Master the Art of Construction Planning to Save Time and Money

By Diana Ramos | October 3, 2017

Imagine the world without the Sydney Opera House or the Empire State Building. These structures have become such icons that we have trouble remembering that architects and builders brought them to life from empty space.

Construction planners oversee the process of envisioning a completed building and working backward to determine how to complete it. Construction planning involves identifying all the required steps to build a structure, splitting them into defined activities, ordering these steps logically, and determining the necessary materials, manpower, and equipment. 

If you don’t have a strong plan, the likelihood of having a successful construction project decreases dramatically. Planning is critical for complex projects — everything from new houses to giant shopping malls. In this guide, we’ll cover all the important aspects of construction planning, including site and safety planning and Lean planning techniques. We also offer tips from construction planning experts, as well as free, downloadable templates to help you get started with your construction plan.

What Is Construction Planning?

Construction planning is the first stage of construction management, the discipline of taking a construction project from conception to completion. Construction management includes several other components that succeed planning, however: Scheduling is deciding when to start, execute, and complete each task. Organizing is getting all the moving pieces in position to perform each task. Staffing is assigning people to duties related to the project. Directing is ensuring that you complete tasks as planned, and monitoring is ensuring that you meet the requirements and performance benchmarks set during the planning stage. If you don’t meet these requirements, you’ll devote considerable time to the controlling stage, which involves managing the budget and meeting contract requirements.

Since humans have been constructing buildings for thousands of years, construction planning is an ancient discipline. We can trace some form of construction project planning all the way back to the Neolithic period, when builders in Western Europe were erecting Stonehenge.

Today, the tools, techniques, and equipment that builders use have changed, but planning remains an integral part of the construction management process. While construction planning is time consuming, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. A 1994 study by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) found a “positive, quantifiable relationship between effort expended during the pre-project planning phase and the ultimate success of a project.”

To be effective, you should approach construction planning with logic, thoroughness, and honesty. You will need knowledge and experience in construction methods and contracting, and planners must visualize the tasks and activities and understand the relationships between them so that they can carry them out in an efficient sequence.

Goals of Construction Planners: Time, Cost, Quality, and Safety

The objectives of construction planning are the same for all projects: Builders and owners strive to meet cost, schedule, quality, and safety requirements. The construction planning process also makes owners’ and builders’ responsibilities clear, laying the groundwork for strong communication and better teamwork.

In the construction planning process, you’ll produce a document called the construction master plan. This spells out how you will schedule, organize, direct, monitor, and control the project, and aims to meet the project’s technical, time, and cost requirements. The construction master plan includes three types of planning: strategic planning, operational planning, and scheduling. 

  • Strategic Planning: This determines, sets, and articulates project objectives. It answers the big questions concerning a project’s mission, how it will achieve this mission, and how these objectives align with the project sponsor’s or owner’s larger strategy. In short, strategic planning is the big-picture analysis that the project sponsor carries out.
  • Operational Planning: This delves into the details of how the project will meet its strategic objectives — if it can meet them at all. Construction teams evaluate whether they have the resources they need to meet the strategic objectives, identify any shortfalls, and seek the sponsor’s approval to cover those shortfalls. 
  • Scheduling: This lays out the operational plan on a projected timescale, including the anticipated completion date. This type of planning does not involve highly detailed scheduling of every project task (that is a separate activity that usually follows the planning phase). On large projects, specialist schedulers draw up detailed schedules. 

One critical aspect of construction planning is creating a safety plan for the construction site (this is especially important for larger projects). Construction is a hazardous industry, and regulators such as OSHA (the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration) may require safety planning. On site, builders, usually via a safety representative, must determine what the hazards are and decide how to avoid, mitigate, or manage them. Safety planning spans a variety of activities, from safety and first-aid training to ensuring that equipment and workspaces meet safety standards, and encouraging or requiring workers to adopt safe practices on the job.

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Types of Construction Projects: Residential vs. Commercial

You can broadly categorize building construction projects as either residential or commercial. Residential projects include accessory dwelling units (ADUs), decks, garages, house additions and remodels, retaining walls, and outdoor projects, and housing demolition. Commercial projects cover everything from small businesses and office spaces to megaprojects. These two classes of projects differ greatly from one another. 

Residential projects are typically smaller than commercial projects, and they’re not subject to nearly as many code requirements. Also, builders use wood frames for residential constructions rather than the concrete and steel used in commercial projects. The interiors also differ: Commercial projects prioritize functionality and durability while residential projects put more emphasis on aesthetics, comfort, and personal taste. 

Functionally, commercial projects usually have more extensive infrastructure requirements, such as elevators, escalators, parking, backup electricity, emergency exits, and large-scale cooling, heating, and ventilation. The increased complexity of commercial projects demands greater specialization of builders and more subcontractors. The large scale calls for specialized equipment and resources. 

Budgets for commercial projects are much larger than those for residential projects. From the contractor’s perspective, residential projects may be less technically demanding, but working with homeowners who are personally invested can be more delicate than dealing with a corporate or government client.

Construction Planning Steps for a Home Renovation

Let’s look at the stages in a typical home renovation, which is one of the bigger, more costly residential project types. A home renovation project is a good case study because the steps are similar to much larger commercial projects, even though the scale is smaller.

  • Select a Designer: Architects and designers offer services ranging from whole-unit design (for architects) to color and material selection (for interior designers) to a variety of collaborative solutions in between. Homeowners will (or should) meet with a number of designers to decide which align most closely with their design and budget objectives.
  • Create Schematics: The designer creates a floor plan for the remodel, and they go back and forth with the owner until both sides agree on a design. For a residential project, the schematic design is effectively the project plan.
  • Select a Contractor: Contractors interviewing for a job will use the schematics to create preliminary cost estimates. The homeowner checks references and makes sure they are hiring a contractor with a history of similar successful projects. 
  • Shop for Finishes and Materials: This step includes identifying the finishes and materials for the remodel. The contractor can make suggestions based on budget and plan for materials to arrive on time. Meanwhile, the architect will finalize the construction plan and prepare applications for building permits.
  • Obtain Permits: Applying for a permit can be a time-consuming, expensive process, so homeowners will need to account for applying and waiting for permits to arrive when estimating their completion date.
  • Sign a Contractor: Once the contractor has obtained permits, they are ready to put pen to paper. Before doing this, the owner and contractor may engage in some value engineering — revising aspects of the project to reduce costs. By this point, the contractor will also have determined the necessary delivery dates of materials and items so work can progress.

