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Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

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Increasing Value for the Building Dollar

In recent years, residential and commercial property owners have increasingly emphasized the achievement of high value for each building dollar as a primary goal in their renovation and new construction projects.

Achieving high value involves getting the most of what one needs and wants for the least amount of resources — money, but also time and energy. (No one needs hassles!) Often high value and low cost are thought of as synonymous. They are not. For example, if an inexpensive service is done poorly, it is of minimal value to us.

The best way to get the most value in building work is to do it properly and efficiently — the first time.

Value erodes rapidly when mistakes are made and work must be revised or completely redone. Mistakes are frequently due to:

  • a design professional’s failure to develop the design with sufficient care and thoroughness because he requested an inadequate fee
  • the failure of one or more of the parties involved in the work to communicate or record information fully and clearly
  • expeditious, but unverified, design assumptions by the different construction crews working on the project, often accompanied by careless, inattentive, or too-narrowly-focused work efforts

What basic actions might property owners take to eliminate a number of these mistakes and increase the value received for their building dollars?

Design Mistakes

First, it is useful to distinguish the general area in which design professionals are most competent from that in which general contractors are most knowledgeable.

Architects and engineers have been trained to seek and organize information about building and space problems that they can then use to propose creative, yet functional design solutions. These professionals rarely gather detailed cost information for the materials and installation procedures they may use in a design. They also seldom know the cost of many of the common construction procedures that will be used to complete your project. General contractors, however, deal with many types of construction costs on a daily basis as they estimate project after project.

As the owner, you set the tone for the quality of the design effort you are likely to receive by the type of professionals you select and the conditions you establish under which they are asked to do their work. To achieve the higher level of care and thoroughness in your project design work that will reduce mistakes, your consultants should have a track record of carefully produced work, a personal orientation toward detail, a solid working knowledge of construction, and sufficient time in their schedule to handle your work properly. Once selected, they will require adequate compensation, timely decisions by you, and a measure of trust that gives them sufficient flexibility to do their job well. Owners who provide these things should expect to receive excellent work and efficient service at a fair price.

To keep the cost of proposed designs within project budget limits, the general contractor’s cost and building knowledge must be brought to bear on the project’s design as it is being developed, rather than after it has been completed. Your general contractor should be selected when the design consultants are chosen, and should be compensated for his or her assistance as is any other consultant. The general contractor’s construction advice and periodic cost estimates are invaluable in helping maintain the economic viability of a design as it is developed.

Communication Mistakes

Communication failures in building work can be minimized if, at the start of the project work, you, your architect, and your general contractor agree to use a standard way of communicating information that is easy for everyone. Further, any direct line of communication you desire with other individuals involved in the work — subcontractors, manufacturers, consulting engineers, government officials, etc. — who would normally limit their direct communication to the architect or builder, must be clearly understood. A simple written format and a notification schedule can be set up to communicate project decisions. Regularly scheduled project meetings that use a standard agenda format to run efficiently should be considered.

The intent of developing a simple communication structure is to assure, facilitate, and organize the transfer of information and decisions. The structure must be sufficiently formal to work, without being overly cumbersome to use. Everyone on the project must be asked to work with it.

Construction Mistakes

Again you, the owner, set the tone for the kind of construction performance you will get by the type of general contractor you select to do the work. When a company has a committed leader, the likelihood is high that many of the good work habits and values he has will be reflected in the company’s office and field employees, as well as in the subcontractors with whom the company prefers to work. Similarly, a general contractor’s shortcomings may telegraph through the company’s personnel.

Because there is considerable risk involved in construction, competent general contractors approach their project work in a deliberate, methodical way. They understand the importance of taking the time to provide thoughtful, anticipatory management to make the building process run as predictably, cost-effectively, and trouble-free as possible. They also budget sufficient funds in their construction estimates to cover this management time.

To make certain that things are built correctly the first time, good contractors become very familiar with all the information provided to them on the project drawings and in the specifications. Before performing the work, they take the time to notify the design professionals about questionable items they see in these documents. Smart architects and engineers try to respond quickly to the general contractor’s questions and concerns to avoid later problems that unnecessarily interrupt the flow of the work and its timely completion.

While each project subcontractor retains responsibility for the proper performance of his or her portion of the work, good general contractors make certain that their subcontractors understand how and when their work needs to be done to fit within the overall project schedule. They alert subcontractors about areas of work that will require careful interfacing with the work of other trades, and make certain that their own crew’s preparatory site work is completed to allow subcontractors to arrive on site and work as efficiently as possible. Savvy general contractors monitor the quality of their subcontractors’ early work and make them aware of work quality that is unacceptable before too much work is completed.


Mistakes will occur in every building project. Thorough planning and alert project management will minimize their number and severity, and require that a greater portion of the project budget be allocated for design and management work to get the most value for each dollar spent for the actual building work.

While you may be tempted to view mistakes made by your design consultants and contractors as their problems, like it or not, their problems will ultimately become your problems. If they feel financial pressure to recover some of the cost to correct previous mistakes and start to lower the amount of time given to your work from what they had planned to give it, the erosion of value for your building dollar has begun.

That need not occur.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767