October 19, 2017

My Days at O&G: Lorel Purcell

“My Days at O&G”: profiles employees around the company working at unusual jobs every day

You could say Lorel Purcell is a construction first responder. When the Building Division is selected to manage a construction project, it’s on her shoulders as the Division’s sole pre-construction manager to chart a course for the work for years to come. “I’m involved in setting up the degree to which the project will succeed,” she says, “which I think is why not too many people want to do what I do.”

Every strategic decision Purcell makes carries through the duration of a job. It’s a responsibility that draws on her field experience and intuition, requiring a tough hide as well. “You’ve got to be able to live with the fact that you can’t get every detail right every time,” she says. “I try to catch everything but I’m not perfect – and I can work with that.”

Back in her days as a project manager she found herself critiquing plans. “I’d say, ‘We should know better, we’re experts.’ I didn’t understand how there could be a weak instruction or how we’d miss something. Now,” she says with a sardonic grin, “I get to be the one to try to plug holes and take the blame for missing the obvious.”

Purcell was hired as a project engineer in 2000. For eight years before she had worked a short stint at a desk in Manhattan (“Got so I couldn’t stand being in the city….”) and then at West Point, out on job sites around the campus, which better suited her. Both assignments were for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Though she was hired as a project engineer, the same job title under which she had worked at the Corps, Purcell quickly understood that “project engineer” could mean different things in different organizations. She told her boss, Reece Hoben, “I’m being wasted here, just so you know,” and he moved her to project management, doing the things she’d trained in the Corps to do. Five years in the field later, in 2005, Purcell became a “precon” manager.

The position is a tight fit to her skill set and temperament. She’s hyper-organized. She loves the calculations and detail and can handle the pressure. She is skillful at creative problem discovery – scouring plans to anticipate what could go wrong in building a job and solving it before it even happens. Purcell isn’t intimidated in meetings where she is often the only woman present. “In those situations I just don’t think about female or male,” she matter-of-factly states. “I’ve just never acknowledged that someone might have a problem with it. I have a degree like other people, I’m licensed like other people, what difference does it make if you really stop to think about it.”

Purcell works with the design team (the architect and mechanical/electrical/ plumbing consultants) and the owner’s representatives during preconstruction planning. Municipal and private owners hire O&G to manage the construction and be their expert advocate. Purcell guards their interests as she determines how best to build the building, how to pull the most effective schedule together, how to assign the work. “You have to follow up on every minor detail, because even a single comma matters in the meaning of a paragraph.”

One of her most important tasks is seeing that the design stays on budget. Another is tracking design progress against the schedule. Both are essential to getting work off on the right footing.

As pre-construction manager, she and the project executive are the faces clients first associate with their O&G experience. It’s here that the soft skills in Purcell’s repertoire come into play: walking uninitiated owners through a maze of details, anticipating and answering questions in “non-engineer” language, and being on call whenever client concerns arise. When her work is done and the contract is ready to transition into actual construction, the hand-off can be intimidating for those clients who feel as if their lifeline is being cut. Again, Purcell’s ability to smooth the rough edges helps make the difference between a frantic and a satisfied, confident client.

For the last several years she has been invited to speak to construction management underclassmen at Central Connecticut State University. It’s not the technical elements of project management and pre-construction she dwells on, it’s those soft skills. “I tell the students that the secret to managing a project successfully is effective communication – ‘Did everyone hear and understand what you just said?’ – and satisfying the client. We live in a very small state. Owners know each other and they talk. You are the face of your firm on a project. If you do a solid job, that client will endorse you and your firm to future clients.” Point taken.