Review Plans before Plan Checks

My father was a building official for a city in Southern Florida.  He had done hundreds of plan checks.  I once asked him the percentage of plans that get approved the first time without corrections, and he said that about one out of every seven or eight first-time plan checks are successfully approved.

He said that many of the same corrections occur over and over again…and if the builders would simply spend an hour reviewing their plans before submittal…the could save the cost of a two to four-week added delay between the time the plans are submitted and the time they are actually approved.

            For example, every city in southern Florida requires a products approval package to be submitted with the building plans for plans review because of wind-loading requirements.

Single and double-hung windows, sliding glass doors, and garage doors must be approved by a national testing lab for a particular sized opening.  A special brand and model of an 8-foot wide sliding glass door, for example, can be approved up to a 10-foot width…but that does not mean that a brand and model of a 10-foot wide sliding glass door unit is approved simply because it is approved up to 8 feet wide.

The problem that often occurs is the builder submits the products approval package along with the building plans without checking whether the products approval package actually matches the opening sizes in the building structure as shown on the plans.  The loose and disorganized stack of papers then shows an approved 8-foot wide sliding glass door units…but for a house that has a 10-foot wide slider at one of its bedrooms.

In this case, the plans checker must then return the plans to the builder for correction.  The sliding glass door opening is then reduced on the plans to 8 feet…or the architect specifies another sliding glass door that is approved up to 10 feet wide.

If the builder would spend a little time going through the products approval package before plans submittal…many corrections like this example could be eliminated.

            In southern Florida…every set of building plans must show the minimum finish floor elevation to qualify for flood insurance under FEMA standards.

This finish floor elevation is taken off the lot survey and usually requires the finish floor to be at least 18 inches above the crown of the street, although this dimension changes for different communities.

Building plans often come into a city or county without showing the finish floor elevation and the plan checker must then return the set of plans to the builder for correction.

Again in southern Florida, many other omissions on building plans occur over and over…such as not showing the garage slab seven inches below the house slab elevation…not identifying an egress window as a secondary means of escape…not calling out 60 square inches of garage vent per car, etc.

The builder must then pay construction loan interest for every day the plans are not approved…while the architect is correcting mistakes and omissions found during city plan check.

Many cities and counties have a generic check list of building code violations that commonly occur during plan checking.  One of the questions a builder should ask when choosing an architect is whether the architect has a plan review check list for the city or county in which the project is located…and for other adjacent cities as well.

The builder should also begin compiling their own plan review checklist…expanded from the city or county version…so the plans can be reviewed in-house for code violations before submittal.

Minimize Design Plans Revisions

The builder should work hard during the design phase to secure a complete and accurate set of plans.

This process involves sketching posts and beams in three dimensions to see if everything aligns and fits…looking for dimensioning errors by adding up dimensions across a page…checking that mechanical items such as fireplaces, furnaces, water heaters, and vent ducts all fit…checking stair headroom clearances…and analyzing the plans using the building company’s historical debugging checklist.

Plans that have not been analyzed beforehand from a construction point-of-view usually result in questions and design conflicts when the construction starts…which generates plans revisions.   Plans revisions and clarifications in the form of addenda, bulletins, answered RFIs, and cut-sheets become more and more disruptive to the construction as they increase in number.

A set of plans that requires numerous revisions can create an information accounting nightmare on the jobsite.  Each time an inaccurate but most current set of plans is given to a tradesperson (most applicable in the sales models construction and the first production units for multi-unit tract housing and condominiums)…the superintendent must consider which additional cut-sheet information must also be included to avoid an activity being done incorrectly.

Copies of each revision (amended detail or RFI answer) must be made, and a filing system devised for organizing the revisions so they may be quickly found when needed.  If excessive, plans revisions become an additional set of plans the jobsite superintendent must manage during the early construction…until the final revised set of plans is generated from the red-lined plans.

The closer the original set of plans is to the red-lined set of plans…thanks to employing the proactive approaches recommended in this book…leading to the final revised set of plans…the less paperwork hassle for the superintendent…and the less opportunity is baked into the system for mistakes, change orders, extras, and lost time.

Minimizing revisions on a set of working plans therefore can also limit the additional time required of the superintendent to monitor any extra work generated from loose plans.  With almost every architectural or engineering change to the plans…an extra goes to a subcontractor.  On a project with numerous plans revisions, the builder can quickly become buried in time-and-material extras.

If a building company creates check lists that describe standard problems to avoid…as well as specific historical problems from past and current projects…then some of the potential revision work can be identified and resolved before the construction starts…freeing the superintendent to spend more time on quality-control and production than plans revisions and monitoring extras during the construction.

More Information on Each Page

            One idea to create more user-friendly plans is to use the open space on each page of the plans for adding details and schedule tables that apply to that page.

Why should field people flip back and forth from the floor plans to a back page containing details and schedules…when plenty of room on the floor plan page itself exists for this information?

If the architectural plans first floor has a note saying “see structural S6.4”…why not have this structural detail cut-and-paste on to some open space on this architectural first floor page?

And why can’t printing occur on both sides of a page?  The floor plan, for example, could be on the right side of an opened set of plans…and the applicable details and schedule tables could be printed on the reverse side of the previous page.

These details, tables, and schedules can be reduced in size to fit around the open spaces to suit each particular page…yet still retained in their correct scale in their normal location in the plans.

With some new and original re-thinking in terms of plans layout…the total number of pages of building plans might be cut by one-third…making each set of plans cheaper, lighter, and easier to use on the jobsite.

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.