Like planning for a home renovation, planning for a commercial project includes both the planning activities we discussed earlier — strategic planning, operational planning, and scheduling — and some high-level elements of the building’s design. During the design stage for a commercial project, client, architect, and engineers will work together to come up with a building design that meets the client’s requirements. Pre-construction, which involves different activities for different projects, may include such things as design evaluation, value analyses, constructability assessments, and contractor bidding. Procurement consists of buying the materials and services necessary to complete the project. Construction refers to the process of building the structure according to the plans. Construction is followed by commissioning, which is the process of verifying that a building’s systems are in proper working order.

Participants in the Commercial Construction Planning Process

Any construction project involves a number of key parties. Here’s what each party is responsible for:

  • Client and Sponsor: The client and sponsor for a project are more often than not the same party, but the two roles are distinct: The client is the building’s end user, and the sponsor funds the project. In cases where the client and the sponsor are separate parties, it’s the sponsor’s prerogative to approve changes to the project. An example of a separate sponsor and client would be a developer and a building owner.
  • Contractor: This is an umbrella term for people and firms that undertake a contractual obligation to provide services for a construction project. Most major projects will have a general contractor with many subcontractors working under their supervision. The general contractor signs a contract with the client/sponsor and is directly accountable to the client and sponsor for the project’s success, even though they may not do any of the construction themselves and instead may contract all the work out to specialized subcontractors. The subcontractor is typically a specialist who performs a limited part of the overall construction effort. The general contractor organizes, coordinates, and oversees the subcontractors’ efforts.
  • Consultants: A consultant is any party whose official responsibility is to provide direction and specialized knowledge during the planning, design, or construction phases of a project. You’re much more likely to see consultants on commercial projects since you engage them for their expertise in a specific knowledge area (such as achieving LEED certification) that is not a standard part of residential projects.
  • Supplier/Vendor: Vendors or suppliers sell the materials that you use for a project. The term supplier has a loose definition and can describe those who provide services, not just materials. You might also consider architects and other design professionals to be suppliers.
  • Architects and Engineers: Architects come up with a design for the project, and engineers make sure the design works. The architect is the chief designer of a project. He or she creates an agreed-upon schematic (with the client and sponsor), and then works with the engineer to finalize technical elements of the design. The architect also provides the project details required for permits. The engineer might also be considered a design specialist, but his work focuses on functionality and constructability. Engineers ensure that the architect’s designs are practical, workable, and structurally sound.

The Benefits of Construction Planning for Owners and Builders

To understand how construction planning benefits projects, we have to understand the concerns of the two main parties in any construction effort: the owners and the builders.

The owners of any project are ultimately interested in three things: that you deliver the project according to the agreed scope, that you complete it at or below cost, and that it is ready for use on schedule. 

If the project is delayed, you lose revenue because the building isn’t ready for use, whether that use be in the form of leasing to tenants or manufacturing products. If the costs exceed expectations, you reduce return on investment. Delays and cost overruns may mean it takes longer to pay off loans, which also makes the project more expensive. There can also be tax consequences.

Owners also need to know when they must disburse funding, so they don’t become victims of a cash-flow crunch. In addition, they must be aware of how delays and overages might impact both their image and their ability to effectively market the project. 

Builders, meanwhile, are concerned with their own efficiency and profitability. Some bidding methods require that they themselves cover certain unbudgeted costs rather than billing these to the project owner. They’re also responsible for ensuring the ultimate quality of the final product and the safety of the construction site. Both the former and the latter affect their reputation and the future success of their business.


Bilox Wells

Each building project is unique in some way, be it design, site, materials, or participants. Bilox Wells, a large construction project manager and operator of the contractor review site FindHomePro, says that experienced builders know that delays are likely.

“Your project will undoubtedly take longer, be more difficult, and be more expensive than you originally plan. Treat this as a rule, even though you may get lucky and have smooth sailing. If you go into a big project expecting to have some hiccups, then, when they come, you won’t be thrown off course. Build some flexibility into your schedule, and try to take the issues in stride. You are likely working on a project that is larger and more complicated than it appears at first,” Wells says.


Construction Planning Can Save Money and Time

Construction planning can help minimize costs by optimizing resource and equipment utilization. Even for small residential projects, you may have to lease the necessary equipment. On large commercial projects, leasing or buying specialized equipment is expensive, and maximizing utilization reduces expenses. 

In a complex project, construction planning also organizes and coordinates the many moving parts. The process improves communication among team members and stakeholders, and it reveals unrealistic assumptions or weak logic. With a properly planned project, everyone knows when subcontractors are supposed to show up and what work you need to complete before their arrival. You shouldn’t keep materials and equipment lying around for days or weeks, taking up space and possibly incurring excess rental costs because they arrived long before you needed them.

Since, by definition, construction planning takes place before work begins, you have the opportunity to anticipate problems and plan solutions before they occur. Those benefits translate into time efficiency during construction itself, as well as a superior solution because you haven’t devised a plan under pressure. Construction planning can pave the way toward more innovative methods of solving building challenges.

Scott Truehl

Scott Truehl is a Wisconsin-based general contractor with Friede & Associates. He says that clients get the best results when they are information freely during the planning stage.

“I ask our clients to be open and honest with us, to treat us like their accountant or attorney, so we can understand their budget, schedule, and goals with their construction project,” Truehl says. “Over 90 percent of our projects are design-build projects where we are estimating the budget throughout the design process. Too often, prospects choose the standard design bid method and/or are unwilling to actually open up and share this information.” 

