Pre-Construction Planning


Dean Suttling

April 9th, 2021
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The journey through to the end of detailed design and before physical works starting is known as the pre-construction phase. Whether, as a client or developer, you contract at the earliest stage or proceed through a more traditional route, you should follow the same steps, regardless of whether you outsource all of the works, if you want the construction phase to be as successful as possible. But what are these steps, and how can you maximise your input such that you reduce your risks in delivery?

What is the key to successful delivery?

Cost, Time, and Quality – Laying the foundations is essential in any build, and the pre-construction phase should be no different. You need to cover the design to such a point that it passes buildability assessments, meets the project requirements, and has the correct phasing. As part of this design process, you will have chosen the appropriate materials and construction methods. As part of this, you will have selected specialist subcontractors, drawing from their expertise as part of the design development.

Budget is equally important because as you develop your plan, you’ll want to ensure that you can build the project within your budget and that you’ve made a suitable contingency allowance for the construction phase. Ensure that you have benchmarked the project budget through industry-standard rates, or even better, you have built up your cost data from previous projects. Are you able to identify what cost overruns you have encountered on previous projects and that you have a plan to deal with these in the budget?

As you start to work out, in detail, the phasing of the works and considering all constraints, you can produce the project schedule, which also feeds into your budget assessment.

Having all three key components well developed, understood and actively managed is essential for successful pre-construction planning.

Pre-Construction Outputs

Assuming that you are past the feasibility stage and the project is progressing, you will need to develop a scoping document to procure either a design and build or build only contractor. Ensure that you are concise on the requirements if you intend to proceed on a build only route, but perhaps seek to be more open and outcome-based in your drafting if you want to progress on a design and build basis.

Of equal importance is stating any project constraints when developing a scope so that the contractor cannot argue later that they were not made aware of them. These could be time constraints, e.g., working hours, disposal methods, noise constraints, haulage routes or even extend to long lead times for materials or perhaps notices for securing traffic management approval from local authorities. Of note are usually planning permission constraints that the client or design and build contractor need to discharge.

As noted above, you need to develop a programme or schedule so that a) you can better budget for the project by understanding running costs and therefore overall financial liability and that b) you can plan for serving notices and for how long. Your project schedule will extend to all works at pre-construction, i.e., everything from seeking full planning permission, consultation, supply chain engagement, ordering long-lead materials to the contractor procurement, handover, and operation.

If you are a developer, then having an accurate and well-detailed schedule will also assist with securing funding, as you’ll be able to demonstrate detailed cashflow forecasts, including when you can expect revenue to start.

A communication plan is imperative for a successful project. You will need to consider how the project team, including all stakeholders, will interact with each other and what forms of communication you’ll use to set the tone and help you record agreements. Don’t solely consider the immediate contractual relationships, but also the community that you are working within and how, through the communication plan, you can engage with them, even if this only extends to keeping them updated.

Think about the supply chain. Do you know who they are? Have they got the requisite experience for your build, including successfully taking a similar scheme through planning and delivery? Early engagement with the supply chain is vital if you are to generate interest in a competitive tender.

Another importance of calculating a project budget is that it can identify a suitable risk allowance alongside the works’ direct cost. You should consider if you have applied any optimism bias whereby you have lowered the risk allowance to an unrealistic position leaving an unmanageable small amount, or equally, you have taken an overly optimistic view on all opportunities. For this reason, it is a good idea to have an independent cost consultant either produce your cost plan or at least review it and advise areas of concern.

Notwithstanding the above, if you are a contractor who has been awarded a contract and you are leading up to starting on site, then you will need to consider the more basic elements of project delivery that are also in place, such as:

  • Arrangements for planning and managing the works are in place, including communication, security and welfare provisions.
  • There is a site plan and compound set up, including how you plan to manage vehicle movements, emergency access and egress points. Also, you have considered parking restrictions and how people will move around the site.
  • You have considered any safety precautions and issues, such as the conditions of existing buildings or assets.
  • You are aware of hazards, such as asbestos, and how you intend to communicate these to the project team and have plans in place to deal with such eventualities.
  • You have your plans on delivery through your supply chain, and how to engage them.

The above are just a few examples from a lengthy checklist for the contractor. The points need to be closed out from a liability perspective of not knowingly putting people in harm’s way through the lack of risk control measures and that you can demonstrate that once on site you can get underway and on programme from the outset.

