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.

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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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.

Quality-Control Bugs

            Another aspect of reoccurring construction problems…lies in confusing design and construction bugs with quality-control.  Debugging and quality-control…although closely related…are different.

Craftsmanship can be defined in quantitative and qualitative terms…how plumb and straight walls are, how flat floors are…free of humps and valleys, how many coats of paint achieve full coverage, etc.  These qualifications can be defined in fractions of inches or degrees of judgment…and can be controlled by making the adjustments of taking more time to do a better job or spending more money for better performing materials.

Quality is therefore directly affected by effort, care, motivation, judgment, and resolve.

Bugs, on the other hand, occur regardless of best intentions or performance level simply because they are not known about in advance.  Foreknowledge of mass-production assembly-line type construction bugs…is pure informational knowledge and has nothing to do with attitudes or motivation.

When company owners and managers talk broadly about improving construction efficiency and quality…they miss the point entirely.  Technical issues cannot be resolved using a broad-brush management approach…at least not in manufacturing industries like building construction.

Real debugging and quality-control starts at the nuts-and-bolts level…then goes up through the organization.  To be effective, the discussion must move from the general to the specific.

Preventive problem-solving and debugging provides the housing development company owners and managers an opportunity to impact the efficiency and quality of the construction…without themselves being construction experts.  They can collect, process, organize, manage, and disseminate the debugging information so that the knowledge acquired…lessons learned…on past jobs can be applied to present and future jobs.

Housing development company owners and managers must initiate housing construction quality and efficiency for it to evolve beneficially.  They are the only individuals in a position to gather and maintain the required information…and budget the necessary time to analyze it.

Using Square Footage to Calculate Dollars per Square Foot

I worked in the construction management department of a bank for nine years.  In interacting with realtors, builders, and bank loan officers, the term “dollars per square foot” is often used to describe and differentiate between qualities of craftsmanship, levels of amenities, and geographical location of a particular new house under construction or for sale…all communicated through this one phrase.

During the last five years of working for this bank, I was given the task of evaluating new single-family construction loans in terms of the sufficiency of each construction budget line-item…lumber, framing labor, cabinets, HVAC, flooring, etc.

To create a more accurate method to evaluate each new loan, we produced “cost models” representing each geographical area by taking past recent completed loans in these areas, and dividing each budget line-item by the house square footage to create a bench-mark average consensus of the dollars per square foot for each construction activity and a global number for that geographical area…all in comparable units of dollars per square foot.

While calculating the square footage from the building plans from outside-of-wall to outside-of-wall, plus the internally, in-house agreed-upon convention of 50% for garages and balcony decks, we discovered that our total square foot calculations exceeded by about 10% the square footage given on the title page of the architectural plans.

For a construction management department…within a lender…evaluating the budgets for new single-family construction loans…getting the right dollars per square foot is important to avoid construction loans falling short of funds midway or at the end of the construction…requiring the borrower to come back to the bank for an increase called a “loan modification.”  Loan modifications add an increased element of risk to the overall bank loan portfolio…too many as a percentage of the total number of loans and the bank regulatory agency will note this negatively in its periodic audit…affecting the bank rating and stock value.

So…why this 10% difference in calculating house square footage?  The architect uses “living space”…inside-of-wall to inside-of-wall…as the criteria for calculating the house square footage.

I have never heard the official reasoning behind this approach, but we assumed one reason is that living space is a number that the home buyer can evaluate that leaves out the thickness of exterior and interior walls…unusable space for living.  But another convenient reason in terms of cost to the builder and the home buyer is that an understated house square footage based on living space…reduces city building permit and plan check fees when cities and counties accept this living space square footage number given in the architectural plans.

Because the actual construction costs of concrete, lumber, drywall, painting, roofing, and stucco plastering extend from outside-of-wall to outside-of-wall…a square footage total understated by 10% using living space…will artificially inflate costs per square foot overall and for every budget line-item…making it appear there is more money per line-item in the budget than there is.  From a real estate sales standpoint this gives the house a better appraisal valuation in terms of construction costs and amenities.

In effect, an apples and oranges difference is created which inaccurately skews the talking-point cost appraisal number higher by 10%…unless the caveat is disclosed that the figure given is based on living space…which is almost never done…because few realtors, builders, or bankers make the distinction.

Only a construction person would bother to calculate the real square footage on the plans…rather than accept the architect’s “living space” square footage…and this would only be done for the purposes of uniformity and reality in comparing construction costs in the banking industry…for evaluating new construction loan budgets…and for other interests related to construction costs such as cost estimating.

In closing, an example would be helpful.  Using round numbers…assume a 3,000 square- foot size house in the year 2000 in East Manhattan Beach in Southern California on the inland side of Sepulveda Boulevard, with a lot price of $500,000 (knock-down the old existing house), a projected new house sales price of $1,100,000, and construction budget costs of $300,000.

If we use these figures…the construction costs are $100 per square foot.  The builder, realtor, and anyone else involved in the marketing and sale of the new house will use this number to communicate the quality and amenity level of the construction.

But what if, after calculating the square footage of the new house using the criterial of gross square footage plus the convention of 50% for garages and balconies (they have real costs) instead of living space…the actual square footage is 10% higher at 3,300 square feet.

This new larger number as the divisor in the denominator correspondingly produces numbers throughout the budget and overall that are smaller than derived using the architect’s square footage.  The construction costs per square foot are now $300,000/3,300 square feet… yielding $97/square foot…not $100/square foot.

In a new construction loan budget, if the number for the line-item HVAC is understated by 10% at $18,000 when it should be $19,800 per the cost model…along with every other budget line-item like cabinets, countertops, finish plumbing, and hard surface flooring, for examples, not only is the potential for the need for a loan modification increased by 10%, but the value of the product has been inflated artificially from $97 to $100, in an industry where these comparative numbers are important, valued, relied upon, and evaluated by the consumer.