User-Friendly Design Plans

            As a construction superintendent or project manager…one of the activities I typically do at the start of a new project is to cut up an entire set of plans…make reduced copies of architectural and structural details…make reduced copies of door, window, shear panel, and other schedule tables…and then clear-tape them judiciously on the pages of another clean set of plans.

I also use colored pencils to color-code and highlight detail call-outs on the plans…such as anchor bolt spacing, hold-downs, post anchors, shear panel nailing, 3-inch thick mudsills, similar door sizes, similar window sizes, structural beams and posts, etc.

Finally, I sketch various parts of the building that I think are more clearly illustrated in three-dimensions…and clear-tape these illustrations on to the appropriate page of the working set of plans I am adding reduced details to and color highlighting.

I do this cut-and-paste operation at the start of a new project…because it prevents having to continually flip pages back and forth from the floor plans to the architectural and structural details…with the possibility of missing some important information.

This process of mine tells me that building design plans as traditionally formatted are not organized to provide the optimum clarity and ease of use for the people who count the most…the supervisors, forepersons, and tradespeople in the field who assemble the buildings.

At the start of every new project, many mistakes occur simply because someone did not follow the chain of information all the way through five or six different pages of the plans…and thus missed a particular detail or note.

If our goal is to improve the construction by minimizing potential construction mistakes…then the format and layout of building plans needs to become more user-friendly.

Considering the costs of correcting construction mistakes in terms of time and money…everything possible should be done to make building plans clear and easy to follow.  Why should assembly instructions for children’s $10 or $20 plastic model airplanes or battleships be better illustrated and more foolproof…than design plans for a $40 million tract housing project?

City Plan Checks and Quality

            Another common misconception regarding the accuracy of design plans is the assumption that a stamped set of approved plans is buildable simply because they passed a city plan check looking for building code and planning department violations.

This misconception is fueled by the natural economic impatience of the builder to break ground…an over-confidence in the accuracy level of a typical set of plans…and a misunderstanding of the extent of a city plan check.

During the preconstruction phase…the builder and the architect mistakenly over-emphasize getting the plans through city plan check…as if that is the acid-test of the accuracy and buildability of the design plans.  Although the city plan check is very important…it is not all-inclusive.

The city plan check focuses only on the building codes and standards of construction that involve life and safety considerations…along with issues such as zoning, planning, building heights, view corridors, tree preservation, and artistic restrictions (such as exclusive use of clay barrel tiles on all roofs).

The city plan checker does not verify whether dimensions add up correctly across the page, whether a beam is placed directly below a bathroom toilet, whether windows are designed too close to wall corners that built-in cabinet bookshelves will crash with ceiling crown molding, and whether or not stairs are positioned correctly to provide enough legal vertical headroom, and hundreds of other quality related issues that fall outside of the scope of a city plan check.

These potential mistakes are design and construction concerns rather than code problems (except when they surface as code corrections during building inspections)…and are assumed to have already been checked by the architect…they fall outside the parameters of the city plan check.

Architectural Quality Checks

            One of the by-products of the misconceptions discussed above is that architects and engineers receive free quality-control corrections at the expense of the builder.

Untold hours are spent in the field by the builder’s superintendents, subcontractors, and tradespeople debugging the plans at the start of each project.

Many design errors (except for genuine bugs difficult to identify) are discovered by the tradespeople or the superintendents before each phase of the work begins…ahead of the work itself unearthing problems and mistakes as it unfolds.  If people in the field can discover design problems while still on paper, the architect should likewise be able to find many of these same problems and fix them using debugging checklists compiled by the builder/client…and through constructability analysis with the builder’s field staff.

The fundamental problem with debugging design plans can be traced back to the specialization and separation of the design/build team.  The master builder of the past…who designed and built a building with the construction in mind…is now split into two camps.

As long as the architect does not actually build their design and in the process discover first-hand the number and adverse impact of errors and omissions…today’s architect and engineers are not held accountable for the many problems and inaccuracies that are solved in the field.

Exterior Elevations 1

The pre-cast lower sill piece and wrought-iron decorative handrail projects…extends…beyond the angled wall corner.  This window could have been designed 6 inches more to the left…to prevent this condition.

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Management’s Role in Debugging Plans

            Housing development company owners and managers can lead the way in ensuring the accuracy level of the design plans.  Probably in no other area is upper management in a better position to help improve quality and efficiency in the construction…than to secure good building plans.

