When Construction Projects Go Bad

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If you’ve been in the industry long enough it’ll happen to you. For some it happens early on and out of nowhere, others get to thankfully wait years for it to happen. This unfortunate event I speak of is the dreaded “When Projects Go Bad” (or WPGB).  I’ve seen it happen to good project teams, I’ve seen it happen to bad project teams and teams of all sorts in-between. Sometimes you can have seemingly all the right pieces in place, and a project can be planned in excruciating detail, and it still goes wrong.

When a project gets to the WPGB phase it really is unfortunate. Working relationships are affected in the long term. Good people get put in compromising situations. Eventually everybody turns on each other to one degree or another to protect their own interests. It’s not a pleasant part of the industry, and it is rarely talked about because it’s generally painful, but it’s something that good project teams and companies use as a learning tool.

I remember one particular WPGB experience well. Our team knew that it was going to be a difficult project going in, but we were still optimistic. We believed that through superior planning and management at all levels, we could make it work. Our senses were heightened, and we were ready to give this project our sole focus and attention.

Unfortunately this project took blow after blow. It started at the very depths of the recession, and margins for everybody involved—from the GC to the subs to the architect and engineers—were razor thin. It was the largest dollar value project my company had ever done to date. It was located in a resort community with a really harsh winter environment. We knew all these things beforehand and thought we could overcome it, and I think had it just been these factors, we could have succeeded. Instead, the punch we didn’t see coming knocked us out.

It was a very late winter that year, and once spring started we thought we were in good shape. We were so wrong. Our area of the country had one of the wettest springs on record.  there were cresting rivers and floods and the like all over. For us, our project was at the earthwork and concrete placement phase and was constantly delayed. Every time we thought we could take steps forward, we would get more rain. The slabs we placed cracked and heaved because of the moisture. On other parts of the project, footing forms sat covered in feet of water for months. Eventually an artesian well manifested itself because of all the moisture in the ground, despite all due diligence being done and documented in a soils report.  In a way I’m glad that the well was found, because it sat directly underneath the corner footing of a five-story building, and eventually it would have caused a bigger problem. The delays caused by this were substantial.

Next was the subcontractors. Many tried their hardest, but the recession just got them. I had never had a subcontractor go down or get terminated on a project, but on this one we had four or five. Formal letters and litigious calls became a way of life. Many good men were put at odds with our team because of circumstances.

There were more hurdles that I won’t go into, and without getting too specific, the whole thing became a no-win situation for all parties involved. It was honestly the first time in my professional career that I wondered if I was in the right line of work. All project meetings were less pleasant to say the least. I was so frustrated that you could put so much effort into something only for it to be a failure. I gave a year and a half of my professional life to that one thing, and at the end of the day there was no feeling of reward, only frustration and a touch of bitterness.

The worst thing about WPGB is that they seem to linger on months and years after work is actually completed. A larger quantity of issues always seem to come up after substantial completion, final completion, and also the warranty period. It’s like an open wound that just won’t heal.

Luckily I did not get out of the industry. I took my licks and learned from it. I documented better. I became more thorough in my communications. I forced myself to better organize my documentation. The whole process made me grow up a bit as well. The industry became a little less rosy as I realized that when money isn’t made, people react differently. The smiles from cohorts that you had worked with and enjoyed for years turned into scowles. I realized that the business side of what we do ultimately wins out.

Looking back I honestly wish that I’d had FieldLens to help me through it. Having all of my communication flow through one medium and have all conversations be captured in one single thread—rather than spread out over weeks and months worth of emails—would have solved so many arguments and hopefully minimized the finger pointing. We could have communicated in real time and reacted to issues more easily. It probably wouldn’t have saved this particular WPGB, but it would have helped make decisions easier and documentation more thorough.

If any of you out there reading this are going through When Projects Go Bad, hit me up, and let’s see if I can help you out. Remember that like anything this too will pass and ultimately you will be a better construction professional for going through this. Like I said at the beginning: WPGB hits everybody in the industry at one time or another. It’s the way you pick yourself up after it all that really determines how good you are and can be.

Dustin Chapman is a FieldLens Customer Success Coach.

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