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Project Planning

What Is Construction Planning?

Construction planning is the first stage of construction management, the discipline of taking a construction project from conception to completion. Construction management includes several other components that succeed planning, however: Scheduling is deciding when to start, execute, and complete each task. Organizing is getting all the moving pieces in position to perform each task. Staffing is assigning people to duties related to the project. Directing is ensuring that you complete tasks as planned, and monitoring is ensuring that you meet the requirements and performance benchmarks set during the planning stage. If you don’t meet these requirements, you’ll devote considerable time to the controlling stage, which involves managing the budget and meeting contract requirements.


Since humans have been constructing buildings for thousands of years, construction planning is an ancient discipline. We can trace some form of construction project planning all the way back to the Neolithic period, when builders in Western Europe were erecting Stonehenge.


Today, the tools, techniques, and equipment that builders use have changed, but planning remains an integral part of the construction management process. While construction planning is time consuming, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. A 1994 study by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) found a “positive, quantifiable relationship between effort expended during the pre-project planning phase and the ultimate success of a project.”


To be effective, you should approach construction planning with logic, thoroughness, and honesty. You will need knowledge and experience in construction methods and contracting, and planners must visualize the tasks and activities and understand the relationships between them so that they can carry them out in an efficient sequence.

Goals of Construction Planners: Time, Cost, Quality, and Safety

The objectives of construction planning are the same for all projects: Builders and owners strive to meet cost, schedule, quality, and safety requirements. The construction planning process also makes owners’ and builders’ responsibilities clear, laying the groundwork for strong communication and better teamwork.


In the construction planning process, you’ll produce a document called the construction master plan. This spells out how you will schedule, organize, direct, monitor, and control the project, and aims to meet the project’s technical, time, and cost requirements. The construction master plan includes three types of planning: strategic planning, operational planning, and scheduling.


  • Strategic Planning: This determines, sets, and articulates project objectives. It answers the big questions concerning a project’s mission, how it will achieve this mission, and how these objectives align with the project sponsor’s or owner’s larger strategy. In short, strategic planning is the big-picture analysis that the project sponsor carries out.


  • Operational Planning: This delves into the details of how the project will meet its strategic objectives — if it can meet them at all. Construction teams evaluate whether they have the resources they need to meet the strategic objectives, identify any shortfalls, and seek the sponsor’s approval to cover those shortfalls.


  • Scheduling: This lays out the operational plan on a projected timescale, including the anticipated completion date. This type of planning does not involve highly detailed scheduling of every project task (that is a separate activity that usually follows the planning phase). On large projects, specialist schedulers draw up detailed schedules.


One critical aspect of construction planning is creating a safety plan for the construction site (this is especially important for larger projects). Construction is a hazardous industry, and regulators such as OSHA (the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration) may require safety planning. On site, builders, usually via a safety representative, must determine what the hazards are and decide how to avoid, mitigate, or manage them. Safety planning spans a variety of activities, from safety and first-aid training to ensuring that equipment and workspaces meet safety standards, and encouraging or requiring workers to adopt safe practices on the job.

Types of Construction Projects: Residential vs. Commercial

You can broadly categorize building construction projects as either residential or commercial. Residential projects include accessory dwelling units (ADUs), decks, garages, house additions and remodels, retaining walls, and outdoor projects, and housing demolition. Commercial projects cover everything from small businesses and office spaces to megaprojects. These two classes of projects differ greatly from one another.


Residential projects are typically smaller than commercial projects, and they’re not subject to nearly as many code requirements. Also, builders use wood frames for residential constructions rather than the concrete and steel used in commercial projects. The interiors also differ: Commercial projects prioritize functionality and durability while residential projects put more emphasis on aesthetics, comfort, and personal taste.


Functionally, commercial projects usually have more extensive infrastructure requirements, such as elevators, escalators, parking, backup electricity, emergency exits, and large-scale cooling, heating, and ventilation. The increased complexity of commercial projects demands greater specialization of builders and more subcontractors. The large scale calls for specialized equipment and resources.


