On large and complex construction projects, the overall purpose of an Owner’s Representative is to guide the Owner through the design and construction process. At the Project’s inception, an Owner’s Representative should provide valuable insight for the Owner to consider when making critical decisions, such as the selection of the design professional and construction manager. This early insight will transition into the role of a problem solver where the Owner’s Representative is able to effectively advise an Owner against proceeding in a course of action that is either ignorant or arrogant. Those Owner’s Representatives that are too timid to deliver such a message or do so ineffectively become high-priced paper pushers that simply echo the short-sighted desires of the Owner. All too often, this results in an unwelcome, but manageable, problem escalating into a much bigger one months later where careers are detrimentally altered. This scenario is even more problematic for those projects that involve an oversight board or senior leadership that are common with large organizations.
Here are five (5) questions to ask when selecting an Owner’s Representative that will help you determine if he or she is a problem solver or just a paper pusher.
1. Do You Always Go Along with What the Owner Wants to Do?
An Owner’s Representative that is just a paper pusher will typically go along with what an Owner wants to do and prefer not to “rock the boat.” This means standing by while an Owner takes an unsupportable position that will later prove to be time-consuming, costly, and wrong in the eyes of the ultimate decision maker if it escalates to a trial or arbitration. Conversely, an Owner’s Representative that is a problem solver will recognize the exposure that an Owner is creating by taking positions that are either unreasonable or not supported by the contract. Those Owner’s Representatives will provide insight and diplomatically advise the Owner of the risks they are taking. While the Owner is the ultimate decision maker, a good Owner’s Representative will know how to do this in a strategic way that best protects the Owner, such as involving counsel for the Owner, but makes it known that the Owner was informed of the risks it was taking.
2. On Past Projects, Was Your Primary Contact Let Go or Terminated at the Conclusion of the Project Because It Did Not Go as Expected?
A good indicator that a past project went poorly from the Owner’s perspective is if the individuals employed by the Owner were let go or demoted after the Project’s completion. An ineffective Owner’s Representative is typically involved in those Projects because the hard discussions did not occur before they escalated and instead become much more problematic to solve months later. Instead, the Owner’s Representative just stood by and watched the problems snowball to the point where the Project ended poorly and a change was made in the personnel for the Owner. A good Owner’s Representative will recognize this risk and take steps to protect those employed by the Owner from putting themselves in a position with its board or its senior leadership where they face career-altering consequences that come with unmet expectations or surprises.
3. Do You Have Access to the Latest Scheduling Software, Such as Primavera, and Are You Proficient with Analyzing Native Schedule Files?
An Owner’s Representative that is a problem solver will be proficient with the scheduling software used to construct a project, such as Primavera. An Owner’s Representative that has this skill will be able to independently evaluate whether the Contractor’s schedule is based on sound scheduling and realistic durations. Essentially, the Owner’s Representative can tell the Contractor to “show me your work” by evaluating the native schedule files. While a successful Project requires more than just a properly constructed electronic schedule, significant schedule flaws contained in an electronic schedule file or those that are not properly updated are a common trait found in most problem projects.
4. What is Your Experience and Reputation within the Local Construction Market?
A problem-solving Owner’s Representative will have built up a solid reputation in the local construction market over years of work, often under different roles that provide for a well-rounded perspective. These Owner’s Representatives will be in a better position to identify design professionals, construction managers, and subcontractors that may either be over-extended, not yet capable of taking on the size of the Project, or have historically been difficult to manage. An Owner’s Representative that has little or no credibility in the local market will be of little value when it comes to selecting other members of the team, including subcontractors. One bad award out of the hundreds that are issued can affect the entire Project and an Owner’s Representative that is just a paper pusher will simply rubber stamp an award that everyone else in the local construction market predicts will end poorly. While a fancy brochure touting Owner’s Representative services generated from a distant city looks appealing, it does not translate into the value of knowing the local construction market when picking the other team members.
5. What is Your Experience with Construction Disputes?
A construction project is a complex process that must balance cost, time, and personalities, all while dealing with challenges beyond the control of any party, such as weather or subsurface conditions. At its best, the construction process is an orchestra of hundreds where each provides a critical component that creates the expected profit and a facility that is proudly viewed for generations. At its worst, the construction process is a nasty fight at a family gathering and fertile ground for disputes to “go legal” if not properly managed. A problem-solving Owner’s Representative will have experience with the different stages of a construction dispute, including early dispute resolution. The capstone of this experience is demonstrated by having to testify either in a deposition or preferably at a trial. While painful and sometimes humbling, such experience is invaluable, as a problem-solving Owner’s Representative will be more effective at steering the dispute to mitigation instead of litigation. By doing so, the Owner will have been told of the forthcoming scrutiny that arises when a dispute leads to an arbitration or trial. With that knowledge, an Owner will have a better respect for the time and expense involved by everyone should a dispute escalate to litigation or arbitration when navigating how best to proceed. An Owner’s Representative that is a paper pusher will have little or no experience in this process and cavalierly advocate a position that crumbles when placed under the microscope that comes with arbitration or litigation.
An Owner’s Representative should not be a glorified paper pusher and instead should provide invaluable guidance that keeps the Project out of trouble. This is best done in a manner that is collaborative and helps foster a “shared gain and pain” approach for all stakeholders in the Project. A problem-solving Owner’s Representative does this without being accusatory or grandstanding its value at the expense of the perceived shortcomings of others. A strong Owner’s Representative can be a great asset and will minimize the chances that a Project turns into a costly legal dispute, but it requires looking for the right skills and attributes not always apparent on a fancy marketing website.