Resolving Design Issues in the Field

We’ve all gotten some variation of this call before: “I know it’s a bit late to ask, but it would be great to put an ironing board into our new kitchen. I grew up with one of those fold-down units in our family home – my mom and I used to spend a bunch of time together doing the ironing and catching up with each other. Have we already ordered the cabinets? Is there any way we can redesign the space and somehow get an ironing board in there?”

Ah, yes, design-as-you-go: It happens on lots of jobs, doesn’t it? And what may seem like a relatively innocent and small design tweak on the fly can create job-site problems that may not be anticipated.

Danger zone, red flashing lights: Agreeing to a change after cabinets and windows are already ordered, rough plumbing and electrical are already in place or framing (and engineering) are already complete can cause big problems. Watch out!

So here’s the first line of defense when a client asks for something to be changed after the job is already under way – just say no!

Or, say it’s only an outside maybe: then take a pause, and tell the clients that you’ll have to get back to them as you’ll have to consult with your builder or installer before building things differently.

Another pair of eyes and ears may bring up issues you haven’t thought about. Just where will that darned ironing board go, anyway? Is there really a stud bay available to flush-fit the unit, or will the plywood shear wall prevent you from doing that? Can you retrofit a pull-out ironing unit into a drawer, and is there really enough room for that device to pull out into the work area?

It’s one thing to change a tile type or a paint color, quite another to move a door or change a window size. Design changes do come in different flavors, but be aware that they can all affect the schedule: That Italian faucet may not be quite as available as the German unit your regular plumbing supply house stocks all of the time.

So, talk to other people before you agree to change things. Perhaps it’s a supplier or a subcontractor you need to contact before saying yes to a different path? Switching the refrigerator to one that has an ice maker is a good example of this kind of thing – it may be very challenging to get a water line to the wall behind the fridge after all the plumbing has been roughed in.

 

PLANNING AHEAD

The project plans really should be the documented culmination of what you and your clients have worked out together. I can’t stress enough that it’s a problem to change things once the job has started.

We all know that tearing out things that are already built affects cost and schedule, but what most people don’t fully understand is how it affects the morale of the tradespeople working on the project. From a worker’s point of view, there’s nothing worse than pulling out something that’s already built: You put your body, heart and soul into building things well – framing walls carefully, plumb, straight and true – and then, in comes the owner who wants to move things around. Not good for momentum, but often worse for job site morale.

So, talk through ahead of time the placement of cabinets, windows and walls with your clients. Maybe you can show them some perspectives of the space. Clients often pretend they understand floor plans and elevations when they really don’t get it at all. A 3D sketch, computer or hand-generated, can really help illustrate just what you’re designing.

Spending that one-on-one time with your clients before starting the work is so critical. Go over again what’s important to them: It’s often two or three items someone really wants in a remodel. More countertop space, better lighting, storage, appliance selection – whatever it is, it needs to be re-confirmed prior to the start of construction. Don’t forget to ask, “Did we miss anything?”

How about asking the builder for input on the drawings before they’re final? Invite him or her over and take a look at the plans together. Perhaps you can head off problems before the work starts? Again, that other pair of eyes looking at the layout may head off design conflicts in the field. Doors that open the wrong way, corners that pinch traffic flow, door hardware that’s no longer available – all of the things that can give the project headaches once the work starts.

Oh, and one more thing: It’s a good idea to have your clients sign off on the drawings and specifications. This may seem a little weird to some customers, but it can be a great way to ensure everyone is on the same page before embarking on the work – and it’s a subtle way of agreeing that things are set in place, no more changes allowed.

 

REACTING TO PROBLEMS

The success of most projects depends on how well things are planned, but we all know that once construction starts, things get discovered that affect the design.

Second day of the job, the ceiling’s opened up and guess what? The second floor joists are, in actual fact, running in the opposite direction than shown on the plans. There goes the recessed can layout in the breakfast nook. Okay, you roll with it and figure out what to do – it’s not a big deal if you don’t let it become a big deal.

When these kind of things happen, it’s often best if the builder and design professional talk things through before bringing the client into the process. That way you’ll be presenting them with a solution, not a problem. The lighting layout in that nook may have to change, maybe you add a couple more fixtures at cost – you keep the job rolling, and everyone stays calm.

However, you may encounter bigger changes than can light layout. A structural post is found, right in the middle of a wall you were planning on removing. Here you may indeed have to take a pause and step back from the project. Putting more steel beams in will, indeed, cost more, and changing the design around may not be what the client is ready to hear.

When you encounter designs that don’t work, get the minds to meet as soon as you can – client, builder and designer – and hash out what the different paths ahead might be. If you can keep the spirit of teamwork going through these changes, you’ll have a successful project at the end of the day.

 

Steve Nicholls has worked in the building business for more than 35 years. In 1981 he founded Mueller Nicholls, now a 60-person company, based in Oakland, CA. In addition to performing remodeling and construction work, Nicholls’ firm operates a large cabinet shop, building work for their own projects and for other contractors. He is a frequent speaker on building industry topics, and a long-time columnist with Kitchen & Bath Design News.

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