THE FIXERAre you planning a construction project? Avoid the problems before they occur

Apr 21, 2009

This scribble is designed to help eliminate problems before they happen when it comes to building or home improvement projects. Consider it advice to expats who, on the one hand,  seek high quality performance and value their time but, on the other hand, understand why they moved to Ecuador – to reduce their stress level.

Few things can derail one's serenity more than pressure to get things done. This is especially a problem for North Americans, many of us being hard-wired to believe that efficiency is a religious mandate. One of the things that I have learned the hard way is that real serenity begins with learning how to step away from self-induced pressures before they drive you crazy. 

There is no area of our lives where people make the error of getting overly wound up than when they work on their own homes.

The first step in the process of stress removal is to accept the fact that the result will never be perfect. We can strive for near-perfection but need to understand that absolute perfection only exists in fairy tales. The second thing to accept is the fact that the world will not come to a halt if something is not achieved quickly. Some things need to be taken care of right away. Most things of lasting value take time.

My freshman English professor taught me to diagram any written project before beginning, outlining the important parts and combining them into a coherent whole before fleshing out individual paragraphs. Every time I have used his model, either with a paper report or book, the project turns out well. The same technique applies to most building projects as well. Thinking thrings through before-hand and then developing a proper plan will save considerable time and money in the long-run.
 
Before you start your project, think of yourself as the choreographer of a ballet. You are putting together a production with many elements and many moving parts. The more attention you pay to the details in the early stages, the less likely you will encounter problems, delays or errors in the fininshed product. And never forget that everything depends on timing. As an example, the installation of electrical cables or plumbing must be done at a certain point in the project because it will be much more difficult and expensive to do later. And don't forget that if the wire and pipes are delivered to the site too early, workers will be tripping over them–and damaging them– before the are needed.

Another consideration in any major project is the selection of a competent general contractor.  Other than the owner/idea person, there is no more important position in any project. Unless you are fully experienced in such things, it is highly advisable not act as your own general contractor. I have encountered homeowners who, having very little understanding of construction, let alone understanding of the coordination required between the crews, try to do the very demanding job of "generaling" their own project. Some do this because they want the home to be more "theirs.”  Some do it out of a need to be in control of things even if they don't understand what those things are about. The sub contractors in all the specialty areas will make all the difference in the world. This is one reason these things are best left to a good general who knows the local talent.

Let me offer two examples, one good and one bad, of "generaling" a project yourself.

The good example first. Twenty-five years ago I worked with a lady who was in charge of all the installations for a new buffet-style restaurant chain. She had been doing this for several years and knew what she was doing. I was working for the company which had contracted to do the sound and P. A. system. I finished the system one night about 8:00 p.m. and although most of the other workers had left for the day, she was still in the building, going over schedules and checking what had been accomplished against the schedule.  I asked her to look over  my work and either accept it or let me fix the faults. Without looking over the particular specifications for the system, she knew what was needed for the job — where the different zones were and what each one required. In other words, she had already anticipated checking out the work because she knew the job requirements. She checked the system thoroughly in about ten minutes and then wrote it off her "to do" list. Cooperation and professionalism at its finest.

Now, the bad example (one involving a fellow who happened to be my neighbor in Ruff Creek). I had been hired to do the electric installation in a complete overhaul of a hundred-and-fifty year old farm house.  The owner had decided to "general" the job himself even though he had no experience than handling Saturday afternoon handyman chores.  And … he had no clear idea of the final product he was expecting. Needless to say, he ended up changing many things as the project progressed.  He had been warned by several of us "subs,”  that both he and we needed a clear plan of action, or chaos and waste of materials and time would result. We began with no firm plans. There is a pet phrase among many in the construction industry: we call the plans of a poorly thought out project, the "the comic book.” The results end up being very different from original plans and frequently quite laughable.

I can give you many more examples, most of them bad ones. If you want to hear the details invite me out for a cup of coffee.

In summary, I offer two important recommendations for keeping errors –and unhappiness– to a minimum: First, make your plans as complete as possible before starting your project. Second, if you are not very familiar with the construction process and with the local tradespeople, do yourself a favor and hire someone who is.

Then … relax.

Write Don Smith at CuencaHighLife@gmail.com. Include "The Fixer" in the subject box. 

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