Monthly Archives: April 2010

Build a Green (in more ways than one) Future

Hi everybody.  This is my first ever blog post.  If I went back in time to, say, 15 years ago, and I told myself that I would be doing a blog post, I wonder what the heck I would think my younger self was talking about?  Blog post.  Funny phrase.  Anyhow…

Last week Katie Zemtseff authored an article in DJC about AGC of America’s unveiling of its “Building a Green Future” policy document.  AGC of America released the document to protect the environment, improve our quality of life and all that, as well as to provide another avenue for job creation for an industry that continues to experience 20+ percent unemployment.

Take a look at the full document (click here).  It includes an extensive list of 30 recommended steps policymakers – and contractors – could take to build a greener future.  Here’s a sampling:

  • Expand the energy efficient commercial building tax deduction from $1.80 per square foot to $3 per square foot.  And convert the tax benefit into a tax credit.
  • Preempt Clean Air Act for greenhouse gas emissions.  Efforts to build green could be halted and delayed by heavy-handed regulation of buildings under the Clean Air Act through stationary source permitting programs that were never intended to address GHG emissions.
  • Double investment levels in federal highway, transit, aviation, freight and rail programs.  By increasing highway and road capacity and improving traffic flow at 233 bottlenecks nationwide, CO2 emissions would be reduced by as much as 77 percent.
  • Incorporate environmental stewardship into day-to-day operations.  Some construction companies have found that an environmental management system (EMS) is one way to remain competitive.  An EMS is a company-wide, systems-based approach to managing environmental risk and voluntarily improving environmental performance.

Of the dozens of recommendations, which do you think are the most feasible, either physically doable or politically achievable?  Any of these have particular appeal in Washington State?  What else might have been included on the list?

Double header

As luck would have it, two of our special sections are running a day apart.

Today, you will find Construction & Equipment, which includes a story on where the Northwest construction economy is headed by Anirban Basu, the chief economist for the Associated Builders and Contractors. A generous part of the section will be dedicated to the local ABC chapter’s construction awards.

Nuts & Bolts blogger Matt Stodola is also writing about how to construct a stress-free wood-frame building. Finally, DJC staff interviewed six contractors, an equipment supplier and a land surveying firm about how their businesses are doing and what their prospects are.

Tomorrow, Building with Concrete will be at bat. It highlights the winners of 2010 Excellence in Concrete Construction awards from the Washington Aggregates and Concrete Association. Included will be an article by Edward Sullivan on where cement consumption is headed. Sullivan is the chief economist for the Portland Cement Association. Another article was written on self-healing concrete by University of Michigan professor Victor Li.

Both special sections are available online without subscription. That’s a home run.

Twitter me this!

Social media baffles the construction industry. The two primary ways I hear construction professionals refer to social media is one, as a toolset for kids, or two, as a way to gripe. This tunnel vision confuses me as someone who started his career in this industry, albeit six years ago, and was able to utilize a handful of tools for sales success only in the latter part of that time. These days there are so many more effective ways to run a construction business by leveraging the Internet. Going back to my very first year in the industry, if I were to pick one word that stood out more so than any other it would be relationships. You probably thought I was going to write “change order”; it would make the top three.

The construction industry is very much about relationships and the better an individual communicates, the better relationships he or she seems to maintain. So what does Twitter have to do with this? Well, Twitter just happens to be one tool out of many that can help facilitate a higher level of efficiency in communication when it comes to construction projects. For building industry companies, one of the best uses of Twitter would be as an intelligent text messaging service.

Whether you’re trying to quickly communicate among a team how to obtain a project, wanting to submit or respond to RFIs, curious about what product may be right for an aspect of the job, dealing with missing materials or delays on a construction site, or a whole number of other issues related to a construction project, the correct use of tools like Twitter could make life easier.

Now, I’m not advocating that all the readers of the Nuts & Bolts blog go out and start using Twitter, or any other communication tool. I’m asking you all to look at what tools exist today and question whether they could help you communicate more effectively with your prospects, clients, partners, and vendors; more efficiently so as to help you build better relationships and give you success on projects!

So while you are waiting for the bounce and trying to make a stronger name for your company, don’t forget that there is always a better way and sometimes a little time spent learning some tools can go a long way in building a better future.

