Residential Backyards Provide Fertile Ground for Small Projects

By Joanie Ogden

Today’s typical American family is in love with the backyard. It’s a green oasis, a place to play tag football, watch the flowers and the children grow, complain about mowing and enjoy the occasional outdoor barbecue. It can also be a gold mine for contractors who have imagination, eager crews and a little down time between projects.

Backyard Bonanza The urge to add “living space” to a home extends to outdoor spaces. Today, that can mean very elaborate outdoor kitchen installations, fireplaces, decks and pavilions. With the added costs of landscaping and maintenance, costs can add up very quickly, but they don’t have to. Many outdoor projects can be completed quickly, add value, increase outdoor enjoyment and, in effect, add a room to the home. As a contractor, if you offer such things as wooden decks, gazebos, serving counters, fire pits, hot tub enclosures, or potting sheds as options, you could boost your bottom line very easily and keep your crew busy between larger projects. These client-pleasing projects can often be completed in a single day or two, and at a cost that makes them appealing to the customer and profitable for you.

Style Considerations Leading the list of popular features for backyard improvements are hot tubs and spas. However, a spa can look a little lonely if it's not attached to a pool and surrounded by lush landscaping. One way to highlight the hot tub is to emphasize its presence. Any sort of structure to enclose the spa itself creates a focal point in a yard — whether the structure is roofed or not depends on personal preference. Part of the appeal of hot tubbing, after all, is to look up at the stars on a cold night. Building a simple hot tub enclosure of unfinished redwood that will weather to a smoky gray over time, with a beamed "roof" open to the sky and the elements, makes perfect sense. Allow ample clearance between the sides of the hot tub and the structure on all sides. Consider adding a bench or two for lounging, and perhaps create a brick or flagstone patio just outside the entrance. Your client can add potted plants, wind chimes and hanging baskets. The object is to keep the design simple, but still appropriate for the neighborhood. New England styles will be very different from New Mexico designs. But, neither requires more than a simple sketch in order to bring it into being.

The Bottom Line Looking at the backyard as an extra room, or even as a getaway destination, is a creative way to gain some space, add value to a home and create a kind of mini-retreat for a busy family. Exterior improvements do not have to be high-budget projects in order to add oodles of charm, and they can often be completed in a matter of days, allowing the family to move right in and enjoy the new addition. It’s your job to let your clients know that you can create an addition to their backyard oasis which will add lasting value and enjoyment. Tell your clients that the dollar to enjoyment ratio is always on the side of enjoyment. When do you start?

Joanie Ogden is a self-taught home decor specialist who enjoys blogging about her projects.

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Creating Comfort

By Megan Browning

For owners Leslie and Joel Frieman, transforming a vacant warehouse into a world class fencing facility suited for all ages and abilities required ingenuity and foresight. With tall ceilings and a blank slate, comfort for athletes was one of the Friemans’ key goals when building their school, The Woodlands Fencing Academy.

In order to achieve that comfort, the walls and ceiling were padded with R38 insulation and two 7-and-a-half-ton HVAC systems were installed. “We need to keep it cool because fencers wear so much protective gear,” Facility Manager Kathy Bone said. “When no one is in there, we keep it at 75F. For practice, we like it to be at 72 [to] 73F and for a tournament, I will turn it down to 69 [to] 70F.” To help maintain the necessary temperatures and provide quiet, gentle air movement, a high-volume, low-speed (HVLS) fan was added to complement the AC system. HVLS fans increase air velocity to create a more comfortable environment for occupants, regardless of the space.

In warmer months, these fans improve personal comfort with an evaporative cooling effect — although the fans do not lower the temperature in the space, they can make a person feel up to 10F cooler. As a result, facility managers are able to raise the thermostat setpoint without sacrificing comfort, reducing cooling costs. “We were afraid utility bills would be around $1,000, but with the help of the fan, we have found them to be significantly lower," Bone said. "We are very, very happy.” Not reminiscent of a typical gym, The Woodlands Fencing Academy prides itself on being a functional but sophisticated fencing facility. “The fan makes the building look like a piece of art," Bone adds. "The aesthetics are beautiful and it does its job moving the air to create a comfortable environment.”

