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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Contractors Do Whatever They Want

 This article I think is worth reading a few times over 
by Ron Roberts
Deviating from plans and specs is common practice. The only instance that I can imagine a contractor not deviating from plans and specs is Corps work.

There are two primary reasons contractors deviate from the approved work scope.

1.    The plans & specs are stupid, in error, in complete, or internally conflicting.
2.    Nobody is playing cop with the field crews.

Reason number one should be self-evident to anyone who has looked at plans and specs closely. They were getting bad back in 1994 when I walked away from an engineering firm. When I next laid eyes on them next in 2005 I about fell out of my chair laughing. They were ridiculously shoddy.

Architects and engineers throw details on drawings and requirements in specs just in case they are needed. Nine times out of ten, the details conflict with each other and / or they are completely inappropriate for the building being delivered.

I don't blame the designers for this sickening trend. It's driven by the fee reductions and the errors and omissions liability claims forced on them by owners.

Contractors are forced to use their best judgment or do whatever they want. Option number two is available as NO ONE WATCHES THEM.

Back in the day owners paid design teams to spend considerable time on site making sure the contractors built the job right. That doesn't happen much anymore. General contractors certainly aren't going to make sure their subs do their work by the letter of the law. GCs are more concerned with getting the job done quickly and getting out of there.

How about a brief sidetrack to discuss Corps of Engineers work?

If you've never worked on a corps job before, be forewarned: price the job in exact accordance with the plans and specs. You will be held to them. They will not grant relief. They will watch your crews hour after hour. 

This came as a complete surprise to a friend of mine. His estimator didn't submit detailed exclusions in his proposal to the GC, and worse yet, didn't closely check the contract to make sure the exclusions he did submit were reflected properly in the contract. My buddy wanted to blame the GC but I pointed out that it was his own estimator who blew it. They were suffering significant cost meeting the Corps' nearly insane requirements.

The trigger for this newsletter about contractors who fail to perform at the supposedly required quality level came from contractor gripes about formerly loyal customers who are suddenly giving contracts to much lower priced competitors who will not perform the work at anywhere near the customer's past expectations.

We advised these contractors to get proactive and approach every client who hadn't decided who to hire yet and have an open and honest discussion with them about the trade-offs between quality and cost. 

That is a bit of difficult discussion to have. Your goal is to convince your client that they can't have their cake and eat it too. If someone comes in with a substantially lower price, they are cutting corners somehow. If your customer is under a strict and reduced budget, better to go with someone they know they can trust and reduce the work scope than to let them believe they are getting a great deal only to find out later that their new contractor didn't deliver on his hollow promises.

Don't let the conversation devolve into a slamming your competition rant. The aim of the conversation is to help you customers make better buying decisions in light of their budget constraints.

As we all know, the risk of cutting corners depends greatly on the service you provide. Quality gaps in certain types of work are readily apparent to anyone such as with interior painting. Quality gaps in work that gets covered up are easy to hide. Pretty much, unless they cause a problem that shows up before the end of warranty, the contractor gets off scot-free.

We would also like to point out that many contractors don't deliver poor service intentionally. They do it because they do not have adequate quality control processes in place. They put too much faith in the wrong foremen.

Crews cut corners for dozens of reasons. The most common are: the don't understand the drawings or specs; they are under intense pressure to speed up; they think they know a better way to build; or they are insufficiently trained.

I'll share a couple of personal stories then wrap up with a simple moral.

As you may remember, for a couple of years I worked as an Owner's Representative keeping an eye on the contractors who were building a large prison. Our team was on site every day, all day. Despite the presence of four of us constantly looking over their shoulders, several contractors kept trying to cut corners. More than a few probably got away with it too. The four of us couldn't be everywhere at all times on a 40 acre, 16 building site.

However we did catch several cutting corners and forced them to redo A LOT of work. We had electricians that couldn't get their underground conduit in the right place. Masons who continually left out the wire mesh grid that was required at corners and every few courses. A site prep contractor who kept trying to tell us the ground was suitably prepared yet it couldn't pass our tests. This went on and on, day in and day out, for two years.

The amount of corner cutting that occurs on regular jobs must be staggering. If you have professional pride, approach your projects the right way.

1.    Point out drawing problems to the GC and design teams before you get on site.
2.    Make sure your field team understands the construction requirements.
3.    Periodically check on your field crews. Don't warn them you're coming.
4.    Help you clients make informed decisions. Help them select an appropriate volume and quality of work that for budget.

The moral of the story?

Quality is a moving target unless someone in the know is keeping an eye on things.
In closing we try and follow three sets of rules, our wives', the Ten Commandments,  and "The 10 Biggest Mistakes Contractors Make". Let us help you master your business. Help is just a phone call away!

Wishing you great success in 2012.

Guy and Ron

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P.P.S.  Questions or comments? You can reach
Guy at 773-870-6500 or Ron at 913-961-1790.

The Contractors Best Practices Newsletter is written
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