Many centuries ago, the Master Builder method was how things were built. The architect and engineering functions were combined, and there was a single point of responsibility for managing design, risk, and construction of the project. Historically, a master builder was a central figure leading construction projects in pre-modern times.  It was a good system for the times. However, as time went by, the system began to unwind, responsibilities broken, and the critical components of risk management and constructability became major challenges that no one entity truly owned. The costs were difficult to control.  Eventually, it became clear that this philosophy was not the optimum way to build. The inefficiency created cost overruns and led to an argumentative environment in which no participant could function at the highest level to deliver a product in which everyone was proud.

The days of the old Master Builder are gone. However, today’s modern Master Builder leads a collaborative team with diverse skills and expertise. Many players are involved, and they all make a valuable contribution to the effort while at the same time adding to the complexity of the process. What might we learn from the past of the old Master Builder to evolve a modern and more successful way to build in the 21- century?  How do we best deliver a project in the future with the desired quality, on time, and at the best final cost?  To get to the answer, we first need to understand how the design and construction management industry has evolved away from the old Master Builder philosophy and that means focusing on two of the most important aspects of the building process.  Design-bid-build is a more traditional approach in which the design and build functions are essentially separate, and the builder has less of a role, if any, in the preconstruction phase when essential cost and constructability decisions are made. In comparison, the builder has a greater role up front with the design/build or construction management agency or construction management at-risk approach. A true modern-day Master Builder will take the leadership role in managing this process from day one.

In the 1960s, and 1970s many prominent builders attempted to solve this issue by adopting the concept of the at-risk construction manager.  With this approach, the construction manager engaged in the design process early on and was responsible for coordinating the integration of design and construction. Contractors accepted a transfer of the cost risk and became the builder between the owner and other team members. While it was a better experience for the owner, there was often still excess friction between the design team and builder.  In the years that followed, newer Master Builder models evolved to try to improve relationships, all with an eye toward better managing risk and constructability. These efforts ultimately led to the concept of Integrated Project Delivery, seeking to combine the talents and insights of the entire design and construction team working in collaboration to reduce waste, maximize efficiency, and deliver a quality project on time and at the best final cost.  The construction manager of the 1960s and 1970s did not have the technology tools we have today to help us efficiently lead the building process from preconstruction through post-delivery. But today’s modernMaster Builder does. If we’ve learned anything from the past, it’s that a single point of leadership is essential to achieving the challenging mix of efficiency, quality, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness that owners demand today. This responsibility falls most naturally to the Construction Manager who is ultimately responsible for delivering the final product and can be the Master Builder.

In effect, everyone shares the responsibility of risk and constructability. But the problem is that there’s no single point of responsibility. Someone needs to be in charge. That’s what owners expect. The buck must stop somewhere.  That brings us full circle to where this all began. The single point of responsibility for risk management and constructability ought to be the modern-day Master Builder. But for very complex technical reasons, that function has been impossible to perform correctly in the modern age ― until now.  The better way to incorporate the modern Master Builder concept is to review the traditional, three-legged stool of the construction management industry:

  1. Estimating and bidding the project (get work)
  2. Build the project (do work)
  3. Manage the budget (keep score)

The flow of events in construction management is to first get the work and then to do the work, and as we do the work, we must keep score by assessing our progress toward meeting the project goals for time, cost, and quality.

To succeed today, the modern Master Builder must lead fully integrated project teams, working closely with designers to ensure that their vision matches the owner’s expectations and budget. Once construction begins, the modern Master Builder must remain the hub of oversight and communication, seeing the project through to completion and ensuring that the building performs as expected throughout its useful life.  The time for a better path is here. Today’s technology now helps make the foundational process of building itself more effective and efficient. The modern Master Builder is ready and willing to lead the team to an optimum result.  You are now aware of exactly what it is that you are supposed to be managing as a modern Master Builder.  It’s cost, time, quality, and safety.  Your job as a modern-day Master Builder is to mitigate the risks associated with each of these factors and optimize project performance.

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