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 they 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’-0” wide sliding glass door, for example, can be approved ahead-of-time up to a 10’-0” width if the proper paperwork is submitted.

            This does not mean that a brand and model of a 10’-0” wide sliding glass door unit isautomatically approved simply because it is approved up to 8’-0” 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’-0” wide sliding glass door units, but for a house that has a 10’-0” 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’-0”, or the architect specifies another sliding glass door that is approved up to 10’-0” 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, and not calling-out 60 square inches of garage vent per car, etc. (check current building codes for your location).

            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.    

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.

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.

            The idea is to look for dimensioning errors by adding-up dimensions across a page, checking 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 model 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. 

            The 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.

            This reduces the opportunities 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.

            As previously stated, this frees the field superintendent to spend more time on quality-control and time-management, and less time managing plans revisions and monitoring extras during the construction.

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.

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 did at the start of a new project is to cut-up an entire set of plans.  I then 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 appropriate backside pages of another clean set of plans.

            I 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” thick mudsills, similar door sizes, similar window sizes, structural beams and posts, etc.

            Finally, I would sketch various parts of the building that I think are more clearly illustrated in three-dimensions, make reduced copies, and clear-tape these illustrations on to the appropriate backside pages of the working set of plans that I am also adding reduced details to with 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 the physical building plans needs to become more user-friendly.

            People in the field are using physical print sets of plans, and are not carrying around a laptop computer or a tablet device containing the plans in digital form on a screen.

            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 $20 or $30 plastic model airplanes or battleships be better illustrated and more foolproof than design plans for a $20 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 often 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 wood or steel 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 and builder.

            They fall outside the parameters of the city plan check.

Debriefing Meetings and More

            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, 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. 

            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.  

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 often 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 wood or steel 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 and builder.

            They fall outside the parameters of the city plan check.

Red-Lined Plans and More

            Red-lined sets of plans are plans (blueprints) that have been corrected or modified in the field because of errors or owner’s changes.

            For multi-unit production tract housing and condominiums, red-lined plans are usually generated during the construction of the sales models which constitutes the trial-run phase before full-scale production begins.

            The construction of the sales models provides the time-period in the project when the construction is debugged and the owner makes interior floor plan and exterior elevation changes.

            The red-lined plans are then given back to the architect and engineers for revision so that a correct, updated set of plans can be used for the remainder of the construction.

            Red-lined plans enable the builder to identify common mistakes to look for on future plans.

            For example, laundry closets typically dimensioned 30 inches deep by the architect might be too tight for some brands of clothes dryers when the inclusion of the dryer vent hose and the gas pipe are taken into consideration, resulting in the wood bi-fold door bottom metal guides rubbing against the fronts of the appliances, for lack of space.

            I have seen plans that mistakenly show a bedroom wardrobe closet opening width of 5’-6”, when standard 2’-9” wide closet doors do not exist.

            These types of errors should become part of a growing checklist the builder uses as they analyze the plans before the start of every new project.

Homebuyer Walkthrough Sheets                            

            Homebuyer walkthrough sheets are a source for identifying quality-control items that slipped past the final phase of the construction, but were noticed by the homebuyer at the walkthrough.

            Some of these items are minor like missed paint touchup that are the result of time-crunch of completions, escrow closings, and move-ins that occur as closely sequenced events.

            But other items are actual bugs that show up repeatedly on several walkthroughs, and therefore require identification and attention in order to be eliminated going forward. 

Warranty Complaint Letters                        

            Warranty complaint letters are a source of quality-control and debugging information noticed after the homebuyers move into their homes.

            These letters are a means for evaluating the quality of the materials and products that were used, the construction methods, the warranty repair service of subcontractors in terms of response time and effectiveness, and the functional utility of some architectural designs.

            Warranty complaint letters also tell the builder how accurate in the homebuyer walkthrough in identifying issues that need to be resolved at or before homebuyer move-in. 

            If the walkthrough sheet lists only 4 minor items to repair at walkthrough, yet 60 days later the builder receives a customer service complaint letter listing 30 items that would or should have been obvious during the walkthrough, for example, and this is not an isolated, one-time occurrence but is the repetitive experience, this then tells the builder that something is wrong at the delivery phase of the new units.

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

Punch Lists & RFIs

            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.

RFIs (requests for information)                   

            Requests for information (RFIs) are written questions submitted to the architect or engineers by the builder or a subcontractor (through the builder) and involve conflicts or omissions on the plans, in the specifications, or some issue in the construction. 

            RFIs can also simply be a text or email of a problem in the construction using a smart-phone, sent to the architect or one of the engineers along with a follow-up telephone call, then memorialized also in a written RFI to document the problem and the solution.

            RFIs from a number of past projects can be a goldmine of information that can be organized and analyzed to be used in a checklist format to proactively debug the design plans for similar current and upcoming projects.

            Because RFIs generally are described and illustrated in sufficient detail and answered with equal specificity in addressing the problem or issue, RFIs are ready-made in that they can simply be applied to current and future upcoming projects to determine if similar conditions might produce similar questions or problems.

            Eliminating RFI’s proactively upfront before the actual construction begins can greatly improve all aspects of the project, from obtaining more accurate bids to avoiding time-consuming stoppages in the work.

            During the construction, quickly answered RFI’s eliminates the costly manpower inefficiency of having to temporarily move tradespeople around on the jobsite to other areas while a question or conflict is resolved.

            Having potential future RFI’s answered upfront while the project is still on paper is the best outcome for the builder, the designers, and for field personnel in terms of efficient time-management.

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.

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 is 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. 

            Building code violations highlight good construction practices that should be corrected and 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 specific 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 the project construction is completed, any subcontractor practices or materials causing building inspection corrections resulting in time delays can then be identified as future 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.

Quality-Control Versus Bugs

            Another aspect of reoccurring construction problems is found 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 are walls, how flat are floors 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 intentional resolve.

            Bugs, on the other hand, occur regardless of best intentions or performance levels simply because they surface by surprise.

            Foreknowledge of mass-production assembly-line type construction bugs is pure informational knowledge and has little 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, of 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. 

            As previously stated, they are the only individuals in a position to gather and maintain the required information…and budget the necessary time to analyze it. 

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