Managing a Major Project in a Condo Association: Hiring Technical Representation

Managing a major project in a Condo Association is one of the more grueling parts of Condo life – whether you’re an Owner, Board Member or Management.  The costs, disruption, and constant oversight will impact you no matter who you are.  If you haven’t already checked out the overview, learn about the full life cycle here.

The first part of nearly any project is to ensure you have proper technical representation for your Association.  These consultants serve in a capacity of “Owners’ representatives” – in this case, that means the Association, which means the Board – and their job is to support you from a technical perspective throughout the life cycle of the project and directly manage the project performer who is doing the work and ensure that the project is completed correctly and on time.  This is why selecting a technical consultant is so critical.  An important thing to also keep in mind if you’re starting from scratch is that properly interviewing technical firms is not a rapid process.  Try to make sure you budget the correct amount of time in the project process to make a thoughtful and deliberate choice.  Depending on your Board, this entire process will take at least two months on average.

Are those condo blueprints or the batmobile? I have no idea, but I've hired good representation to tell me.
Are those condo blueprints or the bat mobile? I have no idea, but I’ve hired good representation to tell me.

You might be wondering – if the Board is hiring a consultant, what is the Board doing?  Remember, the Board’s job is to set policy – others enact that policy.  You really don’t want a Board being hands on – this creates liability for the Association and potentially the individuals.  

Evaluate their Ability to Communicate

When you’re interviewing consultants, their ability to communicate is nearly as important as their technical expertise.  Throughout the project, your consultants will be providing you reports – both written and verbal.  Their ability to convey the situation in a clear and succinct manner is critical, as they’re going to be providing updates to the Board, Management, and even Owners.  Engineers who only speak technical jargon will not be helpful.  You’ll not be able to understand them, and that’s a bad thing.  My favorite question to ask during an interview of consultants is to explain a complicated part of their field in simple terms.  For example, if they’re elevator experts, ask them what type of elevator hoist system you have and how it works – in layman’s terms.  See how succinct they can be on the fly.  

The same goes for written materials.  While providing technical writeups is of course a key part of their job, the reality is that much of their technical material will be going to the project performer or to the county that issues your permits.  What you need from them is written reports or written materials that you can understand and read quickly.  A document that requires Wikipedia and Google to be translated is not helping.  You might ask as part of the bidding process if they’ve ever created a “layman’s level” 1-page document on a technical matter related to a project for a client, and if they can provide a sample or samples.  

Finally – you want nice people you enjoy working with.  You’re going to be working with these people during very trying times – trust me, once you start ripping up Owners’ units or impacting their quality of life, everyone is going to be stressed out.  Make sure they fit into your culture of respect.  

Evaluate their Technical Skills

Ask the prospective technical representatives for their overall body of work, how many projects they’ve managed historically, and how big those projects were.  A firm that does 90% of its work on 40-unit or smaller buildings may not have the experience to handle a larger, 200-unit building.  If there is a mismatch like this, ask them why they think they can handle your project.  You might ask them to walk you through – in layman’s terms – a similar project that had challenges, what those challenges were, and how they mitigated them successfully.  I find that asking people specific examples is very illustrative for your Board but also tests the interviewees’ communication skills.

Find out how deep their talent pool is.  How many projects do they manage a year?  How do you fit into that?  What happens if your technical representatives get sick?  Is there a backup?  Some firms are boutique and may only take a few projects a year.  Others are huge.  There’s no “right” choice here as there are pros and cons to each, but just make sure you know what kind of firm they are.  

Get References

Make sure you’re getting references to verify past performance.  During the interview process, ask for references for work that has been performed on similar buildings.  Aim to talk to other Associations if possible, but talking to apartment buildings or office buildings is also acceptable.  Try to get a variety of length of time since the projects were completed – recent projects are fine, but an older project where you can see if the work is holding up is even better.  It can be a challenge to find an older project where there is still someone who knows about the project, but it can be worth it to try.  Beyond the technical aspects, also ask references how the firm did communicating with both Board members, and if applicable, Owners.

Lay Out Expectations

You mean those 4 hour meetings with Owners to explain the project are considered billable?
You mean those 4 hour meetings with Owners to explain the project are considered billable?

When constructing your contract with the firm, make sure you have clearly spelled out everything that’s going to be a part of the contract.  Will there be off-hours meetings with the Board?  Off-hours meetings with Owners?  Regular meetings with Management?  You can build these into the contract or be billed hourly – don’t worry, the firm will make sure they get their compensation regardless.  But clarifying everything up front ensures there are no surprises for the Board when you get an hourly bill submitted for something you thought was included.

Ensure Legal Review

Make sure your Association’s legal counsel reviews the final contract you’ve prepared with your consulting firm prior to signing.  You are empowering this consultant on a major project in your Association – so make sure that everything is ironclad and watertight and protects your Association.  Remember, adding in a legal review also protects the Association from liability – don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.  Pay your lawyer.  

On to the Bid and Design Phase

Once you’ve gotten the firm under contract, it’s time for the design and bid phase.  Now you’re getting on to the real work!  Next month in the Managing a Major Project in a Condo Association series we will dive into how a Board should work within the design and bid process as you progress on your major project adventure.  


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