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Proactive planning is key to successful tenant improvements

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Jackie Jennings

Most successful tenant improvement projects are the result of smart planning in the early stages. A proactive planning approach can be very helpful in sidestepping the headaches that might otherwise plague a project.

Clarifying certain questions upfront helps to solidify specific project goals. These questions include:

? What factors are driving the renovation (i.e., upgrading systems, installing new technology, upgrading finishes, new tenants, changes in space function, desire to enhance aesthetic appeal)?

? What issues will affect the schedule of the project? Will work take place while the building is occupied, or will it involve phased moves?

? What is the budget? Does it include all available funds, and has any room been left for contingencies?

? What outside entities (i.e., regulatory agencies) will the renovation team need to deal with during the course of the renovation?

? What are the quality expectations for various aspects of the buildout? Can the budget realistically support those expectations?

Putting an effective team in place

One of the most crucial elements for a seamless renovation process is having the best project team for the job. The first step is to find the right architectural and/or interior design team. If an established relationship with a design team is already in place, the project is one step ahead. If not, it's important to do some upfront research by soliciting proposals and conducting interviews to narrow down the list of prospects.

Another important step is bringing aboard a qualified, reputable general contractor. Some property managers don't bring a general contractor or construction manager into the process until after construction documents are completed. However, the contractor's role ideally should begin at the concept stage, continue at least halfway through design development, and pick up again when the job is bid.

Involving the general contractor early on can enhance communications, ensure harmonious relationships and maximize cost-efficiency. Drawing from extensive field experience, contractors can give invaluable input on the project's preliminary budget. They also can attest to the constructability of early design concepts and perform value engineering before a design is finalized or construction begins.

When soliciting proposals for both the designer and general contractor, it's important to look for firms that are experienced in the specific type of renovation work that the project will entail. During the interview process, ask for specifics on budgets, schedules and change orders on the contractors' past renovation projects. Be sure to obtain references from past clients and check them carefully.

An often overlooked yet critical "member" of the project team is the facility executive or representative for the project owner. Facility executives should establish a single point of contact with a project team member who consistently attends job meetings. This will keep them apprised of all project plans, challenges and milestones. At job meetings and on the construction site, the facility executive must be able to make important decisions, help resolve unanswered questions and hold team members accountable for their respective responsibilities.

Do your site homework

To eliminate problems that frequently occur during renovations, the selected project team should conduct some upfront research on the building in which renovations will take place. Although this research will require some added spending, it is far less expensive when compared with the cost of dealing with site problems later. Further, site homework can be budgeted into the project if conducted as early as possible.

One helpful step is to conduct a thorough evaluation of existing conditions. The evaluation should address the age and operating condition of all mechanical and electrical systems; condition of the building and its ability to support any renovations; quality of existing utilities; accuracy of past site evaluations; and any historic elements. Without a preliminary site evaluation, unforeseen conditions uncovered during construction (i.e., presence of asbestos, lead, or toxic mold caused by water intrusion) can bring the renovation to a halt and could even lead to a costly redesign process.

Another step might be to involve the local building inspector early in the process, rather than waiting until construction is under way. Request that all zoning, fire, seismic and ADA requirements be inspected thoroughly to make sure the building meets current codes. By addressing any code issues from the beginning, the inspector essentially can become an advocate who helps implement the project.

If a regulatory entity (i.e., historic review committee, environmental agency) is overseeing the project in some capacity, that agency should be involved early on as well. The goal is to form a cohesive team-oriented relationship with all involved parties before construction work ever begins.

Develop a realistic schedule

There exists a misconception that because renovation work involves an existing building, it should be quicker than new construction. The key to an effective project schedule is to keep it realistic.

A schedule should be developed after careful evaluation of all issues (i.e., weather concerns, potential tenant disruption) that drive the timing of a specific project. First, start with the date that the renovated space must be ready and work backward. Be sure to allocate sufficient time for each project phase, including pre-design services, design and construction. The design-review process, the time necessary to order materials and the contracting relationship on the project also need to be calculated into the final schedule.

The goal of the project schedule is to keep the renovation flowing smoothly without sacrificing quality of construction work or going over budget. Delays to the schedule resulting from unforeseen existing conditions have the single-largest impact on the budget. All subsequent project issues should be addressed and resolved as they arise so any obstacles that could compromise the schedule are dealt with immediately.

Prepare a contingency budget

Even the most carefully planned project can be hit with a few surprises. To handle any unforeseen setbacks, it is wise to set aside a contingency budget of approximately 15 percent. This contingency fund should be developed above and beyond the allocated budget for the project. That way, any unexpected costs can be handled while staying within formal budget parameters. A contingency fund can provide some breathing room.

Taking a proactive approach when planning a renovation helps to minimize the pitfalls that can sneak up during the construction process. While it requires some upfront consideration and legwork, proactive planning greatly improves the likelihood of a high-quality, cost-efficient project of which both the project team, tenant, and property manager can be proud.

Jennings is president of Johnson & Jennings General Contracting, a leading San Diego-based general contracting firm. More information about the company can be found at www.johnsonandjennings.com.

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