In a recent examination of a careers.com survey of what children dream of being when they grow up, “Pre-Construction for a Design + Build Firm” somehow didn’t crack the top 15. (“Dancer” took the top spot, but where’s the fun in that?)
To remedy this, Butler-Cohen recently sat down with Aby Soto to discuss the joys and challenges of a job on the pre-construction team for a design-build firm. Take note, youth of America: a great career in the construction industry could be yours, if “Firefighter,” “Doctor,” or “Detective” aren’t striking your fancy. [Note: Interview has been lightly edited/condensed for clarity.]
BC: Give an overview of what you enjoy most about your work.
AS: One of the most challenging things which is also fun is that you’re constantly tracking cost impact changes. We are contracted based-off a dollar amount, and we have a general idea of what the client’s wants and needs are, but throughout the project there can be changes due to many different factors. However, the goal is to stay within that contracted amount. So it’s like a puzzle in that respect. Lots of parties bring ideas to the table. Subcontractors are invaluable for this, because they are familiar with different products and materials. For example, in a recent project one our subs was able to remain within budget by suggesting “we could install a different grade fence with the exact same finish appearance,” and this was gladly accepted by our client. Having that kind of input when the unexpected comes up and being able to implement a high-value solution for our clients in a creative way is a rewarding part of the job. Another cool aspect of design-build is that you get to be involved with all the consultants from the very beginning. So you get to experience how the civil plans are developed, same for architectural plans, structural plans, et cetera, and how they all tie into one another. Being able to coordinate with the consultants while respecting the client’s desires for the project is challenging but rewarding.
BC: What kind of skills are necessary in managing all those different stakeholders?
AS: Communication is important, because you’re the mediator between the parties involved. It is important to request information in a timely manner, even something as small as “Do you know what size table will go in the conference room? Our electrical engineers will need to know where to design floor plugs.” The client may not have thought that far forward, which is fair, but it’s my job to communicate the urgency of decision making in a way that is still respectful of everyone’s busy schedule.
Documentation is also key. We keep a number of logs throughout the pre-construction process to track action items, cost changes, design changes, changes requested by the City, schedule increments and final decisions. We need all these logs so if any questions ever come up, we can refer back to them and say “yes, on this date we decided not to go with the red paint,” for example. So, on each project I’m juggling 2-3 different logs that all tie into each other.
BC: Are you working on multiple projects on a single day?
AS: Essentially, yes. The best way to stay on top of things is to have an action items log. I can sort the action items by the date that something is due and that helps drive my priorities for the day. If I know that a budget for one project is due Tuesday, but another other project doesn’t need my attention until Friday, it helps me stay on track especially when other people are depending on me to get the item done.
BC: What is one of your best days on your job?
AS: Finalizing the budget! When we agree on the contract value, this is it, we have a number, this is what we’re running with. It’s so nice to have a starting point, that’s where the fun begins.
BC: What are your favorite types of projects to work on?
AS: Any project with a great team, one of the key drivers of success in a design-build project is for all the players to have the same end goal, “on time and in budget.” If the Architect, Engineer, Owner, and General Contractor are all of that same mindset, it’s great because people are responsive, and we arrive to solutions quickly. The fast-paced dynamic of a Design-Build project is exciting!
Aby Soto has been with Butler-Cohen since January of 2018. She graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in Construction Management. When not juggling logs, schedules, communications with subcontractors and owners, she enjoys running, singing, happy hours, and trying new cooking recipes.