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Buying New Construction and the Critical Path

New Construction home in New Hampshire
New Construction Real Estate

If you have recently decided to purchase a new construction home you may have heard your builder mention the “critical path” or the “builder’s critical path” during conversations regarding scheduling. This is not an abstract concept or a back-of-the-envelope scribble that the builder will try to adhere to. The Critical Path Method is an important part of new construction and a solid understanding of it will allow you, the consumer, to be better prepared to anticipate and handle delays. And as with anything else, the more knowledgeable you are the better off you will be as you work with your builder, and your bank, toward a successful closing on your brand new home.

Time is money and if you are a homebuyer and you are under contract for a new construction home, then their time is your money.

Custom Home Foundations
Foundation of New Homes

So what is the Critical Path Method? Basically, the Critical Path Method or CPM is an exercise in efficiency. At its core is the understanding that there are distinct activities during construction and that they have to occur in their proper sequence. For example, the framing of your new home cannot be started until the foundation is in place, and the foundation cannot be poured until the sitework is done. Therefore each of these activities can be considered a precursor activity to the next one in line. The chart below is a good illustration of the concept.

Chart of the Critical Method of New Construction
Critical Method Chart

You will note several things from this chart that will allow you to be a more knowledgeable consumer and more educated in your dealings with your builder. First of all, the sequencing is key. When your builder tells you that there is a delay because the heating contractor didn’t show up, you will understand by looking at this chart what that means. Without the heating contractor performing their tasks, your builder cannot have the plaster company come in and do their work. And it is entirely possible that when the plumbing contract does show up and do their tasks, that the plaster company will be on another job and not available for another week. And then of course this throws the finish carpentry schedule into a blender as well!

Framing of Lakeside Condo on Lake Winnipesaukee
Framing of Lakeside Condo

Another aspect to note in that diagram is the black line following the arrow. That is the actual CRITICAL PATH and it refers to the sequence that yields the longest schedule. In essence it shows the builder which tasks he needs to shorten in order to shorten the construction schedule itself. Tasks not actually located along the critical path, the roofing for example can be given more leeway in terms of prioritization whereas the plaster or drywall contractor must be kept to his schedule or the remainder of the expected timeline will be compromised. The builder will examine each activity along the critical path and may attempt to shorten the time required by one or more of those activities. For example, your builder may find that the 7 days required by the flooring contractor can be reduced to 4. Doing so will allow the entire schedule to be tightened up. A similar reduction in time for the gutter contractor will not help in the same way because that activity had a natural “float” time.

It is important to understand that the Critical Path can change during the course of construction. Delays like in the example above with the plumbing contractor can have a ripple effect totally out of proportion to the initial delay. Conversely, if a task takes considerably less time than was expected, it could change the Critical Path entirely and put aspects of the job under more scrutiny in an effort to speed up construction. An experienced builder will continuously update his or her Critical Path during the construction process.

As with all aspects of the relationship with your builder, communication is key. Ask to see the critical path that he or she will be using in the construction of your home, and be respectful when doing so. Have an honest conversation with the builder about which aspects of the construction might be most expected to cause a delay. Convey to your builder that you understand that many of these situations are completely out of his control and that you are only asking these questions to get a better understanding of the process. Also convey to your builder that you expect to be given any news that affects the scheduling of construction even if that news is bad.

In the modern world of home construction many builders are using computer software to generate their pre-construction Critical Path. These resources also allow the builder to make needed changes to their schedule of activities as the project goes on. In the future there is no question that Artificial Intelligence will be used in the creation and operation of Critical Paths. This will allow individual builders to utilize historical construction patterns across entire industries rather than just their own personal experience. The result of this will be more realistic scheduling and improved expectations of specific tasks in the timeline. None of this matters if people don’t show up to work, however.

In my job as a Realtor selling new construction homes I often find myself explaining to buyers that homes are not products taken off the shelf at the local grocery. Homes have character and flaws and idiosyncrasies, that is all to be expected. High but reasonable expectations are important when getting ready to view your finished new home for the first time. That same attitude should guide you through the construction process itself. A schedule is important and the builder should do all they can to keep to it. Often there are contractual, financial and living situation considerations that make it excruciatingly important to hit the target dates set at the beginning. However that is not always possible. Having a proper understanding of the concept of the Critical Path being used in the construction of your home, and being properly updated on the progress, will go a long way to making your home-buying experience a success.

Completed waterfront condos
Waterfront Condos
  1. The ABCs of the Critical Path Method by F.K. Levy, G.C. Thompson, and J.D. Wiest

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