Editorial: 04.28.2020

10 Things You May Not Know About Civil Construction

— By Mike Pranger, Vice President Operations, Castle Contracting, LLC

Why it’s worth investing underground.


What’s the price of dirt? We hear this question all the time, and it is often misconstrued as the most influential factor on sitework project cost. In reality, what lies beneath the dirt is actually one of the riskiest components of any construction project, and there are many factors to understand about sitework to be an educated consumer, owner or project partner.

We compiled a list of the 10 things you should know before embarking on a civil construction project.

  1. Unknowns are virtually guaranteed. Unless you’re purchasing an open field, most sites will probably contain buried debris, old foundations, active or abandoned utilities, cultural artifacts or maybe even environmental pollution. It pays to do homework up front, as the investment will be minimal compared to the costs incurred by addressing these issues later in the project’s life.
  2. Hard bid does not always generate the best results. Dirt might be a commodity, but civil construction and design are definitely not. Hard bid contracts open the doors to numerous change orders. Subcontractors will usually bid what they are given—even when they know there are potential issues, drawings are poor or the design isn’t buildable. Castle prefers to look at the entire site to provide the best approach, achieve efficiencies, mitigate risk and delays, and plan the job in conjunction with the broader project team. The value of a Design-Build or Construction Management at Risk approach is in early collaboration. Consider these delivery methods to gain early intelligence on your site for a well-informed budget that can capitalize on potential savings and minimize surprises. If your contracting partner is on board early, you can often make changes to the design that can save time and money.  
  3. Jurisdictions all do their own thing. Every municipality, city, county and state has different guidelines. Make sure your civil engineer and contractor are knowledgeable about them and incorporating that protocol when pricing your work so that your project is compliant. Your contractor should know how to stay in front of the necessary boards and reviewers to expedite design changes. These processes affect planning, scheduling and production. It’s also important for your team to know how to work with Authorities Having Jurisdiction for your project location so they’re kept informed of project changes and can provide seamless approvals.
  4. Utilities are complex. Utility installations and upgrades can be complex and challenging. Utility routes can travel under or adjacent to streets, supply nearby facilities, continue through areas with high pedestrian traffic, or go under major infrastructure like buildings, busy intersections and highways. Urban settings typically include an underground network of webbed utility infrastructure. If utilities are interrupted, it can be devastating to the day-to-day operations of surrounding businesses.

    man with a drone

    By identifying the most cost-effective routes for utilities, we are often able to save money that you can use toward other features of the project. It’s important to partner with a civil contractor who has the skilled crews to execute utility work and collaborate with you on design and constructability assessment. Our team also has access to an underground mapping service to provide owners with more accurate cost expectations by informing design of the location of existing site utilities.
  5. Design phase services will benefit you. Bringing your civil contractor on board in a design-bid-build delivery method often leads to a loss of data and discovering conflicts in the field that increase cost and extend your schedule. Incorporating your civil contractor early in a project can help to identify challenges and conflicts during design, when they can be easily addressed. Castle’s Civil Design-Build services bring design and construction professionals together to develop the best civil solution from the beginning, working to maximize efficiencies, identify cost savings, address potential issues early, mitigate risks and incorporate solutions into the design.
  6. Inefficiencies are common, but not inevitable. Coordinating work with the entire project team is essential to manage workforce and cost, and you get the most out of a plan where crews can work continuously. If you’re developing a property that has multiple parcels, it can be more cost-effective to develop the overall site versus bit-by-bit. Coordination of shared resources across a master plan can benefit the overall development and position future projects for low risk and higher cost certainty.
  7. Weather is a big deal. Because civil contractors work exclusively outside, weather affects our work more than other construction scopes. We experienced one of the rainiest years on record in 2019 and the first quarter of 2020 had similar levels of rainfall. Knowing your civil contractor can ramp up or down and handle schedule fluctuations is essential to your project progress. Project team communication is key to the success of planning for the unknowns.

    castle 3
  8. Safety is essential. If your operator is wearing a tank top and sneakers, with no hard hat, don’t hire him. He’s putting you and everyone else on site at risk. Site work requires a lot of heavy equipment, a high volume of hauling traffic, heavy delivery loads, open excavations and shoring. Working with a civil contractor who prioritizes a safety culture and supports everyone’s safety is essential to a successful project. It’s also important to maintain good community relations by being mindful of neighbors and providing clean sites and routes, visible signage, effective traffic control and communicative field teams.
  9. The cost of dirt matters. The import and export of materials can be a major factor to the civil construction scope and cost. Working to balance the overall earthwork operation within the property boundaries is the first objective. Make sure there is room in your budget to account for major import or export. By engaging Castle early, we can leverage our vast network of projects and often locate material at a reduced cost or find a home for excess materials. Timing is everything, so our ability to plan the movement of dirt is key to identifying cost-saving opportunities. 
  10. People make all the difference. You need experts and skilled craft workers to deliver a high-quality deliverable. Our field crews and operators are some of the best, and they love making the impossible happen. Having creative design and construction minds behind your field operations is the most valuable asset to your project.

Understanding how much risk lives within a site is vital to any project’s success. It’s important to partner early with a skilled civil contractor, creative partner and team that reduces your risk and maximizes your results.


About the Author

As Vice President Operations of Castle Contracting, LLC, Mike Pranger is responsible for overseeing all operations for the firm. With 24 years of experience, he began his career as an intern with McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., gaining experience in self-perform work and in the roles of project engineer, estimator and superintendent. He joined Castle as project manager in 2004, expanding the company’s expertise and ability to work on larger, more complex projects. In his current leadership role, he now guides all business operations and provides direction to business leaders responsible for accounting, estimating, business development, market team operations and field operations.


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