Two common misconceptions exist in the building industry, however, that tend to obscure and excuse design errors.  These must be understood before any progress can be made.

The first misconception is the idea that it is the expected duty of field people to take incomplete, inaccurate, and unclear plans and work out all the bugs during construction.

It is widely believed that it is easier and cheaper for the tradespeople to “coordinate”…to work out the design kinks during construction…than it is for the architect and engineers to spend the time to get the design totally correct while still on paper.  In this mindset it is taken for granted that architects and engineers can advance their designs graphically (and economically) only so far on two-dimensional paper…and then the people in the field must resolve the remaining omissions and errors in three-dimension as the construction progresses.

Many people both inside and outside of the industry believe that part of the satisfaction of working in the field comes from solving design and construction mistakes.

The stereotypical advertisement in the newspaper that shows a sketch of several people with their shirt sleeves rolled-up, blueprints under the arm, looking through a builder’s level or pointing and giving directions…implies that solving problems in-the-moment in the reactive mode in the field is both satisfying and expected…misconception number two.

If we are to take seriously the goal of approaching the machine-like efficiency of the fixed assembly-line in mass-production manufacturing…with a minimum of bugs…then it must be accepting that there is nothing thrilling or romantic about fielding incoming nuts-and-bolts problems in-the-moment…that surface without warning from the design plans.

The Design Plans

            Nearly every construction activity is dependent upon some previous activity being done correctly.

For example, the installation of steel hold-downs for structural wood posts depends upon the anchor bolts being correctly placed in the concrete foundation or the concrete floor slab.

Adequate clearance space for door casing to fit inside a coat closet or in a narrow hallway…depends on the rough door openings being laid-out and framed correctly…starting with enough dimensional space given on the architectural plans.

Wood beams in the floor cannot be designed in the structural plans directly underneath the location of a bathroom toilet shown on the architectural plans.

Roof rafters and ceiling joists must be laid-out and framed so that ceiling flush lights…can lights…can be centered typically above bathroom sinks.

Thousands of other small details must be correctly implemented early in the construction in anticipation for activities that come much later in the construction.

Because the construction is divided up among so many different subcontractors and specialized building trades…the only person in a position to integrate all the pieces is the jobsite superintendent.

When the anchor bolts are slightly off correct layout…or placed too high or too low…or do not have all of the concrete wire-brushed off the anchor bolt threads…the concrete subcontractor may no longer be on the jobsite to hear the framing subcontractor complain about it…and might not be aware of these mistakes.

In some other cases…the framer may not personally like the electrician and does not care whether the electrician must chop out a quarter-inch on the side of a ceiling joist if it is in the way of centering a ceiling flush light.

For these and countless other similar reasons…the jobsite superintendent needs all the help better building plans can offer.

            Builders need to rethink how plans are drawn in terms of how the number of mistakes and problems could be reduced…if certain things were illustrated better.

Merely placing a particular detail somewhere on a back page…or writing a note with an arrow pointing toward some area of the structure…is not the optimum type of proactive, informative approach that can reduce the hours upon hours of analysis and problem-solving out in the field.

The subcontracted and highly specialized nature of housing construction today could benefit from better architectural, mechanical, and engineering plans.  Plans should be the product of analyzing the construction in reverse, and then filling in the many gaps and questions that exist between the various trades.

Instead of leaving items purposely vague on the building plans…to be resolved by the tradespeople out in the field…often requiring a foreknowledge of things outside of their narrow expertise…the new approach would analyze and illustrate everything on the building plans.

How to get a clothes dryer vent out through an exterior wall…or how to get a water heater vent through the various structural wood members to the roof…or the ceiling joist and beam layout to coordinate with can-lights, sound speakers, and other mechanicals for a coffered ceiling in a dining room…and how to get a kitchen range hood vent duct out to and through an exterior wall without having to frame a dropped soffit…these and hundreds of other questions should be pre-answered on the design plans, illustrated in three-dimensional views if necessary.

The Concept of Teamwork

            On most successful professional sports teams, there are always those individuals who care enough about winning to speak up when things do not look right.  These people will shout out encouragement to teammates from the dugout in baseball or from the sidelines in football, take another key player aside and “get in their face” if they think the player is not trying hard enough for the team, or ask for team meetings if they disagree about coaching strategy.