Contractors who master construction planning will develop a track record of completing projects on time and within budget.

To maximize the benefits of construction planning, follow some best practices:

  • Make sure you’re planning as a team. With more faces at the table, you greatly reduce the chances of overlooking something important.
  • To simplify things, identify the project’s big tasks first. Then, where necessary, split these tasks into subtasks.
  • Assign these tasks to individuals and contractors. Then, create a schedule that tells everyone what they’re supposed to be doing and when they’re supposed to do it. 
  • Make sure the schedule has a completion date, and make sure you’re following the schedule.
  • You can adhere to the completion date and follow the schedule by monitoring progress regularly. Ensure that you regularly track and update progress so that information keeps flowing among participants. 
  • You can also use templates to ease the planning process: Simply list the necessary information in the spaces provided, and modify the template to fit your project needs. Below are two free, downloadable templates that you can use to create a construction timeline and daily or weekly inspection report. You’ll find other useful templates throughout the article, as well. 
    Construction Project Timeline Template

‌Download Construction Timeline Template

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Daily and Weekly Work Log Template

Download Daily and Weekly Work Log Template - Excel

Basic Concepts in Construction Planning

While construction planning is important, the steps and principles are not complicated. The challenge is to work through the steps thoroughly and diligently. Experience and education will improve your skills, and you can also find good classes and texts.  

Construction planners make vital decisions about the technologies and construction methods they use on a project. For example, when preparing concrete on site, what type of concrete mixer will the builders use — one that two men can wheel around, one that you have to transport by truck, or an actual concrete mixer truck? The decision depends on project size and relative costs, but technical and efficiency constraints also play roles. Maybe the building has many floors, but due to space constraints, you would have to park a concrete mixer truck far away from the lift that transports concrete to the top floor. Would it still be worth opting for a mixer truck?

For any construction project, the construction planning management methodology passes through three stages: the tender stage, awarding of the contract, and the construction period

During the tender stage, the contractor prepares a tender program. Upon the awarding of contracts, project managers will prepare a second program, the contract program. This is much more detailed than the tender program. You develop it with input from the architect and the project owner, and it is the basis for project monitoring. 

During construction, you implement the contract program as the construction program. The construction program guides work in the field, and you may renegotiate it when the project work changes.

Putting Construction Activities in the Right Order

The most basic steps for every project, from the smallest to the largest, involve determining and defining all the tasks involved as well as defining the relationships between tasks.

The number of work tasks might range from a few dozen for a small residential project to several thousand for a commercial megaproject. Each task is a discrete unit of work, and almost every task will bear some relationship to the tasks that precede or succeed it. For example, you can only paint the walls after you’ve installed the electrical wiring, and you can only apply the second coat of paint after the first has had a chance to dry. Large projects involve so many tasks that everyone would become hopelessly confused if you didn’t predetermine the order of tasks. 

To ease planning, builders and planners use standardized nomenclature to name, organize, and classify project work. One example is MasterFormat, a system developed by the U.S. Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) and Canada’s Construction Specifications. In this coding system, you identify each work product with a series of numbers that describes the major category and subcategory as well as the type of work involved. For example, finishes are in division 09, and subgroup 30 is for tiling. Glass mosaic tiling gets MasterFormat number 09 30 23, which you would use on the construction plan. 

Once you have defined all the tasks in logical sequential order, you have to put them into a full project schedule, which lays out all the work in relationship to other tasks. To do this, the construction planner will need to know how much time each task takes, so they can line up the next task on time. With a fully detailed schedule or sub-schedule, planners can easily forecast the necessary resources and equipment at any stage in the project (assuming that the project goes according to plan).

Permitting: A Crucial Stage in Construction Planning

Project owners and builders will need to obtain permits from local governments to begin construction or major renovation. They have to verify that the structure will meet building codes (the rules defining building standards in a particular jurisdiction), as well as whether the local government permits a particular type of structure in a certain area. 

Local authorities award permits once builders have demonstrated satisfactory planning and performance in various areas, including structural design, building materials, fire safety, electrical wiring, and the installation of machinery within buildings, such as elevators. Building codes also govern how structures may affect the neighborhood. For instance, how might a project impact traffic and waste disposal during construction and occupancy? Governments may also impose standards such as requiring builders to hold certain qualifications or certifications and possess additional performance prerequisites for special facilities, like hospitals or stadiums. 

Applying for permits can be time consuming and that the process can be quite stringent, so earmark plenty of time for this phase. Even small additions and alterations to houses may require a permit. Renovations to commercial buildings and new projects of any kind almost always require permits. 

In general, a reliable contractor will know whether you need a permit for a small job, but you can also check with the city or county building department. Officials may inspect the building plans and visit the site during planning, during construction, and upon completion. Failure to obtain a permit or comply with building codes may result in fines and orders to make corrections and, in some cases, even orders to demolish structures. If you’re the owner of a project, remember to factor the cost of and time for permitting into your budget and schedule. Sometimes, the time it takes to win a permit is longer than the time it takes to build the project.

The Elements of Construction Planning: Work Breakdown

In this section, we’ll discuss what specifically belongs in a construction plan. All construction plans share a few common elements; the most important are project scope or result, duration, and cost. The project sponsor’s objectives are also important.

Dr. Khaled Hesham Hyari of The Hashemite University’s Department of Civil Engineering in Jordan has a useful presentation that covers the basic steps and concepts in planning and scheduling. Check it out for a more detailed explanation of the concepts introduced here.

The construction plan breaks down all the project work into tasks, also called activities, and includes a work schedule that shows how you sequence these tasks. Project managers track construction progress on the basis of this schedule. 

Milestones, the major progress points in the project’s development, are especially crucial. They signify that you have completed a certain percentage of the total work, and hitting milestones on schedule is a critical indicator of whether you will meet the overall timeline. Meeting or not meeting these deadlines may also affect the contractor’s compensation. 

We’ve already discussed the importance of defining and listing all the tasks you need to complete a project. You compile these tasks into the work breakdown structure (WBS), which is a hierarchical representation of all the work in a project. You present the WBS as distinct deliverables. The smallest element of a work breakdown structure is the work package, which is a set of related tasks. You generate a task list that includes every task in the project in tandem with the work breakdown structure.

