Location of the Trailer

            I have worked on two projects in which the builders used detached houses that came with the purchase of the land, as the construction jobsite office in lieu of a temporary trailer.

            This approach saved the builders the expense of providing a temporary office trailer, but in these two projects these fixed-in-place houses became farther and farther away from the construction in-progress as each new phase of tract houses moved farther away from the first phase closest to the house office.

            These growing distances resulted in a forced and unnatural isolation between the field office and the construction, especially when the distance became too great to cover on foot.

            A temporary office trailer allows the trailer to be moved so that the construction office is not more than a few hundred feet from the actual construction in-progress.

Entrance to the Trailer

            When planning for and designing the construction trailer location and orientation, several features should be considered to help keep the inside of the trailer clean.

            First, the builder should consider placing loose clean gravel or temporary asphalt paving around the entrance to the trailer, to remove dirt and mud from shoes as people approach.

            Second, a doormat can be placed at the entrance of the trailer, allowing people to wipe off their shoes before entering and reminding them to do so.

            Third, the builder should consider providing a roof or awning over the construction trailer door and stairs or ramp, so when it is raining people can pause to wipe off their shoes underneath overhead protection.

Cleaning the Trailer

            One item sometimes missed in the project budget is to include weekly or bi-weekly cleaning of the construction trailer.

            The sales office and the models in multi-unit projects are typically cleaned and vacuumed at least once per week.  This keeps them in good shape for displaying to the buying public.  Sales models must be sparkling clean to impress prospective buyers.

            The construction trailer also reflects the professionalism of the housing development company: the builder. 

            Although subcontractors, building inspectors, and tradespeople might not be as important to impress as buyers, the construction trailer is usually the first impression people involved with the construction get of the project.

            If strangers walk into a construction trailer that is large, spacious, carpeted, furnished, clean, and organized, the first impression is of a business office which generates the accompanying respect.

            If the trailer is small, old, with a stained vinyl floor, a used old metal office desk with a squeaky chair, and has a makeshift plans table made from a throwaway interior door, the first impression is that the builder is not serious about business efficiency.

            Worse yet, if the construction trailer is partly used as a storage bin, with electrical temp-power boxes and cords laying on the floor, along with shovels, picks, brooms, and water hoses, the trailer ceases to function and look like a place where the business of the project can be conducted. 

            I have walked into construction trailers where I had to climb over all sorts of construction equipment and debris.

            If the builder chooses the second method of providing a small, beat-up looking construction trailer, then periodic cleaning is obviously a waste of money. 

            On the other hand, if the builder thinks that the construction trailer should resemble a business office as closely as possible, then periodic cleaning should be budgeted along with the cleaning of the sales office and the sales model units.

Office Supply Package

            At the start of a new project, some builders give the jobsite superintendent access to office supplies from the main office for the construction trailer, or ask the superintendent to buy the necessary supplies and then get reimbursed. 

            Other builders might have an account at a local office supply store, at which the superintendent can purchase these supplies and charge the purchase to the builder.

            Another option is to order office supplies online and have them delivered to the construction office trailer.

            The problem to avoid here is a reinvent-the-wheel, individualized approach for every new housing construction project. 

            The builder should have a standardized list of the minimum items needed in the field to equip and supply the field office. 

            A suggestion I offer here is for the main office to assemble the package of varied supplies needed…boxed-up and labeled according to a standardized list…and order the equipment and furniture, all ready for use soon after the construction trailer is delivered and set-up on the jobsite.

            This approach eliminates the possibility that some superintendents will under-supply the construction trailer because of an inadequate list, or the mindset that economizing in this area will be favorably looked upon by their supervisors.

            Another suggestion is to assign someone from the main office who is an expert in organizing the filing system and the file cabinet, to come out to the jobsite during the construction trailer set-up phase to get this area of field operations up and running smoothly from day one. 

