ASK THE EXPERT
PMAer Natalie Robichaud, PE, PMP, LEED AP BD+C, MCPPO, is a multiskilled Project Manager with experience in a variety of locations and industries including science and technology, mixed-use development, high-end residential, and higher education projects. Starting out her journey with PMA in Boston, MA, Natalie now supports her US projects from London, England. In this interview, Natalie discusses her unique experience and the opportunities she sees in the UK construction/project management industry.
First off, what projects are you currently supporting?
I am mainly managing two projects with our Harvard University client. One is the North Allston Storm Drain Extension Project (NASDEP), a large infrastructure upgrade, and the other is the Phase 1 Roadways and Infrastructure for Harvard’s mixed-use development, the Enterprise Research Campus. I am also providing some project controls support for the West Elementary School project in Andover, MA. Additionally, I assist with MEP/FP drawing reviews for various projects in our OPM groups.
What is the time zone difference between London and Boston and how do you manage that with client expectations?
The time difference between London and Boston is 5 hours – I am 5 hours ahead. This usually means that I start work a bit later in the day and my workday extends into the evening. I shift my schedule around as needed to manage client expectations and meet any deadlines. The pros of this schedule in terms of work-life balance are that I get the mornings to myself to prioritize work, get organized, and catch up; the cons are that I sometimes lose my evenings, but luckily not every night of the week!
My clients have responded very well to my schedule. I have been working with my main client for a few years, so they are very flexible and understanding of the time change. They are also very accommodating of the entire team’s remote work schedules.
What are the biggest challenges to working remotely on construction projects?
One of the challenges, of course, is not being able to physically oversee the work, but all my remote projects have been in the pre-construction/design phase since relocating to London. I also participate in weekly construction logistics calls so that I can stay informed on progress and coordinate with any other projects close by. Fortunately, most construction sites now have cameras to monitor construction progress. As my projects move into construction in the coming year, I will probably liaison with a local colleague who will provide on-site daily supervision.
How have things changed now that most others work remotely as well?
I now actually feel more connected to my colleagues and clients now as most are working remotely and using video conferencing. Previously, I usually called into meetings without video, so it has been nice to see more faces and stay connected that way. I think people are starting to realize that project support in the construction industry can be successful in a remote capacity.
How do you stay connected to the rest of your project team?
We stay connected via all means of telecommunication including calls, texts, and video conferencing – Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, etc. Currently, most of the team is also communicating in this manner and probably will for several more months.
What is the construction industry like in the UK?
Here the construction industry is similar to the US. They do have different construction and contracting standards, but they mostly comprise the same information. I do see a lot more bespoke construction in the UK, as infrastructure and buildings tend to be very old, so standard sizes cannot be used as frequently. Many owners utilize developer firms to assist with OPM type work, so there is a great opportunity here locally for the services that PMA provides.
What kinds of CM/PM innovations do you see in the UK construction industry? How do they use BIM for construction projects?
I have personally seen a greater use of 3D mock-ups/printing in recent years during the conceptual/design phase for owners/developers to use. I also find that there is a preference for integrating sustainable initiatives and practices in the UK, possibly more so than the US. Here in the UK, the government established a £170M Transforming Construction challenge to promote innovation in construction. The goal is to improve the cost-effectiveness of the industry, reduce emissions, and increase construction efficiency.
Regarding BIM, they also use various BIM tools, such as Revit, to coordinate during the design and then streamline the shop drawing process during construction. The United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) has also provided funding to the industry to promote the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) with BIM to support on-site building operations.
Do you see any opportunities to work locally in London?
Absolutely, I do. In London specifically, construction is constant whether it is commercial or residential and buildings or infrastructure. I have found that there is not a huge presence of construction companies offering owner’s project management and project control services. I think there is an opportunity to tap into local clients and projects. The recent COVID-19 crisis has also resulted in several construction claims, and PMA is well versed in providing claims management support as well.
Do you have any advice for engineers and construction management professionals working remotely?
Establish a consistent line of communication with your clients. Work out the best processes that will serve all stakeholders. Set yourself up with the tools and programs you need to be successful and deliver the same level of service and product as if you were local. Always maintain a professional manner, even when working from home.