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The Complex Reality of Construction Schedules: Lessons from the Airline Industry

If I had to pick one thing when building a home that causes more stress than anything else, it would be the schedule. Some frequent questions that I have heard: "why is no one on my job today", "why can't you give me a week by week look of what's to come", "why does the move in date keep shifting", "why is that other house of yours going faster than mine?" and more.  

There's something precious and mysterious about time. Consider your own life. You probably feel like you don't have enough of it. Always fighting to budget where your time goes and how to spend it. Construction is no exception and I think it's one of the few industries that put time under so much scrutiny and under a microscope for all to see the nitty-gritty details. The more and more I build, I realize I don't gain a better understanding of it, I just realize how much is out of our control.

Jesse, Private Pilot, Instrument Rated, after his check ride in 2022.
Jesse, Private Pilot, Instrument Rated, after his check ride in 2022.

The best industry example that I can think to compare is the airlines. How many times have you arrived at your gate at the airport and hear an announcement that the plane, the pilot, the luggage and all the passengers are early, so your flight will be departing 30 minutes ahead of schedule? I personally have never had that happen. Contrary, I can absolutely remember a delayed departure. How do they make up the time? The route the pilot flies has been predetermined by Air Traffic Control (ATC) for safe and efficient operation, so that's out. The only hope in making up time is the pilot doing their best to find a tailwind or the airline burning more fuel.

Airplane gears

Correlate this to residential construction: The boarding gate opening up, is like the "kickoff" segment of construction: design and specifications are approved, contract terms are signed, funds are available, permits are issued, material is on site (it's correct and not broken), trades are on site, the weather is good and the previous contractor has completed their job. Now we can board the plane and start flying. The sequencing of the construction process has already been optimized to consider safety and efficiency, long lead items and critical path — this is equivalent to the ATC assigned route. The tailwind in our case is our construction managers checking in with trades regularly, being knowledgeable, approachable and good communicators. Any questions or surprises can be addressed quickly and momentum continues. Our only option for burning more fuel, and I hear this request often, is to burn more hours in the day. Add more crews to the job. Work weekends. Work faster. The equivalent of an airline burning more fuel is ultimately what leads to burn out of construction trade partners and employees. (Please see why this is not an option for us here at Younger Homes).

On top of that, the construction process is a very linear one rather than parallel. It's a series of planning, approvals, materials, labor and punch. Requiring nearly 50 trade partners and their labor and up to 100 suppliers, by my count. Our process map for building a home from start to finish wraps around three walls of our office and yet it's only about 3 feet tall.

So if we know the schedule is going to slip, why don't we build in contingency or buffer? We do to some extent, but ultimately it's the same reason the airlines don't. There needs to be a hard date that everyone is shooting for. As I am writing this there have been 20,276 airline delays today and it's just barely past lunch time. Even with this knowledge knowing the likelihood of a delay, would you choose to leave your house 30 minutes or an hour later than you normally do? Of course not, because you know if everything does happen right, the gates close at the scheduled time and you will miss your flight. But if there was a buffer, even if it wasn't publicized or published, eventually the buffer would become known. Then, passengers, planes, maintenance and pilots would incorporate the buffer into normal practice.

Our family in front of our 1979 Skyhawk XP has flown over 20,000 nautical miles in the past two years!
Our 1979 Skyhawk XP has flown over 20,000 nautical miles in the past two years!

Much of what happens with construction schedules is out of our control. So we focus on what we can control: planning ahead, good communication and transfer of knowledge. We set out to educate and set realistic expectations for those involved. Without this education, schedule slipping can give a claustrophobic or helpless feeling when clients see the delivery of the biggest purchase of their life slip a little further out.

Lastly, at Younger Homes, we are constantly trying to innovate and bring more of this process into our control. Streamlining the design process with semi custom homes and designing as much as we can before breaking ground on our custom homes, pushing construction practices towards prefabrication manufacturing methods (as is the model for Lago Place), while always protecting our people from becoming the fuel that gets burned for a faster build (our people matter).


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