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How to Properly Create a Construction Timeline

DP Taylor

Our Small Business Expert

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A construction timeline lays out all the steps, tasks, and milestones in your project, helping you envision the project from start to finish. This guide explains how to properly create a timeline.

Delays and cost increases are the bane of the construction industry. A recent study found that 66% of general contractors take on extra costs due to schedule slip, and 50% need to extend their projects’ end dates. These expenses and delays directly impact your bottom line.

If you want to do a better job of avoiding those problems, you must fix your construction timelines. For construction managers who have been wrestling with timelines for years, or even decades, this task seems daunting. But there is hope.

While a new construction timeline chart will look different for a residential construction schedule than it would for, say, a towering skyscraper in downtown, the same principles and best practices govern both construction plans.

The ability to craft a good timeline is critical to construction management -- you can’t be successful without this skill. This guide will help you understand what a timeline is and the basics on creating your own.

Overview: What is a construction timeline?

A construction timeline is what construction managers use to organize a project, breaking it down into individual tasks and milestones and then attaching dates and deadlines to each. The construction timeline provides a bird's-eye view of exactly what work will be done in a construction project and when.

A construction manager may tie individual milestones to certain workers, indicating they have the responsibility for ensuring that milestone is met. A construction manager may also tie resources to individual milestones, setting them aside so they are available for the completion of the task.

5 benefits of creating a construction timeline

A solid construction timeline process has deep and lasting impacts on your organization, many of which may not be immediately obvious. However, a timeline will noticeably improve how your business runs in five key areas.

1. Better organization

A construction timeline makes you better organized because you know when activities are taking place, what resources are necessary, how one task flows into the next, and much more.

A construction timeline serves as the basic structure for each project, and since projects are the lifeblood of any construction firm, it has a fundamental connection to how you are organized as a business.

2. Improved communication

A construction timeline keeps all stakeholders -- yourself, ownership, foremen, and anyone else with an interest in the project -- on the same page by clearly laying out the construction workflow, what tasks are to be done, when they are to take place, and who is responsible for what.

If any stakeholder is confused about what is going on in the project, you should be able to refer them to your fully fleshed-out construction timeline. If they still have questions, explore how you can make the timeline more comprehensive.

3. Fewer delays

If you've properly built out a construction timeline, you'll know what is in the realm of the possible in terms of deadlines. As a result, you'll set appropriate goals and avoid being overly optimistic with what you promise to your client.

This avoids delays that disrupt the project and put you in poor standing with your client.

4. Fewer cost increases

Disruptions to the schedule caused by overly optimistic deadlines also result in cost increases, as you must pay workers for more time and deal with all the other costs that come from a delay.

A bad timeline may also cause resources such as labor, materials, and equipment to be misallocated, resulting in your organization spending more than necessary.

A delay may also trigger a cost increase in the contract with the client. All these factors combine to make a good timeline a critical method of cost control in construction.

5. Better subcontractor management

A good construction timeline will make it easier to figure out where to slot in contractors, as well as communicate to contractors who are not familiar with the project exactly what is going on and how they fit in.

What to consider before creating a construction timeline

Both external and internal forces have a big impact on your construction timeline, and must be considered when you are in the process of putting one together. Here are four main things to consider when you are drafting your construction timeline.

1. Size and scope of a project

What your construction timeline will look like will differ drastically based on the size and the scope of the project.

A small project -- say, the construction of a deck on the side of an existing house -- may be a simple one- or two-person project (at least compared to building a house) that takes only a few days and a small amount of materials.

As a result, the timeline is pretty straightforward. But for big, expensive projects, you'll have a lot of complex, interlocking parts and a huge amount of resources to manage.

2. Resources

The availability of materials, labor, and other resources will also impact your construction timeline. If you haven't hired the necessary workers to do the masonry work, for example, you may need to delay that phase of the project by a few weeks until you are confident you will find workers to do it.

Or, if a supplier can't get a shipment of materials necessary for that project right away, you will also have to take that into account.

3. Weather

Weather is that big variable the construction companies have to deal with that most other industries don't. It's tough to determine how much buffer you should give the timeline for weather, but you can probably look back at past projects for guidance.

You can mitigate this by working Saturdays to make up for it, or by being flexible enough to shift the day's work to indoor projects.

4. Permits and regulations

Permits and regulations are a scheduling area that's easy to forget, but it can really throw a wrench in your project if you forget to include adequate time for, say, a permit to be approved by the county. Review all permits and regulations your project must adhere to and typical turnaround times before drafting your timeline.

4 best practices for creating construction timelines

It takes years in construction management to master timelines, and theories abound on the best ways to manage them. But whether you're talking about house construction or a sprawling combined retail and office project, these four best practices in particular will have the most impact.

1. Be thorough

Above all else, when you are putting together a timeline you must be thorough. If you leave off a task here and there, your milestones won't miss anything.

Your workers will spend time completing the task and find they are already a day behind schedule when they head to the next task, and the situation compounds itself with each unlisted task or unavailable resource as the project goes along.

2. Don't be too optimistic

Every construction manager is tempted to tell their clients they can get a certain phase done in 60 days when they know they've never gotten it done in less than 90 days.

You'll be tempted to convince yourself that this time you'll get it done in less than 60 days, only to find that the same things that forced you to take longer -- like subcontractor delays and not enough materials -- happen once again.

As they say, it's better to under-promise and over-deliver, so keep your client happy and give yourself plenty of buffer or "float" in your schedule.

3. Use daily reports to stay on track

A construction daily report tells you everything about what’s happening at the jobsite, including what was accomplished and how it compared with the project schedule. This is vital because it allows you to spot potential problems and delays, giving you time to make adjustments and get the entire project back on track.

4. Attach resources to milestones

It's no good to schedule foundation-laying for a certain day if you don't have the workers or resources available for the project.

By attaching the necessary labor, materials, and equipment to a phase of the construction on your timeline, you'll ensure that everything is available when it is needed. Don't forget to tag someone as responsible for ensuring that these resources are in place.

Construction software will help with timelines

Have no idea where to start with creating a timeline? That's the great thing about construction management software -- it already has powerful tools that can help you put a timeline together quickly and easily, all while ensuring you haven't forgotten anything.

Use software for your construction planning and scheduling, and you will find that your construction project management skills improve just from being better organized.

That way, whether you're drafting a project plan for building a house or just executing a contract for pouring a new sidewalk, you'll have the tools to finish the job on time and on budget.