Budgets for commercial projects are much larger than those for residential projects. From the contractor’s perspective, residential projects may be less technically demanding, but working with homeowners who are personally invested can be more delicate than dealing with a corporate or government client.

Construction Planning Steps for a Home Renovation

Let’s look at the stages in a typical home renovation, which is one of the bigger, more costly residential project types. A home renovation project is a good case study because the steps are similar to much larger commercial projects, even though the scale is smaller.


  • Select a Designer: Architects and designers offer services ranging from whole-unit design (for architects) to color and material selection (for interior designers) to a variety of collaborative solutions in between. Homeowners will (or should) meet with a number of designers to decide which align most closely with their design and budget objectives.
  • Create Schematics: The designer creates a floor plan for the remodel, and they go back and forth with the owner until both sides agree on a design. For a residential project, the schematic design is effectively the project plan.
  • Select a Contractor: Contractors interviewing for a job will use the schematics to create preliminary cost estimates. The homeowner checks references and makes sure they are hiring a contractor with a history of similar successful projects.
  • Shop for Finishes and Materials: This step includes identifying the finishes and materials for the remodel. The contractor can make suggestions based on budget and plan for materials to arrive on time. Meanwhile, the architect will finalize the construction plan and prepare applications for building permits.
  • Obtain Permits: Applying for a permit can be a time-consuming, expensive process, so homeowners will need to account for applying and waiting for permits to arrive when estimating their completion date.
  • Sign a Contractor: Once the contractor has obtained permits, they are ready to put pen to paper. Before doing this, the owner and contractor may engage in some value engineering — revising aspects of the project to reduce costs. By this point, the contractor will also have determined the necessary delivery dates of materials and items so work can progress.


Like planning for a home renovation, planning for a commercial project includes both the planning activities we discussed earlier — strategic planning, operational planning, and scheduling — and some high-level elements of the building’s design. During the design stage for a commercial project, client, architect, and engineers will work together to come up with a building design that meets the client’s requirements. Pre-construction, which involves different activities for different projects, may include such things as design evaluation, value analyses, constructability assessments, and contractor bidding. Procurement consists of buying the materials and services necessary to complete the project. Construction refers to the process of building the structure according to the plans. Construction is followed by commissioning, which is the process of verifying that a building’s systems are in proper working order.

Participants in the Commercial Construction Planning Process

Any construction project involves a number of key parties. Here’s what each party is responsible for:

  • Client and Sponsor: The client and sponsor for a project are more often than not the same party, but the two roles are distinct: The client is the building’s end user, and the sponsor funds the project. In cases where the client and the sponsor are separate parties, it’s the sponsor’s prerogative to approve changes to the project. An example of a separate sponsor and client would be a developer and a building owner.


  • Contractor: This is an umbrella term for people and firms that undertake a contractual obligation to provide services for a construction project. Most major projects will have a general contractor with many subcontractors working under their supervision. The general contractor signs a contract with the client/sponsor and is directly accountable to the client and sponsor for the project’s success, even though they may not do any of the construction themselves and instead may contract all the work out to specialized subcontractors. The subcontractor is typically a specialist who performs a limited part of the overall construction effort. The general contractor organizes, coordinates, and oversees the subcontractors’ efforts.


  • Consultants: A consultant is any party whose official responsibility is to provide direction and specialized knowledge during the planning, design, or construction phases of a project. You’re much more likely to see consultants on commercial projects since you engage them for their expertise in a specific knowledge area (such as achieving LEED certification) that is not a standard part of residential projects.


  • Supplier/Vendor: Vendors or suppliers sell the materials that you use for a project. The term supplier has a loose definition and can describe those who provide services, not just materials. You might also consider architects and other design professionals to be suppliers.


  • Architects and Engineers: Architects come up with a design for the project, and engineers make sure the design works. The architect is the chief designer of a project. He or she creates an agreed-upon schematic (with the client and sponsor), and then works with the engineer to finalize technical elements of the design. The architect also provides the project details required for permits. The engineer might also be considered a design specialist, but his work focuses on functionality and constructability. Engineers ensure that the architect’s designs are practical, workable, and structurally sound.

