What I Learned from my Last Capital Project

A workshop on capital project management can be a very useful learning exercise, but a workshop can’t replace first-hand experience. One can learn a great deal by working closely with an engineering company to implement major capital repairs and building upgrades.

When a project is complete, why not take a few minutes to reflect on your experience and jot down a few things you learned? What would have improved results? What worked flawlessly? I invite you to send your thoughts to CoActionSA@gmail.com so we can share them, and look forward to reading the ideas sent in by others. Over time we can develop some valuable checklists and save each other a few headaches.

To start us off, below are some of the things I learned while working in several co-ops on a variety of projects. Do you agree with them? What other thoughts can you share? I look forward to your suggestions!

I find it pays to work with one engineering company over a longer time to establish a close relationship and develop a more consistent understanding your property, its history of repairs, and an awareness of ongoing issues. The engineering company will be at your side when you have property related questions (at no extra cost), even outside of projects, and can provide valuable contacts to qualified contractors when you are in a pinch to find one for a specific application.

When you introduce them to your board, let the engineer outline their role for the co-op, and include a summary in the minutes. New board members will often not understand why the co-op needs to involve an engineering company, and it is always good for them to hear it directly from the engineer.

Point out to the engineering company that they should not expect co-op staff or the board to have detailed knowledge of building systems. The engineer must make the co-op aware of any items that need to be added to the scope of work to ensure the component that is to be replaced works properly. For example, when you replace the makeup air units (MUAs), the MUA shafts that are not being replaced need to be re-balanced to ensure proper air flow on all floors. And if they have not been cleaned in two or three years, it will be cheaper to have that done at the same time. An engineer that expects you to know this and does not point it out or ask for it to be added to the scope is not the right partner for you.

If you are replacing a single mechanical component, the engineer has to consider the ducting or piping that connects it to other components, as well as the other components themselves. There may have to be changes made to ducts or piping that some engineers do not consider part of the scope of work for which they were hired. Remind the engineer that in addition to replacing the identified component, they are hired to make the building system work as a whole. They may then proceed to make recommendations for changes. If those changes prevent future trouble, or ensure that the component can run effectively, it can be worth the added cost. And the co-op can always ask another engineering company for a second opinion.

If things go south and you believe the engineer or contractor has not done a proper job, you can hire a different engineering company to perform what is called a Peer Review. They will review drawings, specifications, and the work performed, and will issue a report with their findings. This is an additional cost, but when the co-op is faced with problem components that are worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, it can be justified.

It makes a lot of sense to hold an information session attended by the engineer where members can ask questions about service interruptions or raise any other concerns in connection with the project. Of course, not everyone will attend, but at least members are given a chance to get first hand information.

It is also a good idea to regularly communicate progress on the project to keep everyone on board.

When a contractor requires access to a unit, they should be required to protect the floors from debris, dust, and dirt with drop sheets or other protective measures, especially in carpeted areas. Where appropriate, contractors can use boot covers. In units with known bug problems such as roaches or bedbugs, separate drop sheets should be used to avoid spreading the problem.

The co-op should include a provision in the tender that at least one fluent English speaking crew member, preferably the foreman, is on site at all times to serve as the contact for co-op staff in cases of emergency and for updates on work progress.

To be able to adequately explain to members how an upcoming project will affect them, discuss the work in detail with the contractor. Ask how the member will be required to prepare their unit, how often and for how long the contractor will require access, and what noise or other disruption residents and their neighbours can expect. For example, when several windows in a building are being replaced, the priority may be to get them all installed and foamed on day one, with interior and exterior finishing done when the contractor returns to the unit on a separate day. The contractor needs to understand that many members have busy lives and some may be wary of strangers in their homes.

Be careful about allowing contractors to store their tools, equipment, or materials in the co-op’s common areas to avoid possible liability when things are lost. Also, be cautious about giving contractors access to common area rooms.

It is good business practice to have a maintenance worker (or hired security) follow contractors around with a master key to provide access to units, instead of giving unit keys to contractors. Members feel safer when they see that a trusted person gives access and that the co-op has control of unit keys.

If you don’t expect that replacement parts for the items that are being replaced or installed will be readily available when something is damaged in future, order spare parts in advance so they will be on hand, such as window and patio door screens, kitchen cabinet hinges, MUA filters, etc.

Lana Nwaokoro
Manager, Oak Street Co-op
Director, CoAction Staff Association

November 2018