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Talent + Technology = Success: The Shifting Landscape of Preconstruction Roles and Ideology
Steve Dell’Orto • 14 Dec 2023

Talent + Technology = Success: The Shifting Landscape of Preconstruction Roles and Ideology

This discussion features ConCntric’s Founder and CEO, Steve Dell’Orto and Talent Expert, Gareth McGlynn, who is the Managing Director of Niche SSP, a firm of staffing experts that help connect companies with the most talented Estimators across the United States.

How has technology changed the preconstruction process in the construction industry, and what new roles and responsibilities have emerged as a result?

Steve Dell’Orto: Technology has made things faster. Speed—in terms of communication—is far more rapid and far more convenient. Along with that, people’s expectations of how fast they expect to have an answer have also accelerated. That’s great, because the faster we can all get things done or deliver projects—particularly with the important needs that a lot of these projects serve, be it a hospital, place of education or housing—the better. 

I think the challenge we’ve had so far is that while technology has greatly impacted the speed at which we communicate, and thus, greatly increased the speed at which we expect things to be, the work that needs to be done to respond faster hasn’t kept up. 

The devices that aren’t construction-specific have a huge impact on what we do in our industry, but we’ve lagged in the development and in the embrace of the very things that would allow work at that increased pace, to keep up with that speed of communication. It’s a good news and a bad news story in some respects. But I think there also lies thein opportunity for the industry to quickly ramp up the way we respond and do the work just as rapidly as the demand for us to have the answers.

Gareth McGlynn: Think about when the mobile phone arrived and how quickly we were expected to respond to everything, even emails. It took us a while to adapt to the rules and responsibilities that have emerged as a result. 

In regards to technology, there’s going to be a lot of rules within preconstruction in particular. It’s going to be data-focused and centered around finding the right data and cleaning that data up. I’m excited to see that part of it. Hopefully, the construction industry can steal some of those data guys from the tech world, the financial services world and the analytics world. I think by mixing incredibly good technology with incredibly good and talented people with a construction background you’ve got a nice recipe for success.

Steve Dell’Orto: If you take a step back and look at where we started with BIM, it was a lot of clash detection. It was largely focused on the early stages of the construction phase of the project; looking at the designs after the fact and then going through the process of reorienting or untangling the design into something that you’re ultimately going to install.

With experts from the construction side getting into the model and working alongside the design team, the value has been pulled forward into preconstruction. Experts that companies are bringing into the conversation in precon are hugely valuable in terms of helping people visualize the design as it’s developing and optimizing those situations. As you’re developing and planning in preconstruction, visualizing and optimizing the schedule in the planning phase is extremely important. 

One of the projects that I was involved in, in my prior life as a General Contractor, was the Golden State Warriors Arena. Our team did an excellent job taking that model in the preconstruction phase and starting to model not just the building, but a series of buildings, the arena and office buildings, and looking at it from a resource perspective and a flow. We looked at how to optimize and sequence the project very carefully. And with visualization, we were able to do that. We were also building caddy-corner to a major hospital, which had a flight path for the Life Flight helicopter, so incorporating all of those external, environmental aspects into the plan was important. It would have taken a lot back in the day without BIM and the VDC experts. 

I think it’s a great example of the evolution of how technology has been successfully implemented in the industry. And even if it’s done in the construction phase, it’s finding its way and getting pulled to the earlier stage of planning. However, there are just too few examples of that. We need more technology and we need more data usage to help us plan better, more accurately and in many different ways. The change is there and things are progressing, we just need to make sure we’re doing it fast enough to meet the needs and demands that our industry deserves.

What new skills and competencies will be required for preconstruction estimators in the coming years, and how can workers in this field stay up-to-date with these changes?

Gareth McGlynn: This is a question I get asked a lot, both on the candidate side and the client side, with Niche SSP. I always steer them to four key skills: the first is focus, the second is communication, the third is passion and the fourth is emotional intelligence. 

Now, the first skill, focus, is important because increasingly complex projects keep coming up and they’re getting larger. I had somebody on the podcast talking about wastewater and water projects. These projects used to be around $70 million, the large ones, and now they’re $250-300 million. They are huge projects and much more complex. So the ability of preconstruction professionals and estimators to prioritize and quickly analyze data and assess risks effectively is crucial. The only way you can do that is by focusing. If you don’t have that focus, it’s easily lost. We all talk about it. I’ve got two young kids, I can’t get them to focus. We’re all getting distracted all the time. How do you weed that out in an interview stage? It’s difficult. 

