling, final contractor selection, and permitting.

A project team planning a commercial construction project.

Before the Hammers Start to Swing

Pre-construction encompasses the period of time between the birth of an idea or vision and swinging of the first hammers. It's only after an end user has selected and purchased a property or secured a lease that these steps become absolutely necessary given the associated potential costs. Often, a user will explore multiple buy or lease alternatives at different locations. In this case, they will want to review comparative price per square foot costs using a basic schematic design in order to gain an understanding of the required equity capital, loan underwriting, or in the case of a lease, allowances that can be negotiated. While it essentially creates an extra step in the process, it allows the design and construction teams to become involved much earlier, resulting in more educated decisions for the user.

Establishing a Design and Scope of Work

Design Development: The first and most important step is establishing a design and scope of work. This will require solicitation and review of potential architecture and engineering firms who will drive the design process. This step does not always require engineered design, however, doing so becomes an advantage during the budgeting process. A schematic architectural design is necessary however in order to establish a base on which to begin the budget process. Once the design team is established, they begin working with the end user to program a scope of work that meets their specific requirements, culminating in a preliminary design. This will include infrastructure, finishes, furniture, audio/visual, space planning, personnel, and more. A review of the physical spaces or building sites is necessary to determine how existing conditions will affect design considerations. When the preliminary package is finalized, it is released for budgeting. Understanding that the scope will be refined throughout the design process, the team relies on projections to establish costs during the budget phase.

Establish a Preliminary Budget

Budgeting: One, or more, general contractors should be solicited to establish a preliminary construction budget and will need to gain an understanding of the scope of work and become familiar with the project team and end user with whom they will potentially be partnered. Based upon the detail included in the preliminary drawings, a general contractor will either perform an internal cost estimate or solicit direct subcontractor input. The intent is to provide as refined and accurate a budget as possible to assist in determining the feasibility of the project and continue to refine the design details. The general contractor will also provide input as to the cost drivers and what they feel may or may not be a necessary to deliver the project. An end user may use the preliminary cost budget to finalize a lease or gain capital expenditure approval. With this information, the design team proceeds towards completion of design development with input from the engineer of record, who at this point should be an integral part of the team.

Understand How Scheduling Affects the End-User

Scheduling/Planning: Scheduling and planning not only involves construction specific factors but more importantly, those of the end user. A schedule and plan can only be established based on the constraints of the end user. While all construction groups would love to follow their own plan, it doesn't always work out in the best interest of the client. There is a myriad of constraints to consider, such as expiration of an existing lease versus the start of a new lease, feasibility of moving personnel, owner related scope and timing, and other business issues. This step is not so much about the actual schedule of the work in the field, but rather taking important milestones presented by the end user into account and formulating a plan around how those milestones can be achieved, centered around a construction timeline. The schedule may also dictate portions of the scope that may, or may not, be worth pursuing, or if an alternative should be considered. For example, the end user would like to incorporate a ceiling feature that carries a significantly long lead time whose delivery pushes past the completion date. Knowing there are other conditions that affect or are affected by its install, the options are to either proceed and extend the schedule, remove the scope completely, or select an alternate specification that does work within the projected schedule. Either way, the team has a planned duration in place and are coordinating methods to meet that duration. This step is an important contribution to the design phase in assisting design refinement and budget implications.

Contract with a General Contractor

Contractor Selection: The final step is contracting a general contractor ("GC") to perform the work. Most often, those that have been involved in the preliminary process will also have an opportunity to earn the final contract, if more than one group has been included thus far. Once the previous three steps have been completed, a final construction package will be released for final budget and contract pricing. After a selection is made and a final contract amount approved, the team will then move towards physical work in the field.

There are a number of factors that need to be addressed prior to mobilization however, mainly under the direction of the GC. The GC will need to review site logistics as well as coordinate site or building related items with any controlling authorities, such as a property manager. Additionally, they will need to submit all relative insurance documentation, including that of the subcontractors, as well as any building specific documentation, such as an acknowledgement of the building rules and regulations. Once all items are in place and coordination completed, mobilization can commence.

Obtain Permits and Approvals

Permitting: Before construction commences, necessary permits must be secured. This is a requirement for all construction projects. The permitting process can be managed by various team members, but often goes through the architect or general contractor. Permit expediting services are utilized in a majority of permit package submissions.

Pre-construction is the bedrock of any successful construction project. It's the phase that transforms the user's vision into reality and it has a significant impact on the project's overall success. Carefully navigating these crucial steps and engaging with experienced professionals will ensure the project starts on the right foot, remains on budget, and is completed on-time.

Are you ready to turn your construction dreams into reality? Start with a solid pre-construction plan, and you'll be well on your way to a successful project.

Chris Holland is the President of ONYX Constructors LLC, a Houston based General Contractor. You can contact him at


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