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Q&A with Mike Cooper: What Does Successful Construction Management Look Like?
Publication Date
October 19th 2020, 9:00 am

Michael Cooper is a senior construction manager who works out of Urban’s Irving, TX location. He most recently has been working on the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) Trinity River Bridge project, which involves six bridges, the rehabilitation of a historic bridge, and the addition of a second track to reduce train headways and conflicting schedules. We talked to Mike – who has more than 35 years of experience – to find out what a successful construction management project looks like:


Q: What role do construction managers play in construction projects?


A: Most times, a construction project will finish the way it starts. A construction manager must quickly understand the project’s scope and contract, communicate the expectations of the owner, and anticipate, assess, manage, and mitigate risks embedded in project delivery.


An operative construction manager whose role consists of a wide range of duties should know Best Management Practices – or BMPs – and Key Performance Indicators – KPIs – that proactively ensure the project is executed within the contractual constraints. Examples include establishing measurements of performance data that integrate cost and schedule status, defining clear team roles and responsibilities, and offering critical analysis of contractor work planning and delivery processes.


An accomplished construction manager will also provide leadership, generate trust with the owner and contractor, be driven by efficient solutions, manage change; and add value by participation in the constant improvement of the project throughout its delivery.


Q: What qualifications should owners look for in selecting a firm as a construction manager?


A: Beyond the firm’s ability and capacity to provide qualified personnel, the owner must believe that their project is considered a top priority by the firm they are hiring and its assigned personnel. Firms like Urban demonstrate to the owners that top-level leadership is attendant to the project, offering knowledge, availability, and responsiveness at a moment’s notice. The project comes first.


Other attributes owners should look for in selecting a construction management firm include collaborative team approaches and value-added management that can actualize integrated project delivery. Strong construction management teams will invest in the success of projects and provide individuals who take a team approach and will hold themselves accountable to the approach. The individuals should have a complete understanding of risk and management, are solution driven, and take project ownership.


A qualified construction management team will possess the experience that provides early recognition of issues and potential claims. They will be committed to transparency with the owner and able to handle crises on behalf of them. A good construction manager knows and can forecast the ‘hot buttons’ of the contractor; is able to persuade the timely processing and management of submittals, RFIs, and change orders; and be a problem solver for all project needs.


Q: What can construction managers do to make a project move more smoothly?


A: Construction managers can make projects move more smoothly by having a committed and vested interest in the owner’s desired outcomes. They can set up and perform advanced planning, evaluate the project by hosting detailed preconstruction and constructability reviews with the contractor and the Engineer of Record – or EOR – as well as the stakeholders. The maintenance of a disciplined schedule of all required inspections that ensure compliance throughout delivery helps to eliminate rework, non-conformance reports (NCRs), and project delays.


Other measures that can be taken to make a project run more smoothly include requiring regular environmental reviews, performing trend analysis for KPIs, maintenance of project controls, and to demand adherence to process. They should also meet regularly with project inspectors to guarantee that knowledge of the work is comprehensive and the form of inspection serves the contract requirements.


Q: What are some challenges you have faced on a recent project, and what solutions did you use to overcome them?


A: On the TRE Trinity River Bridge project, the largest challenge was managing new construction next to, and on, live track condition operations. A limit of only 20 days was allowed for track outages during the 18-month schedule. Because of these limitations, the project schedule was immediately viewed as problematic and required modification from its first submission. Through Value Engineering of one rail bridge over a Texas DOT freeway – which was originally designed and scheduled for four phases and 50 days of construction – our team modified the design and phasing and reduced the original duration by enlisting around-the-clock construction for a period of 10 days, keeping all trains active on a second siding track. This also allowed for the return of substantial funds back to the project and eliminated schedule risk and potential downtime to passing trains. The preparation for this solution required coordination and cooperation of a number of parties, including guarantees for track access for Amtrak, Union Pacific, BNSF, and the Trinity Railway Express. I am most proud of this accomplishment, which is shared by many project members; starting with the contractor, the EOR, the quality control team, the construction management staff, the Texas DOT, and fieldcraft. It was a true team win!


Q: You work in Texas. Is there any difference between construction management in the Southwest compared to other regions of the country?


A: Having opportunities to have worked in all four corners of the United States– including Alaska, northern and southern California, coupled with stints overseas in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan – I have found many differences in how construction management needs to operate. Differences include project labor agreements; labor productions; scheduling for historical and unplanned weather events; the use of local versus national contractors; language barriers; design applications; soil compositions; and more. There can be differences regarding quality assurance, approaches to safety, project owners’ expectations, cultural differences, and even just basic “east and west of the Mississippi” construction terminology. It is important to familiarize yourself and keep up to date with regulations – and even colloquialisms – in the region you are working to be effective.


In Texas, I find schedule and cost due to labor productions differ quite noticeably from experiences in other states. As an owner’s representative and construction manager, ascertaining the reliability of and ultimate approval of cost loaded project schedules produced by the contractor no matter in what region must be accorded extreme diligence prior to approval.


Q: What steps have been taken at construction sites to combat the spread of COVID-19?


A: General steps that are being taken include the use of face masks, distancing, personal hygiene, and face shields when appropriate. We also have been limiting face-to-face meetings, checking temperatures prior to beginning work, and alternating work schedules in typically congested work areas.


Q: What does successful construction management look like?


A: One important element of construction management is Client Service Management. Familiarity with and the delivery to the owner's needs and/or expectations, which are not always spelled out in the contract, are paramount. On the whole, exhibiting project ownership and delivering a safe and quality project within budget and schedule – and with no claims – while maintaining respected and professional relationships at project end, is a targetable and measurable result of what successful construction management can be.


Other attributes of successful construction management include efficient startup and day one project closeout; result-oriented collaboration throughout project delivery; providing schedule certainty; minimizing inconvenience to the public expeditious submittal reviews; quick turnaround of RFIs; and prompt negotiation of change orders. You will know a project has been successful when the risk to the owner and the contractor was minimized, trend analysis was utilized and responded to, and mitigation and prevention of claims were accomplished.


Q: Where do you see construction management going in the future?


A: I believe that project owners will – or should –include construction management earlier in the design process and provide them an increased role in stakeholder management and public information. The construction management field should also consider a greater emphasis on platform applications and technology, including more exposure to project team members from 2D to 3D applications and increased automation through the use of artificial intelligence and the use of drones as a vehicle to communicate real-time field issues.