Generator for the Sales Models Opening

            Electrical power is needed for the interior lighting, air-conditioning, audio-music, video presentations and vocal narrative, and office equipment and telephones in the sales models and the sales office.

            If there is a chance that final inspection and occupancy approval might not be given by the city building department in enough time for the electrical utility company to set the meters and turn on the electricity, the builder should plan to use a generator in the interim.

            The builder should plan ahead for this temporary generator as an option, so there is no last-minute rush trying to obtain electrical power.

            A location for the generator must be found that is out of sight behind a building, wind-screened fence, or trees to minimize noise and to not detract from the sales models and sales office campus.

            The builder must also arrange for periodic refueling of the generator.  The generator must also be large enough to handle the required electrical load. 

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.  

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. 

Keeping Self-Perform Work Crews Busy

            For the builder of single-family houses, there is a sweet-spot compromise between finding and keeping competent yet economical subcontractors, and maintaining a crew of in-house, self-performing tradespeople.

            I once worked, in my middle twenties, for a home remodeling contractor in a thriving beach community.

            This general contractor employed a full-time crew of six people including himself, and a part-time employee doing occasional rough cleanup.  He engaged the usual specialty subcontractors…plumbing, electrical, HVAC, cabinets, drywall, etc.  Our crew did the demolition, concrete, framing, and finish carpentry.     

            The challenge for this remodeling contractor was to always keep enough work out in front of us so we were busy five days a week and occasional Saturdays. 

            This locally popular remodeling contractor would tell new prospective clients he would accept their project, but it would take three months before the start date.  The other balancing act was to get the subcontractors to show up on time and with full-size crews, as they also had their own challenge of keeping their workforce busy.

            Later in my career, I worked for a large single-family homebuilder doing a mix of “spec” and custom homes in an upscale, economically high-end location.

            This builder employed a self-perform workforce crew of 50-plus people in eight specialty trades…plumbing, electrical, finish carpentry, painting, low-voltage, concrete flatwork, tile, and general labor. 

            This homebuilder subcontracted the other major trades.

            The scheduling and coordination of these varied work crews, some having 4 or 5 people and others having crew-sizes of 10 to 12 people, resulted in several projects sitting empty and unmanned for days as crews were shifted daily in the reactive mode of “putting-out fires.”

            The primary challenge for this builder was to keep each person within this 50-man crew busy for a full 40-hour work-week.  This establishes the stability of the workforce.  It reduces the turnover that would otherwise occur if employees could not depend upon full-time paychecks.

            The problem with this approach is that building trades have different lengths of time for each activity during the housing construction.

            Plumbers may be needed at the jobsite for one house for 20 separate periods of time, with crew sizes ranging from one to four plumbers, from the ground up over a 9-month construction schedule.    

            Four plumbers may be needed for the under-slab work, three plumbers for the rough plumbing water, gas, and waste & vent, and two plumbers installing the finish plumbing. 

            These activities can last one week, four weeks, and one week respectively.

            But in-between these larger activities are 12 or 15 smaller activities of one or two-day durations requiring one or two plumbers.

            All of this has to be coordinated with the other in-house building trades, each having different activities of different length times and crew sizes.

            By employing specialty trades in order to be both economical and have control over the quality of the work, the builder in this example in essence supervised and managed eight disparate in-house subcontractors.

            The logistics problem of balancing different activities, different crew sizes for each activity, different lengths of time for each activity, and the efficiency requirement of keeping every tradesperson busy and productive over a 40-hour workweek, exposed the downsides of the self-perform approach.

            This becomes more complicated in terms of manpower scheduling when a builder has projects with 9-month, 10-month, and 12-month construction durations for houses ranging from 4,500 to 8,000 square foot size.

            Absent a sophisticated computer program and flawless, two-way communication between the field and the office on a daily and hourly basis, the practical realization was that there always had to be more houses under construction than workers to fully man each jobsite.

            This meant that some or all of the houses took longer to complete than they otherwise should have.

            This meant that homebuyers could not move into their new homes on time.

            If every person within a large self-perform crew of diverse specialty trades must be kept busy, then what has to expand as a variable is the construction schedule.

            In the three-way relationship between the project budget, the construction schedule, and quality…if the economics of maintaining an in-house, self-perform crew predominates…then time suffers.

            Using subcontractors can be frustrating in terms of controlling manpower and production rates and in maintaining consistent quality. 

            But expanding into multiple diverse specialty work crews in-house is not the panacea that it might appear at first glance.        

Review Sales Model Changes for Building Code Violations

            I once worked in the construction management department of a bank, that foreclosed on a builder who could not financially complete a project during an economic recession.

            My assignment was to the complete the construction of 25 houses, which were 80 to 90 percent complete.

            During a courtesy pre-final building inspection, the county building inspector called-out a code violation in 17 of the houses.  The violation was a 36” long gas cooktop placed on kitchen countertops directly below upper cabinets that contained 30” long microwave ovens. 

            This resulted in 3 inches of wood cabinets on each side of the microwave oven that was directly above the cooktop burners.  The vertical clearance between the upper cabinets and the lower cabinet countertop was 15 inches, rather than the minimum 18 inches that was required for wood cabinets above gas cooktop burners.

            When reviewing the plans, I saw that the architect had correctly drawn a 30” long cooktop beneath the 30” microwave oven (the microwave oven is considered non-combustible).

            But the builder had decided to upgrade the cooktops to 36 inches during the sales model construction. 

            The county building inspector apologized for having missed this builder’s change on the sales models, but still required us to change the cooktops to 30”, which resulted in expensive ceramic tile repairs to the kitchen countertops affected.

            The point in this example is that the builder changed the size of a kitchen appliance, contrary to the design plans and without the knowledge of the architect, and was unaware of the building code considerations.

            Because the cabinet manufacturer worked entirely from the design plans, the only people aware of the cooktop upgrade were the cabinet installers cutting the larger openings in the cabinet plywood rough-top, and the ceramic tile installers.  Neither of these two groups of tradespersons could be expected to know the broader subtleties of the building codes or the manufacturer’s recommendations involving appliance clearances from wood cabinets.

            If the builder had informed the architect of all changes so they could be reviewed in terms of compliance with the building codes…this costly mistake would have been noticed by the architect, the design plans revised, and the problem altogether prevented.

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