Building in the urban environment offers unique interior and exterior challenges.

Hanging the Krion ceiling panels at the Porcelanosa project was made even more complex by the quantity of MEP installations above it.(Photo Courtesy Modworxx)

This podcast about building in the urban environment explores the project management aspects at the urban jobsite. Told from the perspective of one of the last trades to perform, it highlights the value of teamwork among subs, the unique aspects about planning and scheduling, and provides ideas to foster smoother projects.

Here’s the media player, so listen now.

To listen to the other podcasts in this series about Building in the Urban Environment, select from the links below.

Part 1: Building in the Urban Environment: The Chance & Challenge of Design
Part 2: Building in the Urban Environment: The Challenge of Construction Waste
Part 4: Building in the Urban Environment: Earth Sensitive Design

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Construction Informer, and this podcast in the series about Building in the Urban Environment. Custom millwork is one example of prefabricated components that we’re all familiar with, and while common across all types of building that doesn’t mean it’s handled the same, or that it has the same types of challenges across all those building environments. For construction projects in densely packed urban areas there are unique challenges not only in delivering custom millwork but also in designing it to fit space constraints, and meeting the demands of urban project schedules.  And if these things affect custom millwork you can be assured they affect other prefabricated components.

Today our guest is Joe Patrovich, director of operations at Modworxx, which is an architectural millwork design company in New York City.  Welcome Joe.

Now, being in New York, especially with its current building boom,  you’re no doubt juggling at least a few projects. Could you give us a little bit of an idea about the kinds of millwork you supply? 

Well, we do pretty much everything soup to nuts.  We do everything from the cookie cutter stuff that’s typical on corporate office projects, to the more high end, highly engineered projects. Everything from doors to cabinetry to closet interiors; cabinetry consisting of pantries, coffee rooms, that type of thing; all sorts of projects on multiple floors where there’s a tremendous amount of coordination. And, lot of times we have wall paneling, ceiling paneling, different elaborate ceilings, and wall paneling. And that’s when things get very custom and more highly engineered.  

Is there any particular project that comes to mind where you had to come up with some pretty unusual millwork?  

One of our projects for Porcelanosa, a high end showroom down in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, had an incredibly intricate  ceiling. That particular ceiling was a product of Porcelanosa called Krion which is an acrylic panel used as countertops, used for just about anything.  It’s very hard, the color goes through the product, similar to the product Corian. They wanted to display it in a way which other people wouldn’t typically think of it. It was actually used on a thirty foot high ceiling.  So that ceiling also was used to hide all the MEP and mechanicals, those items that normally you’d dedicate a floor to, but with the space constraints that they had, they elected to basically hide all their MEP, all their air handlers, underneath the ceiling.

So we ended up having to engineer a ceiling so it opened in every single case. So this ceiling was hung from the concrete deck above using various Hilti products that were specked and engineered to be able to carry the weight of what is typically heavy, when it comes to Krion. And then we had to make an aluminum lightweight panel system with pivots and hinges and slides that would carry these panels and allow them to open, using motors, cables and pulleys. So a lot of moving parts, a lot of coordination. You know when it comes to the Manhattan environment, a lot of what we deal with is multiple trades, trying to push to an end date and get something done. If you can imagine eight scissors lifts operating at once in a 60 by 100 area, with five different trades up, all working at the same time, trying to coordinate with each other, that was the type of environment that we’re dealing with.

Well, some of the techniques you used might be interesting. I mean, there is that whole people aspect, when you’ve got them working in close quarters, and when you’ve got deadlines that always seem to be unrealistic, there’s that whole aspect you have to deal with. Do you have some tips or pointers that other people might use?

Unfortunately when it comes to millwork we’re often one of those last final trades. We join the likes of the painter, the fabric panel guy, and the glass guys that are just in there at the end. On this particular project it was a ground up deal, they had a lot of structural things on a historic landmark building that when it comes to the permits and dealing with city and the department of  building; and then also the winter weather and trying to get everything closed up; bottlenecks always end up happening on the finish phase. So as much as we try to plan and take care of those types of things, it does become difficult. 

We basically just try to keep everybody moving in the right direction and keep everybody motivated, and buy a lot of coffee for the other trades. Getting along with those other people, making sure that you’re helping them out to get their work done as much as they’re helping you to get your work done. So it’s a give and take. You’re always working with each other and and trying to act as a team. I mean that would actually be a good angle on that, the team aspect of it. As much as we are all different trades, we all have our own contracts, it ends up being that if you can get everybody to act as team, and you actually help other trades out, and do what you have to do to extend your hand to them at times, it ends up making  life a lot easier, and your work will go a lot smoother.

