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Business Advisor

My 8th Commandment: Never Let the Client…

There is no greater peril to a green builder/remodeler (or any builder/remodeler, for that matter) than a client who insists on having you do something outside your comfort zone. Clients ask us to do some crazy and some not-so-crazy things for any number of reasons, but trust me: As often as not, these requests are trains at the end of the tunnel, not light!

Usually, these requests are just that—a request. The client saw something on TV or the Internet, and believes it makes sense for his home. He may just like the way it looks, he may believe in the advertised performance aspects of the item in question, or perhaps he had it in his last home or knows someone else who tried it and swears by it.

But other times these requests are more than requests. Occasionally, the client will be adamant and insist the idea in question is a deal-breaker. That is, you do what he requests or the project is canceled and he will find someone else to do the work. Other times, his desires may be wrapped in a little subterfuge. You may also be cajoled by friendly persuasion. Or worse yet, the client may go around your back and try to wheel and deal directly with the architect, trade partner, or your superintendent to get his way.

Regardless of the client’s motives or methodology, you have the responsibility to draw the line in the sand and protect yourself, your company, your family, and ultimately your client from making a decision you cannot stand behind. The key is not letting it become a zero-sum game. If you capitulate and design, buy, build, craft, install, finish, or try warranting something you haven’t done your homework on, it will come back to haunt you.

This is not to say our company has not received some great ideas over the years from clients who have helped us push beyond our capabilities and work outside our comfort zone. We have before, and hopefully will get the opportunity again with each new client. The difference maker is we do our research and follow our gut instincts ahead of time. Key word here is “we.” That’s right, when asked to do something outside our processes or standard specs, we get others involved to help do the research and make the right choice. Those team members that help ensure the correct decision is made include some combination of architect, supplier, installer, superintendent, or anybody else who can help us troubleshoot the potential pitfalls.

No Lone Ranger is making the call himself in these situations. A team decision helps prevent us from doing something we do not believe is right for the client, his home, and our companies. That’s my 8th Commandment for you: Never let the client dictate the scope of work outside your comfort zone.


  1. Dina Lima | | #1

    Outside Your Comfort Zone
    Thanks for the insight Michael!

    I agree with you. This brings to my memory a time when I had to turn a build job down because the prospect wanted to dictate everything from the very beginning. To me, this was a red flag, especially for someone who wanted to build an energy-efficient home, but lacked the understanding as to how all systems work together.

    We all read so many different ideas and opinions as to building with energy efficiency in mind in magazines and online, and so do home buyers. However, great builders and remodelers educate clients/prospects on what works and doesn't, especially when considering the climate zone, home orientation, etc.

  2. Brian O' Hanlon | | #2

    Big players versus small ones
    I am reading through chapters of a great book, Boyd & Chinyio wrote recently called, Understanding the Construction Client. I think that is the exact title name. Anyhow, I was debating with someone recently about building companies and products. The suppliers are often founded and run by engineers rather than business people. You can end up in a situation where a building products supplier has 20 different products on offer. Run a mile. Chances are, not even one product is fully considered. People who have went to business school instead of engineering school, tend to view things differently, and are more interested in the one right product the company should learn to master. There is enough challenge in doing just that. It often takes a real confrontation between the engineering staff and new management to bring this problem to the fore. I have seen it happen.

    Suffice it to say, that major building development companies are generally not interested in buying the latest whiz bang product straight out of the laboratory, and being the incubators for that product. Generally speaking, for the larger development companies (which Boyd & Chinyio discuss as 'clients' in their book mentioned above), there is enough risk to take in using established materials and methods - even materials and methods they have used several times before - besides being the guinea pig for something new.

    That is the crazy thing I have noticed in going from working with small development companies to the larger ones. The higher up you move in the world of construction, the less risky people are in terms of the building products they order. And believe me, when you are dealing in volumes of even the most basic 'bricks and mortar' technological solution, on a large project there is more than ample room for things to go pear shaped. Because even the smallest mistake becomes multiplied so many times, and you do not want to discover that when the project is almost completed.

