Tips for Avoiding Mistakes on the Jobsite

Don’t you hate getting that last-call-in-the-day phone message from your jobsite contractor: “Er, bad news, I’m afraid: The refrigerator opening’s too small ­– we can’t get the appliance in. Oh, and the homeowner’s seen what’s going on, and she’s not too happy. I think you better get over here quick!”

Maybe you haven’t had that phone call, but you’ve probably experienced something similar – a window framed so it doesn’t center on the sink, flooring with too much sapwood in it, plumbing fixtures that don’t show up, a client certain you screwed up on the paint color – the list goes on and on. Sometimes it can feel that getting the job built right will just never happen.

But there are a few things you can do as a professional to minimize mistakes – not the least of which is anticipating and planning the work as well as you possibly can.

The quote from Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” got it right as far as getting through life, and in particular, facing the many challenges of our industry these days. Add in contractors who are not familiar with what the design calls for and we have the potential for lots of jobsite problems. With so many sources and products out there, organized and complete planning for remodeling is the real building block of success.

Before the Work Starts

Before you begin the work, document it ahead of time – as much as your budget permits. That way there will always be a point of reference for everyone involved in the project – and no surprises. If the documents contain dimensioned floor plans, elevations and a good description of the scope of work, that’s a great start. Give your contractor material specifications, a door and window schedule and a complete list of the (correct) appliances.

When you first meet your clients, make lots of notes: what they like, what they don’t, and perhaps the key reasons they’re having the work done. Maybe there’s a particular look or some specific appliances they’ve always wanted – it’s good to have that basic information scribbled down, and you can review those notes later when you’re putting the documents together.

And if you’re at the client’s house, take plenty of photographs. With an inexpensive digital camera, it’s easy to reference the existing conditions of the site when you’re later drawing up the new work: the way an angled corner works, where a soffit is built, or what the existing light fixtures are. Those photos can be great to have and consult when the contractor calls you in the middle of the work.

In the carpentry universe, there’s an old adage – “Measure twice, cut once” – and this can be applied to the planning world, too. Careful measuring of existing jobsite conditions is the foundation of a successful new project – and a way to avoid problems when the new work gets built. Pay attention to ceiling heights, existing plumbing and electrical locations in particular.

If you can keep your drawings clean and easy to read, this will lead to fewer mistakes. Contractors just hate plans with too much information on them. By the same token, if there are critical items you want to see in the final work – alignments, equal spacing, grids or squares ­– call those out rather than actual dimensions. Let the people building the work figure some things out for you.

Good scope and specifications are important for the contractor. And, for many items, such as unique tile, it’s smart to list the sourcing as well. Most building professionals love it when everything’s been selected or specified before the work starts, so the more you and the client can do in this area, the less likely mistakes and delays will appear as the job gets built. For doors and windows, a list with sizes and finishes is a big help.

Perhaps the most critical part of the mistake-avoidance strategy is the appliance list. Models come and go, sizes and cut-out requirements get frequently changed by manufacturers, so you may want to add a note that all appliances should be checked and/or ordered prior to the project starting. Nowadays, much of this checking can be done online – but you can’t beat an appliance sitting in the garage on the job before the work starts!

As for the cabinet order, if you’re putting that together yourself, it’s a good idea to have another pair of eyes in your office check the items before it all goes out. And if you don’t have that luxury, consider asking the contractor in to eyeball the list. He or she may be able to spot a potential error before it’s too late and gets delivered to the job wrong.

During the Job

First off, let’s assume that you and your client have selected a good contractor and a professional group of suppliers – perhaps not the lowest bidders, but the best qualified to perform the work. So, how do you go about minimizing mistakes once the project starts?

Insist on a written schedule from the contactor. It should show the main milestones: dates of framing complete, cabinet installation, appliance delivery, any required inspections. If delays happen, there needs to be reasons attached, and perhaps more importantly, the “slippage” needs to be communicated.

What often works well on the communication front is to set up a weekly jobsite meeting with the design professional, the client and the contractor, and maybe the lead carpenter if it’s a sizeable project. Here you can all discuss what’s coming up in the next week or two, any design or material selections that still need to be made and any problems arising from work already done that may need to be resolved. This meeting gets everyone on the same page and keeps the all-important channels of communication open – regularly, weekly – between all three players.

While you and your contractor may communicate daily, the weekly meeting can serve as a heads-up for everyone, and perhaps more importantly, it may catch mistakes before they happen. Set up the meeting at a convenient time for everyone – often an early morning time slot works well – you’ll get through the agenda quickly, as everyone has other things to do.

Stay organized as the project proceeds. Keep job records in folders and take photos on the jobsite. Use your e-mail – copied to all parties involved – as a way of documenting decisions that are made that affect the contractor, the design, the budget or the schedule.

Lastly, insist above all on a clean and tidy jobsite – it will serve to help everyone stay organized and on top of things. There’ll be a much lower chance of mistakes, confusion and problems in a swept and orderly work area.