The Owner's Role

By: 
May. 23, 2003

The Owner's Role

A building owner should determine early his involvement and then follow the chain of command.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Success begets success in the opinion of Christina Pfahler.

The president of Pfahler Properties Inc. is so pleased with the work on an 11,000-square-foot medical office building across from Englewood Community Hospital she's thinking about building another.

Pfahler and her husband-business partner, Dr. Kenneth Pfahler, already know this about the next building: They'll go the design/build route again.

"What it boils down to, by doing the design-build concept, my building is coming in for less money than I would have to spend otherwise," says Mrs. Pfahler. "And it's coming in ahead of schedule. For a building owner, that's key."

There's no mystery about the design-build process, says Jeffrey Charlotte, co-owner and executive vice president of St. Petersburg-based Hennessy Construction Services Corp. It's all about teamwork.

One of the most important steps an owner can take when he decides to build a new building or expand an existing one is bring in a construction manager or contractor as early as possible on designing the building, Charlotte says. That "will allow us to better control the costs," he says.

When talking to prospective customers, Charlotte and his colleagues offer the following advice:

"Select your team, the designer and the contractor, at the same time," he says. "We're all equal; nobody is higher than anybody else. Nobody is stronger than the other.

"Second, it's the owner's responsibility to assign one person the responsibility to make decisions," he says.

"And third, don't underestimate the role of a good owner's representative if you don't have the skills to manage a construction project."

Charlotte tells the story of one customer who originally hired a developer to manage construction of a medical office building that required atypical electrical needs. Unfortunately, he says, the architect failed to clearly state that need on the design documents. Instead of questioning the discrepancy, the electrician followed the schematics to the letter.

After Hennessy took over the project, Charlotte says, the building owner learned about the discrepancy in the electrical schematics. By then, however, it was too late. Since financing was already in place, the owner had to pull cash out of pocket to correct what Charlotte called a considerable change.

Such problems are unlikely to emerge during construction, Charlotte says, if the architect-designer, the general contractor and the building owner work together as a team prior to sinking shovels.

"If the team is selected early enough, and everybody buys into the team concept, then the team is successful," he says.

That is why Mrs. Pfahler is convinced she is getting the most of out the estimated $2 million she is spending on the single-story, concrete block building in Englewood.

Since her husband is a busy cardiologist, Pfahler took on the primary duties of managing the physical expansion of his medical practice. "And I'm one of those people who needs to know exactly what is going on," she says.

Early in the decision-making process, Pfahler independently interviewed both potential architects and general contractors. "The most valuable thing I learned about being involved in this type of arrangement is the people at Hennessy are so knowledgeable that they picked up on things that I would have never thought of in the construction process," she says. "Because of that they have saved us a lot of money."

In the case of the Cardiology Center at Englewood, the Pfahlers designed the building to their wants and then met with the architect and the staff at Hennessy. She was particularly encouraged at Hennessy's response to her role as a building owner.

"Jeff told me that I could be as involved as I wanted or as little as I wanted to be," she says. "In other words, if I wanted to learn the process he would facilitate that, too."

Prior to the construction start, the Pfahlers learned Mrs. Pfahler was pregnant. Consequently, her focus on the construction project became just a slightly bit more complicated. It was during this time she became even more convinced she and her husband made the right decision of selecting Hennessy as the project manager.

The project continues to move forward on time and on budget, even as the couple focused more on the March birth of their son, Lance, and his care taking.

"Now I get e-mail from the project manager and calls from the site manager, asking me even the most simplest of questions," she says. "Where do you want the scales to go, for instance? That's pretty much my day-to-day involvement now."

It also was around this time she learned, maybe, her greatest lesson as the owner of a building project.

"Simply that I wouldn't want to do it all by myself," she says.

Building owners such as the Pfahlers make the best customers, Charlotte says, because they paid attention to the details and were readily available when questions emerged.

"When the construction starts, the biggest role the owner has is to communicate well and be able to make competent decisions," he says. "You can't vacillate and let a month go by on a problem. Each month all outstanding issues must be closed much in the same way you close the book each month in the accounting process.

"With our projects, we do a monthly booklet," Charlotte says. "It has all the meeting minutes, the financial issues. Every month the building owner knows the financial aspect of the project."

In some instances, communications between the project design, general contractor and building owner can become a bit complicated - especially when several individuals are involved in the decision-making process. That was a potential situation for Hennessy during the expansion of the Pine Shores Presbyterian Church in Sarasota.

To ensure the project's success, Charlotte says, the church hired Jeff Hole of Sarasota-based JSH Consulting Group Inc. as the owner representative.

"If you can envision a church, there are 20 people on the building committee," Charlotte says. "Jeff would get a consensus of the committee and relay that to the designer and the contractor.

"I would encourage that an owner have a sense of oneness with his designer and contractor. You don't want more than one person communicating during the design-build process."

It's also important to establish a clear chain of command.

"The chain of command is important in the construction industry to circumvent problems," Charlotte says. "For instance, an owner can have an owner representative, but then the owner shows up on a Saturday and makes a decision without consulting with the owner representative. That happens once in a while."