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Owners push for 'big, hairy, audacious goals'

Owners push for 'big, hairy, audacious goals'

by ROB McMANAMY | Sept 18, 2014

Imagine a multimillion-dollar construction project without ANY change orders... While we wrap our minds around that, now try to envision the same work being done without ANY safety incidents, even close calls...

It may sound impossible, but some influential construction owners today think that continuing technological advances in planning and collaboration already have brought such notions within reach. "We call them B-HAGs, 'big, hairy, audacious goals'," said York Chan, administrator of facilities for Downers Grove-based Advocate Health Care. "It's part of our '2020 Vision' plan, which includes shooting for 50% modular construction by the year 2020."

Chan made his remarks Sept. 17 as part of a high-powered panel of large construction owners assembled by the Chicago Building Congress (CBC) for its annual fall Economic Summit at the downtown Union League Club. The group included leading industry voices from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the Archdiocese of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern Medicine. All told, the panel was collectively responsible for upwards of $8 billion in new construction, said program moderator Greg Meeder, CBC past president and a partner with the law firm of Holland & Knight LLP. (Unspoken in all the discussion was an additional B-HAG: 'Zero change orders and zero accidents would also make zero litigation seem possible.')


"We're seeing more and more modular, 'doc-in-a-box' projects in hospitals, where complex components like operating room ceiling ceilings and patient room headwalls are now being built as a unit in a factory offsite," added Chan. "We're trying to be more efficient and modular offers us faster construction that is also better quality."

It's all part of the ongoing push for more integrated lean project delivery, which continues to gather momentum and spread to more project types.

"I cannot emphasize enough how important more communication and planning are, and the key to success is doing this from the beginning," said Boyd Black, assistant VP for capital project delivery and facilities services at the University of Chicago. He is also past president of the Construction Owners Association of America (COAA). "Planning needs to be done early on, especially for things like scheduling facility shutdowns. So we have to ask ourselves 'How can we do a better job of communicating this information to end-users?'"

To that point, Black added that the increasing use of building information modeling (BIM) continues to improve the quality of the information that everyone starts projects with now. 

"And it's always much easier to compromise at the beginning of a project than at the end," noted Kevin O'Malley, director of facilities and construction for the Archdiocese of Chicago. With 2,700 buildings in its portfolio, including 244 schools, the religious nonprofit is the fourth largest real estate owner in Illinois. Given the sophisticated state of building systems now, the completion of a project now no longer means the departure of the building team.

"Frankly, we lack the competency (in-house) to manage these new efficient systems," added O'Malley. As a result, the Archdiocese has extended some relationships with three-year contracts for properly maintaining these new capital assets. So in this sense, project handovers have really given way now to project transitions.

The rising level of complexity is causing some owners to seek additional expertise.

"Do we need a new discipline now?" asked Bonnie Humphrey, director of design & construction at Northwestern University. "Today's high-performance buildings present a more technology-rich environment than ever. [So] we need an 'Electronic Technology Integrator', someone who understands all of these new electronic systems, and how they can work together best. After all, the next generation will be 'digital natives'."

One potential problem area that Humphrey sees is "the ability of contractors to deliver on time has slipped over the last few years," she noted. "That is the single biggest concern I have right now."

Ironically, new technological efficiencies may be causing some firms to over-promise in the heat of competition. But they have to remember that just-in-time delivery means most materials are not on the shelf prior to when they are scheduled to be needed. So scheduling deliveries needs to be precise and realistic. "Don't tell me you can do a job in 18 months when you know it will take you 24," Humphrey told the luncheon crowd of contractors.

Added O'Malley, "If you don't know the schedule, you don't know the project."

"There is not much inventory out there," explained Chris Rogan, assistant director of capital programs and real estate services at the University of Illinois. He is also current president of Chicago's COAA chapter. So being nimble and flexible is arguably more important than ever in today's environment. "But a lot of our facilities managers are still 'old school'," said Rogan. "So it's hard for them to get up to speed after just a week or two of training."

But get up to speed, they must.

Technology's promise of greater collaboration and communication in the construction industry is no longer a luxury that may improve a project's chance of success. Today, it is a necessity; an imperative being demanded by a growing number of more sophisticated owners.

"Communication, communication, communication," stressed Ken Kaiser, an architect and manager of facilities planning and construction for Northwestern Medicine. "Owners need to be clear about what is the want and what is the need. It all affects cost, time and quality."


On Oct. 15, the Chicago Building Congress will present its Future Leader Award of Honor Program, this year recognizing Andy Stapleton and Jen Suerth of Mortenson Construction. For more details, go to

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