What Does Preconstruction Mean—and How Does It Predict Building Success?

March 31, 2022 Zac Hays, Autodesk Director

  • Preconstruction is the work that takes place between finalizing the building design and beginning construction.
  • Activities in the preconstruction phase include model coordination, quantification, estimating, and bidding.
  • Improving connected workflows through cloud-based data during preconstruction improves efficiency, preempts problems, and helps avoid any costly delays later on.

Construction is one of the most collaborative industries in the world. Over the years, I’ve seen customers take on megaprojects that required more than 1,000 different companies to collaborate effectively. But despite the clear need to work together, many project teams today remain incredibly fragmented.

This is due to siloed workflows caused by a lack of technology integration. A lack of transparency around key activities—collecting bids from subcontractors, talking to the owner, vetting vendors, and double-checking design issues with architects and engineers—often keeps project teams in the dark, creating a lot of rework later on in the construction process.

To mitigate these risks, improve project outcomes, and reduce unnecessary cost and schedule overruns, all designers, contractors, and tradespeople need access to accurate, real-time project data. Using tools such as BIM (Building Information Modeling) and cloud-based solutions for preconstruction activities like bid management can help teams connect the complex web of professionals that turn a design into a fully realized building.

An architect's vision becomes a constructable plan during preconstruction.
In the preconstruction phase, an architect’s vision is translated into constructable plans.

What Is Preconstruction?

Preconstruction refers to all the work done after the design is complete and before the building begins. It’s all about transforming the architect’s vision into constructable plans that contractors and construction teams can use. This phase between a finished design and field construction is a fiendishly complex period that determines the success or failure of a project.

Architects are responsible for converting what’s called the “design intent” into construction documents that they will pass on to the general contractor (GC). These documents show visually what the building should look like, with all the components and architectural elements. Then, it’s the general contractor’s job to interpret those instructions into documents and models the project team can actually use. Translating the design intent into something that’s constructable, then coming up with a plan to build that refined concept, takes much more than calculating costs or ordering materials.

Why Is Preconstruction Important?

It’s backstage and behind-the-scenes, yes, but preconstruction is about more than coordination and planning. Preconstruction is where you win the work and make the money; everything else revolves around trying not to lose it. This is where builders make their margins and profits within the project scope. General contractors get plans in place to minimize risk, set up the bidding process, solicit trade partners, set actual schedules, and execute.

Many construction firms see the value in a more organized and digitally savvy preconstruction process and have altered their management methods to support more robust collaboration.

3 Primary Approaches to Preconstruction

  • Design-bid-build: In the traditional design-bid-build process, an architect designs a project, and then the owner takes bids and hires a general contractor who uses subcontractors and supplier bids to create an estimate. This multistep system often leads to less flexibility during preconstruction and higher costs.
  • Design-build: A popular alternative is the design-build method, in which the owner hires a contractor to be in charge of both design and construction.
  • Integrated project delivery: The integrated project delivery (IPD) approach sees the owner, general contractor, architect, and major subcontractors and suppliers enter into a mutual contract, creating a “miniorganization” that collectively figures out goals, costs, risks, and responsibilities. Although not right for every project, this method has many converts and can yield significant time and cost savings.

Preconstruction teams complete projects in digital spaces before building in the physical world.

What Are the Preconstruction Phase Activities?

Preconstruction teams complete projects in digital spaces before building in the physical world. The right collaboration solutions become vital; estimating, designing, and revising happen simultaneously, so there aren’t strict phases to evolve the project. The more collaboratively teams can work in the digital space, the better those teams can understand the project’s scope: Estimates are more accurate, contractors and trades have more faith in their bids and schedules, and changes are easier to implement.

The entire process can be broken down into a handful of distinct preconstruction workflows, which happen concurrently.

Model Coordination

Model coordination is key to the structural security of a project. This process is designed to guarantee models are constructable, which requires a massive collaborative undertaking among contractors, trades, and designers to coordinate all multidisciplinary models. Teams rely on BIM software to collaborate and eliminate any clashes, avoiding many costly mistakes later down the road. It’s always much cheaper to make alterations in the model before construction begins in the field.

