Rich Refvem - VP of preconstruction at Baldwin General Contracting

Inside Baldwin General Contracting: A Q&A with Rich Refvem (VP of Preconstruction)

In this on-going Q&A series, go Inside Baldwin General Contracting to get a closer look at the dedication and attention to detail that goes into each individual project, while also recognizing the talented individuals – Project Managers, Project Engineers, and fellow staff members – who have helped build Baldwin General into an industry leader throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Today, we take time to catch-up with Rich Refvem (VP of Preconstruction). Born in San Mateo, California and raised in Portola Valley, Rich lived in Redwood City until moving to Oregon in 1993. Thirty years later and Rich has gone from growing up on job sites around the Bay Area with his dad, to working in the construction business as a Project Manager, Estimator, and now as Baldwin’s VP of Preconstruction.

Yet it’s those young days working alongside his dad and learning the ropes that has provided life-long lessons that Rich reflects on fondly.

“I still feel a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from stepping up to find and implement solutions when obstacles pop up,” Rich said.

“Success in construction doesn’t come from hitting a grand slam or scoring a touchdown. It comes from identifying problems in advance and navigating around them without slowing down the job or incurring extra costs. Preconstruction is where projects are born.”

Rich takes us Inside Baldwin by shedding light on the preconsturction process, his leadership style, thoughts on what makes for a strong estimator, and what he’s most proud of during his last two-and-a-half years working with Baldwin.

One thing is for sure: After all of these years in the construction business, Rich remains focused on setting projects up for success.

Rich Refvem, First Grade growing up

It’s always interesting to hear from people who have lengthy careers in the construction business. How did you get your start in the industry and what keeps you motivated today as a VP of Preconstruction?

Since my first memories, my dad was a residential homebuilder and remodeler. Almost all his projects were custom designed by one of a handful of architects he routinely worked with. From an early age (Rich pictured above, second row – second from the right), I loved going with my dad to job sites. At about 12-years-old, I would work weekends and all summer, cleaning-up jobsites, packing lumber, digging ditches, and other physical tasks. When I was 13, we split our property and built our new family home. Just as we got started, the concrete ready-mix drivers went on strike. Everybody expected it to be a long strike, so my dad decided we would make our own concrete on site. I manned the mixer while an army of guys with wheelbarrows moved the mixed concrete. My job was to shovel the sand, gravel, and cement into the mixer and count the shovelfuls of each to ensure every load was mixed correctly. It was a large house with a huge retaining wall, so placing the concrete took a couple of weeks.

I still feel a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from stepping up to find and implement solutions when obstacles pop up. Success in construction doesn’t come from hitting a grand slam or scoring a touchdown. It comes from identifying problems in advance and navigating around them without slowing down the job or incurring extra costs. Preconstruction is where projects are born. The estimating process consists of developing an understanding of the project, identifying the materials and trades it requires, determining the optimal sequencing and duration of the work involved, and pulling together a multitude of separate prices for small portions of the project to create an overall project estimate. Although it’s impossible to plan for most unexpected obstacles, a good estimate anticipates and accommodates for each project’s challenges. I’m drawn to estimating because it gives me the opportunity to use my lifetime of construction experience to set projects up for success.

Graduating from the University of Washington with a BS in Building Construction, what’s something you take from that experience that you still apply to your role with Baldwin?

To be honest, I forgot most of what I learned in college. I’ve always believed that what college really teaches you is how to successfully deal with bureaucracy. There’s no substitute for on-the-job experience. I still don’t understand how high school kids can be expected to know what they want to do with their lives or what they want to major in at college without real world experience. If there’s one part of my college curriculum that I still benefit from, it’s the engineering classes. The formulas have faded over time, but understanding how math and physics control building designs never ceases to be useful. 

What are some key points that you feel make for a strong VP of Preconstruction?

Imagine writing a reference book on a subject you know nothing about. Anybody who reads and follows the haphazard advice in your book is not going to find success. Likewise, a good estimate requires experience and knowledge of every aspect of the project. A good estimator has that experience, and possesses the self-awareness and humility to seek out the expert  knowledge of others in cases where his or her own is insufficient.

Looked upon as a leader in the company, how do you describe your leadership style? What makes a good leader in your eyes?

The basic premise of my approach to managing is that employees want to contribute and want to see their personal efforts contribute to the success of the company. Inner motivation cannot be forced, but it can be nurtured. My goal as a leader is to provide opportunities for fellow employees grow, with assignments that will challenge their present abilities or result in tangible success or failure. A key to success is to keep a watchful eye, provide guidance when needed, and prioritize my availability as an information resource. Fostering self-motivation helps my co-workers increase their skills quickly, enhances their job satisfaction, and enables me to spend more time planning ahead and focusing on big picture issues.


What’s included in preconstruction services?

Preconstruction services include early-stage budgeting, preparation of multi-staged estimates in conjunction with design development, constructability reviews, competitive estimating, and negotiated estimating. Preconstruction services also involve property and building code research, permit status investigations, and research on material costs and availability. A critically important function of Preconstruction Services is to ensure that Baldwin General Contracting, Inc. maintains communication with potential and returning clients to ensure they don’t need to look elsewhere for their needs to be met.      

Open communication between GCs and subs seems to remain a focus of importance. Is that the key to effective preconstruction collaboration?

If you request bids from 10 contractors or subcontractors, you’ll get ten different bid amounts. That’s because every bidder has different labor costs and productivity. Their material and equipment costs usually vary too. And bidders have different travel requirements, insurance costs, overhead, etc…  Most importantly, every bidder has a unique interpretation of the design and the scope and volume of work required in their trade. Typically, the better and more complete the design, the closer the range of bid amounts will be.

To formulate a solid estimate, the estimator must ensure that in each trade, every subcontractor bidder or material bidder includes the same scope and volume of work. On every project, the Preconstruction Dept. analyzes the design documents and determines the clarity of the information provided. Instructions are formulated in each trade, as necessary to ensure variables in the scope and volume of work covered by comparable bids are minimized.

Rich Fefvem - Quote on preconstruction

How has technology affected preconstruction services?

In the five decades I’ve been estimating, and at the several companies where I’ve worked, a simple spreadsheet app has always been used to compile estimates. Besides a high level personal communication and plan review, not a lot else is required to assemble a first rate estimate. We constantly receive emails from companies that have “the best” estimating system. Invariably, those systems are designed to enable estimators to bid more work with less effort.

Unfortunately, less time means less personal understanding of projects, greater chances of errors and omissions, and lost opportunity to develop strategies for lowering estimated costs. There is no substitute for taking the time to study plans and specs and comprehend every aspect of every project we bid, and to communicate with subcontractors and suppliers to ensure we receive comparable and competitive bids.   

Going on nearly three years with Baldwin, what are you most proud of during your time when it comes to projects you’ve been part of?

Actually, it’s two-and-a-half years as of October 5th. I take the most pride in bringing a high level of accuracy, detail, and completeness to our estimates. As I said before, success in construction doesn’t come from hitting grand slams, it comes from avoiding delays and cost overruns from the constant barrage of issues and challenges that face every project. Reasonable profit is built into every estimate. Completing projects on time and on budget is project success.  Our focus on thinking projects through and making sure our estimates are complete sets projects up for maximum success. From what I’m told, the quality of our company’s estimates has never been higher.

What do you feel sets Baldwin apart from other general contractors in the industry?

Yohn’s personal involvement in every project, from beginning to end, sets us apart from other contractors of our size. His involvement ensures that clients can go right to the top to discuss their projects. While that level of involvement isn’t usually required, our clients can rest assured that the person with whom the buck stops is standing behind every project we take on.   

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