Project Startup – Pre-Job Administrative Setup

You know, when I decided to become an engineer, I knew a few things:

–I was good at math

–I liked solving problems

–I enjoyed writing

–I wanted to have a stable career

I’d say, for the most part, I’ve been able to satisfy all of those criteria in 30 years of industry work.

We all got into engineering because we like solving problems. We like math. Numbers don’t scare us. We like being involved with building things. Big things. But let me ask you a question:

If your college adviser had told you that, by the mid-point of your engineering career, you’d be spending at least 75% of your time typing emails, filling out spreadsheets & pushing paper around your desk, would you have still sign up for this line of work?

Little did I know, at that time, that delusions of working in some sort of think tank, where ideas were captured, problems were created, reviewed, analyzed & solved, like some sort of black & white film of Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison cranking away in their laboratories, were far from reality. My life would soon become like a meeting with the Bob’s from “Office Space… ”

OK, so that’s not completely true. But construction administration sure has its days of “TPS reports.” Had I know then that much of my working life would be spent mired in paper, I might have thought seriously about taking a different career path….

For any of us who work in construction, the best days at work are the ones spent on the construction site: Observing, troubleshooting, planning, looking ahead, helping the labor force or people on our crew to keep the project moving. Having the ability to be involved with people who are working on a project, using my knowledge to solve issues with people who might not have the same depth of knowledge or critical thinking skills is, without a doubt, my favorite part of being a construction engineer.

But of course, life wouldn’t be what it is if we didn’t have challenges thrown in our way. And paperwork is definitely the “Necessary Evil” of construction. Like it or not, a series of articles on construction project set-up would not be complete if we didn’t take a look at the work associated with something most of us hate: Documentation.

In this article, I’ll try to carve out a out a path through the stacks of paperwork and try to bring some focused effort to getting some of the major administrative functions of the field office & the project started up.

Let’s Set the Tone for this Exercise

Whether you believe it or not, one thing about construction administration is true: No matter how well the construction process goes on your project, if your paperwork is tells a bad story, your job is unfortunately carries that badge.

Harsh? Yes. True? Also Yes. Sorry to be so blunt, but I’m always going to tell you what’s on my mind….

Look, no matter if you are working for a private client or a government agency, the paperwork defines you, your crew & your company. It needs to be of excellent quality. It needs to be accurate. It needs to be promptly done. It needs to solve issues, not make them.

Paperwork will make or break you. It will be your report card. It will be one of the key factors in how you, your crew & your company are known.

I’m not saying this for effect: It is true.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: We got into this line of work to build things. To be outside. To see a project develop.

We didn’t get into this industry because we like to spend the entire day stuck in a field office writing emails. Or initialing delivery tickets. Or stuffing file cabinets with seemingly unimportant reams of paper.

But, let me help frame your attitude: In construction, our paperwork IS OUR WORK PRODUCT. We don’t pour concrete or erect signs or plant trees, we administer projects. We coordinate. We process information. It’s what we do.

We need to strive to “build” our work product to the same high quality standards as we impress upon the contractors who we work with. The Contractors have quality standards for the things that they build: Smooth pavement and bridge decks, lighting & traffic signals, drainage systems. Construction engineers need to produce documentation & administer construction contracts that is of the same high quality as our contractor counterparts.

So as we embark on this dirt dive into paperwork, let’s keep that mindset. I guarantee that if you & your crew produce and administer your projects to a high quality, people up-the-chain will recognize you & your crew for it. Don’t think that they won’t….

Where Do We Start?

So if this is the first time you have had to get a field office & project paperwork set-up, you likely haven’t had to think of a lot of these items before. You have spent most of your time in the field dealing with construction inspection & documentation-type items, so you understand that aspect. But what other paperwork needs to be setup to get a job started?

Let’s dive in and start getting our field system setup.

1. Setup Your Paper Filing System

I’m sure your company or your client already has a numbering system – Go ahead & implement it. You (and your Documentation Engineer, if you are working with one…) will soon be inundated with paper. Get the file folders ready to go.

And if you don’t have a filing index system, hit me up with a comment (below) and I’ll send you a couple that I’ve used.