You catch more bees with honey. 


And you said you try to engender teamwork so what kinds of things would you do for example, bring coffee and doughnuts?

Yeah, coffee, doughnuts, or in terms of somebody just needs a tool, somebody needs a piece of hardware, somebody doesn’t have what they need on their lift at thirty feet in the air. We might be able to hand them something to help them out. I think in general in a construction environment, in a circumstance like that, it either goes one of two ways. It goes really south and everybody dislikes each other, or you try to act as a team, and with our experience trying to act as a team, and trying to be that leader, trying get the other people on board to help each other out.

I would contact the other project managers from the other subs and I make sure that they were getting what they needed at times also.  And it’s as simple as something like me and one of the GCs at the jobsite all day, you know we ended up going out to lunch and grabbing a bite to eat. I made sure that those other guys got included, and we ended up going out to eat together. And we became a family, we try to help each other out, instead of becoming something where we’re adverse to each other.

And I think that the construction environment is changing now in Manhattan with the downturn in the economy, and also the introduction to non-Union jobs happening around here, that old mentality of, “I’m not doing that. I’m not willing to help. I’m supposed to be on break right now,” or the old mentality that adverse mentality, doesn’t exist as much anymore. Everybody does try to come together and become one.

It’s interesting, and that’s a good philosophy too. And you find that  the others reciprocate?

Yes, exactly. Especially, like you said, you get more bees with honey.  So if you end up trying to give them a hand or be there for them in a particular instance, they end up trying to do the same thing for you. And it can be something very very simple, you need a screw, or you need some screws out of the box. If I go get those for you, and we made our way back up that ladder, and we’re standing at the top of the ladder, we have them in hand, and you didn’t have to go back down. That stuff doesn’t go unnoticed. Next time when you need something yourself. or somebody is aggravated, or somebody is having a rough day, they’ll think twice about throwing that back at you 

Sure, sure. So scheduling, I guess, you must spend a lot of time looking at project schedules.

Yes. On this particular job the project schedule was basically get it done at the end, and they had a move in date that was pushed hard. Typically project schedules on phasing jobs in the urban environment are extremely important. We actually use a system where we go item by item. So our drawings always correspond with our spread sheets. So we use a spreadsheet basically to schedule every single drawing which is essentially an item for a delivery date, a fabrication date, a completion date. So we try to get down to as nitty gritty details in terms of scheduling and detail on those dates as humanly possible.

And what about that project, you’ve touched a little bit on that, the stage you come in. I guess the earlier you start getting involved in the project, I guess to better, right?

Yes, absolutely, this ceiling was a very different challenge. The doors, and cabinetry, the stuff that went floor by floor, and you could produce a schedule on the floor by floor, and you weren’t really affected by many other trades. The dry wall guy was done with his work you put the cabinets in, and you’re ready to go. When it comes to that ceiling, and all the mechanical issues that went in above it, and the six other trades there were all shooting for that same end line, there was no choice but then just to work together at that point. They turned the ceiling over to us the same amount of time as they turned the mechanicals and the rest of it pretty much to them as well, so everybody on board, and get it done. Unfortunately that stuff happens a lot when you’re you’re dealing with and end date on a long project. 

Yeah, I can imagine. What about outside? I mean getting deliveries done and things like that. You know there’re a lot of people who are not building in the urban environment and that don’t have to deal with those things. Are there some perspectives you can give us on that aspect?

The New York City urban environment when it comes to deliveries is extremely difficult. Every single job, the most important part of that is to get into the nitty gritty prior to bidding. So, we’re in the middle of the bid process, we want to know what is the elevator size. Do we have to go down a floor into the sub cellars in order to go over to another elevator in order to get that stuff up there to a service elevator in another area of the building. You know, how many of these pieces they were going to have to send where it’s been engineered or thought about beforehand about how it’s going to go together in order for it to fit the elevator. You don’t want to be sending something to the field and realize it doesn’t fit in the elevator and then you’re field modifying it at greater cost. So the planning when it comes to deliveries, and it really starts, essentially, really at the beginning, with the estimator and an understanding that you’ve got those costs covered because they do become real cost, and they can really affect the job.

Well I want to thank you Joe, for providing these perspectives on the building in the urban environment. It’s definitely something that I think a lot of people never experience, who are in contracting, but it would certainly keep you on your toes. And also, thanks to all you listeners for tuning in, and till the next time… build it well. 

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