In the 9 years I have worked in the commercial flooring industry, I have learned one thing is certain: when it comes to working on schools during the “school blitz” period, it is best you forget everything you know about how to manage a project. Well, maybe not entirely, but to be successful, you will have to modify standard procedures to keep up with the madness. The school blitz season is the eight weeks during the summer which flooring installation in schools is completed, usually lasting until the hours before students are scheduled to arrive back to school. In the coming paragraphs, I will address procedures common to standard installation management, reasons why these standard procedures may not work during school blitz, and how to navigate these issues in a manner safe for your budget and contract terms.
Congratulations! You have been awarded the contract for a major school renovation. Your contract? Oh, that is being put together now. By the way, you start work next week.
To some, this may sound like a joke. But if you have worked in schools during the school blitz period, you know this scenario well. Many times, when it comes to summer school renovations, the process for being awarded the job is much different than what you would usually encounter on a standard project. The timeline on almost all procedures is dramatically reduced, often run concurrently with procedures that should run consecutively, and actions need to be set in motion almost immediately.
Standard procedure tells you to anxiously await the arrival of your contract, then review the contract and contract documents against your proposal and takeoff to ensure you have accounted for the full scope of work. In many cases when dealing with summer school renovations, contracts are not issued in a manner that gives you time to complete your full set of procedures. This leads to your first dilemma. You may go back and forth with a customer to expedite the formal contact, but in many cases, you will just be wasting very valuable time.
In these cases, we have been able to successfully move forward with summer school projects, without a formal contract, by obtaining alternate forms of agreement that are less formal and easier to produce. Such agreements include a scope of work, letter of intent that includes a dollar value, and our proposal, signed, showing a dollar value. These alternative forms of agreement function as directives to proceed with procuring material and scheduling the project. They form a basis of understanding between parties that mitigates uncertainty and risk. The more of these contract alternatives you have, the better, but for us to move forward with a project, we need, at minimum, a letter of intent with a dollar value specifically included. It is important to continue pushing for a contract, but you can successfully begin work with alternative forms of agreement that have been carefully reviewed and verified to cover your budget for the project.
Now that you have tools for proceeding without a formal contract, it’s time to begin the material procurement process. The submittal process can begin upon receipt of a letter of intent or a notice to proceed. The standard process of requesting physical samples and waiting for an architect’s approval can take several weeks, time you can’t afford during school blitz. To save time, we use technology to our advantage and send electronic submittals. Most of the samples you will submit have already been reviewed by a designer in the design phase of the project. Physical sample submittals are an unnecessary formality in many cases, especially when dealing with standard materials. Getting material approved hyper-fast is imperative to the school blitz season, because you will likely be dealing with lead times which will extend past your anticipated start date. No matter what, you, as the flooring expert, will be held responsible for getting material on time. After all, you know how long it takes to order, confirm, and receive materials and you should advise your customer along this process. Once you send submittals, be sure to set calendar reminders in your email application so you follow up every 48 hours (max.) for approvals.
At this point, you have your approvals and are ready to order. You find out that 10,000 feet of material that was in stock was purchased in the days between submittals and approvals (remember, it’s school blitz season everywhere). Your lead time is now 8 weeks and that doesn’t work with the schedule. We’ve been there before; the key is to have solutions ready. Simply advising that a product is not available isn’t good enough. A finish needs to be installed no matter what. There is no flexibility with the turnover date – the kids are coming! As the flooring expert, it’s important you have alternate options ready to submit for any long lead time material.
We typically ask for the vendor’s top three colors that are always in stock. Also remember that if you propose an alternate that is different than the specified material in any way other than color, you must make sure the product performance is equal or better. An important factor in alternate material (and its approval) is cost. If you can present an alternate product that is equal or better in performance, at a cost savings, you will have significant leverage in the situation.
Fast forward a couple weeks, and the installation date has finally come. The long hours spent researching and procuring products, scheduling labor, and studying the project has set you up for success and a streamlined installation. Or so you thought. The reality of working a school blitz season is that you are not the only contractor in the throes of a chaotic installation. Your first day on-site can quickly devolve into a nightmare if you are not very well prepared. It is crucially important that you know what you are walking into on your first day. Pre-installation site visits with climate, room, and stair dimension verification is even more important in this season as there is no time for mistakes.
The most common issue we have experienced in our many years of school blitz is acclimation of the building. Many times, new construction and modernization will result in an expected installation start date while the building shell is incomplete. Whether it be in the form of missing windows, storefronts, or structural walls, you will be put into a situation where you are directed to install your product outside of the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Some contractors may outright refuse to proceed with the installation in these conditions. I recommend against that strategy. Although you have a strong argument against proceeding, these tactics expose you to notices of delay and threats of liquidated damages, along with an unhappy customer and owner. Other contractors may proceed with extensive warranty exclusions and workmanship liability waivers. Although these may seem to offer full protection, it can be effectively argued that proceeding with an installation that was expected to fail was as much on you as a flooring expert as it was on the customer who directed you to proceed. Essentially, you should have known better.
The methods I use in situations where a building isn’t ready for installation include the standard education about the importance of preventing a failure with the manufacturer’s technical documents, solutions to mitigate any failures, warranty waivers as needed, but I also go a step further. If I am not confident about a product working due to site conditions, I offer to proceed with a written agreement that any repairs required due to such conditions will be completed at a cost to be covered by the customer. This provides a common expectation between all parties that we will be responsible for the schedule and to make repairs and they will be responsible for the conditions of their building and the financial implications thereof. It’s important in these repair agreements to have a detailed description of the conditions, any expected remedial work, and expected unit costs for material and labor if repairs are required.
