Meeting the construction deadline for any project can be a challenge. The stakes can be even higher when the project is a complex multi-use housing development. That’s why builders must plan for the unexpected — something PCL Construction does on every project.

But while builders can plan for the unexpected, planning for the unprecedented is a different challenge altogether. Era, by Minto Communities, is a multi-family community development near downtown Calgary’s Bridgeland neighborhood. The project faced not one but two unprecedented challenges during construction: complications around the project delivery method and, more unexpectedly, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet by 2023, the Era development had been completed on time and on budget — in fact, PCL even saved the client millions of dollars over the course of the project. What was the key to success? Both PCL and the client, Minto Communities, knew that relationship building would be as important as the construction itself. And today, Era — with its skyline views, modern amenities and sustainable building performance — is proof this philosophy gets results.

The Minto Group was founded in 1955 and is one of Canada’s premier sustainable real estate developers. PCL’s partnership with Minto Communities, a home-building division of the Minto Group, began in 2019, on a project that preceded Era, called The Annex. It was Minto’s entrance into the Calgary market, and through a proposal solicitation process, the company selected PCL as the project’s general contractor.

The Annex, completed in 2021, was a success: located in the Kensington community just north of the Bow River, the building was Alberta's first LEED Gold-certified multifamily midrise. This experience set the stage for continuing the partnership with PCL. The developer had acquired some undeveloped property northeast of downtown Calgary, and in 2019, development began moving forward. Minto commissioned a multi-structure mixed-use development design with 220 total suites for the site, which would become Era.

The timing and design were both validated by the market. “We sold most of the units before we moved forward with development,” says Patrick Mosca, director of construction for the Minto Communities - Canada, “so there was a contractual commitment on the delivery date in late 2022.” To help it meet that deadline, Minto once again chose PCL as a general contractor.

“Minto wanted to do a traditional lump-sum project of design-bid-build,” says Mitch MacMaster, PCL’s project manager for the job. “It eventually became clear that the full design wouldn’t be complete in time for us to tender and award every scope to meet the deadline.”

It’s not unusual, MacMaster explains, for work on a construction project to begin before all aspects of design are totally complete. But it’s not often done on lump-sum projects because changes in design almost always impact a building’s final price tag. To manage the uncertainty and meet the deadline, PCL and Minto worked closely to break the project into discrete chunks of work called scope packages. “As pieces of design were completed, we would tender them out and complete the work,” MacMaster says.

PCL’s early involvement aided this process in the project. Minto engaged PCL as the pre-construction manager early in the concept design phase, allowing MacMaster and his team to work with the client and find ways to modify the design and build process to save money, time, or both. “We worked through a lot of different concepts, from a very high level down to quite detailed scopes, doing cost-benefit analysis for each of them,” says MacMaster.

This analysis covered everything from the number of levels in the project’s parkade to the types of countertops in the individual suites. It saved the client $2 million in sum.

“One swap that stands out for me is the building envelope,” says MacMaster. “We found a different metal panel that was really similar to the original proposed material. The savings was close to half a million dollars. It was also more readily available at the time.”

That last point also addressed the second major challenge connected with the project’s firm deadline: the coronavirus pandemic.

The effects of COVID-19 touched every part of the project. Client meetings were moved to Microsoft Teams. On-site safety protocols like masks, new cleaning schedules, and COVID questionnaires were instituted.

As the pandemic disrupted and, in some cases, broke global supply chains, sourcing materials needed for Era became much harder.

“It was a wild time,” says MacMaster. “Early on, we had procurement-specific reviews with each of our trade contractors. We also relied heavily on early procurement plans and off-site storage. We’d find a location to store products before we actually needed them, removing market uncertainty whenever possible. We did this with many different parts of the project, including the lumber.”

Another notable change was using prefabricated wood walls, in part, to address the shortage of framers. This ended up saving a significant amount of time. PCL and Minto also worked together to identify more material swaps that could be made to work around unexpected shortages without compromising the project’s schedule or build quality. “Minto’s team was so knowledgeable of the market,” MacMaster says. “They had a great understanding of the challenges the suppliers were facing and were very good to work with.”

In the end, Minto, PCL, and the consultant team worked together to solve dozens of material and equipment availability challenges and even saved the client an additional $500,000 in the process.

Era stands out for these reasons and more. Like all Minto projects, it is targeting LEED certification. Mosca expects the project to garner either silver or gold status.

“Our commitment to sustainability comes from our ownership group,” Mosca says. “It’s critical for us and, in our view, for everybody to push towards a net zero built form.”

“It’s really progressive thinking from them, especially as a private developer,” MacMaster says. “Many pieces are required to achieve LEED, from design to construction to procurement. We had to keep it in the back of our mind for every project stage.”

Targeting LEED certification required more close work between Minto and PCL. Both MacMaster and Mosca cite the relationship between the businesses as a key factor in the successful build of the Era.

“I’ve been in the business so long that I know all the little things that go on that could be construed as pulling a fast one,” says Mosca. “We didn’t see any of that with PCL. They were transparent, honest, open. And, honestly, you develop friendships after working together for three years.”

Now, with Era completed and providing homes for Calgarians, it is a testament to the power of strong partnerships to deliver excellence — especially when the challenges are unprecedented.