Bringing GCs in early improves communication
and smooths out retail construction projects.
By Robert Nieminen
The success of any retail design project hinges largely on the ability of the entire project team to collaborate effectively and efficiently from preconstruction to grand opening. Throughout the process, general contractors (GCs) play a central role in executing a plan into the finished product. And with ever-changing market demands and stricter time constraints, the role of GCs has become more challenging. Retailers and design firms that establish solid working relationships with reputable general contractors early on can minimize obstacles and help ensure smoother, more successful projects.
Identifying pain points and delays
Every construction project is fraught with challenges. From clear communication to accurate construction documents or the availability of subcontractors to product procurement, any number of complications must be addressed to avoid delays.
“The greatest pain point is all parties not being on the same page,” says Greg Gilder, manager of business development for Jag Building Group. “Each discipline comes with its own requirements, and each party needs to remember that it is a collaborative project, not single-minded.”
With a non-negotiable deadline for the Hudson Yards grand opening, this Venetian glass brick storefront for Forty Five Ten was ready despite a year-long process due to collaboration from the outset of the project. Procuring the custom glass bricks from overseas would require a long lead, so the team started sourcing quickly. Shawmut went with Forty Five Ten to visit the manufacturer in Italy to ensure that the team understood the product and how it needed to be handled. This brick-laying process had not been executed in the U.S. before, and the six-month installation process required Shawmut to develop a fully structural system and proprietary lexan interlayer product to allow for a stable and structurally sound installation.
He notes that architects and designers, mechanical engineers, landlords, and tenants often have individual goals that may not always align, which “creates a push and pull between parties with different priorities.” To help ensure buy-in and success, Gilder suggests that project teams agree to a plan and avoid deviating from it.
David Margolius, VP of retail for Shawmut Design and Construction, identifies three major issues with retail construction projects today: availability of qualified subcontractors, pricing fluctuations, and scheduling. “The quality and availability of subs is a really hot issue right now,” he says, adding that as construction schedules get tighter, it can be more challenging to find skilled labor quickly, which can set project timelines back.
Additionally, increasing tariffs on overseas goods and the recent doubling of lead times for large-scale mechanical equipment directly impact project start and end dates, he says. Finding available retail space at the right price and lease terms is also a challenge that can push back the construction timeline, which gives architects less time to design and GCs less time to build, Margolius explains. Gilder adds, “Changes and errors cost us more time than I am comfortable with sometimes and even require us to retrace our steps, which can lead to blame and frustration on everyone’s part.”
The ultimate solution to all of these problems is starting early, Margolius says. By meeting with the project team from the get-go, he says GCs can identify standard issues that may arise, from long lead times to specific design elements, and develop a plan to address them. “The earlier that we do that and the sooner we partner on it, the better able we are to bring solutions to the table or at least bring critical information to the rest of the team to drive decision-making all around.”
GCs play a crucial role in retail projects. Horizon Retail Construction handled the general contracting for this Timberland in Paramus, N.J., U.S. The store incorporates an existing large air duct that supplied air to the mall. The duct was walled in and flanked by a cashwrap and the footwear area.
Another relatively recent problem to emerge is the credit worthiness of tenants, according to Patrick Christensen, president of Horizon Retail Construction. “I’ve worked here for 20 years and never had a retailer go bankrupt or out of business or not pay their bills, but in the last five years, I’ve seen it happen a few times.” His concern is finding clients that are “doing it right versus those who can’t keep up” with the changing economic landscape.
Delays in retail construction projects can arise for any number of reasons, but Christensen says most of them occur in the preconstruction phase, typically with permitting or lease issues. Another area that causes setbacks upfront are existing jobsite conditions that can be missed because of the speed at which projects are required to move, according to Margolius. “If the time hasn’t been afforded to go in there and punch holes in walls and see where the columns are within the enclosure, for example, and all of the exploratory things we do to feed accurate existing information back to the design team, that’s where it can really cause some delays or added costs,” he says.
Creating good partnerships
General contractors are often mischaracterized as being difficult to work with and also suffer the misperception in the industry of driving change orders, Margolius observes. That’s simply not true in most cases. GCs assume a great deal of risk on construction projects, and change orders often result in more delays that can jeopardize timelines—and the contactor’s reputation. So most GCs want to be brought in early to ensure a project’s success.
“We love being a partner,” Margolius says. “We don’t want surprises. We don’t want change orders. We love partnering early and really being a team member. At the end of the day, a mistake or an issue is going to pop up somewhere in the ecosystem, but when you really have the team philosophy and everybody’s at the table, you can overcome any challenge with good communication, processes, and tools.”
You can overcome any challenge with good communication, processes, and tools.
Even so, retailers would be better served by emphasizing the accuracy of drawings, including code compliance, Gilder suggests. “It will set them up for success every time,” he says.
Christensen echoes the comment, noting that it’s much easier for everyone involved to put the pieces together when retailers spend time during preconstruction to ensure that construction documents are thorough and materials are easily purchased—and with reasonable lead times.
“One thing that helps the relationship with us and a tenant is when they spend the time and effort to get those contract documents and materials procured, because it keeps the construction process on time and everyone is happier,” he says. “Like all business, the highest levels of communication to really understand end goals and expectations creates a stronger relationship.”
Robert Nieminen is an award-winning writer and editor and a frequent contributor to Retail Environments.