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What’s the Hard Part?

Small projects, big problems.

It was a simple enough job: Demolish 200,000 square feet of office space and rebuild it to the standards of another building on the campus of a major semiconductor manufacturer. The year was 1993. DPR was already earning a reputation as a different breed of construction company. This $5 million project seemed like a layup — and a great chance for DPR to make an impression on a high-profile client.

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It quickly became the Project from Hell. “We were felled by the easiest building of all,” marvels cofounder Peter Nosler. “We treated this project as a simple renovation and build-out. In fact, it was a highly complex project that begged for more detailed planning than we gave it.” That’s the hard part — treating all of your projects with the same diligence and discipline as you devote to your most glamorous ones. There are no easy assignments.

During the demolition phase, for example, DPR’s team discovered a low-voltage power-distribution system that it hadn’t anticipated. Demolishing the system cost $20,000, for which there was no allowance in the budget. DPR ate that cost.

Other problems were political. Sure, the “owner” of the project was a single organization. But like most companies, this one was composed of various factions, each of which had a different goal for the space. “We went through five or six iterations. We had virtually no time to make those changes and still meet the completion date.”

DPR finished two weeks late and 17% over budget. It was, for many construction companies, a perfectly normal outcome. “But for us, it was a D-minus effort,” Nosler says.

DPR didn’t blame the client. It blamed itself for not listening carefully and for not asking the right questions. Indeed, as result of the project, DPR instituted review sessions designed to search for differences of opinion within a client company. “There was an assault on the general topic of listening to customers,” says Nosler.

DPR also learned how to talk with customers — even unhappy ones. “The client recognized that even though we made a lot of mistakes, we stood behind our commitments,” says Nosler.

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Which didn’t mean that this company was eager to work with DPR again. “For three years,” Nosler says, “we knocked on that company’s door and said that we’d learned our lesson, that we would do things differently.” DPR finally got a second chance — and has completed $200 million worth of construction for this client.

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