Virtual Design and Construction Project Management
What does project management look like in a company that has multiple different types of projects? Do the same old ways apply, or is it a whole new world? Let’s dive in and see what it looks like from a director’s view.
Is There a New School of Management?
First, let’s talk about how the workflow has changed in the design setting. We have seen a change in how project work is completed on a design level in recent years. At one point in time there was a distinct break between the engineer and the designer. The engineer came up with the working design for their discipline for the project, and the designer turned it into a drawing for construction. Sometimes there was such a big disconnect that the designer didn’t even know what they were drawing, but just regurgitating sketches to a drawing. We have seen a shift with the introduction of BIM, where the engineer and designer are the same person, or at very least operate together. This is driven by the content that is available with building information modeling.
Has this change also affected project management? I think the answer is a yes. For project managers there is so much more information available earlier in the project and throughout the entire workflow of a project that it helps them make better decisions as the process is unfolding. I think the biggest impact it has on project management is who is put into those roles so they can utilize the information given to them. We no longer live in a world where the only deliverable is a 2D document.
Who Are These Project Managers?
The unicorn for this role is someone who loves technology, has learned the software, and has 20 years of experience in the field, all while understanding the benefit of coordination early in a 3D environment. These people exist, but seem to be pretty few and far between and there isn’t enough of them to go around. It becomes even more complicated in a company that does multiple different types of projects, with different types of skill sets.
The issue in a company like ours is that no two projects ever look the same, even ones that are similar. There are always different players, different abilities, and obviously each project is unique, which is why defining the project manager roles is important.
What Do Their Roles Look Like?
I think the main word that describes what the project manager role looks like at our company is “flexible.” Because our projects are different sizes, involve different disciplines, and require different roles, you very rarely get the opportunity to stay in a neat little box and stay comfortable. We have people with electrical backgrounds running plumbing and general coordination jobs; we have interior designers learning to scan and post process; we have fire protection designers doing everything but fire protection, and so on.
In our company not only are the project managers running multiple projects of different types and disciplines, but we also expect them to be listening for more opportunities. We spend a lot of time at the table with other disciplines doing coordination and we can hear who has the capabilities—and more importantly—those who don’t.
We recently did an exercise with our project managers called stakeholder mapping and it was eye opening for them to see all the people and companies they encounter on a regular project. The exercise is simple: start with the PM and list everyone who is involved in the project from all facets. Once those are all on a board, then draw the correlation between the PM and those players in the project and what the communication looks like. There is a lot of opportunity to showcase our company in these interactions to everyone from the general contractor down to guys in the field and everyone in between. There are multiple times when just listening on a project has led us to more work on that same project or on future projects with other companies.
I believe the last thing the project manager role encompasses is that they don’t always get to just manage, and in fact, that is rarely the case. The project managers manage the junior level staff on their projects, but as stated before, our projects vary in size, disciplines, and timeframe, and often the project managers must participate in production as well.
All our project managers have a production background and are fully aware of the requirements, so not only can they guide the work of the junior level staff, but they can also participate in that work. Good project managers aren’t afraid to get in and get their hands dirty. Also, while getting into the work themselves, they also build a mentoring relationship with the junior level staff, which is good for a team environment.
Where Do They Manage?
As the times have changed, so has the traditional office structure, which has also changed the project structure. Physical location is no longer important, which also opens you up to opportunities far outside of your reach in a local business setting. We have a distributed workforce, which simply means not everyone is in the same location. We have a home office where many employees work, but we also have remote employees all up and down the East Coast. This is still not typical in an AEC environment, but is slowly changing with the technology supporting this type of workflow. With software such as BIM 360, working in different locations is a breeze if you have Internet.
But what does project managing look like in this environment? Simple. Communication is key, and let’s be honest, it really is even if you all work in the same location. Emails, messenger programs, phone calls are all very important to make sure a project stays on task. Having a good schedule to work with and good assignments, during those times of communication, with good goals in place will make any project a success.
When Does a VDC Project Manager Start?
We try to involve our project managers as early as possible in the project. Often, they are the ones giving me the hours it will take to accomplish the project scope during the proposal phase. The only downside to involving project managers so early is these projects don’t usually kick off quickly and that project manager may not be available at the time it starts. That is where the word flexible comes back into play and why being able to manage different types of projects for different disciplines is critical. Every day looks different and you need to be able to put on the right glasses to view that day’s requirements and understand the needs.
How Are Project Managers Managed?
What type of management do the project managers receive? When it comes to their projects, they hold the reigns and can make the day-to-day decisions that need to be made to keep the project moving forward and the client happy. I always direct them to involve me when it involves large scope creep, time, and fee. I want them to be the face of the company to the client, and not someone whose name is just on a proposal or email.
At the same time, I don’t want them to deal with the bureaucracy that sometimes comes with those three things and focus on delivering the best quality project for our client. There is no greater compliment we can receive than when a client calls us because of the experience they had on the last job and wants to partner with us again. I often get emails forwarded from my project managers about these types of opportunities and take them as a sign of a job well done and a compliment.
This is just a glimpse of project management at my company, but whatever it may look like where you are, let’s embrace the age of technology and utilize it to deliver the best result to our clients and win the next big deal!
Joshua Geimecke is the Director of VDC for EDGE-GTS headquartered in Rochester, New York. He leads a group that specializes in VDC, BIM, IPD, and all facets of design technology. He has been involved in the AEC industry, working in many different disciplines and sectors, for more than 19 years. Joshua can be reached for comments and questions at