    The industry will benefit from more practitioners who understand some of those basic points about risk management. You go with even the most familiar solution, in terms of technology, that you have used on countless numbers of projects - and still, you are exposed to a fairly high degree of risk at implementation or 'construction' stage - without even venturing into the area of new products. On the other hand, a new product if well designed, can be used for the first time ever, and serve to negate many, many risks which building projects were exposed to in the past.

    I think the correct arena for this discussion that Michael has highlighted, is that of risk management. That field of expertise has certain basic rules and insights, which are general, wherever they can be applied - construction included. If a new product looks promising in terms of the risk it is designed to mitigate, versus the new-ness risk inherent, then I think it will make its way past the quality control checks it has to go through.

  3. Michael Strong, LEED Associate, CGP | | #3

    New Product Risk Management
    Brian, you nailed it on the head at the end. And the problem for for many other custom builders or remodelers is that their risk management department is headed by the same person in charge of selling, estimating, ordering, etc.... Like so much else done in residential construction, its the wild, wild west out there and risk mangement is very often simply seat of the pants. Not necessarily inaccurate, more simply less science and more art.

  4. Brian O' Hanlon | | #4

    Section Views
    I am back in education these times, and on a pretty intensive learning curve. I am being introduced to subjects such as cost planning, contract law, estimation, value management, risk management and a host of other areas. Many things really, that I had only skimmed over in a previous life as a student.
    I asked a question (or tried to phrase something in words, to try and convey the meaning of a question), and was rather un-successful a while ago, with a high-up structural engineer here in Ireland. I guess, I didn't know the right vocabulary to phrase the question, in a way that made sense to other construction professionals at the seminar. It is really embarassing when you make a mess of a question, which you believe is of very deep importance. It is really embarassing when you do it in front of an audience at a seminar.
    But the bones of what I wanted to ask the structural engineer was - when architects draw a section through a piece of construction, they draw a section through the only place in that particular piece of construction, where everything is correct. That is, everything is where it aught to be. If you cut lazer views through the same piece of construction in real life, at various intervals - the chances are, you would not encounter one instance, where all of the elements as described by the architect in the section drawing, ended up, where they should have ended up.
    In other words, in the present contractual system, a Contractor receives a drawing from an architect, which is only an idealised representation of the real life article. A bit like that notion economists have of the perfect market. So it is up to the Contractor to identify the areas, which will add risk to his task of perfoming the construction as per the architects instruction.
    Would it not make sense, to have a contractual arrangement, where the architect could prempt a lot of this, and draw several sections through a piece of construction - and tell the Contractor what to do, in each situation, which departs from the ideal section as drawn.
    It is like someone once said to me. A brick is 215mm L, 102.5mm W and 65mm H. But you could go through an entire palette of bricks and not find a single one, which possessed those dimensions precisely. In fact, if you did find a brick which was exactly those dimensions, you should probably retain it as a rarity. So in real life, architects do not draw their lines on their drawing 102.5mm width, to represent a brick course. 100mm width is okay, and it makes it easier to manage when drawing details etc.
    Getting back to my point about an architectural section drawing - it would greatly reduce the price associated with risk in basic tendering processes - if the architect highlighted the lightly deviations from the ideal construction detail, up front in the process. And suggested to the Contractor the best solutions when encountering X, Y and Z variations owing to tolerances of real materials and real construction.
    It is a question of cost, when it boils down to it. A question of trade offs, between millimeter precision and ease/speed of assembly. Many architects out there, do not understand cost control to the degree to which they can receive significant refunds from the Contractor, for the mere action of identify and pre-solving many of the common problems that arise in construction.
    Structural engineering on the other hand, has embraced this a long, long time ago. They tend to use the section drawing as it should be used. They will slice through the construction in several places, in order that the Contractor can offer a reasonable price for a piece of construction - because he is able to build up a clearer picture of what is involved, from the information provided by the structural engineer.
    We hear a lot of stuff about Integrated Project Delivery, Procurement systems and Value Engineering these days. And all of the wonderful technologies that can enable this to happen. But the biggest mistakes we are making is, not adding a few more architectural sections to our tender drawing sets.

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