defense of the other side

There is an old stereotype that architects and contractors are adversaries. I’ve experienced that, but I don’t condone it or try to perpetuate it. I know there are dishonest people out there and horror stories about hiring a contractor which turns out to be a nightmare. We could go into a discussion on how to choose a good contractor, but today’s post starts after that process. My comments are more specifically about the Owner-Contractor relationship, but could extend to hiring any professional to do a service for you.

I believe it is important to see things from the contractor’s point of view. I am not the contractor’s voice or speaking for contractors; I am just sharing my observations to maintain balance after years of listening to several contractors with whom I have very good relationships. Let me share a few points to consider if you plan on hiring a contractor or are currently working with one. In each situation, it presumes you have done your homework and selected a company that is reputable and comes highly recommended. Again, how you choose a contractor is extremely important, but these points are things to consider once you’ve made a list of good people with whom you truly intend to work with on the project.

Do unto others and don’t kick the tires – If you contact a contractor, have full intentions on hiring them if you find good chemistry and the terms of their offer is fair and respectable. Contractors (especially for residential projects) often have to meet in the evening with prospective customers. This takes them away from their families and whatever else they would normally choose to do with their evenings or weekends. Therefore, don’t abuse their time simply because it is “expected” that they give up this time to find new work. The Golden Rule is always the best principle to follow.

The early bird gets the project – If you are working with an architect or other design professional, I have found the best value and success in projects is where we (the project team) have selected a contractor during the design phase and not after the construction drawings are fully complete. This does away with the age-old tradition of getting three competitive bids. However, I have found this method yields the best value to the customer and a greater willingness on the contractor’s part to do things right and/or make things right. They will feel like a respected member of the design team and not in an “us versus them” scenario. Their early contributions are invaluable to the direction the design takes. The competitive bid process may make you believe you are getting a lower price, but in the end, the potential for change orders, cost overruns, lack of quality and other disputes is high.

All we are saying…is give them a chance – If you do wish to pursue a competitive or multiple bid process, only invite contractors whom you fully intend to hire if their terms are right. In other words, don’t contact another contractor at the last-minute just to get another quote to see if your first two are fair. If you are not going to consider them seriously, don’t ask them to bid. In the world of “free estimates” we’ve forgotten (or never knew) that it takes many hours and thousands of dollars to bid a project. Every nail and every board has to be considered which takes a lot of time, phone calls, sub-contractor prices and effort to develop a single number. There are pages and pages of quotes and information that is represented by their bid. Maybe a free estimate is fair to get your tires replaced, but it’s not free to develop a bid for your construction project. Remember the Golden Rule from before?

It’s a building not a used car – Once the contractor has submitted a price, bid or other cost of the work, that’s the price based on whatever scope of work, drawings, specifications or terms you’ve set. For goodness sake, do not start negotiating like you’re buying a car. Don’t assume they’re cheating you and still making a boat load of money anyway. That’s not the type of relationship that will lead to success. If the cost of the work is too high or above your budget, then you will obviously need to delete something or change the quality of some portion of the project. Lastly, do not expect one contractor to “comp” his price because you have another, lower quote from another contractor. If you want to work with this contractor pay his price. If not, move on. There is probably a good reason the other contractor is lower…he’s likely not giving you something or not giving you the same quality. The proverb “you get what you pay for” is true in this instance.

Finish before you start – It is common that in a residential project the homeowner will want to hire out portions of the work on their own or do portions of the work themselves. I did this in my own home. However, when this happens and the homeowner and contractor have come to terms with this, it is really important to allow the contractor to fully complete their work before anyone else gets involved. Trying to work while they are working only leads to a mess and the potential for a dispute. If you think you can sneak in a get some work done while the contractor is mobilized on the job site, there is the potential to upset their schedule and cost them money. It will breed frustration and the relationship will begin to fail. There must be very clear communication between the parties in this instance.

If the work you are coordinating must happen in the course of the general contractor’s work, it is really important to be sure your schedule doesn’t interrupt theirs. For instance, if you want your Uncle Louie to do the plumbing work and the general contractor agrees to it, then be sure Uncle Louie shows up when he is supposed to show up. If he is late because he took a fishing trip the week he was scheduled, he will delay the general contractor’s schedule and could cause him and you a lot of money. This shows tremendous disrespect towards everyone else involved on the project. Contractors have relationships with many sub-contractors who probably work for them on a regular basis. If you upset the drywall installer’s schedule, it will upset the painter’s, the finish carpenter’s, the flooring contractor’s, the electrician’s and the kitchen installer’s amongst a few people. You will be responsible for the delay. Don’t expect the contractor to pay for this and don’t expect him to stick to the original schedule. It might take weeks, even months to get his sub-contractors back to the job site again…because, yes they have other work.

It seems every interpersonal relationship and business venture comes down to simple principles. Treat people with respect, treat them the way you wish to be treated, do your homework, and be wise. Think of the other side occasionally.



top photo is from martymadrid’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

bottom photo is from Mars Hill Church’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

defense of the other side

5 thoughts on “defense of the other side

  1. Great summary. I’ve now been on both sides; currently as the architect, assisting clients with tracking down contractors, and previously, working design-build with a contractor. The relationship is two-sided; if we want there to be respect, then we give it. At the same time, as I have recently experienced, we sometimes have to demand some respect ourselves. As a small practice myself, I am meeting with clients off hours, responding to emails late at night. My clients expect prompt responses from me, which I work hard to do. So far, as we’ve weeded through contractors, this has been difficult to find. Shouldn’t we be able to expect the same professional courtesy? I know that, of anything, if the contractors I’ve tried to work with so far could at least be prompt with communication, much of the stress and anxiety felt by my clients would be mitigated.

    PS…I doubt if you remember me, but I am a CMU grad ’03. Glad to see CMU has professor’s like you around.

    1. I like your comments about respect. It should govern all of our relationships. Yes I remember you well. I’m glad you’re off doing your thing after all of these years. Thanks for the kind words. I’m still teaching…first year students this semester. When I talk about studio culture and the profession, I speak of two words that guide the entire process, respect and values. The rest falls into place from there.

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