Traditionally, architects use design-review software, which lets them collaborate on various models to manage the design process, looking at different facets of the building’s layout, footprint, and mechanical performance. With integrated design review and model coordination workflows in a single solution, such as Autodesk BIM Collaborate, teams can really stay on the same page every step of each change and ensure issues are managed appropriately.

Architects view a digital project model during the preconstruction phase.
Model coordination is critical to ensure structural security and eliminate clashes.

Quantification

Concurrently with model coordination, a phase called quantification, or quantity takeoff, is when estimators work on sheet plans to determine the volume of materials needed for a project, from steel to wood to concrete. Every coordinated and conditioned model needs to be converted into quantities to be sourced, delivered, and worked into a universal construction timeline.

Most contractors quantify sheets, but the ability to also perform takeoff on models ensures the utmost accuracy. Integrating 2D and 3D quantification in a single solution, such as Autodesk Takeoff, is becoming a game changer for estimators looking to speed up the quantification process without sacrificing quality.

Estimating

In tandem, estimators calculate costs and prices based on those quantities, as well as other budget items, such as labor, equipment sourcing, and rentals. These figures help determine a final budget.

Bidding

With estimates in hand, it’s much easier to determine the right trade partners for contractors. Sometimes, GCs have to to bid out work before arriving to final estimates. But without effective bid-management software, such as Autodesk BuildingConnected, it’s difficult to manage the bidding processes to help confirm final budgets and schedules.

The bidding process fuses elements of planning and negotiating. First, competing firms submit bids (sometimes known as tenders) to undertake a specific project or part of a project. They arrive at their bid by calculating a cost estimate based on an analysis of historical data, existing project plans, and the material takeoff. A more robust takeoff, the bill of quantities, is prepared by quantity surveyors and building estimators to include labor costs.

What Are Preconstruction Best Practices?

Contractors can take steps to make the preconstruction process more intelligent and efficient. Every jobsite should have logistics and material delivery worked out in advance and build in plenty of time for permitting and meeting with local officials. Planning for contingencies can help manage customer expectations.

Use BIM Software

Perhaps the most effective tool for successful planning is leveraging BIM data. Integrating it to solutions adds a dynamic layer to preconstruction outcomes. The most integrated BIM software can coordinate things such as equipment loads, assess the impact of transportation on scheduling, create real-time budget information, and detail requirements and regulations that impact project delivery. BIM is like metadata: It allows any BIM expert to manipulate models to whatever degree they wish and extract the most detailed information to ensure the design is constructable.

Prequalify Subcontractors

Prequalifying subcontractors helps mitigate risk during the bidding and hiring processes. Using a digital tool such as TradeTapp and asking potential trade partners to organize and submit their financial health, certifications, and safety history make it much quicker to find and hire the right trade partners.

There’s so much information being generated across different teams that connecting everyone to the same models with cloud-based technology ensures issues, addenda, and much more are shared with the entire team instantly. Instead of a game of telephone that wastes time and money, everyone has access to the right data when they need it to make informed decisions, minimizing risks and information gaps on the jobsite.

What Are the Benefits of Preconstruction?

In short, thorough preconstruction planning yields:

  • Clarity
  • Transparency
  • Teamwork
  • Savings

Preconstruction is all about getting things right from the beginning, so improving the process brings more efficiency to the project, preempts problems, helps teams stay on schedule, and ultimately keeps the projects on budget.

Connecting your model coordination and takeoff solutions to your field project-management solution in a common data environment (CDE) offers powerful advantages, like transparent change management and keeping data as accurate as possible through this chain of processes.

Connected preconstruction processes promise an exciting future—one that’s better for everyone involved. In a more connected workflow, more adjustments can be made on the fly, leading to better and faster builds and ultimately a superior product that costs less. Multiple teams can find cost savings and communicate directly with architects and designers. Improved communication also builds trust and creates better relationships among owners, suppliers, subcontractors, and general contractors.

