Hammered by the Great Recession, many contractors across the Southeast, and nationwide, have become "lean and mean," paring down staff and other assets to succeed in today's new construction economy. But one contractor, Batson-Cook Construction, is getting lean and not-so mean, by utilizing lean construction methods to build nearly a dozen prototypical high-rise apartment projects across the Southeast and Texas.
In 2011, the contractor, along with its development arm, Batson-Cook Development Co., competed for and won the assignment to build a series of towers for Atlanta-based Novare Group. To meet the developer's delivery schedule demands of 12 to 14 months per project, Batson-Cook pitched using lean construction methods to erect the multifamily towers, usually 23 or 24 stories tall. Together, the 11 SkyHouse projects have a collective value of more than $650 million.
The resulting construction program is an unusual case study in the implementation of lean, the production management-based project delivery system that emphasizes continuous improvement and efficiency. By building this big batch of significantly similar structures in succession, the contractor is living out the method's tenets of lessons learned.
The firm's jump into lean was born of near necessity.
"We were like most construction companies," recalls Randy Hall, president and CEO. "We had 'leaned' up to the point where growth was another set of problems to solve. We had dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2011 … and we were having to rebuild our company."
Currently, the contractor is in the midst of building six SkyHouse projects in Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Tampa, Dallas and Houston.
Two projects that recently topped out—the $72.4-million, 26-story SkyHouse Buckhead, in Atlanta, and the $56.3-million, 23-story SkyHouse Raleigh—are the latest lean case studies. The structures feature exteriors of precast concrete and stucco for the first two floors, with a window-wall system going up the building from there.
Trial and Error
Curt Rigney, a senior vice president with Batson-Cook, says the lean approach has altered the company's processes and mind-sets.
"It's a different way of thinking for us and a lot of the subcontractors," he says. "The subcontractor community is used to being dictated to as far as what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. With lean, we're bringing them into the fold and saying, 'How can you get us there?'"
More specifically, a subcontractor-led planning process, called "pull planning," creates the construction plan and schedule. Getting introduced to this step can jar some, as it did James Rivers, a superintendent with Wayne J. Griffin Electric, who first encountered lean on SkyHouse Raleigh.
"I was nervous when I [first] saw the schedule," he says. From the first planning session, though, it started to click.