The second skill is communication. We all know how important communication is. It’s the cornerstone of every successful preconstruction team that I speak to. If they don’t have good communication, then it’s nearly impossible to get anything done. There’s also their ability to articulate ideas, both internally and externally. If you have a client or company saying to a preconstruction team, “Listen, we’re going to build this project and it’s completely outside your sphere but you have to articulate how you are going to build it with data and storytelling.” You have to be able to communicate A) why you should take it on or B) why you shouldn’t take it on. 

External communication is just as important. You have to be able to know your numbers as a preconstruction professional, and as an estimator, and then be able to articulate and tell the story behind the numbers. Owners want to know where the numbers came from, how you got to the numbers, and why the numbers are there. 

The third skill is passion. If you don’t have passion, it’s difficult to enjoy your work. Having passion and the ability to continuously improve your craft, whether that be preconstruction or BIM modeling, you have to have a strong sense of ownership and pride in your work. If you have a passion for something, you’re always going to seek out innovative solutions and stay up to date with industry trends. That’s what real preconstruction managers and estimators need to be doing. 

The final trait is emotional intelligence which revolves around teamwork and collaboration. Emotional Intelligence is so important. It’s hard being a preconstruction manager and estimator. Every meeting you go into, you’ve got to fight your way out of it. Everyone’s questioning you saying, “Where did you get those numbers? How did we get the numbers that high? That’s too low.” Everybody has their opinions. As a preconstruction manager, you have to have the emotional intelligence to be able to navigate complex personal dynamics and also manage stress. It’s a stressful job that we hope will become easier with technology. 

Steve Dell’Orto: That’s what I love about this series. It’s recognizing both the importance of talent and technology, and Gareth is 100% right. From a talent perspective, all of those traits are the most critical. Skills and competencies are not just on the technology side. However, a future preconstruction professional needs to be able to make sense of data. We are in a digital age where data is the most valuable thing that everybody’s trying to get their hands on. In our industry, people are starting to realize that data from the past, when used more holistically, greatly improves the outcomes, communication and confidence people will have when recommending, sharing or presenting information. 

You don’t have to be into computer science to understand data, but you do need to recognize that the expectations of others on what you’re presenting are no longer going to be accepted at face value. Owners are going to want to see proof and they are going to want the data behind what you’re saying. This includes more preparation and more thoughtfulness around the conclusions you’re drawing, Platforms and solutions are helping structure that data for you. It’s a whole new world all about the data. 

Piggybacking on what Gareth was saying, on the talent side of the equation, I think leadership is going to be a critical aspect of what the preconstruction professional, particularly from the builder side, is expected to bring. In my years I saw more and more owners, whether they were public agencies or private developers, look to the builder as their center pole of the tent in the effort. When it comes to decision-making, a lot of it boils down to cost and time. The builder needs to come to the table and help drive the process. No matter what the contractual arrangement is, you’re still expected to be the leader, drive the process, and challenge the design and the design team. You should be paying attention to permitting and looking way ahead at the items that could be a threat to the success of the project. Precon professionals need to be the shepherd of the whole planning process to bring it to a successful start of construction. And then if the plan is right, the certainty of outcome at the end of construction will have been the result of that leadership and guidance. At the end of the day, the builder is the one who’s accepting the risk—to complete that project for the set sum of money and timetable—so they should be taking the lead on the project. Precon professionals need to recognize that that’s what they have to grow into, and that’s what they have to develop on their own to be successful in our industry.

How has the importance of preconstruction roles in the construction industry evolved, and what factors have contributed to this evolution?

Steve Dell’Orto: I’ve been around long enough where, in the early part of their career, the predominant delivery method was the hard bid. I like to call it the “rip ‘em and read ‘em” delivery, by owners public and private. That can be successful, but more often than not, it leads to a lot of claims and litigation. The process is not fun and doesn’t involve much collaboration. People started to question why they weren’t bringing the contractor in earlier. In my career, I went from the contractor being brought in two or three months before the end of preconstruction to sometimes bringing the contractor in before the architect. The benefit is that everyone is living and breathing this preconstruction journey throughout the whole process. 

