6 ways to keep projects on track, despite material price fluctuations

By Jamie HodgesSeptember 29, 2021

Jamie Hodges is executive vice president of Industrial Constructors/Managers, Inc. (ICM), a Colorado-based industrial contractor

Material price fluctuations and supply chain issues continue to plague the industry roughly a year and a half into the pandemic.

This has created a number of hardships for contractors as projects are more expensive and take longer to complete than ever before, causing some project owners to delay or pause projects in hopes that these challenges will soon stabilize.

However, given the volatility of the market and the continuing issues with the Delta variant, there’s no guarantee that the future will be any easier than the present. Passage of the infrastructure bill could also create a surge of new projects, further straining material availability and causing even longer lead times.

That being said, there are many ways to keep a project moving forward despite these challenges, as long as you’re flexible and open to creative ideas. Below are six ways to fast-track a project in today’s ever-changing environment:

1. Be open to swapping out materials

While some material prices have increased exponentially, others are more reasonably priced and thus can be swapped out. Take structural steel for example, which used to cost 48 cents/lb but is now closer to $1/lb. Structural steel can often be swapped out for concrete, which is less expensive and more readily available, while not negatively impacting the design intent or strength of a structure.

2. Choose less in-demand shapes and sizes

One of the most in-demand materials is an 8x10 beam since it’s commonly used in home designs, which residential builders have had a hard time sourcing given the increased demand in housing. While a project may call for an 8x10 beam, an 8x15 beam might work just as well and be significantly easier to find. Being open to slightly different sizes and/or shapes can help speed a project along without compromising on quality.

3. Change the sequence in which you build

It’s easy to get discouraged when you can’t source material fast enough, leading you to believe that you can’t start a project on time. However, changing the sequence in which you build can help get a project off the ground, particularly as it enables you to use the materials you do have, while waiting for the materials you don’t yet have. This can be a good solution for work that was set to be phased from the outset.

4. Simplify, simplify, simplify

It’s not uncommon for projects to be over-designed and made more complex than they need to be, so it’s critical to first take a step back and determine whether simplifying a project is feasible. Doing so could help reduce materials, costs and lead times, which could also help the timeline. For example, the design of a platform for a hydro project was recently simplified, with a few materials changed out, leading to a lowered project cost and faster turnaround time.

5. Buy materials as soon as possible

Regardless of the materials you end up using, it’s best to purchase them well ahead of your start date to give suppliers ample time to deliver. Often this means ordering materials immediately after the design phase when you have a rough estimate of how much you’ll need. This can help prevent the project from getting sidetracked due to materials not arriving in time for all or part of a project.

6. Involve your contractors at the very beginning

All of the above solutions can be integrated into the process if contractors and subcontractors are involved from the very beginning, since they’ve been dealing with these issues for a long time and can help evaluate where savings can be gained. This is much easier to do at the beginning of a project vs. after plans have been solidified and approved.

That being said, flexibility is the name of the game so it’s never too late to evaluate whether a project can be simplified or a different material swapped out for a more readily available option, helping keep your project on track and on budget.

Jamie Hodges is executive vice president of Industrial Constructors/Managers, Inc. (ICM), a Colorado-based industrial contractor specializing in steel and concrete structures, heavy moving and rigging, machinery installation, modification and maintenance, and more.

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