            This should be a non-negotiable, required company activity using the same repeat office person performing this activity, with interim feedback and project close-out evaluation to improve this important field information management function.

            A minimum list of office supplies, stationary, and equipment might include:

ball point pens                          

mechanical pencils & lead                     

scratch pads 8-1/2×11

scratch pads legal size             

colored highlighters                              

colored pencils

paper clips                               

correction tape                                     

fluid white-out

push pins                                 

pencils                                                

transparent tape holder

transparent tape                       

erasers                                                

adhesive stick-on notes

file cabinets

file folders                                

file labels                                             

stapler & staples

architectural scale                    

engineering scale                                 

drafting triangles & templates

plans holders                           

key rings                                             

key box

keyed padlocks            

calendars                                            

business card holders

business cards                         

scissors                                              

paper hole punch

spray paint                               

upside-down spray paint                       

trash cans & bags

paper towels                            

first-aid kit                                           

fire extinguisher

water dispenser           

coffee machine                       

copy paper standard

copy paper legal                      

copy paper 11×17                                 

copy machine toner

computer laptop           

11×17 printer                                       

fax machine

land-line telephone with conference call capacity                       

safety books

building code books

The Construction Office Trailer

            The following group of topics describes my ideas for the construction office trailer and surrounding building site.

            Not everyone will agree financially with these ideas. 

            Some builders might not have the budget to outfit a construction trailer with the office equipment and furniture I recommend. 

            The goal here is to analyze the pros and cons of a good construction office, so that the decisions regarding the construction office trailer can be the result of thoughtful consideration as well as budget constraints.

            A friend of mine builds high-end custom houses in the beach communities of Southern California.  He works alternate Saturdays on his construction projects and often uses this time to secure new business, utilizing the construction office trailer as a selling tool.

            On the weekend, people drive up to his projects, typically large single-family houses under construction, saying that they own a lot around the corner or down the street, and ask questions about his construction company. 

            My friend takes them into the construction trailer and shows these prospective clients framed photographs of past and current projects, 24×36-inch hand-drawn and colored activity-on-node “box” construction schedules, and computer-generated estimating spreadsheets they use to help customers establish budgets and to secure bank construction loan financing.

            The construction trailer has a conference table, comfortable chairs, floor carpeting, bookshelves, a drafting table, an organized plans table, copy/fax machine, laptop computer, and isometric three-dimensional sketches of details pertaining to the construction.

            The interior look and feel of the trailer, combined with the framed photographs and schedules on the walls, leaves the prospective clients with a very good first impression. 

            This approach works very well for his type of work because people thinking about building a new house often drive around the area to look at what is actually being built, rather than going to a builder’s or general contractor’s business office.

            The opportunity to create the right impression and thereby find new business in this case is on the project site, and the construction office trailer plays an important role.

            If daily construction loan interest on large projects amounts to hundreds of dollars, then the construction office trailer should not be something to be economized.

            Instead of looking at the office trailer, furniture, and equipment as overhead costs to be automatically economized, the field office should be looked at as a tool to speed up the construction operation.

            The size of the construction trailer is critical for function as a command center, but some builders think that two or three people can work effectively out of an 8×12 or 8×16 foot trailer.

            A few years ago, I worked as a superintendent on a 282-unit, 22-building condominium project. 

            The size of the construction office trailer was 12×60 feet, with three offices and a plans room. 

            Having previously worked out of the typical 8×12 and 8×16 trailers on other projects for other companies, the luxury of having enough wall space to hang schedules and pickup lists, along with being able to work in a separate office without having random interruptions and attempting to tune-out background conversations as a result of being in a confined space, was a huge benefit toward improved efficiency, time-management, and morale.   

            This book describes management tools such as schedule charts, walks checklists, homebuyer options selections spreadsheets, and cheats sheets.

            All these paper tools require enough wall space to be displayed.  These and other informational aids, such as contact phone number lists and calendars provide information at a glance, thereby saving time and improving efficiency. 