The Benefits of Construction Planning for Owners and Builders

To understand how construction planning benefits projects, we have to understand the concerns of the two main parties in any construction effort: the owners and the builders.


The owners of any project are ultimately interested in three things: that you deliver the project according to the agreed scope, that you complete it at or below cost, and that it is ready for use on schedule.


If the project is delayed, you lose revenue because the building isn’t ready for use, whether that use be in the form of leasing to tenants or manufacturing products. If the costs exceed expectations, you reduce return on investment. Delays and cost overruns may mean it takes longer to pay off loans, which also makes the project more expensive. There can also be tax consequences.


Owners also need to know when they must disburse funding, so they don’t become victims of a cash-flow crunch. In addition, they must be aware of how delays and overages might impact both their image and their ability to effectively market the project.


Builders, meanwhile, are concerned with their own efficiency and profitability. Some bidding methods require that they themselves cover certain unbudgeted costs rather than billing these to the project owner. They’re also responsible for ensuring the ultimate quality of the final product and the safety of the construction site. Both the former and the latter affect their reputation and the future success of their business.


Each building project is unique in some way, be it design, site, materials, or participants. Bilox Wells, a large construction project manager and operator of the contractor review site FindHomePro, says that experienced builders know that delays are likely.


“Your project will undoubtedly take longer, be more difficult, and be more expensive than you originally plan. Treat this as a rule, even though you may get lucky and have smooth sailing. If you go into a big project expecting to have some hiccups, then, when they come, you won’t be thrown off course. Build some flexibility into your schedule, and try to take the issues in stride. You are likely working on a project that is larger and more complicated than it appears at first,” Wells says.

Construction Planning Can Save Money and Time

Construction planning can help minimize costs by optimizing resource and equipment utilization. Even for small residential projects, you may have to lease the necessary equipment. On large commercial projects, leasing or buying specialized equipment is expensive, and maximizing utilization reduces expenses.


In a complex project, construction planning also organizes and coordinates the many moving parts. The process improves communication among team members and stakeholders, and it reveals unrealistic assumptions or weak logic. With a properly planned project, everyone knows when subcontractors are supposed to show up and what work you need to complete before their arrival. You shouldn’t keep materials and equipment lying around for days or weeks, taking up space and possibly incurring excess rental costs because they arrived long before you needed them.


Since, by definition, construction planning takes place before work begins, you have the opportunity to anticipate problems and plan solutions before they occur. Those benefits translate into time efficiency during construction itself, as well as a superior solution because you haven’t devised a plan under pressure. Construction planning can pave the way toward more innovative methods of solving building challenges.


Scott Truehl is a Wisconsin-based general contractor with Friede & Associates. He says that clients get the best results when they are information freely during the planning stage.


“I ask our clients to be open and honest with us, to treat us like their accountant or attorney, so we can understand their budget, schedule, and goals with their construction project,” Truehl says. “Over 90 percent of our projects are design-build projects where we are estimating the budget throughout the design process. Too often, prospects choose the standard design bid method and/or are unwilling to actually open up and share this information.”


Contractors who master construction planning will develop a track record of completing projects on time and within budget.


To maximize the benefits of construction planning, follow some best practices:

  • Make sure you’re planning as a team. With more faces at the table, you greatly reduce the chances of overlooking something important.
  • To simplify things, identify the project’s big tasks first. Then, where necessary, split these tasks into subtasks.
  • Assign these tasks to individuals and contractors. Then, create a schedule that tells everyone what they’re supposed to be doing and when they’re supposed to do it.
  • Make sure the schedule has a completion date, and make sure you’re following the schedule.
  • You can adhere to the completion date and follow the schedule by monitoring progress regularly. Ensure that you regularly track and update progress so that information keeps flowing among participants.
  • You can also use templates to ease the planning process: Simply list the necessary information in the spaces provided, and modify the template to fit your project needs. Below are two free, downloadable templates that you can use to create a construction timeline and daily or weekly inspection report. You’ll find other useful templates throughout the article, as well.