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NEWS ARTICLE

Supply Chain Crisis: Construction Challenges and Opportunities

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 School Business Affairs magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.

Districts can overcome supply chain issues and ensure successful projects on time and within budget. By Matt McGregor and Sean Duncanson

As in most industries, supply chain issues are significantly affecting the construction field, and school facility projects are not immune. Schedules are disrupted, materials are in high demand, costs are skyrocketing, and labor shortages are commonplace. But take heart: there are ways to address these challenges and complete a successful project. In an exploration of recent and current school construction projects, we’ll separate the truth from the myths.

Myths and Reality

The most common myth is that no one can complete a project on schedule. In some cases, extenuating circumstances cause a project to be late, but most of the time the reason is poor planning. The main difficulty related to current construction project challenges is constant material and labor shortages. The problem may be one trade or product line this month and a completely different one the next.

Currently, stone, gravel, and concrete are readily available; however, items such as HVAC equipment, some electrical items, doors and hardware, and specialty construction items may have lead times as long as 12 months.

Supply Chain Challenges

A design and construction company may be exasperated by supply chain challenges involving errors and omissions, such as when an order placed months ago arrives with flaws or is incomplete.

Another issue that exemplifies common supply chain obstacles is when, for no apparent reason and with no warning, the supplier does not meet its initial shipping dates. Then, the project may be delayed because it is too late to order another product.

The biggest supply chain problem lately has been mechanical cooling units. Because many manufacturers are having difficulty obtaining necessary electrical parts, assembly is sometimes delayed for up to eight months beyond the original schedule. If the delay necessitates some form of work-around, the school district may agree to have the contractor change out the cooling unit during the school year instead of during the summer break.

Overcoming the Challenges

Every school construction project manager must keep up with the long-term schedule and check in regularly with contractors and vendors to avoid or minimize challenges in scheduling. Regular conversations with vendors can result in networking that provides references to vendors with a similar product in stock and willing to prioritize a product request with the manufacturer.

Expanding a network of suppliers and contractors is time well spent. The power of connections, networking, relationships, and trust reaps benefits in these scenarios.

An integrated planning, design, and construction approach addresses material and product availability more successfully. Redesigning when necessary, soliciting multiple bid packages, and consistently asking “What are our options?” lead to success. Seeking information from a third party (such as industry associations) related to current costs and completion times contributes to making informed decisions on realistic project schedules.

Frequent two-way communication with all key stakeholders pays dividends. Realistic expectations and plans for potential disruptions are imperative; agility and creativity are key qualities in this environment. Good communication is important not only with vendors, suppliers, and contractors, but also with the school districts and the entire project team.

It’s imperative that everyone is aware of the many components of the projects with long lead times. Getting the whole team (the district, architects, engineers, and construction managers) on the same page early in the process is key to developing a successful plan, which often involves creative what-if scenarios on how to keep the project on track. These plans can drive the schedule throughout the design, bidding, and construction.

Recent Successes

When we needed construction materials recently but didn’t know the exact materials or quantity required, we purchased manufacturing time slots from the vendor to hold a spot in line for ordering those products. Then, during the design stage, we determined the materials and quantities needed and entered them into our reserved time slot, thus keeping our project on schedule.

In one instance, in anticipation of a project yet to be designed, it was necessary to order steel bar joists 12 months ahead of production. We reserved a production spot at the factory. And a few months later when the roof structure had been designed, we sent the specifications to the manufacturer to create the shop drawings needed for final review, approval, and production. The bar joists were delivered to the construction site on the exact day the vendor had promised 12 months previously.

When we began to design another school project, we realized that orders for the gear for the new electrical service required a 13-month lead time; we knew we would not have it in time for the first construction phase. The creative solution was to install all the infrastructure while construction was occurring, but to back-feed electric service from nearby existing facilities until the new electric service was available, thus providing an operational system for the upcoming school year.

On the same school project, plans called for HVAC equipment; the desired units were projected to have between seven- and eight-month lead times. Our design schedule called for us to wrap up and send out bid packages in early January, with our first phase of construction starting in April, and projected completion in late August for the students to return in September.

We recognized very early that, because of supply chain problems, we needed to devise an alternative plan. Our solution was to send an early procurement bid package for the HVAC equipment and components, which gave us three months to get the needed equipment on the premises to accommodate the planned schedule.

Creativity And Collaboration

Alternative plans always require tight coordination with extra time allowed for logistics and details. Creativity and collaboration are vital to keeping a project on track. Staying agile in a construction environment is critical for the success of the project. A willingness to change products or materials—such as the interior finishes of a building, or modifications to the structure as a whole—might be just what it takes to deliver on time and within budget.

Looking at the project from a broader view—with an accent on early design and material availability—is critical for the success of any project, specifically school projects with very tight schedules and “can’t miss” deadlines. Make sure that your design and construction team puts together the best plan to provide the welcome that students and staff deserve when they return in the fall.

 

Matt McGregor is director of project management with Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc., Appleton, Wisconsin. Email: mamcgregor@hoffman.net
Sean Duncanson is a project manager at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc. Email: sduncanson@hoffman.net