Work Breakdown Structure

Since the WBS represents all the work in building the structure, it defines the full scope of the project. By assigning anticipated costs to each work package, you also use the WBS as part of project cost estimating to prepare a preliminary budget. 


Construction Estimator Template

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Two essential concepts of the work breakdown are quantity takeoffs (detailed measurements of the resources you need to complete a construction project), and value engineering (the practice of changing project specifications to either increase the value of the project while keeping the cost constant or decrease the cost of the project while delivering the same value). Quantity takeoff factors into cost estimating and is a process of calculating resources such as materials, labor, and equipment necessary to complete a certain work package, and then multiplying them by how many times that work package occurs in the project.

Using the work breakdown, the construction plan will identify activities according to the following information: The party responsible for completing them, their location, the structural element they pertain to, craft, crew, and equipment requirements, and materials the activities utilize. Therefore, the WBS is a key tool in fostering cost, schedule, and quality accountability among project participants.  

How Coding Systems Help Construction Planners

We’ve already touched on how standard coding systems simplify the classification and organization of project work. Like the Dewey Decimal System for library books, these systems provide a standardized numeric code for virtually all construction-related elements.

Using codes for project work benefits planners because coding systems make it easier to share project information. By standardizing element naming, these systems ensure that everyone is referring to the same thing. They also simplify the organization and digitization of project details. Plus, coding makes it easy to retrieve historical cost and time-related data, which provides uniformity among projects and facilitating comparisons.

MasterFormat, the most widely used system, made its first appearance in the early 1970s as the Uniform Construction Index. The first two digits of a MasterFormat code represent one of 16 major work divisions such as concrete, masonry, metals, wood and plastics, or doors and windows.

A project coding system is a classification system for work or cost items for a specific project. Its benefits are similar to those of standard coding systems, but because the codes may be unique to the builder or project, project codes do not offer the benefits of collaboration or cross-project comparison that standard systems do. 

Key Steps in the Construction Planning Process

Let’s turn back to the WBS and the task list. Once you have enumerated every task in the project, you’re ready to create a network diagram, which forms the basis of the project schedule. Major steps include estimating task duration, determining job logic, drawing a network diagram, and then applying the critical path method (CPM) to the network diagram. We’ll discuss each of these steps in detail.

A primary component of determining the project schedule is estimating task duration. You can estimate task durations in a number of ways: By relying on personal experience, by looking at historical data for similar tasks in similar projects, by dividing the total quantity of work you’ll perform by the amount that you can perform per unit of time (i.e., the productivity rate or daily output), by using PERT analysis (program evaluation and review technique) to compute the expected time necessary to complete a task, or by using any combination of the above. 

PERT is a statistical technique for estimating task and project durations that the U.S. Navy Special Projects Office developed in the 1950s. It uses optimistic, pessimistic, and most likely estimates for the duration of each task to come up with the statistically probable expected duration for each task and, therefore, the overall project. The formula is as follows, but you can find a handy calculator here:

expected duration = [optimistic + (4*most likely) + pessimistic] ÷ 6

You should estimate task durations one at a time, as estimating them collectively decreases the accuracy of individual estimates, constrains your ability to create network diagrams, and reduces the precision of scheduling detail. 

When calculating durations based on productivity rates, the default productivity rate should assume a normal level of resources and work input. Make sure the project team actually has the resources to proceed at this normal productivity rate, keeping in mind that you may need to share equipment and labor across multiple tasks that your team performs simultaneously. 

Similarly, you should not assume that project crews will work overtime. The time units you use (hours, days, and weeks, though longer time periods may be appropriate for larger projects) should be consistent across activities. You should base task durations on realistic field conditions, not on your hopes for a specific end date.

Remember that many variables can throw off your estimate. Inclement weather is the most obvious variable and may add days to an activity. In addition, planners may forget to account for physical or spatial constraints on productivity. If, for instance, multiple work groups are sharing the same space, congestion may result in lower actual productivity rates than you originally calculated. This particular problem could arise if, for example, all the subcontractor teams are not able to fit their equipment into a space simultaneously, or if delivery vans and dump trucks get stuck in queues because of heavy site traffic.

Construction planners cite design changes or rework requests as the biggest causes of delays and ballooning budgets. Overtime can mitigate the impact that these issues have on task durations, but adding work hours also has budget implications.

Another factor to bear in mind when considering task duration is the learning curve. Workers operate at less than optimal productivity as they acclimate to the job and gain proficiency. As the workers amass experience, their true productivity rate approaches the expected rate.

Determining and Representing Job Logic in Construction

After you've estimated task durations, you’ll have to sequence the tasks in order of execution. The relationships and interdependencies between tasks are called job logic. Job logic tells you when you must perform a task relative to other tasks. You need to understand the job logic for each task in order to construct a network diagram and carry out the critical path method.

When determining the job logic for a particular activity, the planner asks three questions:

  1. Which activities precede this activity?
  2. Which activities follow this activity?
  3. Which activities are concurrent with this activity?

If physical and resource constraints didn’t exist, the planner would be able to determine the job logic for each task simply by answering these three questions. However, it often isn’t that simple. There are a number of practical constraints on job logic.

The most common are physical constraints, such as having to lay the bricks before you can paint the walls. Another type is resource constraints, which refers to the scenario in which you lack the sufficient space, workers, materials, or equipment to do everything that you could potentially do simultaneously. So, while one person could theoretically perform two tasks concurrently, those two tasks may exist in two different physical locations. Thus, that person will have to perform the two tasks serially rather than concurrently.

Stan Singh

Coordinating all the subcontractors and participants at a job site can be challenging, according to Stan Singh, Product Manager of Raken, a field-reporting software company.

“Coordinating and getting buy-in are some of the most common challenges that occur in construction. On a jobsite, you have an owner, architect, GC, and several subcontractors coming together as one to build a hotel, building, etc.,” Singh says.

