In my experience, most construction problems result from differing expectations on the part of the owner and contractor – or architect if one if involved. Conflicts can be about the work itself, such as the size or location of a window or entire room (“That’s not what I thought it was going to look like”) , or conflicts can arise over project management issues, such as change orders, payment schedules, or other issues, usually involving money. In remodeling jobs, tensions can arise over how the work is affecting the household – kids, pets, music, dust, and bathroom use are a few common concerns. Discovering that the backhoe operator has run over your prized flower garden is a bad way to start out a job.
The source of these conflicts is usually poor communication, not bad intentions. Before anyone starts digging or hammering is the best time to clarify anything that is unclear in the plans or specs, and to identify and reconcile any potential job-site conflicts. That’s why every job should begin with a preconstruction meeting – a few days to a week before work begins. The meeting helps both the owner and contractor, as neither party benefits from a surprises or conflicts that arise during the work.
Everyone with direct responsibility for job decisions should attend. This should include both spouses, even if only is involved in planning the job. It may also include the:
- General Contractor
- Production manager
- Job Superintendent /foreman/lead carpenter
Some contractors do this as a matter of course. If not, you may have to initiate the meeting. It is especially important when you are working with a larger company with multiple crews. The person who helped you plan the job and estimated the work may not be around during the construction phase. In that case, the boss, salesperson, or estimator has to pass the baton to the person running the job – that might be the production manager, superintendent, lead carpenter, or job foreman, depending on the size and organization of the company. Just like the kids’ game of post office, a lot can be lost in relaying the message from person A to B to C.
It’s important that you are meeting with the chief decision maker – often the company owner or partner – as well as the person who will be on-site every day running the job. In a small company that may be one and the same person. If either case, come to the meeting with a positive attitude of “what can I do to make the job go more smoothly” and there’s a good chance the contractor will respond in kind.
You may have been asked to come to the meeting with certain product or color selections, especially special-order materials that might have a long lead time. If your contractor is well-organized, he will have given you a list of selections to be made, deadlines for each decision, and a list of preferred vendors to work with. It’s important that you make these selections on time as lead times can be quite long on some special-order items and delaying the order could delay the whole job. You may get additional “homework” from the contractor at the meeting.
In addition to homework assigned by the contractor, you should prepare your own list of questions and concerns. These fall roughly in a few main categories:
- The contract
- The design
- The job site
- Remodeling issues
The Contract. Carefully read though the contract carefully prior to this meeting, highlighting anything that is unclear. You may have questions about payment procedures, change orders, or any of the key contract clauses that guide the business relationship between you and the contractor. What exactly does “substantial completion” mean? What types of changes will trigger a change order?
This is also a good time to review the job schedule: when will the job start and when will it end? Is the contractor currently on schedule? Any factors that might delay the job such as poor weather or special-order items?
Is the payment schedule clear? Are progress payments tied to tangible benchmarks such as “completion of rough framing”? For the owner, it’s better to tie payments to completion of a job phase rather than the start of a new phase.
Still unclear about exactly what is included – and excluded – from the bid. Better to find out now than be surprised later? Ask if the contractor anticipates any possible cost overruns – and what you can do to limit or prevent these.
The design. While you may have labored over the design for months, tweaking this and adjusting that, you may not be 100% clear on what is in the final set of “working drawings” which will guide the construction. These may be a clean set of plans with any changes or revisions included, it or may be a set that has been heavily marked up by the contractor.
In either case, make sure that this set of working drawings or “as-built” plans reflects your final decisions. If you’ve been going back and forth on whether to add a second skylight, install an oversized tub, expand the deck size, or whatever, make sure that your final decision is reflected in the plans, specs, and job price. If you still want to move a closet or window, or make a bathroom a little bigger, make the adjustment now – when it involves moving a line, not a wall.
Also, this is the time to communicate (or most likely re-communicate) any design or construction details that are of special importance to you. For example, is it important that the large round-top window be centered over the new kitchen sink – or that the new skylight be centered over the stairwell? Is it important that the linen closet be wide enough to fit your vacuum cleaner and a laundry bag.
Often a few inches can make a big difference to the usability of a space, but construction drawings often lack this level of precision unless you make the point and the contractor adds a written note. Focus on the details that are most important to you. Remember, no job is perfect or perfectly matches the written plan. But the contractor can pay special attention to the issues that are most important to you – if you communicate these. These might include:
- Molding profiles – you should see a sample so you’re not surprised
- Trim details around doors and windows, such as window sill treatment (see a sample if possible)
- Ceiling heights in rooms with dormers or sloped ceilings
- Heights of counters, vanities, closet poles, and shelving. A family of 6 footers might want something different than 5 footers.
- Details for stair railings and newels
- Pains, stains, and clear finishes – glossy, semi-gloss, eggshell, flat? Are stains solid, semi-solid, or semi-transparent? Water-based or oil?
- Usable, interior sizes of closets, showers, and tubs, sinks, etc. Published specs don’t always tell the whole story.
