From Molehill To Mountain

Four retail construction “molehills” that can quickly turn into “mountains.”

By Chuck Taylor

Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a saying that applies to many facets of life, but definitely not to retail construction. In fact, it is often the small stuff that can make you — or break you — on a construction project, particularly in a fast-paced retail landscape where construction schedules are frequently compressed to meet a hard opening date that was set even before plans were sent out to bid. In this kind of time-sensitive environment, it is essential to watch out for seemingly small details that can easily add time and cost to a project. Here are four construction “molehills” to pay extra attention to before they turn into “mountains.”

Items Left “TBD” in Architectural Plans

It might not seem like a big deal if one or two finishes are unspecified in architectural drawings, but little details left undecided can come back and bite everyone in the long run. For one thing, it can delay the project if the contractor, architect and client have to go back and forth deciding on those TBD items. And if a contractor doesn’t have specific finishes to base costs on, the budget will be less-exact and subject to costly change orders.

To expand on this point, it is well worth it to invest in good plans and give your architect sufficient time to complete a set of drawings — particularly if you’re going out to bid with the project. Often when retail clients are repurposing or remodeling an existing space, or working with a small footprint, they don’t want to spend the money for an architect to do a site survey and review of existing conditions. But pricing will actually be much better with bids based on a complete picture of the project, rather than having items come up as change orders during construction.

Specialty Finishes

That exotic wood or unique tile the designer specified will look beautiful in your retail space, but keep in mind that non-standard finishes can quickly complicate a construction timeline. Specialty items often have longer lead times, which contractors will need to plan for when ordering materials. Likewise, sourcing materials from outside the country requires additional time and planning so the entire project isn’t delayed by waiting on one-of-a-kind flooring to arrive from Italy.

This is just one reason having your contractor involved up-front on a design-assist basis can be extremely valuable. Not only can contractors flag items that will have longer lead times and suggest local alternatives to finishes that are sourced out-of-country, they can also help value-engineer certain design features. An example of this is a column detail one retail client included in each of its stores. The concrete columns the designer specified were heavy, expensive to ship and difficult to install. The solution? A plaster alternative that looked identical, but was a fraction of the price. In the end, the solution shaved $25,000 off the project budget.

Details of the Landlord Work Letter

From a construction perspective, the Landlord Work Letter, which outlines exactly what the landlord is responsible for providing the tenant, is one of the most important elements of a retail lease deal. Retailers should pay close attention to the details of this letter because construction costs could be drastically impacted depending on what is and isn’t included.

This is especially true with existing infrastructure such as HVAC and water supply. As an example, if the Landlord Work Letter specifies the space is “as-is,” the tenant will be responsible for costs such as upsizing the water line if more bathrooms are to be added than the existing system can handle. You could also run into extra costs if your building has been grandfathered in on building code items such as sprinkler system requirements. When a permit is pulled to do a remodel in a grandfathered building, the municipality might require sprinkler installation as part of the work — and depending on what is included in the Landlord Work Letter, the cost might fall to the tenant.

The takeaway? It is extremely important to know what’s in your lease and have a strong team reviewing it on your behalf. This is another scenario where bringing a trusted construction firm into the project early on can save some headaches down the road. 

Timely Communication (Or, Lack Thereof)

Retail is unlike any other construction sector in that it is so fast-paced — in retail construction, we like to say that if you miss a day, you’ve lost a week. In fact, because retail construction projects have such tight schedules, it’s entirely possible for one question or request for information that isn’t answered in a timely manner to cause serious delays.

That’s why good communication among all involved parties is so important. Let’s say a construction project is underway, the studs are up and the ductwork and conduit are going in, when the contractor comes across a conflict between mechanical elements. It sounds simple to send the issue to the architect to come up with a work-around, but in the meantime nothing else can move forward. If the question isn’t resolved quickly, there’s a domino effect as scheduling for critical path items gets backed up. 

Of course good communication goes both ways, and it’s equally important for contractors to bring questions and issues to the client and architect in a timely manner. Likewise, it’s up to the client to make decisions quickly so as not to hold up the project timeline. Keeping the lines of communication open on all sides creates a collaborative, productive process that is the best way to ensure your construction project is a mountain of success, not a molehill.

— Chuck Taylor is director of operations with Lemont, Illinois-based Englewood Construction. Email the author at CTaylor@eci.build.

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