Unless you’re building a Lego spaceship with your kids, construction is never a spontaneous or fast process. The project life cycle begins when its owner identifies a need for a new structure or public improvement and ends when all work has been completed and approved by the appropriate authorities. During that time, all steps and decisions are guided by the project schedule.
Why Construction Schedules Are Important
A flawless construction schedule is a blueprint for success. Companies use them to stay on track and periodically assess whether the projected completion date is still realistic. They also make it easier to keep on top of the multiple details involved. Labor and materials costs, design approval, and obtaining all necessary permits are only the tip of the iceberg. By creating a project management schedule, you put together a clear plan that can be shared with everyone on the team.
The many functions of a construction schedule include:
- Asset management. Proper scheduling ensures that labor, materials, and equipment are properly managed, minimizing the risk of downtime due to shortages.
- Minimizing downtime. The delays due to downtime can be costly. According to one study, the financial loss represented by a piece of inoperable construction equipment could be up to $2,800 per eight-hour workday.
- Keeping things within budget. Inaccurate project estimates are a leading cause of cost overruns. A well-planned schedule can detect deficiencies in initial estimates and prevent problems before they occur. It can also inform financial decisions by accurately forecasting project completion.
Understanding the basics of construction scheduling is a critical part of the development and management of construction projects. When you put together a well-planned schedule for your client, it specifies how the work will get done and outlines the pace of delivery for each milestone. Other benefits include:
- Greater project stability. When you outline everything in detail, your client is not as likely to encounter unwelcome surprises down the road. There is greater control over the project outcome and all the details can be planned down to the lowest level.
- Better quality control. When you sequence the work properly and ensure that the right construction materials are available in the right quantity at each step, project quality improves- along with client satisfaction!
- Better resource planning. I find scheduling to be indispensable when I’m helping to plan resources like labor, equipment, and building materials. My client can purchase the right materials at the right time and make sure that they engage subcontractors for all necessary roles, which helps them complete the project on time.
- Easier activity planning. Everyone involved in the project, from the general contractor to architects, subcontractors, laborers, and suppliers can use the project timeline to better plan their activities.
- A safer project. Safety is a major concern in any construction project, and using a schedule to lay out all the activities allows you to identify when protective measures like earplugs, goggles, and hard hats will be needed at the construction site.
I would also argue that a sound schedule will help your client save money, as you can identify the activities that may have to be done during cooler weather and apply pricing protection measures. Whichever way you look at it, the right scheduling system will support team efficiency and make it possible to complete the project on time.
Now, let’s take a look at how to build and schedule construction projects. It starts with the documentation of key project data, which can then be migrated into a scheduling tool to generate a timeline.
How to Build a Construction Schedule
All construction schedules should include the following information:
- The schedule creation date, so that you can track versions if necessary.
- The names of the project owner and the construction firm that will be carrying out the work.
- The names of everyone on the team, from the project owner and general contractor to all subcontractors and suppliers.
- The tasks that need to be carried out, from the planning phase up until the final steps before completion.
- The dates that individual tasks are expected to begin and end.
- The projected completion date.
Once you’ve listed all these details, it’s time to:
- Create a timeline that maps out how long each activity (e.g. pouring concrete for the foundation, laying the wall brickwork) should take to complete.
- Identify which team member is responsible for each activity
- Assign tasks accordingly.
There are many tools available that allow you to build a schedule from scratch or modify a template to meet your client’s project type and its needs. Whichever one you go with, you’ll want to ensure that it provides a long-term overview, supports instant updates, and can speedily convey updates to everyone on the team.
We’ll start with my personal favorite: Toggl Plan.
Toggl Plan is a browser-based project management tool that’s easy to use but powerful enough to build complex project timelines and construction schedules. I’ve used it to build schedules for residential and commercial contractors, construction companies, and even interior designers who wanted to add surface touches to completed projects.
It uses Gantt charts to create clean and attractive project timelines. To add a task, all you have to do is indicate start and completion dates by clicking on the timeline, filling in the details, and assigning it to a team member.
Toggl Plan’s Gantt charts are a modern variation on the bar charts that were traditionally used to create a construction schedule and identify the necessary resources for a particular project. Bar charts were grid sheets with the project tasks listed vertically in the column one and the timeline mapped out in the first row. Tasks were mapped out on the grid and usually color-coded according to project stage or milestone. At one time, I did them in Excel, but since I discovered the dynamic versatility offered by Toggl Plan, I haven’t looked back.
If you work for a nonprofit or your team doesn’t exceed five people, Toggl Plan is free to use. Unlike some project management software, the free version is not a pale shadow of the paid program. It has all the features and versatility you need to smoothly build a construction schedule.
Phoenix Project Manager
Bar charts aren’t the only scheduling technique used in the construction industry. Critical path project management is also widely applied. With this technique, each activity is linked to past and future ones, so that expensive conflict can be avoided. One popular construction scheduling software that uses the critical path approach is Phoenix Project Manager.
This scheduling tool is full of rich features, such as graphic bar charts and network views. You can apply filters to check on specific aspects of the project and the built-in CPM checker supports ongoing schedule quality, which is a major bonus. You can use it to identify problems before they can impact the project. Another powerful tool is the Network Diagram, a project overview that makes it easy to follow the critical path.
Phoenix Project Manager is apparently also popular with energy and utility companies wanting to maximize up-time and reduce plant shutdowns. It’s a versatile program that can be successfully migrated from one project type to the next.
Line of balance scheduling has been used in industrial manufacturing and planning since the 1940s, when it was developed by the Goodyear company. It consists of a series of inclined lines that symbolize the working rate between repetitive operations in a construction timeline. Also known as the repetitive scheduling method, line of balance scheduling is often seen on repetitive work such as high-rise buildings and underground tunnels.
Tilos is a leading scheduling software package that uses this scheduling model as its basis. It automates time-location diagrams and formats then so that the entire project scope is presented along the time and distance axes. All of these details appear on a single screen, so you can easily see when scheduling or task allocation clashes occur.
I haven’t used TILOS myself, but I have colleagues who like the way the program allows them to monitor progress in real-time and immediately update project data when changes occur. Despite the distance element, which you don’t find in other construction scheduling tools, they say that it’s intuitive and boasts an easier learning curve than other programs that they have used. If your clients specialize in linear projects like pipeline and road construction, TILOS appears to be worth checking out.
Proper scheduling is critical to the success of every construction project. Fortunately, there are several quality construction schedule templates and software available to help you prepare a timeline that covers all the necessary activities. Once you find one that works for you and your client, get ready to take your business to the next level.