Remember, it’s 2010.

That time of the year

Ah, spring is in the air (sort of) and construction companies are ramping up for another season (sort of). One thing that some contractors overlook, for one reason or another, is entering their projects for association awards.

Besides getting local (and sometimes national) bragging rights, awards can be good for your bottom line. When potential customers find out your firm has won a construction or safety award, they may be more inclined to hire you over Brand X. I believe awards can also fatten up employee morale.

One duty that comes with the territory of being a construction reporter is the role of judge. This year, I have sat on judging panels for the AGC of Washington, the ABC of Western Washington and the Washington Aggregates and Concrete Association. I have seen some amazing projects, but there always seems to be a few every year that don’t get submitted. Not sure of the reason why, but I know some in the past were definitely award-worthy contenders. That is a shame.

Then there are the great projects that get submitted, but fall on their faces when it comes to write-ups and presentations. Why not spend extra time on this or hire a pro to do it for you? Sloppy presentations are an indicator that management might also be sloppy. One project under consideration for a WACA award this year had NO write up to accompany a few photographs. Why bother?

Then there are the write-ups that technically comply with submittal requirements of say, one page in length. What do we get? One page, no paragraph breaks, no margins, 6 point type, etc. Next!

Now is the time to start thinking about next year’s awards. Record those interesting project details, snap photos of construction in progress and take the time to put together a knock-out presentation. The results could be rewarding.

Waiting for the bounce

We have all heard the past predictions of when the “bounce” in the construction market would occur. I remember hearing predictions that included the first quarter of ’09 and the fourth. And now, it certainly seems like it’s anybody’s guess.  For every encouraging sign — Quadrant announcing it is going to start acquiring land again on which to build houses — there are equally gloomy signs, including that the commercial sector appears to be significantly overbuilt for current needs.

Contractor clients and friends talk about the difficulty of finding work, and that what work is available is being taken at bid prices that approach (if not fall below) what is perceived to be “cost” for that work. In three short years, we have gone from a market in which contractor margins were at their highest in most people’s memory, to an owner’s market in which the few projects available are the target of intense competition, resulting in a great deal for those who have the wherewithal to build in these tough times.

The one trend that has become noticeable lately is that contractors have renewed their investment in trying to figure out how best to weather the current downtime. When the market first turned, attendance at construction seminars plummeted, as companies sought to “cut the fat” from their budgets. Even popular regularly-scheduled seminars that traditionally drew big crowds went wanting, and many were cancelled. But lately that trend has turned around.

Apparently owing to the need to expand traditional bases and become more competitive for the government-funded work that is coming online, seminars dealing with government contracting and alternate delivery methods have become exceptionally well attended as of. A recent seminar on design/build contracting drew more than 160 to a morning conference, where attendees heard from speakers on a variety of topics, both in regard to private and public work design/build methodologies.

Of course there are huge design/build projects on the way like the Seattle waterfront tunnel, and huge ones already under way, like portions of the Brightwater project. But even more, public owners like the University of Washington and Washington Department of Transportation are finding some real success with design/build. And, with both federal and state projects establishing more and more success with design/build, all kinds of firms — contractors, consultants, designers and even owners — appear anxious to know more about how they might compete in that arena.

I was involved in one of the UW’s first design/build procurements in the early ‘90s, which was a very rough experience both for us as the contractor, and for the owner, too. Even though the job was completed and still looks great today, lots of hard lessons were learned, and it soured the UW on design/build for quite a while. But lately, the UW, like other public owners, has renewed its interest in design/build, and completed an excellent design/build/operate project a few years ago which, in contrast to our job two decades ago, has been a real example of what’s possible.

So, while we all look to the horizon waiting to see the first signs of a real “bounce,” that effort might really be helped by those companies that are out trying to broaden their appeal, capitalize on their experience and find new ways to weather this storm.

Welcome to Nuts and Bolts

This is the third DJC blog, joining SeattleScape and Building Green. The goal for this blog is to become a community resource for the construction industry, not just for management but for those in the field as well.
We’ve assembled a great blog team and will likely add a few more bloggers as this (hopefully) gathers steam.
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Thanks and enjoy!