            The typical 8×12 or 8×16 trailer simply does not have enough wall space.

            An archaic mindset of some builders is that by providing an inhospitable and too small office trailer for the field staff, that this will encourage the superintendents to spend more time out in the actual construction site and less time camped-out in the construction trailer.

            This old-fashioned approach backfires at the end of the workday when superintendents need to stay onsite to do paperwork after the tradespeople leave. 

            If the construction office trailer is an uninviting place to work, the superintendents are more apt to leave the project each day when the construction activity concludes.

            In my opinion, the best approach is to provide a construction office trailer that is adequately furnished and equipped to function as a field office.  

New Home Price Affects Final Quality Approach

            The price range of the new house determines the final approach taken to achieve a quality product.

            For high-end, luxury new homes the various subcontractors directly related to visual quality…the subcontractors for painting, finish carpentry, finish plumbing, drywall, tile, and flooring…to name a few…will not allow the jobsite superintendent or anyone else to make repairs to their work.  In this price range…these subcontractors obtain work through word-of-mouth referrals based upon their reputation…so they take full ownership over the quality of their finished work.

            I once worked as the project manager/onsite superintendent on four $6.75-12.5 million houses in Newport Coast, Southern California. 

            At the completion of the first house, I asked the painting contractor for a small amount of flat wall paint so that I could do minor touchup myself instead of adding these items to an already massive punch-list I compiled for this 10,600 square-foot house. 

            He humorously told me that I cannot touch his work, even the flat wall painting, which was a departure for me coming from a previous background in tract housing where the sheer volume of the number of houses needing final prep precluded getting the painter to touchup every last smudge on the walls.

            The opposite approach is found in the economic low-end of production tract housing and condominiums, where the various subcontractors cannot financially afford to do perfect Steinway or Stradivarius workmanship and still make money.

            As a jobsite superintendent in this low to medium price-range I learned that it was easier and less time-consuming, after all of the punch-list repairs were made by the subcontractors, to do final prep repairs myself along with assistant superintendents and customer service staff, in order to aim for zero-item homebuyer walkthroughs.

            Newly constructed houses in the slightly higher middle price-ranges require some mix of subcontractor pickup repairs plus some amount of builder prep-crew final touches to achieve final acceptable quality.

            In my opinion, people in building construction who say: “the subcontractors should be able to make their final pickup repairs to produce homebuyer walkthroughs having zero number of itemized complaints” are leaving-out the important qualifying information as to the price-range of the houses being discussed. 

            Final quality is not an apples-to-apples comparison when house prices can range from $200 thousand to $10 million.  

Projects that Finish Late Lose Money at the Back-End

            Staying with this theme of the management of project costs, one consideration for new housing projects large and small is that construction loan interest becomes larger at the tail-end of the project.

            Construction loan interest costs are fixed monthly expenses which must be paid to avoid a loan going into default.

            They are calculated on the total amount of funds that have been disbursed through the loan, and are therefore a growing unpaid balance until the property is sold and the loan balance is paid off.

            At the beginning of the construction the disbursements out of the construction loan are relatively small compared to the total loan amount, and thus the interest costs are also relatively small. 

            But the vigilant management of time and the sense of urgency in prosecuting the work should never let-up from start to finish, because time gets more expensive as the construction progresses and disbursements accumulate.  

            This is one reason why constructability analysis based upon recorded past lessons-learned is a proactive investment in preventing construction problems that cause delays in time. 

            Unanticipated design and construction problems arise throughout the course of the actual construction can cause work stoppages, which dovetail with other adverse events like bad weather or materials procurement problems.

            Proactive and preventive debugging should be a part of the upfront analysis in terms of minimizing loan interest costs at the tail-end of the project, or equally important the inflated costs of jobsite congestion of workforces to accelerate the work to catch up on the schedule.

            Paying two or three months of loan interest costs at the end of the project for a high-end luxury house that has a loan balance of several million dollars outstanding because the structural plans had problems requiring re-design and resubmittal to the city/county for plan check, part-way into the construction, is a difficult financial pill to swallow.

