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Business Advisor

My 9th Commandment: Weak Plans & Specs = Weak Project

Ever have prospective clients ask you for a ballpark price on their home that “they won’t hold you to” during your first sales call? Even after they have shown you a plan view of the project or home without elevations? Maybe they have elevations but no engineering? Perhaps they have made no selections but say they just want “normal, nice fixtures like everyone else that are not too expensive”? You know — just a rough idea of how much per square foot. They want regular tile in the bathrooms but do not know the difference between ceramic, porcelain, and natural stone.

My favorite green versions include, “I don’t care what it costs, I just want off the grid!” and “We want to harvest all our rainwater and store it on site” and “I want a concrete house no matter what it costs!” And away we go, good order-takers running back to our spreadsheets, pricing away just like the clients ask. The worst part is that the clients turn down our prices and go with someone else. But aren’t we worse off if the clients accept our proposal and pricing and we have to build the project or home with less than fully informed clients?

The point is — and I remind our superintendents of this all the time — most of our clients are not stupid; they are ignorant. This is not meant as a knock; it just means that while they may be very smart people, most of them simply do not have experience or expertise in building and remodeling — high-performance green homes or otherwise. Thus, it is incredibly important for us to educate them on the pitfalls associated with incomplete, inaccurate, or inappropriate drawings, specifications, and selections.

We must stress to them that hundreds of decisions need to be made before a project can be finished — and the sooner those decisions are made, the better chance we have of controlling the costs and protecting their budget (and our profit). In an ideal world, all decisions would be made before drawings are finished and construction even begins. That means before pricing is finalized, the design (architect, engineer, designer) and building (builder, remodeler, specialty contractor) professionals working with the clients will have reviewed and made changes for the better to the blueprints, selections, and all specifications.

Say what you will, and knock the LEED for Homes Program or the NGBS all you want, but I have now participated in dozens of charettes with these programs and experienced firsthand how well they work. And they work to the betterment of the project goals and the client budget each and every time!

It is, in fact, our responsibility as design and building professionals to teach clients why allowances are dangerous, how expensive getting off the grid can be, the pros and cons of ceramic, porcelain and natural stone, so on and so forth. We must force decision making regarding design, specifications, and selections earlier in the design process — because incomplete, inaccurate, or inappropriate design, specifications, or selections will only cost us and our clients time and money working out these details in the field when they should have been resolved before construction ever began.

My 9th Commandment: Weak Plans & Specs = Weak Project!


  1. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #1

    So true!
    Great advice, Michael. Having built a house that didn't get nearly enough decisions made on the front end, I can attest to the slowdowns, cost overruns, and pain it causes during the process of building. And more than just affecting the process of building, some of those decisions made on the fly will affect the owners' happiness in the home and how well the home performs.

  2. Armando Cobo | | #2

    Green Building design
    90% of Green Building is in the design, period. I'm always amazed when I see plans with no details, no framing plans, no preplans for hvac and duct systems, no thermal bypass and moisture management details, etc., etc. All that leads to bad bidding, mistakes on the field and much higher cost of construction.
    Most clients are always shopping for the cheapest designer or architect, the one without green building experience or certifications; but by golly, the saved a $1 or $2 or more per sf on the plans by not hiring a competent designer or architect, yet they pay thousands of dollars more in construction costs. I’ve had clients tell me they rather spend extra $5K on a front door than getting an engineer to design the right foundation or hvac system. Our building process is screwed up, from codes to plan development to charrettes; and then we wonder why there are so many building failures.
    It all starts with us the designers and architects to set our minimum standards… but unfortunately, our profession has sold out to the lowest bidder.

  3. 5C8rvfuWev | | #3

    So what do you recommend ....
    MIchael Strong's position is a welcome reminder that we all have to keep values and priorities in mind, no matter what our job is.

    So, what do you folk recommend as a response ... when someone (like me) who is ignorant rather than stupid (I hope) shows up with a hope and a dream and asks "how much???" Assuming, by the way, that I'm really not stupid, the question has a more useful translation -- "Do I have enough $$$ to build a house that reflects MY priorities and values?"

    I get the same question in my own work, by the way, so I do sympathize.
    Joe W

  4. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #4

    So, what do you folk

    So, what do you folk recommend as a response ...

    Sadly but true, In my long experience as designer and ex-builder I find that most people spend more time and energy researching for a HDTV or a BMW than researching for a knowledgeable and experienced designer, architect and builder.
    A good designer/architect should have experience designing energy efficient, high performing and environmentally healthy homes. You need to ask how many homes has he/she certified to a recognized national green building program; believe me, until one goes through a certification process of a house, there is a lot to be learned.
    A good designer/architect should provide full sets of drawings that have full construction details & specs, framing plans, thermal bypass details, water management details, wall and roof assembly analysis, etc. etc
    A good designer/architect should provide assistance with the PE to design the foundation (if needed), the truss company, the ME to design the HVAC, the HERS rater, and run charrettes… Short of all that, you are short changed and cutting corners at step one of building a good house. Best of all, in most cases, clients save money and minimize construction delays and headaches.

  5. Daniel Morrison | | #5

    Budget vs. cost
    When I was a remodeler and people would ask me how much it would cost, I would answer with a question: "What is your budget? If it is a reasonable number, I can build you something to satisfy your needs within your budget." Then I would give them references to call to see if my past customers got what they wanted for what they could afford.

    Part of that is understanding trade-offs -- "Are we talking about plywood and paint, or mahogany and brass?"