There’s been a significant evolution in the industry calling for more early collaboration with the owner, the architect and the builder, and not just the GC, but also key trade contractor partners. In doing so, a couple of things have happened: 1) the way projects are being delivered in terms of contract delivery has changed for the better 2) people have adapted and become more adept at conceptual estimating. They can anticipate what hasn’t been designed and factor that into the estimate.

I think people have evolved to step up and take hold of the process and positively lead. FMI has measured that—I can’t remember the exact year but—by 2025 or 2027, more than 87% of all projects will be delivered in some form of collaborative delivery format. If you think about what could happen in 20 or 30 years, there could be a significant change in the way the projects are delivered. 

Preconstruction professionals have, at the talent level, adapted quite well, but what hasn’t evolved much at all is the underlying system or processes involved in preconstruction. They have not kept up with that rate of progress, moving to a much more effective, higher degree of collaboration way of delivering projects. A lot has to change to be able to support what has proven to be a far more effective way of going through the preconstruction phase and delivering projects but imagine how much more powerful it would be if you could marry true technology output. If we can get rid of ad hoc spreadsheets circa the 1980s and static graphs, we will change that aspect of preconstruction for the better. With new technology, projects are going to be delivered far more predictably, affordably, and sustainably.

Gareth McGlynn: Preconstruction has evolved so much from 25-30 years ago. These people were literally in a dark room with their heads down counting doors, handles and screws. They were doing a project, moving on, getting three prices from subcontractors, picking the lowest price generally, putting in that number, making sure the number was right, and then moving on. 

Now, as you say, they’re going through the preconstruction phase for two or three years. They’re getting to see the project modeled as well as some stages visibly being put together in front of them. They never really used to question a subcontractor back in the day but now they’re able to ask the right questions and now they have to listen very attentively to the answer because they’re going to have to relay that answer to the client. It’s now up to preconstruction people to make sure the numbers are solid and correct. It’s just very difficult to ask someone who’s used to doing one thing to completely switch and try something else. 

I think we need to be patient with the “people side” of it as well because as technology develops, it will empower people and it will make their job a little bit easier.  The design-build collaborative approach is just going to make everybody’s life so much easier. It’s going to allow the preconstruction managers and estimators to enjoy their job and get satisfaction from it. It’s going to be different, but they’re going to get a lot more enjoyment from it.

Steve Dell’Orto: What Gareth just mentioned is exactly why I left the general contracting space and started up ConCntric. I just saw our people pulling their hair out because times had changed and expectations of owners changed. They were almost fighting a fight with two hands behind their back. The intention was there and they would go the extra mile to try to prepare, but they were putting in 5 or 6 hours of work for a 30-minute meeting in which they spoke for 10 minutes. The precon person would stand up in a meeting and get asked 3 or 4 different questions from different angles because everyone was trying to understand what was being presented. They couldn’t always anticipate questions so a lot of the time they would have to come back with an answer in two weeks. Think about how much time is wasted when you’re waiting on these two-week intervals to recompute, come back and present again. That’s just the lack of an underlying system. It drove me crazy and I wasn’t even the one going through and doing all the hard work to prepare for these meetings. 

Our people deserve and need something far more sophisticated, dynamic and reactive so that you can go into a meeting and everything’s at your fingertips. Something that guides the client, the design team, or anybody you’re having a conversation with. I wanted to be able to dynamically leverage the data that we had at our fingertips to represent or provide answers for those particular questions, and you can’t do that with a spreadsheet. 

We used to go into meetings with canvas reusable shopping bags full of binders with everything printed off that you could have. We would be flipping through 500-page documents in a binder, digging for answers, which usually took longer than anybody had the attention. No matter what preparation you had, it was still highly archaic, and we can do far better than that. 

Gareth McGlynn: Absolutely. It’s all about looking after the precon folks. Imagine having that pressure going in there knowing that at that stage it wasn’t collaborative. It was all left to the precon person. The Project Executive wouldn’t have known the numbers—maybe a rough idea—but it was all on the Preconstruction Manager and Estimator to provide the answers to several questions. Everyone should be in sync with what’s going on in the schedule and the numbers should be available whether it’s good or bad. The future of preconstruction is becoming more exciting.

Follow ConCntric on LinkedIn, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter), to stay up to date on when the next interview will go live. To demo ConCntric’s platform, click here.

Follow Gareth McGlynn on LinkedIn or visit Niche SSP for information regarding the recruitment process of preconstruction estimators.

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