November 4, 2020
Austin, TX-based superintendents Emory Sweeney and Steve Paredes know the value of good planning and being good partners. Their robust collaboration coupled with a project-wide commitment to aligning everyone on the team, regardless of role, made all the difference on their most recent project, with their team completing a downtown Austin hotel six weeks ahead of schedule. What was the key to success? “Man, there really is no secret sauce,” Paredes said. “It comes down to having good relationships, a good plan, getting the key personnel in early, and having our self-perform workforces alongside us. We’ve had some people really stand out on this project who have now begun leading others, so we can leave saying we’ve executed on a high level and we’ve also built some good builders.”
Q: What are your roles at DPR and describe the paths you took to get there.
Sweeney: I started at DPR as an intern and then became a project engineer right out of the University of Texas at Austin, where I studied Civil Engineering. While I was a PE, I found that I really enjoyed being out in the field, helping coordinate work and interacting with the trades, so on one of my projects I made a switch and started doing both. From there, I progressed to assistant superintendent, then superintendent.
Paredes: I’m a general superintendent, and I’m on the leadership team in Austin. I studied Construction Management in college, but in 2006 I saw a need opening up in the field with a lot of experienced superintendents retiring, so I took advantage of that and went the field route. I’ve been able to do a lot of projects I really enjoy—tall structures in a hectic downtown environment that are logistically challenging—and I get to share my knowledge. What really drives me is building good teams, and I get great satisfaction from knowing we’re not just building projects; we’re building people.
Q: Why do you think being a self-performing general contractor makes a difference on a project?
Sweeney: One of the biggest benefits is that everyone is on same page as far as overall goal for project. There’s no hidden agenda; it’s all DPR and we all have the same goal. There’s an extra level of honesty and transparency that makes things a lot easier. You feel like you’re talking to a friend. The things we do in the field drive the critical path, and we have a massive impact as a team that helps the schedule. That all comes down to communication and that lack of a barrier.
Paredes: On this project, it made all the difference with our schedule. We did all the structural concrete from level B3 up to level 34, and Concrete was able to gain us about a month overall. We used a climbing core system, which used to be unique to Austin. Our concrete lead had a lot of experience with it on the West Coast, where it’s utilized more. It allowed us to keep the form work intact. With limited space around the project, keeping that form work up on the deck rather than having to fly it down after every pour was pretty instrumental. There was a cost upgrade to it, but it allowed us to gain some schedule time back. Now if you look around Austin, I think there are four other projects that have climbing core systems, and prior to this project there were zero.
Our Drywall group performed all the framing and drywall on all the guest room levels, from level 7 through 34. We never missed a drywall hang date throughout the entire project. That was a big milestone, and we hit it on every single one of those floors. Our Interiors group installed every bit of doors and hardware, all of the bathroom accessories, and the shower glass enclosures in the guest rooms. Our Division 7 team performed all the acoustical and firestop, and did all the waterproofing down below grade. They executed flawlessly. We did a really good job with our self-perform group, and we’re awfully proud.
Q: What have you learned from each other?
Paredes: What I got from Emory is a renewed drive. He is intense with planning and scheduling, and with what he expects from people. Part of our job is to motivate others on our team, so it was refreshing to see someone who has that intensity. His persistence with things is never-ending and watching him teach other people has been awesome. I’ve been able to take some cues for how to talk to others; he’s a really good partner.
Sweeney: It’s important for us to be able to give people guidelines but then allow them the freedom to develop plans. We have to manage expectations because we can’t touch everything personally. I needed to develop that skill: to help people grow and develop their own plans, and help them develop professionally. This is the first project where I felt I accomplished that and really helped build some good people. When we encountered difficult situations and tensions ran high, Steve was good about taking a step back and finding ways to keep people on the jobsite motivated.
Q: Talk about a time in your career where you intervened to make the work on-site safer.
Paredes: Our planning throughout this hotel project really aided in that, but we worked hard at it. We wanted to be very intentional, so we called a meeting with all our project leadership and foremen from our concrete crews. We tried to make it personal, and we talked through everything. I wrote on the board every person who was on-site. We drilled down into making the craft part of the process. After that discussion, there was a huge revelation for the entire team on what safety on the jobsite really meant. It wasn’t about me policing it. It was about being a team and caring for each other. It was about being productive, doing our jobs, and making sure everyone went home safely each day.
Q: What is one thing you think everyone can do to make the industry as a whole safer for everyone?
Sweeney: Find partners on your job who make safety personal—who take it seriously and always do the right thing—and then encourage that mindset to spread across the organization. You can’t sit down with everyone, so finding partners to talk about the importance of safety makes it infectious. The other component is not putting up with incorrect behavior. There’s a quote: “The thing about morals is it’s not what you say, it’s what you tolerate.” If you see something, say something and don’t tolerate unsafe activities. Training is a huge part of it, too. Make sure you have all the tools you need, then hold people accountable.
Paredes: For us, it’s about having an unparalleled training program to arm people with the tools they need to make the right decisions and have the entire team brought in on that mentality.
Q: Was this experience different from other projects you worked on? How?
Paredes: This is the first job for me that had my stamp on it 100%. It was really on me and the project manager to set up the project correctly with the knowledge that we were going to utilize our self-perform trades for the critical path work. When Emory came on board, I told him we were not going to allow ourselves to fail. We’ve been on jobs with scheduling issues, and I refused to allow that to happen here. Our SPW teams understood that we were all in this together, and we fought for each other. We set up that mentality from the beginning, and it had a huge impact on our overall success.
Sweeney: This was the first time I had ever done a hotel. I think our biggest success was our self-perform collaboration. We embraced the fact that we’re all on the same team--project management and the craft. We’ve talked about that a lot in the past, but I’ve never seen it as strong as it was on this project. Once we were all able to get on same page, we were hitting our schedule, and that led to this culture of everyone else falling in line. Our SPW team on this project was huge, delivering excellent work.
Q: To be successful in your role, what skills does a person need?
Sweeney: Accountability—to yourself and to others. And communication, which is huge to me. You have to communicate your plan and your expectations around schedule properly. That doesn’t mean talking TO team members, but talking WITH team members and getting them bought in. Once people agree and there’s buy-in, then you hold each other accountable.
Paredes: In my role, you have to be able to set boundaries and let your team make decisions while operating within those boundaries to allow them to grow and succeed. During my career, I’ve learned that I operate better when I can make my own decisions. It’s important to know when to offer more guidance within that matrix and when to hold back and let your team drive.
Q: What would your advice be for the next generation of builders entering this field?
Paredes: For me, I was cocky and arrogant when I started out. I thought I knew a bunch of stuff, but I’m still learning every day. So, take advice from others. Don’t be afraid of criticism and be open to others’ thoughts and ideas. Be a sponge when you’re starting out and know that at the end of the day field operations is pretty damned cool. We’re the builders.
Sweeney: Be humble and admit that you don’t know a lot when you’re just starting out. Be willing to accept that. In the beginning, you don’t know a lot more than you do know, so act upon that. Find the right information. Ask questions. Learn. Be accountable. Trust is such a massive thing in our industry, so walk the talk and do what you say you’re going to do every time.