Now that you are on-site and working, you may encounter scheduling conflicts, both internal and external. The most common and impactful occurrence of internal scheduling conflicts is installation manpower. School blitz projects generally occur in groups, depending on jurisdiction. There are only a few months each year when construction can occur, so concurrent work is extremely common. Most contractors are working from the same labor pool, so if there is a spike in concurrent projects, your go-to installers are likely suddenly busy. The best way to combat this is to secure labor commitments far in advance. We generally begin securing labor commitments in early spring. Although we are not certain which projects we will be awarded, we communicate our expectations with our subcontractors so that they understand we need them and we ask for their commitment verbally and in-person if possible.
Once your crews have given you their commitment, make sure you are balancing enough work to keep them busy. It can become a habit to use a couple go-to subcontractors as an easy button. Eventually those will be the only guys who will commit to your projects and that will create a manpower issue. You should keep in the top of your mind that when they are not installing, they are not making money. By no means can you expect subcontractors to wait around for work. It is crucial to foresee manpower needs in advance of a spike in volume. Make sure salespeople are communicating with scheduling staff and plan a pre-summer meeting in the spring to go over sales volume expectations. During this time leading into summer, keep your subcontractors involved. Have them walk job-sites and attend progress meetings for any projects you have been awarded and you anticipate awarding to them. This will allow them to project their manpower needs along with your scheduling staff. My experience is that I have lower occurrence of subcontractor drop-off when they are kept well informed regarding the status of projects that you are considering awarding to them.
External scheduling conflicts are, by their nature, much more difficult to control. No matter how much time and preparation you put into scheduling material and manpower, the reality of installation is that if an area is not ready to receive your installation, there is not much you can do. The school blitz period almost always promises that when you arrive to begin your installation, nearly every other trade happens to be working in the areas you are expected to install. They are under the same time constraints as we are and because we are a finish trade, we are working after and under all the other trades.
What is important during this time is to remain flexible. These types of projects rarely go according to plan, but they still need to be completed on time (remember, kids are coming back no matter what). This requires planning and cooperation between all parties. Be sure to get to know the supervisors and workers of other trades. Keep a respectful and friendly relationship with them. Be as accommodating as possible when they need to use your areas. You don’t want them to adversely impact your schedule but if you can accommodate some access to your areas of work, you should do so willingly.
Due to the nature of our work and the laws of gravity, it’s difficult for flooring contractors to share space. If you are taking every opportunity to prohibit access to areas, you can quickly become the “bad” or uncooperative person on-site. This will make it more difficult for you get your work done on time. My experience during school blitz has been that the flooring contractor is often asked to complete work during the hours when others are not on-site. Although this may seem unfair, it makes much more sense to change the shift of one trade to accommodate many others than vice versa.
If a schedule is issued during the bidding phase, it is important that installation management or scheduling staff review it to determine if they believe premium time will be necessary. Any necessary premium time should be offered as an add-on option so you do not bid yourself out of the work. If no indication of schedule is provided during the bidding phase and you did not include premium time as part of your bid, you should be entitled to compensation for premium work. Have a price ready for when this discussion occurs so your customer has the necessary information they need. The most stress doesn’t necessarily come from bad news, but rather lack of information. Construction professionals are good at managing bad news, but it’s impossible to make good decisions with missing information. Recognizing scheduling issues at the start shows experience and effort on your part and if you foresee that a shift change would be helpful, recommending this along with associated costs will put you at a major advantage. Having these conversations while installation is underway can be more difficult as stress levels are high and you may be perceived as attempting to holdup a project for more money.
One final piece of this puzzle is that I encourage any installation team to make a serious effort to stay involved with a project after an installation is complete. As flooring contractors, we often see the completion of installation as the end of a project. We are so eager to move on to the next challenge that we may miss a potential long-lasting and lucrative business opportunity.
Many of the floors we install now require strict and specific maintenance guidelines that building maintenance crews may not know how to manage. Flooring contractors can take advantage of our knowledge and skills in flooring to offer on-going maintenance for owners. This initial and preventative maintenance can often lead to other opportunities such as replacements and new scope. The nature of a trafficked building presents an opportunity for continued business through maintenance and repairs – business that is generally more profitable than traditional low-bidder contract work. I recommend offering a post-construction initial cleaning and maintenance proposal with your bid and with closeout submittals. Also, if possible, connect with an owner’s representative to pass along your maintenance proposal and thank them for the opportunity to work on their project.
In closing, although it is incredibly safe to say that working on “school blitz” projects can be the most stressful eight weeks of your year, the reality is that these projects are great opportunities to make money and improve your operations. If you can navigate several fast-paced concurrent projects, each with compressed schedules, you will see improvements in other areas of operations. You will become more solution-oriented and customer-focused. Establishing yourself as a company that can successfully complete these types of projects not only provides a high volume of work during these summer periods, but it also creates a competitive advantage for any project that is perceived as difficult, along with creating the perception that you can excel on easier projects as well. It opens doors to many opportunities, and if you can manage these projects well, there is an immense residual impact on your business during the other nine months of the year.