            The same concept applies to tract housing, custom homes, and apartment projects.  Time is money, whether in construction loan interest or lost rental income, when projects are completed late.

            The point here is to suggest that the value of preventive constructability analysis upfront can be viewed in hindsight as huge when looking back on the costs of a project that finished late. 

            The value of mistake prevention looking forward at the start of a new project is difficult to calculate. 

            How could the avoidance of a future potential problem that was eliminated ahead-of-time, that did not occur, be evaluated in terms of dollars? 

            The idea that diligence and urgency is an approach that should be applied uniformly and universally throughout the duration of a housing construction project from start to finish is a concept that is reinforced by the accelerating accumulation of loan interest costs as the work progresses.          

Note: For builders, architects, interior designers, tradespersons, college professors, and students around the world viewing these construction blogs and videos, go to my You Tube channel at Barton Jahn to see longer videos.

Decision Bottleneck for Builder’s Interior Design

            For the high-end homebuilder doing a combination of custom homes having a homebuyer client, and spec-houses (short for completed homes built on the speculation they will attract a buyer), there exists the downside of the single decision-maker at the top of the company becoming a decision bottleneck.

            For the small-sized custom-home and spec builder of a few houses per year, this is not usually a problem. 

            It stands to reason that the owner atop of the homebuilding company makes the aesthetic/artistic decisions regarding the myriad of small and large architectural and interior decision decisions, in coordination with the architect and clients as the case may require.

            This decision-making function affects the bottom-line economics for each individual project and thus the success and solvency of the company.

            However, when the size of the successful homebuilding company expands it can reach a point where decisions that are repetitive should be standardized so as to minimize the number of individual decisions to a manageable quantity.  Otherwise, the single decision-maker at the top of the company can quickly become a bottleneck of unaddressed lingering questions and issues that adversely affect the construction schedule.

            This is best done in the proactive mode, long before a crisis in leadership and time-management emerges.

            For example, if a medium high-end homebuilder always uses as standard a 3-1/2”  wide casing around interior doors and windows, and often has wood paneling wainscot from the floor to mid-way up the walls in various hallways and rooms, then the wall-framing returns at each rough door opening should universally be understood to be a minimum of six inches.  This should be the standard on every project, whether or not this is called-out on the plans. 

            Six inches minus 5/8” for the thickness of drywall leaves enough space for the door casing and wall wainscot…wood or ceramic tile. 

            For the door casing to fit without it having to be cut to a narrower width, this standard knowledge regarding the rough framing around interior door openings must be repeated on project after project without ever having to ask the question. 

            The exception would be in the case where the homebuyer requests larger width casing, or the high price of a particular house requires an upgrade in the width and detail of the door casing.

            For a kitchen floor plan layout that is repeated every third or fourth house, for example, dimensions from the kitchen-sink wall to an island cabinet should be standardized, so that the plumber and the electrician already know where to come up through the concrete slab with their pipes and conduit.

            If the kitchens all have pot-fillers (water pipe coming out of the wall with swivel arms and a handle-valve for adding water to pots and pans directly at the kitchen range-top) above the kitchen ranges, the height in inches above the rough floor elevation for these pot-fillers should be standardized.

            In secondary bathrooms, the location, size, and dimension in inches above the rough floor for the shampoo niche rough framed opening, should be standardized. 

            In secondary bathrooms, the layout and dimensioning of the various valves for the bathtubs and showers should be standardized. 

            The width and the length of the inside dimensions of the minimum-sized secondary bath should be standardized, so that a 2’-8” doors opening in front of a toilet does not hit the toilet. 

            The height of sconce lights and the top of mirrors in secondary baths should also be standardized.

            These and fifty other things can be standardized long before a successful homebuilder grows to the point that the decision-maker at the top of the company becomes an information bottleneck, answering the same repetitive questions over and over.        

