Early contractor engagement can bring considerable benefits – but too much too soon can achieve the opposite, says Iain Parker


Putting single-stage procurement to one side, most large and complex projects often see a two-stage approach with the contractor providing pre-construction services during the second-stage period, while simultaneously procuring the works packages in order to provide a tender offer for the project.

This is a common approach and generally accepted method of design and build procurement, but all too often it leaves the client disappointed and the contractor frustrated. So why is that?

In short, the client often feels like it has spent a considerable pre-construction fee for not much value gained, with the added risk of late unwelcome surprises, and the contractor feels like it has committed its team to an environment that lacks clear direction where there is no guarantee of a project at the end of the pre-construction period.

It is easy to see frustrations on both sides, particularly in a world where so much uncertainty exists. But, rather than focus on perceived negatives, let’s focus on what success looks like, as there are, thankfully, many examples of this too.

There is no doubt that there are significant benefits to be enjoyed through early contractor engagement

There is no doubt that there are significant benefits to be enjoyed through early contractor engagement, as the skills and insight on offer from the organisation tasked with constructing the building are too valuable to ignore. It is naive to think that the client team have all the optimum answers and best ideas, and in today’s world there is a real comfort to designers in having both specialist and general contractor input at some stage through the design process, to seek reassurance that the design being developed is “on point”.

It is equally naive to think that the quickest route to project completion and most effective way to manage cost, quality and programme risks is best done through delaying contractor involvement until the latest possible moment 

However, there is a balance to be struck, both in terms of timing and overall duration. Contractor engagement too early, or with too many personnel, often sees little value added as the role is limited to one of spectator. All the client sees is a lot of costly people with not much return.

There is a lot to be said for doing things in the right order, doing them once and doing them well

The design needs to be advanced, but not entirely settled. The concept of valuable pre-construction advice works best when the contracting team builds over time, initially with a smaller team possessing the key upfront skills of design management (including health and safety advice), programming and commercial acumen, which then grows with more specialist delivery skills and procurement personnel. There is a lot to be said for doing things in the right order, doing them once and doing them well.

Irrespective of exact timings, the most successful pre-construction services are enjoyed when two key things are in play: high-performing people are mobilised, engaged in the right areas and keen to impress and a collaborative project culture exists, thereby creating an environment that promotes excellence, teamwork and trust.

Project team culture is key, and this is clear to see in most successful teams who perform and achieve at the highest level, whether in business, sport or any other group situation. Qualities such as helping one another, everyone having a voice, no such thing as blame, being disciplined, listening to other team members, having fun together, putting the project first and solving challenges in real time (rather than suppressing problems which then become untimely and unwelcome late surprises) are all very strong guiding lights.

Putting the project in the best possible position during the pre-construction period to achieve a successful outcome through the construction period is the whole team’s collective responsibility, including the client. Everyone is reliant upon one another, which is what makes our industry achieving things together so rewarding. When it’s good, it’s really, really good.