Megan Browning is a public relations associate at Big Ass Fans, the preeminent designer and manufacturer of ceiling fans for industrial, agricultural, commercial and residential settings.

Managing On-Site Construction Safety is a Serious Responsibility

By Geoffrey Hall 

Construction is a high-hazard industry and field management is the first line of defense in mitigating the risks of on-site accidents. As on-site personnel oversee the day-to-day activities of a project, they monitor and regulate the implementation of safety precautions prior to building. Direct vision of many potential safety issues gives field managers the task of managing the workers they supervise as well as the subcontractors that are brought on for each project.

Safety isn’t simply common sense. Weekly meetings among field management personnel should be established to discuss production-related topics. These topics include a review of any accidents, near misses or safety lapses, as well as safety concerns related to the coming work. This message should then be relayed to the workers at weekly toolbox safety talks; this is a common way to remind workers about safety procedures and a useful method of addressing these concerns. It’s increasingly common for language barriers to exist on the job site.

Communicating to a diverse workforce, whose primary language may not be English, is a serious challenge for the industry. This is specifically true for the on-site field managers, charged with supervising these workers each and every day. Where English may not be the commonly understood language, construction firms must effectively communicate safety and operations expectations. Effective communication can directly help prevent lapses in safety protocol. For example, despite full compliance with OSHA regulations, falls still occur and remain a leading cause of on-site injuries. This reality requires more aggressive communication approaches between workers and their supervisors.

Companies should begin with the mindset that accidents are not inevitable. In the event that an accident occurs, field managers must review all of the facts and circumstances to identify root causes so that corrective action can be taken to prevent future incidents. The same attention should be paid to near misses that could have been serious accidents. Regular accident review meetings between field managers and executives send a clear message that safety should be paramount. Safety is a job that never ends. The construction industry is continually adopting new operational methods, training workers on new equipment and installing new machinery.

In a proactive safety culture, the field managers must continually adapt to the new ways that workers are performing their jobs. At the end of the day, every company wants every worker, planner and manager to go home safely at night. To achieve this important goal, construction companies must incorporate a culture of safety, from top to bottom.

Geoffrey Hall is senior vice president, ACE Construction. Based in New York City,  Hall is responsible for leading the domestic underwriting strategies of ACE USA’s Primary Construction Casualty Group of ACE’s Casualty Risk Division. Hall manages a countrywide team of more than 150 construction professionals dedicated to addressing the unique insurance needs of builders and contractors. He has more than 25 years of diverse experience in the insurance industry.

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ESOPs as a Business Succession Tool For Small or Mid-Sized Construction/Engineering Firms

By Harvey Katz

Many engineering and construction firm owners will be retiring in large numbers in the coming years. Those whose children don’t want the family business face a dilemma. With more “baby-boomer” sellers than buyers, buyers are likely to be highly selective and very parsimonious.

Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) are a viable business succession alternative. In concept, sale to an ESOP is simple. Instead of selling to a third party, the owner sells to a trust established and operated by the firm for the benefit of its employees. To finance the purchase, the ESOP borrows from a bank or the business owner himself. The shares of the business are collateral for the loan. As the business operates, it makes contributions to the ESOP until the loan is repaid. Otherwise, the ESOP operates like a 401(k) or profit sharing plan, except that it invests in employer stock. While ESOPs cover all full-time, non-union employees, they never directly own company shares, have access to the company's finances or have a say in day-to-day decisions. Nevertheless, ESOPs are powerful productivity incentives, as employees view themselves as part owners. There are substantial tax incentives to owners who sell to ESOPs and companies that operate as ESOPs. Usually, the owner can avoid payment of capital gains tax otherwise payable upon the sale of the business. In addition, both principal and interest on the loan to purchase the company are repaid with pre-tax dollars. More importantly, once the ESOP acquires 100 percent of the firm, it can elect Subchapter S status, allowing it to pass through profits to its tax-exempt ESOP shareholder and operate as a tax-free company.  