He continues, “Depending on how big the project is, you can have anywhere from five to over 50 companies working together on one jobsite. All these trades are interdependent, so ensuring proper coordination and getting buy-in from everybody is important.” 

The environment might also impose practical constraints. Bad weather might prevent one kind of work (site preparation) while not affecting another (computer-aided design work). If you schedule these two tasks concurrently, you will have to change the job logic. Political or economic conditions, such as a project’s controversial agenda or the loss of government funding, might also impose constraints that necessitate changes in job logic.

Safety presents a fourth constraint. For example, a job may require more people in one place than fire safety regulations permit, or safety regulations may dictate the operation of people and machines. You may need to schedule rest breaks for an operator of heavy equipment. In that particular case, you wouldn’t be able to schedule tasks in series; instead, the tasks would include rest periods for the operator.

Once the planner has hashed out the sequence of jobs, they are ready to create a network diagram. 

Construction Network Diagram

A network diagram is determined by job logic, and is a visual representation of tasks that you arrange in sequence. You construct it according to a technique called the precedence diagram method (PDM). In the PDM, each node you draw on the network diagram represents a distinct activity. Each arrow represents the logic, the relationships, and the dependencies among activities.

The PDM is a prerequisite for task scheduling and the critical path method. At this point, you will have enumerated all tasks, determined the relationships between them, and prepared a visual representation of them. The next step is to find the critical path.

The Critical Path Method Helps Construction Planners Forecast

Like PERT, the critical path method dates back to the 1950s. An algorithmic task scheduling technique, it identifies the sequence of interdependent work packages in which any delay will result in an overall project delay. This sequence is the critical path of activities on the project network diagram, and it’s the longest series of activities that you must finish on time in order to complete the project on time. Planners can use the critical path to calculate how early or late activities can start and end in order for the project to finish on time.

Tasks that form part of the critical path are critical tasks. They have no float, which means you cannot delay them without, in turn, delaying the project’s end date. The critical path also has zero total float because the longest sequence of planned tasks effectively determines the total duration of the project. This sequence runs from start to end, and the project can only end when it ends, no sooner and no later. Therefore, delaying any of the critical tasks means postponing completion of construction by a length of time equal to that delay.

That said, a team does not actually perform critical tasks one after the other, with little or no downtime in between. After all, there are constraints on job logic that can affect job start dates. For example, there may be a critical task that you can only perform during daytime. Therefore, even if you complete the preceding task on the evening before, there will still be an hours-long gap before you begin the succeeding (daytime) task. Other non-critical activities may, of course, continue, but there’s still no way to avoid that gap between those two critical tasks. The length of time that this gap — that is, this constraint — adds to the project is called drag.

While critical tasks have zero float, non-critical tasks have some float. You can delay them for a certain amount of time without affecting the project’s end date. CPM uses two passes of a network diagram — a forward pass and a backward pass — to identify the early and late start and end dates for non-critical activities.

Construction Planning Jargon: Slack, Crash, and Float

The forward pass assumes that all tasks in the network diagram will start and end as early as logically possible, and it identifies the early start and end dates. The backward pass assumes that all tasks will start and end as late as possible, and it identifies the late start and end dates. You then calculate the float for a task by subtracting its early start date from its late start date, or by subtracting its early finish date from its late finish date. Float is also called slack.

The CPM helps construction planners understand exactly where and how delays in tasks might affect a building. Planners also use it to prepare the full project schedule. Without the critical path method, planners would not be able to anticipate, mitigate, or eliminate the impact of delays.

Two schedule compression techniques can shorten the duration of the critical path: Crashing refers to committing more resources to critical tasks in order to complete those tasks faster and shorten the duration of the critical path. Fast tracking is performing some critical tasks simultaneously instead of in series so that the finish date of a preceding activity overlaps with the start date of a succeeding activity.

You can visualize the CPM’s output using a graph called a Gantt chart, which is a bar chart that has bars to represent project tasks and an x-axis to represent the project timeline.

Gantt Chart Template

Download Basic Gantt Chart Template

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In construction, the Gantt chart shows job logic by virtue of how the start and end dates of tasks line up. You can identify expected progress at any point in a project timeline by looking at what you  are supposed to complete by a certain date. This ability makes Gantt charts highly useful for determining the project’s schedule baseline, which is the expected degree of progress at a certain point in the project timeline.

Software makes construction planning operations, like constructing CPM network diagrams, performing PERT calculations, and creating Gantt charts, faster, easier, and more accurate. And, software facilitates rapid, reliable information sharing and updating.

A 10-Step Construction Planning Process

Apart from using activity lists, job logic, and techniques like PERT and CPM to create a project schedule, the project planning process also illustrates how you manage resources and finances, how you handle risks, and how you keep communication flowing. Following is a 10-step planning process:

  • Project Planning: Construction project planning involves the steps we discussed above: Creating activity lists, determining interdependencies, drawing task networks, performing network analyses, and writing project schedules. You also detail project milestones in this step. One critical aspect of project planning is site planning. This process analyzes the building site to see how natural conditions might affect the project. For example, space constraints, soil stability, climate, light, accessibility, geography, wildlife, and proximity to rivers or lakes can all affect a construction project. Site planning ensures that a project plan will work in the field.
    Construction Site Plan
  • Resource Planning: This process details the materials, labor, and equipment that you will use in the project, complete with quantities. The resource plan is an important document for determining costs and budgets. Labor projections are a challenging aspect of resource planning. Making up for a labor shortfall is more difficult than coping with an equipment or resource shortfall. Rapid fluctuations in the size of the labor force are a function of poor management. Ideally, you will have the right number of people with the right skills at the right time, since overmanning and undermanning both have negative effects. This concept applies to both skilled and unskilled labor. Chart the project’s manpower needs with an eye to the critical path so that you have adequate personnel for busy phases to meet milestone dates.
  • Financial Planning: A project’s financial plan relates closely to its resource plan. A financial plan details the costs you incur in the resource plan and accounts for administration and overhead. It also includes contingency reserves for unexpected events that drive up project costs. The financial plan can map expenditure over the course of the project so that the project manager and sponsors know when they require money.
  • Quality Planning: A quality plan details agreed-upon standards for project deliverables and is a central piece of the puzzle in contractor accountability. The quality plan also describes the processes by which you will maintain quality as well as what steps you will take if the quality of deliverables do not meet standards. It addresses who on the project team is in charge of quality and how you will measure and communicate quality. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the world’s largest construction management agencies, offers courses on construction quality management for contractors.
  • Risk Planning: A risk plan describes the risks a project might be susceptible to and discusses what one is doing to eliminate, mitigate, or tackle the risks deemed significant by risk analysis. It also lays out how the team will monitor risks and respond if they happen. Construction projects face a wide range of risks, from fluctuating prices of raw materials to changes in laws, fire, shortage of qualified workers, and natural disasters. 
  • Acceptance Planning: An acceptance plan sets out all the project deliverables and the criteria for acceptance by the customer. It’s an important document for two reasons: It ensures transparency in the evaluation process and prevents clients from changing deliverable specifications on a whim. The acceptance plan also helps assure the client that the building’s standards will meet expectations. 
  • Communications Planning: Projects with large numbers of stakeholders can be tricky, since an adequate information flow is critical for building and maintaining trust, ensuring transparency, and keeping everyone aligned. A communications plan formalizes how you will handle communications: It addresses how you convey information (through email, paper documents, meetings, etc.), defines your audience, indicates frequency, and defines who is responsible for handling this information. The information you communicate will vary with the audience. With field crews, you would share operational updates. With project sponsors, you are more likely to discuss high-level information regarding the project’s progress.
    Brian Saab

Brian Saab, Chief Executive Officer of construction software company Unearth, emphasizes that information sharing among stakeholders and team members is critical. “The most important part of construction planning is keeping everyone on the same page. Too often, stakeholders aren't up to date with the latest communications and changes in the planning process,” he says.

Download Stakeholder Communication Plan Template - Microsoft Word

  • Procurement Planning: A procurement plan explains where and how you will obtain materials and services that are necessary for the project. Procurement planning involves preparing resource specifications, choosing procurement methods (such as sealed bidding), preparing procurement schedules, and budgeting resources and preventing waste. Procurement planning helps you maintain good supplier and vendor relationships, save money, and ensure transparency on public projects. Procurement planning uses the project schedule to make sure the right resources are available at the right time. 
  • Contract Planning: You sign contracts with the project’s suppliers near the end of the planning phase. This step involves the issuing of tenders, requests for information (RFIs), and requests for proposals (RFPs) before you sign contracts with selected suppliers. To ensure best pricing and satisfy transparency requirements on certain projects, you must be fair when selecting suppliers, and you must be able to produce extensive documentation of this process.
  • Phase Review: You conduct the phase review at the end of the planning phase to take stock and decide whether the project is ready to move into the next stage of the lifecycle: beginning construction.

Monitoring and Controlling with Construction Planning

A plan is useful only if you follow it, so monitoring and controlling the execution of a construction plan is essential.

The first step in construction plan monitoring is deciding which factors or metrics to track. The three classic metrics are whether progress meets forecasts, whether the product meets quality standards, and whether the project costs as much as expected.

Other benchmarks may also be important. For example, are you interested in how accurate the plan is at predicting task duration? Some managers track whether the plan adequately identifies the constraints that site and environmental conditions impose. Additionally, maybe you want to know how well the plan accounts for risks. 

For quantitative metrics, such as cost and schedule progress, you can simply calculate the difference between the actual and planned figures. Evaluating the plan’s performance regarding qualitative aspects is a more nuanced procedure. Aside from monitoring any obvious defects, you’ll likely to need someone with area-specific expertise and first-hand project experience to tell you whether the plan did what it was supposed to do.

Real-time quantitative and qualitative plan monitoring is possible but highly challenging. Real-time quantitative metrics monitoring requires a timely and accurate flow of feedback on planned and actual performance. Real-time qualitative metrics monitoring is also extremely difficult. Nevertheless, this activity can add value by identifying areas where the project is deviating from the plan before the damage is irreversible (especially with regard to schedule performance). In either case, however, you should aim to isolate the plan’s faults and figure out how to account for or correct them before beginning your next project.

Scheduling Is at the Heart of Robust Construction Planning

In construction projects, time management is critical. Proper scheduling paves the way for the effective resource use. It also allows you to track and control the project’s cost and duration. Moreover, accurate scheduling is central to analyzing and defending against claims of delays or overruns.

Detailed scheduling forces managers to think through projects in advance and enables them to identify some problems before they arise. Scheduling also makes it possible to ensure that fabricated items with long lead times will show up when you need them. By evaluating resource requirements, scheduling makes it possible to forecast cash flow. And, a schedule is the most effective way to communicate a work plan.

Dave Gasson

“The first thing you need is a plan. You have to sit down and schedule the whole job out and not just wing it,” says Dave Gasson, Vice President of Operations for REDCOM Design & Construction of New York and New Jersey. “Make sure you have a good list of long-lead items and what the lead times are on those — as in, materials or subcontractors that are specialty contractors in high demand who have a schedule you have to work around.”

There are several kinds of schedules that planners use for construction planning, and construction scheduling software can make it easier to produce these schedules. 

The CPM output helps produce a project schedule that you can detail on a number of levels. 

You prepare the baseline schedule directly from the CPM output. Sometimes called the initial schedule, the baseline schedule is the original schedule, and the version builders follow it by default.

The look-ahead schedule is an extract from the main project schedule that covers only a short period (usually a couple of weeks) of upcoming construction activity. A look-ahead schedule allows the construction manager to plan ahead and make sure the project isn’t lagging behind the schedule baseline.

3 Week Look-Ahead Schedule Template

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Short interval schedules, such as weekly schedules or milestone schedules, are examples of look-ahead schedules. A weekly schedule looks ahead one week, while a milestone schedule looks ahead to a project milestone. The schedules help construction managers see a plan of action for the immediate future. 