2. Setup Your Electronic Filing System

You will obviously be receiving hundreds of files electronically – Emails, shop drawings, certifications, cost estimates, etc. Develop a system for you and your crew to manage all of this information.

Now I have a confession to make: I’ve never done a really good job at setting up our crew’s network filing system. The jobs that I’ve worked on have used the “Wing It” approach – Everyone who had access to the network files just added file folders & headings at-will. There was no real organized, formatted means of keeping the electronic files, and everyone just tried to keep things organized. And it worked. We could always find things, but it wasn’t really consistent or efficient.

John Hubeny, who is our one of our company’s Documentation Engineers, implemented a systematic filing system for our current projects’ network files, which is much like our paper filing system. I really like this. It is a great way of keeping the electronic files organized. I clipped a screenshot from part of our file index to show you how he’s set it up:

3. Get Your Project Management System Setup

I’ll make the broad statement here: Most of us are working for either private clients or government agencies. Some of us will have access to some sort of project or construction management software system. If you are fortunate enough to be able to use a project management software package like Expedition or Proliance, of course, now is the time to get it setup. In the Chicago area where I work, various agencies have their own management systems that the RE crews must use.

There will be LOTS of pieces of information that you need to feed into these systems, so the sooner you get these systems up-and-running, the sooner you can start processing the pieces of information you’re receiving.

Here is a tickler list of items that you will be getting organized for your crew:

–Users & contact information

–Project & contract specific information

–Daily diary & weekly reporting

–Daily quantity entries, pay item reporting & pay estimate processing

–System backup requirements (who, when & how often)

–Contract drawings & addendum / drawing revisions – Have a plan in-place for logging & keeping track of your drawing revisions

–Shop drawing & submittals – Every submittal needs to be logged & tracked

–RFI’s – How are they entered, logged, navigated & tracked?

–Changes & Authorizations – What documents need to be in the system and how are they tracked?

Project management software packages have a lot of these items setup, so that takes a lot of leg work off of your To do list. Of course, if you are not so fortunate to have access to a system, all of these subject areas will need to have a means of getting data metrics logged & tracked. For you guys, you’ll need to start building those spreadsheets & tracking mechanisms sooner rather than later.

4. Get Your Field Books and Daily Activity Documentation Systems Setup

OK, I could spend an entire article on field books – For the purposes of brevity, I won’t. But, I will give you a few things to think about.

Every company, every agency & every field engineer has his/her own philosophy on the use of field books for recording progress documentation in the field. Whether your crew does 100% of its field documentation in field books or whether you use a combination of field books and paper is up to you & your company. I’ve seen all sorts of field documentation systems. Some work better than others. And they all have failure points as well.

I will tell you that I love field books. Neatly done, organized, complete field book entries are a great representation of the acumen of your field staff. They make the flow of information from the field to the office easy. And in the same breath, bad documentation is unacceptable. Keep your standards high. Demand excellence from your field staff.

I hate doing things twice. I hate transcribing information onto multiple forms. I hate wasting time & money on duplicate field entries. Write it down once. Calculated it once. Move on. I think that’s why I’m such a fan of field books being used for all of the field engineers’ documentation.

Since 1996, I have personally organized my field book entries the same way. I’ve posted a couple of examples below (Picture = 1000 words….):

Again, every company may (or may not…) have documentation standards that they follow. And most government agencies have some sort of criteria / format that they expect field staff to follow: That’s up to you. But no matter what, have a format and stick to it.

Make sure your entries maintain a high level of consistency. Legibility. Conciseness. Accuracy. Demand it of yourself & of your crew.

5. Make Sure You Have All the Documents You Are Supposed to Have

Most agencies have various forms of start-up checklists for what you should have on hand. Go ahead and do a double-check of what the client & designer have given you, and then, get your hands on what you don’t have:

–Plans & special provisions

–Standard specifications & drawings

–Engineer’s cost estimate / quantity derivations

–Electronic CADD / Microstation files

–ROW plats

–Utility relocation permits

–Agency permits (like Army Corps, Department of Natural Resources, Stormwater Management, etc.)