Another more practical advantage is that unlike a third-party buyer, an ESOP will rarely back out at the eleventh hour. Sale to an ESOP also requires much less disruption of business and the owner can sell shares gradually, relinquishing control at a time of his or her choosing. Third parties usually demand complete control from day one. Additionally, any additional cost of structuring a sale to an ESOP is easily outstripped by the tax savings. ESOPs are also useful if only some of the owner’s children want to participate in the business. Giving stock to children who don’t participate in the business is likely to cause strife among siblings. The ESOP can purchase the stock of non-participating children for cash. Here's when to consider an ESOP:

  • Firm is worth $2 million, or with profits of $400,000 a year;
  • Firm has a recent history of profitability and/or strong prospects of future profitability;
  • There are two to three individuals capable of assuming a lead management role in the next five years;
  • Firm is a corporation or capable of being converted into one.

Other helpful, but not essential, factors:

  • Current owners want to gradually transition out;
  • Owners want to reward employees for their service;
  • Employees are likely to be incentivized by ownership in the company.

Harvey Katz is co-chair of Fox Rothschild’s Employee Benefits & Compensation Practice. For more information, please contact him at 212.878.7976 or

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DIY Bathroom Remodeling Dos and Don'ts

By Alexandra Turner

On average, remodeling a bathroom reels in potential homebuyers and recoups 62 percent of the remodel cost, U.S. News and World Report notes. Bathrooms date fairly quickly, and a well-done remodel preserves the good bones of your bathroom while replacing outdated elements with modern ones. If you've completed some DIY projects before, you'll be able to tackle much of your bathroom remodel yourself, but there are some tasks that require professional assistance.

Must-do items

Prioritize your to-do list based on your budget and these must-do items. While a complete remodel may be ideal, tackling just some of these must-do items can increase your home's attractiveness and resale price, according to U.S. News and World Report.

  • Get the floor in good shape – If your bathroom floor is outdated or looks old, replacing it is a must.
  • Update fixtures – Replacing the shower head and faucet handles helps modernize your bathroom.
  • Replace the toilet – Replace your old toilet with a low-flow model to begin saving money instantly and update the room.
  • Add fresh paint – A fresh coat of paint in a neutral color gives any room a nice look, especially the bathroom.

What to DIY

If you have some experience with DIY updates, you'll be able to tackle these items yourself. Find any supplies at your local home improvement store.

  • Replacing the toilet – With half a day's work and a little heavy lifting, you can replace your toilet. Turn the shutoff valve, then drain the toilet bowl and tank. Disconnect the supply line, then disconnect the toilet tank from the bowl. Remove the toilet and replace it with the new one by working the process in reverse. If you have a weak back, call a plumber for this one.
  • Updating fixtures – Unscrew your shower head and replace it with a new one. Consider a low-flow shower head as an eco-friendly move.
  • Painting – Clean the walls with a bleach solution before you paint. Tape off the ceiling and floor, or around any fixtures. Apply a primer and up to two coats of paint, letting the walls dry in between each coat.
  • Replacing the medicine and linen cabinets – Freestanding cabinets can be removed and replaced, while built-ins must be demolished first. Take apart the old cabinet, then mount your new cabinet against the wall by drilling screws into wall studs. Select screws that will support the cabinet's weight when loaded with towels, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Pre-assembled medicine cabinets are easy to mount on the wall.

What to trust to experts

Bathroom repairs that require re-plumbing or re-wiring the room are best left to the experts, design spokesperson Deborah Burnett notes at DIYNetwork. These include replacing the tub or shower, updating the shower tile or the bathroom floor, updating the bathroom lighting, adding floor heating or moving the water and drain lines. As MSN notes, hiring contractors can be expensive, but making mistakes in electric, plumbing and general contractor work is far costlier in the long run. Click here for remodeling contractors in your area. An expert contractor will be well worth his fee by improving your home's value through needed bathroom updates.