In a vibrant, dynamic, energetic working environment…people need to feel that they are a part of a team effort.  It is one of the basic needs of the human spirit.

Being part of a team involves being able to freely offer suggestions and point out problems in an open, problem-solving climate where no one is offended and no one is labeled a trouble-maker.

Thinking up better and easier ways of doing things is a big part of the excitement of working…whether as a farmer, inventor, sales manager, or building construction trades foreman.  I an environment in which every person’s opinion is valued and actively sought, people believe they are individually important and part of a team.

If housing construction companies are to achieve the level of motivation and enthusiastic loyalty to the company they would like to have in their employees…in my opinion as key to a successful comprehensive construction program…some owners and managers must take another look at their definition of team play.

Construction field people…who must deal daily with subcontractors who do not show up, materials that are delivered late, and with all sorts of other problems…should not be viewed as non-team players simply because their approach toward the construction is more sober, cautious, realistic, and detailed than the optimistic, broad-brush outlook of company owners and managers.

If the goal on the part of building construction owners and managers is to find ways to proactively prevent problems and issues from surfacing during the construction…then field people should feel that their suggestions are not only welcome but expected.

This has to be an element in a comprehensive building construction company program…with open and sometimes outspoken communication going both ways…from the office to the field…and from the field to the office.

The point of this chapter and indeed this book is that the technical nuts-and-bolts of building construction should not be considered an artificial demarcation between the business aspects of running the company…performed by the company owners and managers…and the efficiency of manufacturing the product in the field.  Both the office and the field are needed in a team effort to achieve optimum results.

How Debugging Affects Quality

            Quality in housing construction is affected by the extent and thoroughness of debugging…because supervision time in the field is a limited resource.

For example, suppose that over the course of a two-year construction project…a total of 500 decisions must be made, items checked, and directions taken that will result in a smooth and efficient construction process.

If people in the field get 300 of those 500 issues resolved upfront through a company-wide debugging program…before the construction starts…then only 200 issues and questions remain to be solved individually during the construction.

There is a finite numerical limit to the issues and questions that need to be addressed on every building construction project…irrespective of the magnitude of each issue or question.

Therefore, if 350 problems and questions out of the 500 are easily answered upfront through constructability analysis and a checklist of past solved issues…then only 150 real problems remain to be solved during the construction.

If at the outset of the project…there are 400 easy solutions and answers to the original 500 problems…then only 100 more remain to be analyzed and resolved during the construction.

The greater the number of problems, questions, and bugs that can be identified upfront and quickly and correctly resolved…the fewer the number of problems remain to be confronted and solved during the construction…and the more time is made available for genuine quality-control rather than spent in frantic “putting out fires.”

            A building construction project gets into trouble in terms of quality…when the number of latent/hidden problems inherently buried in the project…are greater than what can be handled by the field staff.  When the field staff is constantly engaged in “putting out fires”…the construction is forced into a reactive, damage-control mode…which pushes out the option for investing time in genuine quality-control.

The benefits of spotting and resolving design and construction problems upfront…before the construction begins…cannot be overstated in terms of quality-assurance.

Small problems and mistakes…minor if caught and corrected early…can grow into larger problems in building construction due to a phenomenon known as the “ripple effect.”

For example, a bowed wall framing stud by itself can be easily removed by the framer…requiring only one repair effort.

A bowed or twisted 4×6 or 4×8 structural post in the wall framing…with electrical wires running through it requires the framing carpenter and the electrician…if the post needs to be replaced.

A bowed wall along the floor baseboard…if not discovered until the wall is drywalled, painted, and the baseboard installed…requires three or more separate building trades to repair and straighten.

A bowed wall along a bathroom floor…with square-shaped ceramic tile flooring…that is not discovered until very late at the time of the homebuyer walkthrough…requires not only the framing carpenter, drywaller, painter, and finish carpenter…but also the floor tile installer…to replace the tiles at the bowed wall after the wall is straightened.

The longer a problem or construction bug goes undetected…the worse the repair can get.

Identifying Construction Bugs 3

Subcontractor Extras                                    

Subcontractor extras tell the builder where money was spent to solve problems that fell outside the scope of work sections in the contracts.

Extras tell the builder where design plans are incomplete or incorrect…and where contract language is loose.  Extras are a source of information for tightening the budget on future phases of an existing project and formulating more accurate budgets.

