Tips for Managing Subcontractors Effectively

A few weeks ago we got a phone call from our painter. He was clearly angry about the state of the walls on the job he was starting to prep for paint: “If you guys make us follow that sheetrock company again, we’re outta here.” It sounded like serious stuff, so I called the drywall folks and arranged to meet with both subcontractors out on the job that afternoon.

As it turned out, the taping work wasn’t that great – there were dimpled screw holes still showing in the kitchen ceiling, and some of the vertical taped joints in one long hallway weren’t that smooth either. It was nothing that couldn’t be fixed, however, and once the drywall people came back in and took care of the problems, the painter calmed down.

But this is fairly typical of a day in the life of an actual remodeling project: subs pointing the finger at each other, and you as the designer or contractor having to come in to referee the game.

Can you avoid this kind of thing? Probably not altogether, but there may be some procedures you can put in place that can help to minimize problems when you’re trying to get the job built efficiently.

Before Work Starts

If you’re considering hiring a new subcontractor – perhaps you got a great price from a new plumber, you’ve checked their references, seen their work and you’d like to try them out – it’s probably wise to do a face-to-face interview with the principal of the firm before you sign the new contract.

With this owner you should be clear about the way you want things to go: what the scope and schedule of the project is, what you expect and when. You can go over the contract you’d like the new sub to sign, and make it your agreement, not theirs. You can explain how extra work gets performed, if any – and perhaps more importantly, how any additional work has to be signed off before it’s done. You can also discuss the paperwork – invoicing, payments, retentions – and any special rules, such as no late billing, no duplicates by fax and e-mail, and so on.

Meeting with the owner of the subcontracting company may also be a good chance to ask about financial solvency, their insurance and licensing. You can mention that you’re no longer giving deposits before the work starts, and see how that pill gets swallowed.

It may be a good idea – especially with the bigger subs – to meet with their foreman on the job before his or her portion of the work begins. This way, the sub’s manager can hear your expectations, and those expectations may well be more than just high quality and on-time performance. Explain that what you want from subs is the same as you get from your own people – and that your jobsite ground rules apply to them, too: no smoking in customers’ homes, no foul language (in any language), daily clean-up, etc.

Remember, too, that low-priced subs and suppliers are not always the answer to a successful project, so what you do before the work begins can be critical. If you suspect you may have a weak link – your new electrician doesn’t return calls, your new painter can’t speak a lick of English – you may be better off replacing a sub or two before you tear your client’s kitchen apart.

During the Job

The key to successful sub-contractor management is clear communication – at all times. If you need to revisit what the job entails once the demo is done, then bring in subs then. For example, meet the framing guys and go over just what’s going to take place: where they can stage their lumber, any neighbor issues, what the work hours are, and so on.

At our own remodeling company, we’ve found that having a regular weekly jobsite meeting works well. It’s when the client, contractor and designer get together to review the schedule and progress of the work, or discuss upcoming decisions that have to be made.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have a key subcontractor attend that weekly meeting. It’s especially important if there are conflicts or problems to be worked out, as this get-together can be a good opportunity to clear the air and provide a chance to talk.

Maybe the layout of the recessed can lights is an issue in the middle of the project – the engineer’s insisting now that a steel beam be added to span the kitchen island area. With the electrician in this meeting, everyone may be able to save time and figure out an acceptable solution. And, with any luck, they can do it at no charge to the client.

As the work progresses, try to keep the key subs up to speed on the schedule, especially if things have changed. If a new window is going to be three weeks late, there’s a good reason to let the painters know that their work’s going to be delayed – call them up or send an e-mail and let them know they should reschedule.

Staying organized on the job is the way to get the most out of your subs. If the site is clean, tidy and ready for them, they’ll perform their work better and faster – and they’ll want to work for you again.

When a subcontractor first arrives on site, it’s a good idea to spend time with them right away – not just to get them familiarized with things, but to have a chance to ask them what they need, and what you can do for them to make their work go easier. Perhaps the flooring people need to start upstairs and work there first? Maybe the roofing company needs clear access to the west side of the building for a few days, and you can make sure the neighbor on that side understands what will be happening. The work will go better if you can plan and stay on top of the subs’ needs.

As for quality control, if you’re the designer or the general contractor for the work, your eyes have to be open all the time as the subs perform their work. It may be you who’ll spot the crooked faucet installation in the powder room – and you may have to call the plumber about it.

As the project gets built, it’s often the subs who are performing a big portion of the work – and it’s up to you to see that they are successful.

Loading