Alexandra Turner is an interior designer and space planning expert who enjoys blogging about her profession.
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Construction Safety Starts at the Top

By Geoffrey Hall

Safety on the job site begins in the executive suite. To have a real influence on workers, safety must become a core value of each construction organization. Chief executives should instill in every level of management that the responsibility for safety lies with them. Senior executives need to lead by example taking an active and visible role in the implementation and execution of the safety culture. Because every project is built on paper first, safety begins with pre-planning. As executives begin the process of planning a project, safety should be incorporated into all stages of development. All exposures should be identified and addressed in pre-planning stages and controls to mitigate risk exposures should be built into the safety plan.

Additionally, all firms should establish a safety committee prior to building. This committee will be composed of upper management, risk managers, safety directors, and operational staff, striving to continually discuss and review safety performance. Planning for safety is a continually evolving process and chief executives should utilize all resources in order to mitigate the risk of safety complications. Hiring on-site safety managers for projects of all sizes can prove to be beneficial in the long run, despite what may be perceived as high upfront costs. A safety manager can help continually review and enhance the efforts made by everyone on site. Risk management experts and insurers may bring a new set of eyes to a project and can help identify concerns or problem areas that may be otherwise overlooked. This may occur because the company is focusing on major hazards but overlooking lesser ones.

For every construction project, senior executives should thoroughly outline a strong safety plan prior to construction, establish a safety committee that can oversee the project and work with outside resources. By taking these proactive approaches to creating a safety culture, construction companies can save lives, reduce accidents and lower the costs associated with injuries and delays. A strong safety culture helps to manage not only incurred costs through accidents but also the saves the company expenses it would have to bear itself.

Geoffrey Hall is senior vice president of ACE USA's construction group.

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Establishing Best Practices in Cross-Cultural Project Management

By Mark Jones

The real estate development and construction industry is no stranger to volatility.  Managing a large-scale construction or renovation project can be daunting for any company, especially when building in a different country. Navigating the various processes, government regulations and construction trade differences inherent to specific countries can pose significant roadblocks for companies as they embark on global projects spanning many markets.

In order to remain competitive in the marketplace, there are opportunities to deploy project management expertise outside the comfort zone of your own country or region. Here are some best practices and guidelines to successfully overcome the challenges posed by cross-cultural expansion and development.

Define Goals, Objectives and Roles Upfront –  The clients’ goals and objectives and the project manager’s role must be clearly defined up-front to ensure alignment and avoid conflict during the project. Client preferences and protocols vary depending on the region. Some are most interested in cost management, while others would benefit from strategic guidance and a holistic approach to managing the full project. It is also crucial to reconcile nuances of terminology during negotiation discussions to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language. Regional distinctions between North America, Europe and the UK can dramatically impact the outcome of the entire project. Something as simple as the definition or spelling of a word may seem of little consequence, but there are variations to even the most fundamental terminology and meanings can easily be confused across geographies.

Master the Construction Trade Differences, Such as Unionization – One major factor that continues to pose a challenge is unionization. The construction industry is significantly more unionized in North America than in the U.K., and project managers will not only need to know how to manage construction teams but also how to work with the union representatives. To have a better understanding of the local practice and customs, attending local construction associations’ information sessions can be crucial in understanding local rules and processes. The local unions themselves are helpful when negotiating pricing and tendering rules and the major contracting organizations that have union alignments can be helpful knowledge pools too. Most of all, a good project manager will need to be skillful in getting the required local union rules to work within the context of the overall project, budget and schedule.

Understand the Governmental Rules and Regulations – It is essential for project managers to have comprehensive knowledge of the legal, contractual, health and safety regulations of the region or locality. Local regulations and legal practices will guide the project manager when considering specific processes. Health and safety regulations can differ drastically across markets with developing countries having less stringent health and safety regulations than developed regions. Understanding funding sources, banking legislation, loan requirements and federal and state legislation cycles are all very important to getting projects delivered.

has 19 years of experience within the construction sector with clients in the institutional, infrastructure, mining, hi-tech, and commercial sectors.  He is currently a director for Turner & Townsend based in Toronto, Canada.

