Punch Lists

            Punch lists are lists of unfinished or substandard work compiled by the superintendent while “walking” the jobsite.

            These lists can be notes written on scratch pads using a rigid clip-board…or formal company checklists used during the successive phases of the construction.

            By examining punch lists for all of a company’s projects, any practices or materials causing problems on several projects can be identified…with the aim of ultimately reducing each problem to a non-repeating, historical issue relegated to the past.

Inspection Cards

            Building inspection corrections are code violations missed by the subcontractors and the jobsite superintendent(s)…yet noticed by the building inspector during inspections. 

            These violations are usually written on correction cards or paper “slips” issued by the inspector…a copy given to the construction jobsite.

            These individual inspection cards can be collected at the completion of every project, organized and analyzed at the main office, and then used to discover violations that can be proactively prevented on current and future projects…especially those building code problems that have occurred more than once. 

            Some things some building inspectors “call” and “write-up”…but other inspectors do not.

            But building code violations highlight good construction practices that should be implemented on every project.

            For example, if a particular building inspector requires that loose sawdust and wood shavings…produced from the framing straight-edging operation…be cleaned off the top flat surfaces of metal fireplace fireboxes…for the framing inspection…then adopt this as a standard policy on every project.

            If another building inspector on another project wants the insides of FAU platforms in garages cleaned out of all debris for the framing inspection…do it for all projects.

            If an inspector requires insulation at perimeter rim-joists, or uncut factory-edges of water-board drywall at bathroom floors, or electrical plastic outlet boxes on two-hour garage ceilings labeled 2-C for ceilings instead of 2-W for walls, adopt these as standard procedures on every project.

            The goal is to identify the corrections building inspectors are “calling” on different projects and organize them onto a single checklist for use on all of the company’s projects. 

            This checklist…when followed…essentially relegates past building code corrections to one-time past occurrences that will not re-surface again to cause time delays and non-productive repair work.  

            By analyzing the building inspection cards for every project…after project completion in hindsight…any subcontractor practices or materials causing building inspection corrections and thus time delays on the jobsite…can be identified as useful preventive information.

            The builder should not allow a subcontractor to cut corners to save money or make a job easier…based on a calculated risk that the building inspector might miss the problem.

            The old-fashioned concept that the builder should purposely leave a few things for the building inspector to find so that the inspector feels like they are doing a good job…is nonsensical.  The daily interest costs on construction loans are too large to waste five minutes playing mind-games with the building inspector and the city/county building department.

            The builder should aim for successful inspections every time. 

            After a few months of good inspections…demonstrating the builder’s commitment to achieving perfect code compliance…the building inspector can begin to relax about the high-quality of the construction and not look so closely at everything.  This makes the building inspections go smoothly and rise above the adversarial “gotcha” mentality that sometimes exists between the builder and the building inspector on some projects.

            One of the first steps therefore toward the goal of debugging building inspections is to collect the inspection cards from all projects and then identify the issues that are occurring. 

            Each project manager and superintendent can then be educated and informed about building inspection problems early on…upfront before the start of the next new project…so that everyone in the field is at the same advanced point on the learning curve.

Identifying Construction Bugs

            In-house sources of information that housing development company owners and managers can use to identify construction problems and mistakes include the following:

  • building inspection correction cards
  • superintendent punch lists
  • RFIs
  • red-lined plans
  • homebuyer walkthroughs
  • warranty complaint letters
  • subcontractor extras
  • subcontractor advice
  • meetings with field employees
  • incentive programs

            Without hitting this same nail on the head too many times, the individual jobsite superintendents or project managers are not in a position to collect this information from all of a company’s projects…or to initiate a company-wide debugging program.

            Again, the development company owners and managers must first recognize the need to research the information…then delegate someone within the organization to do the research, collect the information, and have the time and resources to coordinate and disseminate this information.

            Each source of information that should be researched…is described in more detail in the following sections.

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 framing cannot be mistakenly designed in the structural plans directly underneath the location of a bathroom toilet shown on the architectural plans…blocking the drainage piping.

            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.

            The concrete subcontractor may not even be aware of these problems when it leaves the jobsite.

            Builders need to rethink how the design plans are created in terms of the number of mistakes and problems that could be reduced during the construction, if certain things were illustrated better and included quality-control debugging information.

            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.

            This requires knowing upfront the many questions and issues resolved by the superintendent and the tradespeople out in the field and proactively placing this information in the design 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, or 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 could be pre-answered on the design plans, illustrated in three-dimensional views if necessary. 

The Need for a 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 large projects under construction. 

            Three of the projects may have grade-A quality superintendents, four of the projects grade-B quality superintendents, two of the projects grade-C quality superintendents, and the 10th project may have a field superintendent that is performing at a grade-D quality level.

            This is not an unusual scenario. 

            This arrangement will function and complete tract houses that get sold and turn a profit for the builder. 

            This scenario is the reality for builders around the world…in variations on the same storyline…for builders having multiple projects competing with other builders for qualified field superintendents.

            The problem here goes back to the point that owners and managers of building construction companies with backgrounds in real estate, finance, accounting, or law…delegate 100% of the field management to experienced superintendents and project managers.

            This produces the unintended consequence of the 10-project company in the example above of 10 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 in the main office constantly in search of grade-A superintendents to staff the field, to the sales teams on every project trying to satisfy new homebuyers with less than perfect houses…this lack of a company-wide construction program permeates operations from top-to-bottom.   

            A building construction company that has as many different approaches to the field management of the construction…as the number of superintendents running each jobsite…produces an environment that can plague the entire company. 

            This can be the case even with three to seven competent superintendents out of ten…in the example above.

            The general customer service formula in business of spending 80% of the time on 20% of the customers, applies to the problem projects engaged in constant “putting out fires.”

            The solution to this common reality in mass-production tract housing construction is for large companies to have uniformly comprehensive construction programs that create the environment for all 10 projects in the example above…to be running smoothly at the same high-quality level…even with field personnel who start-out as grade-C and grade-D 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 the admittance of numerous design and construction mistakes, then 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 coming and going.

            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, along with well-defined polices & procedures that give the building construction company a uniform direction in its construction practices. 

Modern Management’s Role in the Construction

            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 60 years, going back to the invention of tract housing.

            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 roughly 50 years ago studying construction technology in junior college in 1971.

            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.

            Upcoming sections cover 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 records archived from 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 transferred to new projects is a lost opportunity.  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, documented, company-specific information or allocate time upfront for constructability analysis using this information…if it does not exist…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 again 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…like a single assembly-line producing a particular model of tennis rackets is initially debugged. 

            They further assume that the benefits of this already accomplished industry-wide debugging are now 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.

            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 exists 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.