Transitioning to a design-build or IPD process offers many benefits, but subcontractors are often stuck in old ways and workflows, still doing things with pen and paper. And teams with experience in government projects—which have strict rules about fair and competitive bidding, where everyone has to bid on the same project plans—can be slow to adopt new methodologies.

Construction teams view materials onsite during preconstruction.
Improving preproduction processes helps teams stay on schedule and on budget.

Helping Solve Construction’s Productivity Problem

The industry’s productivity problem is actually a coordination and information problem that starts in preconstruction, says Cliff Cole at Penta Building Group.

“Most of the productivity loss comes from the lack of information or incorrect information, and that causes rework, rework causes schedule delays, and schedule delays cause cost impacts,” he says. “Autodesk Construction Cloud enables connected construction by providing a single platform with different modules for different people. Regardless of whether you’re in the field, in the office, or traveling between jobsites, you’re connected with people inside your company and outside your company.”

“There are so many parties that are not at the construction site but are vital to what we do as a contractor every day; having all those parties connected in a seamless environment is really what being connected means to me,” says Greg Scott, a project director with Webcor Builders.

4 Keys to the Present and Future of Preconstruction

As more firms prioritize the preconstruction process, it’s important to continue refining the process. That starts with four main components:

1. Move Data Into the Cloud

Every project team should endeavor to get all information into the cloud: So many mistakes on the jobsite occur because somebody didn’t have the right information at the right time.

The construction industry has traditionally lagged behind the other industries that rely on data-sharing best practices. Small and medium-size construction firms often aren’t able to heavily invest in modern digital technology because they lack the resources to implement proper information-technology infrastructure. This is why less-expensive, cloud-based central data hubs that facilitate easy collaboration of design documents and models are the ideal choice. They don’t require onsite data storage, either. So construction firms can now take advantage of the benefits of better IT solutions, which were previously financially out of reach.

A construction worker is prepared to access data using a tablet onsite, thanks to preconstruction.
Connected workflows give teams access to design documents, data, and other assets within shared systems.

2. Create a Connected Workflow

Creating digital assets and data repositories in the cloud makes all information accessible to the appropriate teams. Design documents, material data, and scheduling, among other assets, all live within the same shared system.

With a connected workflow, the data in the cloud becomes useful, ensuring updates, changes, comments, and additions can be seen and approved in real time. Estimates flow through bidding, contracting, and sourcing phases while shifts in assets or costs are duly recorded and easy to reference. Changes to design documents are instantaneous, and requests for information (RFIs) are documented and searchable, eliminating repeat questions. Important preconstruction changes and updates are saved and shareable to workers in the field, eliminating time spent searching for the right information.

3. Use the Cloud to Manage a Solid Network

Connected workflows guide successful projects, but building a reliable construction network that can be used to hire the right labor for the right jobs is how business can maintain profitability over time. Without a cloud-based relationship-management platform that ensures accurate data, the size of the network won’t matter. A well-managed, crowd-sourced professional construction network institutes accountability and eliminates risks by facilitating downstream workflows that give the right talent access to the right parts of a project.

4. Embrace Automation

The right workflows and solutions can help teams automate manual processes, which results in decreasing costs and time for construction projects. Moving toward robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t about eliminating jobs—it’s about removing unnecessary bottlenecks, freeing project partners from tedious tasks, and having the project data facilitate the right conversations. This way, project teams can make smarter decisions and help complete each of the phases on time. Experts believe automation will make workers more efficient and productive and add more construction jobs over time.

AI can facilitate preconstruction workflows by automatically updating materials and bids based on design changes made in real time. Teams shouldn’t have to spend time manually recounting quantities and then resubmitting that data to their estimates. When automation takes care of those tasks, preconstruction teams can apply critical thinking skills toward strategic problems. Automation will free everyone from spending time and money on tedious tasks.

This article has been updated. It was originally published in March 2021.

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