A schedule update does one of two things: It adds actual task start and end dates to a baseline schedule, or it changes the job logic of the baseline schedule to reflect the actual progression of activities. (The act of changing the job logic is also known as a logic change). A schedule update simply tracks how a project unfolds.

The as-built schedule is a version of the schedule that you update to show actual progress during the construction phase.

A mock or what-if schedule is an important tool in what-if analysis, which examines the impact of specific events on the project schedule. If you know that you are going to delay tasks for some reason, create a what-if schedule from the baseline to assess the impact of delayed tasks on the project’s progression and scheduled completion date.

For practical reasons, you can visualize the project schedule at various levels of detail depending on the size of the project and who’s going to be using that version of the schedule. Here’s one example of a schedule hierarchy (this one lists schedules in order of increasing levels of detail):

  1. Master Project Schedule: Concise, lists major milestones and deliverables
  2. Master Subproject Schedule: Splits a large project into component subprojects
  3. Detailed Subproject Schedule: Details tasks and job logic for subprojects
  4. Detailed Work Schedule: Highly granular, used in the field

Another project schedule classification system uses five schedule levels. A level 1 schedule or management level schedule is usually about a page long and shows major project milestones in a Gantt chart. A level 2 schedule or project summary schedule shows high-level integrated tasks you use for management reporting. A level 3 schedule or control level schedule is also integrated, but shows all major milestones and tasks. You can use this level for project control. A level 4 schedule or detailed network schedule shows all project tasks in full detail. Finally, a level 5 schedule or detailed report schedule includes all tasks and work steps - use this level for documentation, enumeration of deliverables, and items to procure.

If you’re interested in learning more about construction planning and scheduling, Wiley’s Handbook for Construction Planning and Scheduling, by Andrew Baldwin and David Bordoli, is a good guide for early-career professionals, and Jimmie Hinze’s textbook Construction Planning and Scheduling provides broad coverage of the topics in the field.

How Lean Is Changing Construction Planning

Lean methods are changing construction planning. Lean focuses on reducing waste — efforts that do not add value to the final product — in production processes. In construction planning, one of the best-known applications of Lean principles is the Last Planner System® (LPS), a trademark of the Lean Construction Institute. 

The Last Planner System is named for its practice of involving foremen or lead designers — the last planners in the field — in construction planning to increasingly greater extents as construction dates approach. Proponents say this system represents a vast improvement on the CPM, and some construction planners are blending the two approaches. 

LPS is based on the principle that plans are inherently imperfect and bound to be more imprecise the farther in advance you develop them. Instead of encouraging planning an entire project in detail, LPS advocates master planning an entire project and fleshing out the details as the date for their execution approaches. LPS does this by bringing together the team to discuss when and how they will perform work, with the greatest focus on work that needs to happen in the near future. In order to implement the LPS, planners may borrow a number of Lean production techniques, such as the Kanban system of visual cues (e.g., sticky notes or cards) to indicate handoffs, and the Kaizen principle of constant improvement.

Last Planner identifies five main stages of planning, each with a slightly higher level of detail. The first stage, master planning, is a high-level identification of major project milestones and the times at which you should achieve them. You can bring last planners on board as early as the master planning phase. Following master planning is phase planning, which you do in advance of each major project phase. One typically defines a phase as the work you must complete between two milestones, and the various construction planners (including last planners) discuss how they will accomplish the tasks in the phase. You can think of phase planning as a series of commitments that get a project from point A to point B. Together, the client/owner and the contractor’s representatives agree upon these commitments.

Make-ready planning, which succeeds phase planning, involves an examination of the processes by which you will reach an end-of-phase milestone. Constraints are barriers to these processes, and the builders commit to removing these constraints by an agreed-upon date, usually before phase execution gets under way. The second goal of make-ready planning is to make sure that all the tasks you must complete during the phase are manageable and digestible; if not, you may split them up into subtasks.

The fourth stage, weekly work planning, is a fairly straightforward stage. It involves assigning the tasks you need to complete in a known, short period of time and detailing those tasks on a day-by-day basis.

Learning is the final stage, and you conduct it after you have executed a phase. The builders focus on three metrics to assess the success of work in a phase: the percentage of plan completed (PPC), which are the tasks that you actually completed as planned; the tasks made ready, which is the number of identified tasks that you actually readied for execution during make-ready planning; and the tasks anticipated, which is the number of tasks in the phase that you identified correctly during make-ready planning. 

Chris Dowler, Chief Solutions Officer of Dowler Construction Services in Madison, Connecticut, says that retrospectives yield lessons for project participants.


Chris Dowler

Last Planner Construction: Should, Can, Will, Did, Learn

One easy way to consider these five planning stages is through the should-can-will-did-learn system. Master planning and phase planning fall into the should category, as they identify what you should accomplish. Make-ready planning falls into the can category, as it focuses on what the builders can actually achieve through the removal of constraints. Weekly work planning is in the will category, as individuals commit to the tasks they will complete in a known time period. Finally, learning falls into the did category, as it focuses on the work you’ve done and the lessons you’ve learned.

The main advantage of the LPS is that it reduces the amount of planning at the start of a project. Involving last planners in the planning conversation increases their commitment to the project and builds trust between low and high-level planners.

The cons to Last Planner include clients’ distrust of what they might see as seat-of-the-pants planning. Project managers who seek to adopt some (but not other) aspects of the LPS may run into the unwanted aspects, nonetheless. The system is holistic, so cherry-picking various aspects of LPS can disrupt the flow of information and stand in the way of the increasingly detailed planning at the heart of the system. 

The LPS' chief critique of the CPM is that it leaves the last planners’ key voices out of the planning discussion, therefore ignoring a valuable source of expertise and losing the chance to build commitment to the project. Also, the focus on planning far in advance means some wasted effort, since plans are likely to change.

In contrast, critics of LPS point out that planning late and collaboratively also runs the risk of wasting time.

