Plan Ahead for a Successful Office Renovation

Sept. 1, 2008

Proactive planning improves the likelihood of a high-quality, cost-efficient office project

Smart planning in the early stages increases your chances for a successful office renovation. Proactive planning can be very helpful in sidestepping the headaches that might otherwise plague a remodeling and/or expansion project. Follow these five steps to help the renovation process flow smoothly.

[Step 1] Identify Goals

To solidify specific project goals, answer certain questions and address areas of concern upfront. These include:

  1. What factors are driving the renovation (e.g. updating infrastructure systems, installing new technology, upgrading finishes, new tenants, changes to the function of the space, a desire to enhance aesthetics)?
  2. What issues will affect the schedule of the project? Will work take place while the building is occupied, or will it involve phased moves?
  3. What is the budget for the project? Does it include all available funds; has any money been left for contingencies?
  4. What outside entities (e.g. regulatory agencies) will the renovation team need to deal with during the course of the renovation?
  5. What are the quality expectations for various aspects of the build-out? Can the budget realistically support these expectations?

[Step 2] Put Together an Effective Team

One of the most crucial elements in a seamless renovation is having the right project team for the job. Establishing a team early, with all the required disciplines, builds a strong group that will work well together and develop a sense of ownership toward the project.

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. Many project teams don't bring a general contractor into the process until after construction documents are completed; however, the contractor's role 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 will ensure accurate test-fit budgeting and maximize cost efficiency. Drawing from extensive field experience, contractors can give valuable input on the project's preliminary budget. They also can validate the constructability of early design concepts and perform value engineering before a design is finalized or construction begins.

When soliciting proposals for 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 entails. During the interview process, ask for specifics on budgets, schedules, and change orders for 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. The facility executive should establish a strong relationship with the project team and be comfortable contacting them at any time or asking for information during the job meetings. This will help keep the executive 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.

[Step 3] Do Your Homework

To eliminate problems that frequently occur during renovations, the project team should conduct some upfront research on the building receiving the renovation. Although this research will require some added spending, it's far less expensive when compared to 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.
  • The condition of the building and its ability to support any renovations.
  • The quality of existing utilities.
  • The accuracy of past site evaluations.
  • Any historic elements.

Without a preliminary site evaluation, unforeseen conditions uncovered during construction (e.g. the 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.

Involving the local building inspector early on in the process is also advised vs. 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 at the beginning, the inspector can essentially become an advocate who helps implement the project.

If a regulatory entity, such as a historic review committee or 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.

[Step 4] Develop a Realistic Schedule

A misconception is that, because renovation work involves an existing building, it should be quicker than new construction—but that's not always the case. The key to an effective project schedule is to keep it realistic.

A schedule should be developed after careful evaluation of all issues that drive the timing of a specific project. Material lead times and potential tenant disruption are just a few examples that warrant consideration. First, start with the date that the renovated space must be ready; work backward. Be sure to allocate sufficient time for each project phase.

The goal of the project schedule is to keep the renovation flowing smoothly without sacrificing the 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 that any obstacles that could compromise the schedule are dealt with immediately.

[Step 5] Prepare a Contingency Budget

Even the most carefully planned project can be hit with a few surprises. To handle any unforeseen setbacks, it's wise to set aside a contingency budget of approximately 10 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 helps 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 the project team and owner can both be proud.

Jackie Jennings is president at Johnson & Jennings General Contracting, a San Diego-based general contracting firm that specializes in tenant improvements and commercial construction.

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