    As it so happens, Michael co-wrote a white paper for us on
    selecting an eco-builder

    Also, read our article on Integrated Design for an overview of the process.

  6. Dina Lima | | #6

    You're right on the money!
    Great reminder Michael! I agree with Armando that people spend more time researching for their next HDTV or BMW then looking for a knowledgeable builder with a track record that they know what they're doing. Yes, it all begins with the design.

    Home builders and remodelers need to be keen educators so that home buyers can make informed decisions. This is one good way to Stand out from the pack

  7. Michael Strong | | #7

    Next Steps
    Dina, Armando, Dan all nail down what Joe is asking about and Allison confirmed. When hiring a custom remodeler or custom builder consumers need to improve the research they do on the design and the build team. Is it easy? No, it's not. Is it time consuming? Yes, it is. But it is going to cost you time and financial resources one way or the other so spend those resources up front before workers show up.

    Step 1: Get inexpensive schematic drawings completed and make preliminary selections of products and materials. Step 2: interview all the custom builders and remodelers you can find (interview them keeping the focus on them). Step 3: Narrow it down to a couple of companies and PAY them for their expertise so they can price it out for you, make recomendations to you and the designer (architect or otherwise) on product and materials selection. Step 4: Complete the schematics and spend the "big" bucks on detailed construction drawings and finalized selections. Step 5: Send one contractor a thank you letter and hire the other contractor to do the work.

    Sounds simple eh? :)

  8. RLTarch | | #8

    So refreshing to hear!
    Design and construction problems all ultimately stem from a difference of expectations between the owner and architect, or owner and builder...Michael is right on track with this post that the quality of the documentation you prepare for the bidders and builder is directly related to the quality of the home - and the quality of the living you experience in it!

    Assuming you've chosen your Architect well, make sure he clearly expresses YOUR expectations for the project in the drawings and specs so that you clearly understand them and what they represent.

    Same for the top-quality builder you'll eventually hire...make certain the plans and specs are prepared to clearly communicate the design intent.

    Managing all this is what Architects are supposed to do!

  9. Robert Swinburne | | #9

    As an architect I have no control over whether a building of my design gets "certified". That is the decision of the builder and owner. I have found most builders to be afraid of paperwork, even the minimal paperwork associated with Energy Star and they then convince the owners that it is not worth the trouble.

  10. Michael Strong | | #10

    Actually You Do Have "Control"
    You know Robert, as the architect you in fact have more "control" than the builder on any given project. While ultimately the client has the most control-that is they control the purse strings, if you look at the specific points to be earned on the path toward certification (LEED or NGBS) the builder only has complete control over a minute portion of the checklist (primarily construction waste and site management points). The remaining points to be earned toward certification are either architect or client controlled.

    That is not to say we can't influence the architect or client-after all the whole point of the charettes is to get the building team involved in pre-construction decision-making, but if you divide up the lists and assign responsibility to architect, builder, verifier and client the architect can affect more control over the certification than any other party second only to the client.

  11. Brian O' Hanlon | | #11

    Quick comment
    I would love to have more time to invest in a response Michael. I happen to be studying quite a lot in this area at the moment. If you ever manage to track down a little book, by Kelly and Male, on Value Engineering, it is worth it. It is a small little book, based upon studies conducted by the authors into the US practice of value engineering, and ascertaining how VE might integrate into the European building and design process.

    My tutor in college told me a while ago, that in Europe we have a discipline known as cost planning which is rather well developed here. And it aims to achieve many of the things which VE aim to do in the US. But even between Ireland and the United Kingdom, there are differences in how we conduct cost planning. In Ireland, the final measurement of quantities is done across to the national elements. The national elements list, is the basis for cost planning exercises - so that a roof from several other completed projects can be used as a template for a price, for your current proposed project.

    What I mean is, the final measurement of quantities for the Contract sum is not broken up into trades in Ireland. The reason for that, is to allow the design process to remain flexible right up until the final Contract sum is agreed with a Contractor. In the United Kingdom, they measure all of their final quantities in sections, which are basically different trades. That system has the advantage, that it enables the Contractor to sub-divide his project out into packages to go to his subcontractors very easily. Because the quantities have already been separated into trades. But it has the disadvantage, that the design must be finalised much earlier.

    I.e. The designer has to stop tweaking the various elemental costs at an earlier stage, and begin to break his/her design down into the trade groups for tendering. Of course, in the United States, there is no such thing as quantities measurement professionals like here in Europe. In the US, the measurement services are bought in, by the design consultant - be it an engineer or architect. And then sometimes, the employer employs a VE consultant, who offers the project out to an impromtu design team, assembled for a short period to look at it, and value engineer it.

    Then in the USA also, you have the design build people, who argue that VE isn't ideal in many instances, because it happens after the design work is completed. I.e. It doesn't give the Contractor an opportunity to give their input early enough. Some of the new American Institute of Architect contracts are aiming towards IPD. So we have another variant, another wrinkle in the whole spectrum of available approaches.

    Time doesn't permit me to continue, but there are many, many angles to it.

  12. Brian O' Hanlon | | #12

    Something else misc
    You might find of interest Michael - straight from the source in the steel industry - what those guys think about Quality Control.

    Just a curved ball I am throwing at you - another point of view maybe.

  13. Brian O' Hanlon | | #13

    Another one from Modern Steel
    Design Build and reducing cost.

    Building on a Winning Combination
    By Len Tsupros and Robert Anderson, P.E.
    Design-build collaboration saves tons of steel and cash.

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