In-House Interior Design

            One downside of having an in-house interior design person or small group within the office staff for the high-end custom homebuilder is that some of the architectural and all of interior design decisions are managed from within the homebuilding company.

            The homebuilder then owns the myriad of RFI’s (requests for information) which are now internal within the company staff and cannot be “farmed-out” to an outside, independent interior designer “of record” to answer and resolve.

            If not addressed in an organized, systematic, and timely manner these RFI’s internally circulated can quickly snowball into questions and issues that delay the construction operations in the field.

            The standard, arms-length arrangement of owner/architect/general contractor divides up the varied duties, roles, and responsibilities into relatively clear lines of demarcation. 

            Questions from the construction as requests for missing information in the plans and specifications that arise during the course of the construction are handled through RFI’s from the general contractor to the architect and/or structural engineer, for example.

            These RFI’s are then individually monitored for timely response by the general contractor. 

            RFI’s which have not been answered that might adversely affect the construction schedule are communicated to the owner, often during the weekly owner/builder meeting.  The owner then contacts the appropriate design professional regarding the particular question or issue.    

            The point here is that if the owner, being the spec homebuilder and/or custom homebuilder, is the party generating new architectural information by moving walls, changing interior layouts, moving interior doors, etc., and thereby making all of the interior design decisions, then a “circular firing squad” reality is created.

            In this arrangement, the builder would be sending RFI’s to itself, which in practice becomes the reality.

            If RFI’s are by definition always discovered in the reactive mode through questions unearthed during the course of the construction, and these questions belong to the builder rather than to outside consultants such as the architect or interior designer, then the builder generating these questions and problems through their own in-house decisions must have an adequate response mechanism in-place internally to be able to react in a timely manner.  

            The procedure of sending RFI’s to the appropriate design consultant and expecting prompt replies no longer exists for the builder co-opting design decisions through in-house interior designers and owner’s changes. 

Out-of-Pocket Expenses and the Construction Loan

            While working as the vice-president and onsite project manager for the construction of four high-end houses in Newport Coast in Southern California, the construction lender could not entirely cover the “hard-costs” for each of these houses having sales prices of $6.75 to $12.5 million (in year 2002). 

            The brick-and-mortar hard-costs for each house exceeded their loan limits.

            We therefore capitalized (owner’s equity) 18-1/2% of the upfront costs of the construction budget, paying out-of-pocket for the concrete work and part of the lumber costs. 

            The idea here is to postpone the disbursement of construction loan funds to a later point in time during the construction, so that the clock for loan interest costs begins part-way into the total project duration. 

            This meant that the construction loan did not start until roughly four months into the construction of each house, saving on loan interest costs reduced from the full 18-month construction schedule to 14 months.

            The suggestion here is that if some portion of the construction costs must be capitalized by the builder, from a loan interest cost-perspective it may be cheaper to fund the front-end of the project.

            I also worked for nine years as a construction manager for a bank. 

            Several savvy, single-family builders manipulated their construction disbursements to minimize loan interest payments. 

            Even though the construction budget lines itemized on the construction loan document have the required funds for each category of the work, the borrower is not required to withdraw/use these funds for every budget line-item during the course of the construction.

            Some borrowers would complete the construction and sell the new house, close escrow, and pay-off the loan, yet still have unused funds in several categories in the budget like HVAC, flooring, landscaping, supervision, and builder’s fee, for example.

            By not using all of the funds in the construction loan, these borrowers elected to save on loan interest costs by capitalizing some of the work out-of-pocket.

            The construction lender is required to adequately fund the new construction project by having all the budget line-items covered.  This banking requirement was regularly audited by a government agency, in our case the OTS (The Office of Thrift Supervision).

            But the borrower is not under any requirement to use all of the funds itemized in the loan budget. 

            Loan interest costs are calculated on the funds disbursed-to-date, and not on unused funds undisbursed in the loan.

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