A fundamental problem in mass-production tract-housing construction today is that many owners and managers of large development companies are more familiar with marketing and sales rather than building construction.
The master builder of the past, who knew business, design, and construction from the ground up…has been replaced by MBAs and CPAs whose expertise is in acquiring land, sales-pitching projects to investors, and securing financing.
The corporate office is often comprised of people who have never poured a yard of concrete or hammered a 16-penny nail. This lack of hands-on experience creates a technical leadership vacuum at the top of the housing development company.
Thus the entrepreneurial energy and creativity that could go into innovating faster, better, and less expensive methods of construction is channeled almost entirely into financing, marketing, and architectural refinements. Housing construction has therefore remained virtually unchanged for the past 40 years.
Architectural styles, structural designs, building codes, fixtures, and appliances have all improved…but houses are still being assembled using the same methods and techniques that existed when I started my career in construction 45 years ago.
Housing development company managers who do not have a construction background do not know where to begin to initiate changes that would be beneficial to building construction. Development company owners and managers with backgrounds in real estate, finance, law, and accounting seldom promote innovation in the technical area of the business because they do not understand or are not interested in the nuts-and-bolts details of building construction.
This lack of construction experience in the management of large housing development companies is not pointed out here merely for the sake of being critical. Instead, it underscores a deeper problem that exists throughout the housing construction industry. When housing development company owners and managers consciously or unconsciously distance themselves from the technical side of their business…and concentrate solely on finance, marketing, and architecture…the construction operations in the field suffer.
The major obstacle to improving housing construction is that housing development company owners and managers do not realize that they are the key players to start the improvement process.
MBAs, CPAs, and real estate people should not be expected to have the technical knowledge and practical field experience to analyze the construction…but they are in positions that can commit and allocate the time and resources necessary…for more effective and extensive construction analysis and debugging.
This section covers in-house sources of information that can be used to identify a particular company’s construction problems and mistakes. These sources include:
- punch lists
- inspection cards
- red-lined plans
- requests for information (RFIs)
- subcontractor extras
- homebuyer walkthrough sheets
- customer service complaint letters
Jobsite archive records for previous projects are sometimes not even kept…much less analyzed, condensed, and organized to be made available to project managers and superintendents starting new multi-unit tract housing or condominium projects.
This lack of lessons-learned information transfer is a lost opportunity because if past design and construction issues are not provided for new and future projects…then each new project must be individually analyzed and debugged from scratch…as if past history did not exist and the construction company was a new start-up company building its first project.
The new project superintendent cannot collect this past document information or allocate time for constructability analysis using this information…for pre-planning and proactive debugging before the start of the actual construction.
The only people who can collect this design and construction information on an on-going basis…and budget the time for upfront planning and analysis for proactive mistake prevention…are the company owners and managers. If company owners and managers do not see the need to debug the construction on a project-by-project basis…using lessons learned on previous projects…this opportunity task will simply not get done.
This topic of discussion illustrates the differences between housing construction and other types of manufacturing.
Housing development company owners and managers unfamiliar with building construction incorrectly assume that housing construction is so similar and repetitive that it was thoroughly debugged sometime decades ago in the distant past…as a single assembly-line process is initially debugged. They further assume that the benefits of this already accomplished industry-wide debugging are new common knowledge in the field and only slight differences remain to be resolved between projects.
Owners and managers unfamiliar with building construction think that by hiring an experienced and qualified field staff…and providing good subcontractors…they have exhausted the limits of their possible influence over the course of the construction…and they are partially correct from a functional standpoint. New housing construction projects do get completed…smoothly or not.
The evidence that supports the notion that they is more that can be done by owners and top managers…to benefit the construction…is the existence of many of the same design and construction problems reoccurring on project after project.
Part of the problem also lies in the overconfidence and overreliance that people unfamiliar with building construction place in architects, engineers, subcontractors, and tradespeople. Specialization does produce expertise…but it also multiplies the number of areas where less than absolute perfection in each area can add up to a lot of small problems overall.
For owners and managers to assume that the plans are 100 percent accurate and error-free, and that each subcontractor and tradesperson can do everything correctly because each is a specialist…is not being realistic. Recognizing that everything cannot be 100 percent correct should signify that a strategy is needed…initiated and supported by upper management in terms of data collection and man-hour allocation investment…to proactively identify and remove any remaining conflicts or problems.