How to Approach Pre-construction Proactively

Far too many developers deal with issues that show up during the construction phase of a project reactively. They go into the project working on the assumption that there will be no problems. Then when problems inevitably show up, the project rapidly ends up over both time and budget.

Unforeseen environmental and safety issues are one big way a project can go astray, resulting in multi-year delays and significant costs. The sooner in the process that you handle environmental issues, the better.

The answer to this problem is the proactive pre-construction approach. This means identifying conditions on the project site before you start construction, and in some cases even before you close on the land itself.

What Needs to Happen Before Construction Starts

The first stage is always a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment. If you are getting a loan, your lender may require you to have this done before closing on the property. In any case, doing a Phase I ESA before a purchase can help you establish if a site is a bad risk and if you should consider moving your project elsewhere.

The Phase I ESA simply looks at land and historical records to establish the risk of contamination on the site. The vast majority of brownfield sites are going to have at least some contamination risk associated with them. Depending on the results of the Phase I ESA, a Phase II ESA may be recommended.

When Should You Do the Phase II ESA?

If it is not done before purchase, then the Phase II ESA, which involves taking samples, should be done six months before you break ground. This might seem like a lengthy delay, but it is shorter than the likely delays caused by finding a problem after you start working.

The six-month period is to allow time for removal and replacement of contaminated soil before you start construction. It allows you time to find a way to dispose of any contaminated soil. The soil needs to go to a landfill and you need to coordinate with them. Landfills require a current 6-month waste profile before they will take the soil, and many have rules about what contaminants they will and will not take. Allowing plenty of time for this process will help if you have to check out multiple landfills or do an extended profile.

It’s not too late to do soil samples in the middle of construction, but it makes disposal harder and the entire thing more complicated.

After contaminated soil has been removed and, if necessary, replaced with clean soil, you should do the soil testing again to ensure all contaminated soil has been removed.

Why Else Should You Do Soil Testing Before Construction Starts?

Soil testing is also part of the geotech survey. This establishes the kind of soil you are dealing with, which might affect aspects of building design and placement. The foundation structure of your buildings needs to be compatible with the underlying geology.

Also, if there are any tanks or other underground structures that need to be removed, it is much easier to remove these and level the ground when there is nothing else on the site.

What Else Should You Do During the Pre-construction Stage?

Two other things need to be done:

Above Ground Structures

All above ground structures that are going to be heavily renovated or demolished need to be properly surveyed. In California, surveying for asbestos must be done before any renovation or demolition, even if the building shouldn’t have any asbestos in it because of its age. At the same time, you should test for lead paint and PCBs.

Both asbestos and lead are safe until disturbed, but it is impossible to do major work without disturbing them. This is also a good time to double check that any structures slated for renovation are, in fact, safe from a structural perspective. Make sure that you are being honest about whether a structure can be reused or whether it should be demolished.

For OSHA purposes, you may also need to take indoor air quality samples from any building that is slated for refurbishment or renovation. This is to establish whether your workers will need PPE when working inside the building.

Environmental, Health & Safety Plan

The results of the survey also need to be incorporated into the site-specific safety plan to protect your workers. Make sure to include any data collection or air sampling that might be required by OSHA.

Protecting workers from contamination is important not just from an ethical standpoint, but also to reduce delays and the risk of high fines or lawsuits from compliance issues.

The Benefits of Doing All of This Before Construction

The primary benefit of proactively looking for environmental issues before you break ground is simple: Cost.

It is much cheaper to remove soil before you have started digging for foundations. It is much cheaper to do asbestos mitigation before you start on other renovations.

A secondary benefit is improving protection for workers, who might otherwise find contaminated material the hard way, potentially affecting their health.

By doing this all in the preconstruction phase, you also ensure that you allow the proper amount of time for it. You can build the length of time it takes to perform surveys, take samples, dispose of contaminated soil, etc, into your schedule in a controlled manner. Then you have a higher chance of bringing the project in on time. If you are building for a client, then you can include it in your estimates without necessarily needing to explain what the extra time is for. You can also come back to them early in the process if mitigating an environmental issue is going to require an increase in budget.

If you do basic testing before purchase, too, you may be able to save yourself and/or your client from a bad purchase and from ending up with land that may not be suited for the intended purpose or which will require extremely expensive mitigation to be usable.

In short, doing proactive environmental assessments before construction starts saves time and money and helps protect your workers from potential health and safety hazards.