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.