–Plan commitments

–Preconstruction meeting minutes

6. Get Your In-House Documentation Templates Prepared

You will likely have several pre-prepared templates already made-up for all sorts of documentation tasks. Now is the time to get these forms tailored to your specific client & project:
–Meeting sign in sheet

–Meeting minutes

–Transmittal Letter

–Construction Memo / Letters

–Field Orders / Contractor Directives

–Change Order / Authorization Log

–Back-up / Justifications Information for Changes & Authorizations

–Shop Drawing / Submittal Log

The more you can get formatted now, the sooner you’ll be able to start issuing & tracking information.

And speaking of tracking,

7. Implement Your Management System

In some previous articles (CLICK HERE TO REVIEW) I talked at-length about job issue tracking methods. By now, you’ve (hopefully…??) got your system up-and-running. Now you should be tailoring it to your specific project. Make sure you have a means setup to track:

–Job Costs & Change Orders

–Open Issues

–Internal Costs / Labor / Manpower Monitoring

–Force Account Expenditures / Budget vs. Actual

All of these metrics need to be managed & tracked. Come up with a system that works for you and implement it.

8. Get Your Key Contact Database Established

Spend some time getting your communication network logged into your management system. Having ready access to the people & entities who are involved with your project is a necessary function of an RE:

–Police / Fire / EMS / 911

–Local building managers

–IDOT / County / City / Expressway Maintenance Yards

–Village / Adjacent Municipalities / Public Works

–Utility Carriers





—-Other Public Utilities

9. Build Your Notification Schedule

Remember that all of the “Item 8 – Key Contacts” will, at some point, need to engage with various aspects of your project. How will you communicate with them? And more importantly, what sorts of time-frames will each of them require when you need assistance? For example:

–Emergency Communication Centers for Roadways – What do you need to communicate with them?

—-Accidents / Lane Closures

—-Police / EMS response protocols

–Roadway Landscaping & Maintenance Functions

—-Tree removal prior approvals, planting layout, pesticide / herbicide applications, tree limb & root pruning

–Electrical inspections & maintenance turnovers

—-Roadway lighting

—-Traffic signals (temporary & permanent, or signal head relocations during traffic stage changes)

–Railroad Crossings or Work Adjacent to Railroads

—-Government agencies involved with crossings

—-Railroad flagging provisions when work is adjacent to active rail lines

–Utility shutdowns

—-Village / Municipal services

—-Public Utility Companies

Let’s face it: This is a helluva list. There are a lot of items to get set-up. And getting things setup is part of being a Resident Engineer. Having an organized system provides direct insight as to the level of professionalism that you & your crew deliver to your client & the project. Set a high standard for your squad.

It begs repeating: You need to stay organized. Your crew, your boss, your client and anyone who is part of the construction project need to be able to send & receive information through your system. My advice: Keep it simple. Tackle each of these bullet points in a methodical effort. Strive to have a Top Line documentation system in-place before the project starts. Going into a job knowing you are organized will give you the ability to focus on problems & issues and not be weighed-down by document organization tasks….

In my next post, I’ll continue this list of administrative setup needs, but I’ll drill down into some specific items that might take a little extra detailed work to properly get set up.


  1. Very good in-detail information and very helpful to understand the concept for running the project competently, professionally and efficiently.
    good job…Keep it up…. Thank you.

    • Dakshay, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts – I’m humbled. I am always excited to hear about the content being helpful to the readers & that people are able to put some of it to good use – Cheers!!!

  2. When you said 1996, I laughed, as I still remember when you handed that field book example out and a voice saying “Im aware of that” followed by a puff of an unfiltered cigarette. I still fill my book out in that same way and when I show someone how to fill out a book, its in that same manner.

    On a side note, glad to see you had Express on a job. Next time we talk, Ive got some good installation stories from them to share.

    • Ah, Jim Siciliani – May he Rest In Peace….with an unfiltered smoke in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other…

      Good habits never have to be reinvented, just repeatedly executed, Brother! Glad something we did 20+ years ago rubbed off & actually stuck!!!

  3. Great Content. I will be giving your Project Startup articles to my PM’s. I am interested in your filing index system if you don’t mind sending an example.
    Thanks, Keep up the great work.

  4. Hi Bob,
    Hope this comment finds you well. It would be really helpful if you could set me up with the Index filing system.

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