- The layout of ceramic tiles and the treatment of corners and edges, such as baseboards.
- How new work will patch and match to existing in remodels
- Energy details – Do you want everything as tight and well-insulated as possible?
By now, you should be familiar with all finish materials being used on the job. If not, make sure you see a sample and approve the color, texture, and composition of the material.
The job site. You should have discussed this earlier, but now is a good time to review the contractors job-site policies and procedures? Who will run the job day-to-day. What time does the workday start and end? What potential dangers does the job create and what safety efforts are made to keep kids and others from wandering around the project and getting hurt?
It’s a good idea to make regular visits to the job site to make sure things are progressing smoothly and the building is coming together as you imagined. Ask when you should make these visits and who to contact with and questions or concerns.
A well-run company maintains a clean job site without a lot of construction debris and equipment strewn about. A messy job site is dangerous to workers and visitors. If things don’t look right, speak up.
Remodeling issues. In remodeling projects, the line between your living quarters and the job-site is blurred. In some cases, like an addition, the work can be segregated from the main living areas. In others, like a kitchen remodel, you may have carpenters showing up while you’re running around in your nighties, creating a host of potential problems. Some contractors have clear policies about what is and isn’t permitted, while others may need some guidance from you. Some key issues are:
- Dust and debris – Demolition generates vast quantities of dust and debris, and construction creates a lot of sawdust and material scraps. How does the contractor plan to keep dust and dirt out of the main living area? How will the contractor manage daily cleanup, storage, and disposal of wastes.
- Damage by workers – What is the potential for damage to your home, inside and out, from workers and equipment? If workers need to move people and materials over interior spaces, what will be done to protect floors and finishes? Will trucks and equipment damage the yard, plantings, walkways, or the driveway? Might the new work cause cracks or nail pops in existing plaster or drywall? What will be done to protect your property and who will pay for necessary repairs?
- Cutting and patching – Will there need to be cuts into existing walls and ceilings, outside the main work area, to run new plumbing, wiring, or ductwork? Or to add extra framing members for support? Will all this be repaired at no extra charge? How about patching and painting to match the existing finishes?
- Tool and material storage – Where will tools and materials be stored? Any safety or security issues?
- Pets – Any issues with pets barking, biting, escaping, etc.? Now’s the time to discuss this and work out mutually acceptable solutions.
- Bathrooms – Are the workers welcome in one or all or your bathrooms? Or is a porta-potty in order?
- Music – Are the workers planning on listening to Led Zeppelin at 100 decibels – and do you have a problem with that? Discuss the company’s policies and your needs.
- Smoking – What are the company’s policies and your family’s needs?
- Dangers – Any special dangers you and your family – especially kids, should be aware of and what precautions are being taken. A foundation hole or partially built home or addition are attractive to kids and very dangerous. In fact, the law calls such places an attractive nuisance, and may hold you liable for injuries to children who trespass and hurt themselves
- Security – Will a chunk of wall be open overnight and what security measures will be taken? Does your home have a security system? If so, how will workers enter and exit without setting off alarms?
- Kitchen and bath interruptions – Will you not have use of these spaces for a period of time? Try to nail down the specifics and minimize the downtime.
- Electrical – Will there be interruptions of electrical power? Will this be an issue for your computers and home electronics?
- Match existing – This is discussed in the section on contracts. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to view samples of colors, tiles, moldings, etc., to see if they match well enough.
- Landscaping – If the job involved excavation or damage to existing lawns and gardens, in what condition will they left? Rough grading only? Finish grade with grass seed? Sodding?
Depending on the size of the job, you may want to arrange for additional job-site meetings on a regular schedule. This provides a good opportunity for two-way discussions of any issues that arose during the week or are anticipated during the week ahead. It can be very brief, and if nothing else, is a good time to bring the crew some coffee and build goodwill.
If the job site is your home, a quick Monday morning meeting with the key people running the job (for example, the owner and foreman) may be a good idea. That gives you time over the weekend to inspect the work, review the plans if necessary, discuss any concerns with your spouse or architect, and communicate any questions or concerns before work begins the following week.
A meeting in the builder’s office may also suffice, but is less effective. Since the focus at this point is the work in progress, there is no substitute for being on the jobsite.
Otherwise, discuss with the company owner how it is best to communicate during the course of the job. Some things can wait until the next meeting; others need to be addressed right away. Some issues (a cracked piece of siding) can be handled by the people on the job site; others (the wrong color siding) may need to go higher up the chain of command.
Make sure you know whom to speak to and how to reach them. And make sure you have access to the people with the authority to address your concerns. However, always be respectful and choose your battles carefully. Your project will be more successful if you remain team members working together rather than fighting over every detail.
If an item is not that important, let it go. If it merits a discussion, bring it up and work cooperatively to find a mutually agreeable solution. Working it out mutually is cheaper, better, and faster than escalating the conflict by bringing in outside experts and lawyers. However, if all else fails, see the section on Dispute Resolution.