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How To Know If Your Contractor is Doing a Good Job

As much as we may want it to be, nothing is perfect. Whether remodeling or building new, and regardless of how well-recommended your contractor is, unknown challenges will arise with your project. But, this is a navigable process, especially if you keep these tips in mind.

August 7, 2019

How do you balance the desire for perfection with the reality of a construction project?

For many clients, the whole process of remodeling and construction may seem like a bit of a magic trick. Tons of things are happening behind the scenes, and it’s hard to know whether something is “finished” or not. You keep referencing the drawings and pretty images shown by the architect, but you just feel disconnected as to how these translate into the process of installation. Much of the flurry of activity happens around you, without actually involving you at all. You’re relying on the architect to correctly communicate your vision (via the drawings) to the contractor, who you are in turn relying on to build your project correctly. But how do you know this is actually happening?

If you’re living in your house while the work is being completed, it’s impossible not to ask questions about what is going on. Most contractors oblige you without incident, patiently walking you through the process and next steps, assuring you areas that don’t involve work will be protected, and that everything will go according to plan.

We’re here to let you in on a little secret – it never does.

There is a measure of tolerance associated with anything you pay money for with the underlying question being, “Is this worth it?” You want to stretch your dollars as far and as broadly as they will go, while still providing the best possible value. Therein lies the rub — you are not paying for perfection, nor should you assume you’ll get it.

Buildings, like people, are living, breathing, imperfect organisms that have survived through adaptation. The more we interface with technology in a digital age, the easier it is to point out those imperfections, like walls not being completely straight, floors and ceilings that slope weirdly, finishes being just a little misaligned. The closer you look, the more you’ll go crazy obsessing about every perceived slight against your perfect design. Whose fault is that? The contractor and installer? The architect who presented an error-free drawing set? Bad karma following you around?

News flash – you have a built-in tolerance for what kind of imperfection (and how much of it) you will accept every single day. Everything is constantly in flux. That beard you meticulously trimmed this morning? 5 o’clock shadow in the evening. That perfect-temperature cup of morning coffee? Cold in 20 minutes. Spotless paint finish on your new car? You’ll have your first door ding in no time. It’s the way of the world to deal with imperfection on a daily basis; it’s called entropy. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it. Life is a constant adaptation of your perceived reality, so embrace it wholeheartedly.

Alright, enough of the metaphysical word-play… you want to know if things are going to be the best they can possibly be, so that when inevitable change does happen, you started at the loftiest position possible, to cushion your fall. Fair enough.

Here are tips for feeling good about the construction process.

Ask Realistic Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be realistic. Decide how much information you’re comfortable with absorbing. Maybe knowing the details stresses you out – you just want to be reassured it will get done. Fine – say that. The contractor will appreciate your candor. But don’t give them the responsibility of a therapist: “Is this tile installation going to make me happy?” is not a good question for a contractor. “Is this tile going to be straight?” is. Communication is the carrier pigeon of success because both parties have set expectations that can be met.

Ask for a Construction Schedule

It’s natural to feel like things are progressing slowly, or too fast, without a frame of reference. Don’t expect a contractor to give you a breakdown of every task, but have them set some milestones you can focus on and look forward to. On large projects, you sometimes want to break up the “build-out” to manageable, bite-size points of completion to reflect on and feel good about. This helps keep a healthy, positive frame of mind all the way through the project.

Allow for the Unseen, Trust That Everyone is Trying Their Best

Nobody is on the job to do it “just okay”. People take pride in their work, but mistakes can happen (see the point about imperfection above) and nobody can predict what unique issues may crop up with your specific combination of events. So, don’t immediately feel like there’s a failure here, or that you’re not getting your money’s worth. It’s just a step in the process, the next of which is figuring out how to solve it. Trust the process.

Be Open to Problem Solving

If you don’t want to be involved in your remodel/construction process, make that clear at the beginning of construction. The architect will work with the contractor to solve any issues on your behalf. But if you go this route, be prepared to accept the work that was decided upon in your best interest. Only you can communicate your preferences 100%. Everyone else does the best impression of thinking like you if decisions have to be made when you’re not around.

Write It Down

If something is important enough to feel bad about later, do your best to make it known and create a record. It’s easy to forget what you told someone the other day, much less a month ago. Things get forgotten or superseded by other things of importance, so it’s your job to reiterate them even if you feel you’re beating that horse to death. (It’s better than beating a dead horse.)

Again, it’s helpful to be specific and know where to set your tolerance. For example, you know that regardless of where the tile starts and stops, you want a joint to be centered on the sink or window. Say that in writing so you can point to it later. The contractor will take it from there as to how to make everything else work around it.

Review Your Construction Contract

If your project is billed hourly, it’s not fair to wait until the end of the month to see how close you’re tracking with the contractor’s estimate of hours and costs. Most contractors will advise you when labor or materials (or a change of scope) is creating a problem with your budget or schedule, and you have every right to ask about it. Depending on your contract, of course.

This is why architects like to review the contractor’s contract with you before you sign so that all parties are aware of the terms of agreement and communication. Many times, the contract states you will be provided a “change order” advising of the added costs that you can approve before the work is done. It’s a good way to track changes to the scope and allocate additional time and materials. Ask your contractor if this is how they will inform you of additional expenses.

Everything comes down to communication.

The big takeaway here is communication, communication, communication. If the contractor doesn’t know what you think is most important, there’s a good chance you’re going to be disappointed with the result because they will make their own decisions. And, if you see something that just strikes you as wrong, bring it up and talk about it! They might not have finished it yet, or are unaware of a mistake.

Things happen, and that’s why, as architects, we find it so important to be involved in the Construction Observation (CO) process to help point out these issues on your behalf. Because there’s nothing worse than coming home to a space that you spent a lot of time and money on, and find it still doesn’t make you happy!

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How To Know If Your Contractor is Doing a Good Job

As much as we may want it to be, nothing is perfect. Whether remodeling or building new, and regardless of how well-recommended your contractor is, unknown challenges will arise with your project. But, this is a navigable process, especially if you keep these tips in mind.

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