There is, however, a middle-ground solution that adopts the best of both approaches: CPM's focus on efficient scheduling and LPS' ability to tailor plans based on information from the field. So, a project that combines CPM and LPS during its planning and execution phases might use CPM to identify the critical path, major project milestones, and desired task completion dates. Then, the team could use LPS to fine-tune the schedule, plan ahead for tasks or phases, and give field staff a say in the planning process. This two-pronged approach can yield planning that’s flexible where necessary but still guided by optimal task start and end dates.

Last Planner System

Other Ways Lean Influences Construction Planning

Construction planners are embracing Lean's focus on reducing waste in other ways too. Yves Frinault, Chief Executive Officer of Fieldwire, a construction field app, says that overproduction is a common pitfall.

Yves Frinault

“Many companies order too much inventory or have to order extra material because of poor quality. In order to solve this problem, companies should develop leaner operations,” he says. “Rather than planning everything in advance, they should adjust as the project evolves.”

“For example, construction material being delivered too soon can result in waste if the design changes. In this case, it would be better for companies to order only the amount of material that is needed for immediate production. This construction planning strategy provides teams with more flexibility, which can help avoid overproduction and having excess inventory on site," Frinault concludes. 

Safety Planning Is Critical in Construction Planning

Construction is a hazardous industry: In 2015, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), construction accounted for one in five private-industry worker fatalities, for a total of 937 deaths. OSHA also says that one in 10 construction workers will suffer an injury in any given year, and falls cause most of these injuries — not surprising, considering that fall protection is the most frequently violated OSHA standard

While safety planning is important, it may not receive much attention in residential projects implemented by small contractors. For large projects, however, safety planning may be a requirement by OSHA or another regulator. OSHA has 10 construction safety plan requirements for the construction industry, and OSHA standard 29 CFR 1926, entitled “Safety and Health Regulations for Construction,” spells out the safety standards for construction projects.

The central tenet of safety planning is risk reduction and hazard elimination. The end goal is to avoid injuries or death on site, first by prevention and then by emergency response. Safety planning doesn’t occur in isolation from regular project planning — it happens in conjunction with regular planning. To be effective, safety planning must be an ongoing endeavor that changes with site and environmental conditions.

You should integrate safety planning into project design and scheduling. During the design phase, planners should identify hazards that construction crews will face. Planners should install safety measures such as fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, and evacuation vehicles. 

Planners should not base the project plan and schedule on people or machines that operate beyond safe capacity, and they should observe occupancy limits for enclosed spaces. You should also address safety planning during project cost estimating, so that you allocate the budget to cover safety measures. 

Some project owners will impose additional safety standards. For example, Harvard University publishes the safety standards that it expects contractors to follow. Remember that safety planning also needs to cover subcontractors.

Much of safety planning involves identifying specific hazards — a practice called job hazard analysis — and determining how to manage their risks. These risk-control steps, along with plans for what to do if an accident occurs, are the project’s safety management strategies.

There are numerous examples of safety checklists, including OSHA's safety checklist for construction, one by the Center for Construction Research and Training, and another from Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries

Inside a Construction Safety Plan

A construction safety plan must include certain sections and answer key questions. (Please see the list below.) You can also check out this article by David Bruckheimer, Director of Personnel, Safety, and Training for the Pembroke Construction Company, on how to write a detailed construction safety plan.

  • Who Is the Safety Representative? The safety representative ensures that a project follows safety regulations, that employees receive safety training, and that the safety plan stays up to date. If there’s no safety representative, the plan must name a person or group responsible for worker safety, determine whether there is a budget allocation for safety, and find out what safety qualifications the responsible parties possess.
  • What Is the Plan for Medical Treatment? Is there a medic on site to treat minor injuries and to administer emergency medical assistance in case of more serious injuries? What sort of medical treatment facilities are on site? If a worker suffers an injury that you can’t treat on site, where will you take them for treatment, and how long will it take to get there?
  • Safety Inspections: The safety plan needs to detail the plans for safety inspections. These inspections check that you are following safety regulations.
  • Continuous Safety Training: New equipment or site conditions pose new hazards and risks. Employees need to receive adequate training and instruction for unfamiliar situations. Explain in the safety plan how and when you will do this.
  • Workspace Cleanliness: Slips and falls can injure workers. The safety plan needs to show how to keep workspaces clean, dry, and free of tripping hazards.
  • Protective Gear: Discuss the protective gear you provide to workers and your plans for making sure they use it. 
  • Accident Reports: Who needs to know if there’s a site accident or injury, and what protocols must you follow? Who’s responsible for addressing the risk?
  • Warning Devices: Describe the kind of safety warning devices in place at the construction site and how the team should operate them. These include barricades, lighting, back-up alarms on equipment, cameras, collision detectors, and strobe lights.
  • Fire Protection: Explain fire procedures: The location of extinguishers and alarms, how you will contact firefighters, and who is designated to use fire extinguishing equipment. Also, emphasize the need for safe storage of flammable substances.
  • Equipment Inspections: Create a schedule for equipment safety checks, and explain what constitutes adequate working order. Also, identify the team responsible for safety equipment inspections.
  • Lockout/Tag-Out Procedures: Describe the lockout/tag-out procedures in place on site, and who is allowed to remove a lockout tag. These procedures prevent employees from getting hurt when they mistakenly think a machine or its power source is off. The protocol calls for planners to make hazardous energy sources (pneumatic, hydraulic, and mechanical energy) completely inoperable before you perform maintenance or service. OSHA requires training, written procedures, and inspections.  
  • Emergency Communications: Identify the people in charge of coordinating and responding to emergency communications, detail how to contact them, and explain how you will deliver these communications.
  • Subcontractors: Clearly state that your safety policies apply to subcontractors. Also, identify who is responsible for enforcing these policies.
  • Safety Regulations: Identify the safety regulations with which your construction project must comply.
  • Plan for Periodic Review: State when the safety plan is due for reassessment and updating as well as who's going to sign off on updates.

For a step-by-step safety planning guide for construction projects, check out David MacCollum’s Construction Safety Planning.

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