Investment up-front will pay dividends in delivery

For complex projects that involve static cranes, it’s not uncommon for programmes to run into minute detail across many pages such that time constraints can be managed or even the crane can be fully utilised. This might seem like overkill on a typical project, but it does give you a feel for scale in that do you consider working to such a degree or give broad activity durations and a sense for the critical path activity. However, through lean working practices, you can optimise programmes, reduce risk, and ultimately plan your works better which means overall time and therefore financial savings, so it should be a simple decision but a scalable one.

Pre-construction planning for major railway possessions can lead to months of planning and meticulous detail on phasing and supply chain capacity, backup plans, commitment of resource plans, and back-up plans if key personnel do not or cannot attend site. Network Rail use this ‘T-Minus’ procedure to plan down the days until works start, with the effectiveness being:

  • Reducing the risk of safety incidents
  • Ensure that handover and hand back of the site is done so within sufficient time, allowing for appropriate time risk built into the programme
  • Mitigate the impact on the service delivery of the infrastructure
  • To ensure that each contractor and subcontractor is in an appropriate state of readiness before works starting

The benefits are clear if you can successfully execute pre-construction planning to this fine detail. When you consider the risks of major possession overruns that grab headlines and lead to significant damages levied, taking such a hard line on pre-construction planning seems appropriate. Again, the point here is that you should adopt a scalable approach dependent on risk in pre-construction planning.

The benefits of using a gated process for pre-construction delivery

Implementing a structure to the project delivery stages helps ensure a standard approach to project delivery, which in time will become more efficient through repetition and allows for embedding best practice into the process.

The RIBA plan of work is a process of managing and designing projects into several work stages, which can be variable to suit the selected procurement route. It acknowledges that the tasks involved are broadly the same and, as highlighted above i.e.

  • Agree on appointments with the professional team
  • Develop a brief with the client
  • Create concept design options
  • Coordinate the design
  • Prepare a planning application
  • Apply for planning consent
  • Develop a set of construction information
  • Prepare a tender
  • Obtain consents required prior to construction
  • Award a contract

These stages are then split out into the RIBA stage i.e.


  • Stage 0 – Strategic Decision
  • Stage 1 – Preparation and Brief


  • Stage 2 – Concept Design
  • Stage 3 – Developed Design
  • Stage 4 – Technical Design

Many organisations work to similar processes such as the Project Controls Framework (PCF), GRIP (Governance for Rail Investment Projects) and others which are essentially a flow down from the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which itself has a gated process for project development:

  • OGC gateway review 0: strategic assessment
  • OGC gateway review 1: business justification
  • OGC gateway review 2: delivery strategy (or procurement strategy)
  • OGC gateway review 3: investment decision
  • OGC gateway review 4: readiness for service
  • OGC gateway review 5: operations review & benefits realisation

There are ‘decision points’ added at the outline and detailed design, and there are clear tasks that should be undertaken and signed off before you can pass through these gateways, which, once passed through, you cannot revisit and change.

When reviewing pre-construction planning, you should seek to adopt whichever stages of work best suit your area of works and industry and then seek to follow the steps and tasks involved. It’s fair to say that you will need to consider if all the functions involved are required depending on what you are trying to achieve. It should also provide a checklist of issues to review and closeout as appropriate to put you in good stead for moving into the construction phase.

Who is responsible?

As the client, you are ultimately responsible for project delivery. Still, you can outsource elements of the works and do not forget that you also have an obligation to appoint both the Principal Designer and the Principal Contractor. The principal designer’s role is to plan, manage, monitor, and coordinate health and safety during the pre-construction phase, where a project is likely to involve more than one contractor.

The principal contractor’s role is to plan, monitor and coordinate health and safety during the construction phase of a project involving or is likely to involve more than one contractor.

Both are vital roles, but before construction can commence, the principal contractor must prepare the construction phase plan. They will need to identify the risks that remain on the project, including those that the principal designer could not design out of the works.

The contractor will be working from a checklist of requirements around safety precautions and security before starting on site, but these are the client’s CDM obligations that will have stepped down to the principal designer and principal contractor.

Feature Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

About Dean Suttling

A member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Dean has twenty years of experience in commercial management and quantity surveying, undertaking roles for contractors, clients, and consultants.

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