Advice from Subcontractors                         

            Advice from subcontractors is another valuable source of information for figuring out how to improve the construction.

Subcontractors have a unique viewpoint close to the construction.  Because many subcontracts are awarded through negotiation involving the same subcontractors, design and construction improvements can be solicited from a builder’s regular group of subcontractors…in technical jargon called value engineering.

Debriefing Meetings                                      

Debriefing meetings with field personnel…after the completion of each project…can be one of the best sources of debugging information.  Field people are in the best position on a daily basis to observe and record…and then pass along…their hard-earned knowledge of what problems and mistakes to avoid on future projects.

For the builder to be in a positive position to receive this information from the field…assembly-line type bugs must be recognized for what they are…unforeseeable problems and not the result of human error.

A debriefing meeting at the close-out of every project should have some financial bonus or salary raise attached to the information given from the field to the builder…and not an occasion to point fingers and place blame.

Otherwise the field superintendents and project managers will simply keep this information to themselves…improving their own expertise.  This does help the builder…but the goal here is to download the information from the field and then integrate it into the next upcoming projects in order to proactively prevent design and construction mistakes while the projects are still on paper.

The idea for the builder is to transfer valuable information from the field into the overall company at-large…so the company possesses this information as well as their best and brightest field supervisors.

Company-Wide Construction Program                                

After establishing a debugging program, the formation of a comprehensive, standardized, company-wide construction system is the second most important thing that company owners and top managers can do to improve the construction.

A company-wide construction program involves information, policies & procedures, tasks, and standards that uniformly apply to all of a company’s projects.

For example, a mass-production tract housing builder may have 10 projects under construction.  Three of the projects have grade-A quality superintendents, four of the projects have grade-B quality superintendents, two of the projects have grade-C quality superintendents, and the tenth project has a superintendent that is performing at a grade-D quality level.

This is not an unusual scenario…and this arrangement will function and complete tract houses that get sold and turn a profit for the builder.  This scenario is being repeated many times for builders around the world…in variations on the same script…for builders having three projects or twenty.

The problem here goes back to the point made elsewhere in this book…that owners and managers of building construction companies with backgrounds in real estate, finance, accounting, or law…because they lack first-hand field experience in construction assume incorrectly that they cannot beneficially become involved in the nuts-and-bolts operation…and therefore delegate 100% of the field management to experienced superintendents and project managers…producing in the ten-project company example above ten different approaches to running the field construction ranging from grade-A quality down to grade-D quality.

A building construction company that relies upon the superintendents and project managers to bring in their own management and leadership systems…in lieu of the company having its own optimum system in-place and successfully operating…will create problems and conflicts throughout the company…from the human resources department…to the sales team on every project.

            A building construction company that has as many different approaches to field management of the construction…as the number of superintendents running each jobsite…due to company owners and managers relinquishing and abrogating their rightful place of leadership…opens up an environment that produces a variety of problems and mistakes that can plague the entire company…even with three to seven competent superintendents out of ten in the example above.

The same general business customer service formula of spending 80% of the time on 20% of the customers translates into a constant “putting out fires” on the 20% (or much less) of what is not going well on some projects.  So much time can be spent fixing problems on the “problem projects” that there is not enough time leftover to spend on the very few issues and problems on the well-running projects…bringing down the entire company.

The solution to this very common reality in housing construction is for the company to have a uniformly comprehensive construction program that creates the context and the environment for all ten projects in the example above…to be running smoothly at closely the same high-quality level…even with grade-C and grade-D field superintendents.

If every field superintendent is operating at grade-B or above because the system that is in place within the company does not allow for and open itself up to the admittance of numerous design and construction mistakes…already identified as constructability analysis items debugged out of the plans…and included as pre-construction tasks and construction quality-control checklist items scheduled to occur at the correct times throughout the project…the building construction company increasingly begins to control its own destiny…in an ever improving and self-correcting process.

A company-wide construction system attempts to get everyone on the same page…going in the same direction…with the same philosophy.

It takes the best methods and procedures within the company and tries to standardize these methods to bring everyone up to the same high standard.

One of the best arguments for starting a company-wide construction system is that the system stays with the company and is not dependent upon key field personnel or the varying experience and performance level of field people.

No project should waste time learning from a mistake already experienced on another project within the company.

The means for accomplishing this goal is a company-wide, comprehensive system of information, and polices & procedures that give the building construction company a uniform direction in its construction practices.