Planning for Work in Occupied Spaces: Communication is Key

It’s not a stretch to say that most contractors would find it easier to work in unoccupied spaces. Nonetheless, it’s common that builders must face, and deeply understand, the challenges of working in sensitive environments. Skilled at special projects – evidenced by more than $1 billion in annual revenue - DPR and its partners are well-versed in working in complex and active surroundings across various markets, and just as important--the planning considerations that make for a successful build.

It is crucial that teams actively account for the needs and experiences of everyone affected by construction work and to proactively seek solutions to minimize disruption. Experts from DPR‘s core markets identified several important aspects of planning for work in occupied spaces. However, one theme was overarching:

Communication, communication, communication.

Group in office planning for work
Early contractor engagement is crucial to setting expectations and vital to minimal occupant disruption when planning for work in occupied spaces. Courtesy of David Hardman

Early Communication

“Early engagement of the contractor facilitates a more efficient design and construction process,” said Steven Sheahan, DPR healthcare project executive on the in-progress Baystate Health Hospital of the Future Phase II project in Springfield, MA, where the team will interface with 45 different areas of the active hospital, including above the emergency department and adjacent to operating rooms.

“The construction team can evaluate the design for constructability and start working through the logistics immediately. We can begin communicating the plans, streamlining the phasing and get buy-in from the stakeholders. Bringing key trades in early can help further reduce the impact on stakeholders through refined means and methods for construction.”

“One of the biggest success factors in planning a job properly is working together with engineers as soon as we see the plan to review their design drawings in order to phase the project correctly and build those phases into the drawings,” said Travis Schumacher, advanced technology expert for DPR. Improperly phased drawings can have massive impacts on occupant disruption, project timing, and the bottom line.

Jason Bilinski, higher education expert for DPR concurred, emphasizing that early communication and documentation are crucial to set all expectations appropriately and are vital to minimal occupant disruption. “There is no such thing as too much communication or too much planning,” he said.

As project executive on the CSU Chico Science Replacement Building, Bilinski spearheaded planning and construction on an active campus over a two-and-a-half-year construction timeline for the largest construction project in the history of the institution. For the duration of the project, there were no complaints, incidents or disruptive events related to construction.

“Our client was focused on little to no disruption of any kind to the natural use of the campus,” said Bilinski. “Having zero disruptive incidents is a great example of the owner and DPR team setting expectations in the early planning stages for constant communication throughout the project.”

Worker in office at planning wall
Communicating early and often with all stakeholders is essential to properly phasing and 'planning the plan' for work in active environments. Courtesy of DPR Construction

Planning the Plan

“Especially for occupied spaces, the design drawings are typically not phased when we first receive them,” said Nathan Lentz, leader of DPR’s Special Services Group. “Most of the work in active spaces has to be phased because of the environment. If there are five mobilizations of the build but the initial design drawings only show one, without proper phasing and planning we’re looking at client disruption issues, pricing issues, subcontractor scheduling issues, signage and wayfinding issues, utility cutoff issues, timing of project completion issues… that’s a big problem for the project but it’s just as big a problem for occupants and other stakeholders.”

Lentz added that achieving success in this preliminary stage of planning, or “planning the plan,” is contingent upon early communication measures.

“If we find out after the initial planning is done that there are off-hours due to noise and dust concerns, rumbling floors, those kinds of disruptions, it can significantly impact a project,” said Chad Holbrook, superintendent and drywall and framing expert on DPR’s self-perform work (SPW) team. “These constraints and phasing needs need to be reflected in the bid so that the SPW team has this information earlier and so we can make the process better for everyone.”

Early communication is the foremost priority on the path to success; it enables full transparency on the scope of work and phasing, selection of the right trade partners with the unique skill sets and awareness required to work in occupied environments, and identification of key stakeholders in the planning process.

“The earlier we can get onboard, the more time we have to plan,” said DPR life sciences expert Pat Donohoe. “Our work typically involves very complex systems with specific dependencies. We need to fully understand early on when these systems will be available for tie-ins and locations for installations. This requires detailed planning from the start to mitigate risk.”

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of early communication. From minimizing downtime, to uncovering opportunities for prefabrication and use of virtual design and construction, to establishing overtime allowances and on and off hours to best support planning for work in active environments, every opportunity to communicate early enhances the project, increases quality and the potential to reduce duration and cost, and helps diminish construction impact to occupants.

Construction workers at pull planning wall
Layers of shared responsibilities require precise coordination with clients’ operations teams, engineers and designers, trade partners, and other stakeholders when planning for work in active spaces. Courtesy of DPR Construction

Coordinated Communication

“Planning for the unknown is extremely challenging,” continued Donohoe. “We are working around a fully operating facility and simply to do not have the same depth of knowledge as those who run the facility itself. Our work requires heavy coordination, planning, and communication with the right individuals to ensure our team can assess and plan even beyond what is physically shown on drawings.”

“A major challenge can be as simple as finding out deep into a project from a client’s facilities team that we can’t use a stairwell for stocking materials because it’s open to the public,” said Holbrook. “That could mean needing a crane, which means adding the cost of the crane, the availability of the equipment we need, the size of the building’s elevators and paths of travel, and determining how and where to move cranes as to not disrupt tenants.” Holbrook noted a benefit of having DPR’s SPW team and trade partners readily available during planning is heading off these issues in early discussions.

Planning for work in active spaces relies heavily on coordination with clients’ operations teams, engineers and designers, trade partners, and other stakeholders. Before a project even begins, project teams make certain that communication is flowing through the correct individuals and channels, as well as ensuring that they have a voice and proper representation throughout the project.

Schumacher added, “To understand the existing conditions and building systems, especially in more complex active environments, we rely on coordinated planning and communication with our internal project team, owners and their facilities, operations, or site management teams, the design and engineering teams, procurement groups, trade partners, and other stakeholders. Everyone has a stake in the project due to the layers of shared responsibilities.”

Stakeholder Considerations

“Communicating with the right people is just as important as the visual tools,” offered Lentz. “If the right stakeholders are not brought into the planning conversations to coordinate in this phase, what you think may be minimal disruptions could be quite the opposite.”

Lentz continued that coordinated communication with occupants themselves shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Whether hospitals, hotels, campuses, or places of work, these are often environments where people spend much of their time, homes away from home. There’s a sense of ownership and it’s important that someone is sharing, ‘Here’s what you’re going to experience. You have a voice. You’re a part of this, here’s what you should expect’.” Every occupant has their own set of expectations and it’s important that they are considered in planning conversations as much as possible,” he said.

And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to who’s involved in planning communications.

“Impacted stakeholders can vary based on the scope of work,” said Sheahan. “At times you’re dealing with just the operations team and a sole [hospital] department. Other times it’s everyone from the operations team to the Board of Directors, the City, and even the neighbors.” Bilinski reiterated, “Communication, communication, communication. Creating good, trusting relationships from the start and working closely with the right people and partners, from planning through project completion… that’s crucial to the success of planning work in occupied spaces.”