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Sustainability on Display

By Megan Browning

Set on a beautiful 17-acre campus in the residential community of Ross, Calif., the Branson School has a rich history dating back to the 1920s. In an effort to create a greater sense of campus community, plans were set forth to build a new multi-purpose student commons area situated between the upper and lower campuses. With the ultimate goal of bringing the outdoors in, school administrators teamed up with Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects to design and build a 7,500-square-foot LEED Platinum certified structure that would provide energy-efficient comfort while embracing the local climate.

“We did a digital rendering of the fluid dynamic model to optimize the airflow to the building,” Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Associate John Kleman explained. Based on these results, architects altered the size of the operable windows and openings to take full advantage of the building’s orientation and prevailing winds. The additions of two 10-foot diameter high-volume, low-speed (HVLS) fans, built with direct drive motors, keep the air moving throughout the building and were integral to the design strategy. “After evaluating our options, we thought, 'Let’s not condition the air, but use the climate that we have,'” said Mary Griffin, FAIA, Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. “We wanted students to eat outdoors as many days of the year as possible, so having the building open to allow them to go in and out was really important.” With the new facility serving as the heart of campus activity for students, comfort was a necessity. The HVLS fans do not lower the space temperature, but rather create a perceived cooling effect with silent air movement allowing occupants to feel up to 10F cooler. “The fans magnify the air movement through the building," Kleman said. "I’ve been in the commons on days over 90 degrees and it’s perfectly comfortable.”

While helping bring the outdoors in, HVLS fans serve as more than just a means of air circulation. Because these fans use their immense size, not speed to move impressive amounts of air with minimal electrical input, they also fit in with the school’s energy efficiency initiatives. Other sustainable features include a living roof, radiant heating, solar panels and large flexible doors that create an open dining experience in fine weather. “The building is an educational tool,” Kleman remarked. “There is curriculum built around the LEED program and understanding how buildings can contribute to sustainability.” Maintaining the community’s rich cultural traditions, popularity of the new student commons is reaching beyond Branson students as the facility has also become a venue for community events. “The student commons has been so popular we actually have another local school wanting to use it for events,” Facilities Director Dave Schneider remarked.

Megan Browning is a writer for Big Ass Fans®, the world’s preeminent designer and manufacturer of large-diameter, low-speed fans.

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Globalization Demands Focus on Increased Operational Effectiveness

By John Doherty

As engineering and construction firms continue to expand globally, their need to manage costs at all levels of project delivery becomes increasingly important.  One of the key ways of managing costs is by putting in place a program that promotes continuous improvement in operational effectiveness, an approach that a majority of the industry’s companies are interested in adopting. 

PwC’s 2013 E&C CEO survey revealed more than half (53 percent) of CEOs indicated a focus on improving operational effectiveness. To be successful, operational effectiveness programs should have process, functional and talent management dimensions. From a process perspective, each step, from opportunity identification through turnover, needs to be assessed for opportunities to reduce time and move decisions to the lowest possible level consistent with appropriate review. Opportunities for reducing time can be as simple as making the operational manuals and sporting checklist accessible to the project manager through tablets.  Some  firms also have approval processes in place that require senior management involvement in all steps in the process, where, in fact, the decisions could easily be handled by less senior management as long as a well-structured and approved delegation of authority matrix and governance process is in place.

Processes effectiveness is not only about the efficient execution of the project. It is also about having a standard model for project management across regions and countries. With this approach, staff can be readily transferred across regions to meet client demands without the need for significant retraining. Functional excellence is also key.  Each functional department − purchasing, cost accounting, IT and HR − needs to look closely at the department processes as they intersect the delivery of a project and ensure the operational level of excellence supports the goals being set by the delivery team. For example, a purchasing department that takes weeks to respond to a request for a new subcontractor can significantly impact a project’s success.

