How to build a healthy relationship with contractors

Long before construction workers broke ground on Illinois Street Residence Hall (ISR), the University of Illinois met with its construction contractor, Turner Construction Co., to discuss how they were going to make sure students could still enter and exit the Urbana, Ill., building throughout the year. Maintaining entry to ISR from Illinois Street is paramount because students need to access parts of the building during construction. The university worked with Turner to make sure the entrance would be complete by the time students returned to campus in the fall.  

“Good communication and timely decision-making were key in making that happen and, really, that took our efforts combined with the university,” says construction manager Rashad Hammoudeh. “We would suggest an idea, we tweaked it and made sure it worked with their suggestions … they basically gave us direction.”

The August deadline was the first of many the university and Turner has to meet. And as the ISR project rolls on, a healthy relationship between the university and its contractors and subcontractors has been critical in keeping the project on track.

A partnership rooted in communication

With a project as large as the ISR revamp, communication has been fundamental in both hitting the project’s deadlines and keeping everyone involved with the project up to date.

“We have several stakeholders within our department that have a vested interest in the success of this project,” says Alma Sealine, director of housing. “We want to make sure that there are structures in place that keep all of those stakeholders informed of progress so that we can share that information with respective stakeholders throughout the university.”

Each week, these stakeholders meet with the contractors and subcontractors on the project to keep everyone informed.

“We have an agenda we follow. We walk through and discuss the schedule and we look at the progress in all aspects. And then we discuss issues that may be coming up or challenges to staying on schedule,” says John Humlicek, associate director of housing and facilities.

The group also does monthly walks around the site to check on progress. To make sure the channels of communication remain open when the groups are not meeting, University Housing also assigned “point individuals” in the group who act as liaisons between the contractors and the various university groups.

Building on its effective communication strategy, the university team and its contractors will meet with an outside consultant for a half-day session early in November to talk about different communication styles and best practices.

“[The session] is simply aimed at reinforcing healthy working relations so that the success of the project is really guaranteed because everybody is on the same page,” Humlicek says.

Everyone is an expert

Recognizing everyone’s strengths and making contractors feel as if they are part of the team has been essential to the success of the project, Sealine says. Outlining expectations to contractors and subcontractors and communicating the importance of the student experience has helped bring the project’s vision to life in a timely manner.  

“You have to be engaged,” Sealine says. “You can’t expect that an architect or a construction manager is going to understand your expectations or what you’re wanting from a project if you’re not going to be engaged in that process and not communicating along the way.”

Hammoudeh agrees, saying that his No. 1 tip for clients is to “overcommunicate” what your expectations and goals are.

“If we don’t know what the client is expecting, then it’s very difficult to meet or exceed their expectations,” he says.

Along with engagement, trust in both yourself and the contractors is fundamental to success. Everyone is an expert, Sealine says.

“You need to trust [contractors’] experience because we do not have individuals who have the day-to-day experience that they bring to the table,” she says. “It’s that mutual trust between the experts in the room. Everyone has an expertise that they’re bringing to the project, and an awareness and acknowledgment of that is helpful.”

Photograph courtesy of University of Illinois

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