Falling off a roof is bad, and stepping on a live wire can be worse, but a less-obvious kind of remodeling danger lurks in the simple action of assuming that the homeowner – or the trade contractor, lumber supplier, lead carpenter, laborer, or just about any other party involved – is on the same page as you regarding the cost, schedule, and actual execution a remodeling project.
"The key is communication," said Andy Hannan in a seminar at the Remodeling Show in Baltimore on September 10. "The most dangerous thing is the illusion that it’s been understood."
Hannan is the production manager for Mark IV Builders, an award-winning design-build residential remodeling company in Bethesda, Md. In a seminar called "Jobsite and Project Organization Tools," he underscored some of the key systems used at Mark IV Builders to ensure that project unfold according to schedule and budget, and that the clients and the company alike are pleased with the results.
Systems at Work
With an average job size near $300,000, Mark IV Builders is a high-end company, but its systems can be applied to companies of any size, says Hannan. The effect is that your clients will see you as highly professional and organized, and they will trust that their home is in good hands.
Mark IV Builders’ systems consist of reporting forms, protocols, and meetings, and they include:
Job preparation meeting: Held at the point of the sales-to-production hand-off, this brings together the project salesperson, superintendent (Mark IV’s term for its very self-directed lead carpenters), and production manager. They review a “project book” that is essentially a package of materials summarizing the project: contact information for all parties, client goals and expectations, job contract, project specifications, permits, all subcontractors involved. No work commences until the superintendent understands the full scope and details of the project.
Preconstruction checklist: The final meeting pre-construction, this is the "up-front contract" between the client and the company. Rules are outlined and documented, including daily start and stop times, dust-protection measures to be taken, eating areas (Mark IV allows no smoking on its jobsites, by the way), and whom to contact in case of emergency. Clients have the cell and home phone numbers of Mark IV staff, Hannan says, but “our guys have permission to decide if something is not an emergency and can be handled the next business day."
Field office: Every Mark IV superintendent has a "field office in a box" – essentially, a set of materials that he uses to set up a small desk, shelving unit, and bulletin board on every significant project, typically in a garage or corner. Info posted on the bulletin board includes a color coded master schedule for the project, a color-coded two-week schedule, all inspections and permits, and a "catastrophe plan," in the event of fire or other catastrophe. Another helpful item is a list of the most commonly cited inspection problems, cited from the county in which Mark IV does much of its work. Inspection citations plummeted after this list was posted, Hannan says. The shelves hold miscellaneous supplies.
On-site meetings: Meetings with clients are held weekly, with the first item discussed always being schedule: where are we, what got done last week, what will get done this week. Everything is documented and sealed with the signatures of all parties. This includes change orders, meeting notes, and critical action items that must be attended to, such as selecting finishes or moving furniture.
Training and Trust
Developing and enforcing systems is work, Hannan says, "but it’s not complicated. Systems are habits, like getting dressed in the morning." And clients and staff alike generally adapt to them surprisingly quickly. "Train the client early on in how you do business," he says, "and they’ll be fully accustomed to your methods by the time production begins."
He adds that behind the forms and meetings are attitudes and mindsets that enable Mark IV to work efficiently and harmoniously. Staff are chosen and trained carefully and rigorously, for instance, and both he and owner Mark Scott employ a hands-off, trust-but-verify attitude that empowers project superintendents to take full ownership of their projects.
Being trusted – and paid on salary, not by the hour, it’s worth noting – creates a culture of accountability and pride. "Superintendents are like pitchers," says Hannan (who spends much of his spare time as a baseball umpire). "They all prepare differently, but they all have the goal of pitching a great game."