Construction Management: How Things Get Built in the Real World

(Part 1)

In my experience, the average observer of construction regards the process as rather insignificant and inconsequential – nothing special, nothing unique, not an industry of any importance – mostly filled with non-influential blue-collar macho types.

I’ll be honest, I was guilty of this mindset at one point too. It wasn’t until I started working for a general contractor and understanding how the business worked, that the lightbulb turned on.

Our society does not take the contributions of the construction industry very seriously. But it should, because without these contributions, this world would be a very bleak place.

There would be nothing without construction. Progress and construction go hand in hand – we can’t have one without the other. Our society, our economy, and our culture are all dependent upon the construction industry.

This article is for people who would like to better understand what construction management is; and know how things go from a thought to a real life manifestation.

This is how things get built in the real world.

As much as I wrote this for people who could benefit from this information, I also wrote it for me.

As you know one of the reason’s why I started this blog is because the writing process helps me deepen my understanding of anything.

Becoming the best construction project manager I can be is a big focus of mine.

Who Is Involved In A Construction Project?

Primary Players:

  1. Owners – No construction would ever be accomplished without owners. They determine the need and decide to build.
  2. Architects – Professionals trained in the art and science of building design.
  3. Engineers (Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, Civil) – Most often hired by and work for the architects.
  4. General Contractor – Enters into contract with the owners to deliver the construction project in accordance with the plans and specifications provided by the architects & engineers.

Secondary Players:

  1. Subcontractors (Plumber, Concrete, Electricians, Drywaller, Painter, etc.)
  2. Suppliers
  3. Vendors
  4. Inspectors
  5. Insurance Companies
  6. Labor Unions
  7. Government
  8. Financial Institutions
  9. Bankers
  10. Trade Associations

As Construction Managers, we try to maximize these four (4) project values:

  1. Cost – minimize cost while maximizing value to owner
  2. Time – complete work within the time frame assigned
  3. Quality – delivering a aesthetic, functional, appropriate end product
  4. Safety – Everyone goes home safely to their families everyday.

How Things Get Built In The Real World

(1) Awaiting Design

Before anything in the world can be built, there needs to be a design.

The architect determines the what and the where. The contractor determines the how and the when.

(2) Procurement – Request for Proposal (RFP)

Once we have a design from the architect or design professional, we need to procure a cost. In other words, we need to find out how much it will cost to build what has been provided by the design team.

As construction managers, it is our job to procure the cost from our subcontractors and vendors.

(3) Procurement – Owner Has Price

Depending on what scenario you’re in, the next step is to submit the proposals for approval to the project owner. It is their money, so they must review and approve everything they’re paying for.

(4) Procurement – Issue Contracts / Purchase Orders

Assuming the owner has approved the cost to build the design, the CM can now go into contract with the subcontractor or vendor. From here, the subcontractors can now prepare to do the work.

(5) Shop Drawing & Submittal Preparation

Submittal: Data, samples, details, colors, and product literature required by the terms of the contract to be presented to the architect by the contractor for approval prior to ordering and installing them.

Shop Drawings: A supplemental drawing to the plans and specifications that details fabrication methods, materials, and models of a product or installation associated with the project.

Many items associated with construction cannot be ordered out of a product catalog or off the shelf. Many items have to be fabricated in a shop or manufactured specifically for the job. In these instances, a special type of submittal called a shop drawing is required.

(6) Shop Drawing Approval (with architect)

Every single product, material, or piece of equipment that goes into a construction project must be formally submitted to the architect for review and approval. This entire process takes time so it must be managed in a timely fashion.

(7) Fabrication

Once that shop drawing / submittal is approved by the architect and sent back to the contractor, it can now be released for fabrication. This is the time frame where the specific product or material is actually being made.

(8) Ready For Delivery

After material is fabricated, it is now ready for delivery. Scheduling and coordinating material deliveries can be as tricky as scheduling subcontractors. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of materials and pieces of equipment that get incorporated into a construction project.

As Construction Managers, it is important that we coordinate these deliveries with the site activities.

(9) Installation

After all of the communication, coordination, phone calls, emails, meetings, follow ups that it took to get here – it’s time to make it part of the real world.


For another perspective of how things are built in the real world, I mapped it out on the white board in my office.

Take a look at The Flow of Construction:

As you can see, there’s a lot to manage here and a great construction manager makes certain that the flow is never stopped. Things must stay in motion in order to maximize the (4) values – Cost, Time, Safety, & Quality.

One of my mentors in the industry told me to think of it like you’re spinning plates. “Imagine you have a giant table, with a bunch of spinning plates on it. Your job is to make sure none of those plates stop spinning.”

That means following up, documenting, communicating, tracking, and staying on top of everything coming in and out. At the same time making sure you know what you’re talking about, how things actually work, and what it takes to build a building.

That’s how things are built in the real world (Part 1).

Attitude Is Everything

Good contractors stake their reputations on quality and safety. When it comes to quality and safety, attitude is everything.

My intuition tells me that contractors who approach quality and safety with a great attitude, find success. I’m proud to say my company does and that’s one of the many reasons why we’re successful.

Doing things safely, treating each step and each relationship with quality, will naturally lead to saving time and money during the flow of construction.

Related Article: The Principles of Monkey Management

Now go out there and lead by example.

Kyle Nitchen

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