Many companies are exploring models where the purchasing staff, while still owned by the corporate function, are deployed on the projects.  This model can help ensure the corporate policies and procedures are maintained while supporting the need for rapid response at the project level. Talent management is another area where a focus on providing operational excellence can significantly impact delivery. This is particularly true when sourcing staff from external agencies. A talent management function should have a disciplined approach to capturing not only current but projected needs and proactively translating these into a steady pipeline of new candidates from regions where the skills are well developed. In summary, globalization is driving a need for operational excellence at the process, functional and talent management levels.  Companies that do not focus on operational excellence are likely to have significant challenges meeting their profit and revenue targets as they expand into international markets.

John Doherty is PwC’s U.S. engineering and construction advisory leader. He has more than 35 years of experience in industry and expertise in the areas of strategic planning, large capital program management, project risk assessment, project bidding, buyout optimization, project execution improvement, supply chain management, strategic planning and IT management, and application implementation.

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Interesting Trends in Commercial Concrete Construction

By Tony Inglese

Concrete has been an integral part of structures in society since the Romans first used it thousands of years ago and it is easy to see why. The Pantheon in Rome still survives to this day proving the ability of concrete to survive the ages. Concrete as worked so well for so long that historically the industry is rarely a witness to revolutionary innovation. However, in recent years the concrete industry – fueled by advances in science and technology – has begun to see several interesting new trends that may very well indicate where the industry’s future lies and how we will see concrete differently in the future.

Polished Concrete Floors: Even today concrete floors are unfortunately oftentimes seen as a bare-bones build-in that is only suitable for warehouse floors and parking lots, however, in a world where green tech have spiked in popularity polished concrete floors are beginning to offer sustainability to commercial and retail facilities across the globe. Polished concrete is created after being treated with a chemical densifier, being ground and polished with high-grit pads until it is 800-3000 grit, and then stained or dyed with a variety of stains and dyes that can make it look similar to various granites or quartzes. Because polished concrete floors are already made of a material that is built into facilities to begin with, it reduces a building’s carbon footprint simply by cutting out the need to buy flooring. Additionally, these glossy floors reflect overhead lighting quite easily which can help even the largest and dimmest of spaces to look brighter.

Pervious Concrete: Also known as permeable or porous pavement, pervious concrete is another green trend in commercial concrete construction that is becoming increasingly more popular and an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. Pervious concrete is actually a technology that was first used in the mid-19th century but has recently rebounded as another Green technological advance. As its name suggests, pervious concrete has miniscule pores that allows rain water to drain into the ground instead of overfilling storm drains and detention ponds. Additionally, it prevents materials from being swept into storm drains and clogging them.

Graphene Reinforced Concrete: Graphene is a flat monolayer layer of graphite in which the carbon atoms are arranged hexagonally. Research in recent years has shown that graphene could potentially be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, material in the world with an ultimate strength of 130,000 megapascals (MPa) and a density of 1.0 g/cm3. Comparatively, concrete has an ultimate strength of 3 MPa and a density of 2.7 g/cm3, structural steel an ultimate strength of 400 MPa and a density of 7.8 g/cm3, and diamond an ultimate strength of 2,800 MPa and a density of 3.5 g/cm3. Concrete is already commonly reinforced with steel or other fibers but even a small amount of graphene added to concrete has the potential to hugely boost concrete’s tensile and compressive strength as well as reducing concrete’s weight.

When consumers think of the word “change” they often don’t think of the concrete industry; after all, to most, concrete construction looks like as if it hasn’t changed since the Romans first did it. But the truth is that science and technology impact concrete construction in so many ways and these new ways to make and use concrete will lead to the creation of structures that will last a millennia.

Tony Inglese works for Enviro-Systems, a concrete construction solutions company offering environmentally friendly concrete products that assist with concrete washout and concrete removal. 

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