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Top 10 Problems That Come Up During Construction

By Jeff Pelletier
July 3, 2012

Our Bungalow West project starts construction this week and I’m excited to see the progress begin.

One of the reasons I love being an architect is that I love seeing the nuts and bolts (or nails and screws perhaps) of how things are put together. It is an intensely satisfying profession in that regard. I know that I can walk in a space and instantly see the correlation between what I see, what is on the drawings, and what the final design will be. It comes second nature to me at this point in the game. Unfortunately, that overall connection is something that gets missed every now and then on a job site.

Get ready for this people; sometimes, stuff just isn’t built right.

I know, I know, this is a little hard to take in. All this time is spent preparing detailed drawings and then, BAM!, what ends up being built is different than what was envisioned. In comes one of the many values of having an architect involved during construction. Architects are tasked with preparing a set of documents that someone can build from and that set of documents has to be carefully coordinated with engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, and waterproofing consultants. In the end, it is a very complicated package of information and, quite frankly, confusing to a lot of people. In a remodel situation, it is even more pronounced as there are so many unknown conditions. So, even with the best of intentions, things get built wrong and it is helpful to have an architect come in and help mediate a solution. No set of documents is ever complete or perfect. Period. The day someone pays me to draw a "perfect" set of documents then I’ll be a very wealthy man. I'll also never be done.

While I wait for my windfall from this mythical project, let me describe some of the most common challenges I see. And for the record, the team doing my house is doing a great job. I've only seen a few of these issues and they've been pretty easy to deal with.

The 10 Most Common Challenges That Come Up During Construction

  1. You mean you wanted that light where that joist is? Hands down, this one comes up the most. In a remodel, it is often impossible or impractical to know where all the existing framing members are. Once the drywall gets ripped off then the discovery begins and this requires some on-site coordination and discussion of where the lights should ACTUALLY go. There’s usually a solution. The BIG annoyance for me though comes during new construction when the plumber, framer, and electrician don’t coordinate and the beams all get put right where the lights are drawn. That’s why every set of drawings I produce has a big note about this. Still, do you think they read it?...

    You can bet that there's a joist and light conflict somewhere up there.

  2. I need an answer now! This is more of a general one but looking ahead when you’re doing construction is so critical to make sure that issues are figured out in a timely manner. I’m often left frustrated at a question that is clearly the result of the drawings not having been read for months on end.

  3. How do I plumb this? Anytime I propose a room with plumbing I’m thinking about how to actually get the waste and supply lines there and how to get the vent pipe out of there. There’s almost always a way even if it gets a little complicated. The challenge, though, is some people don’t like complicated and will come up with all sorts of reasons why it can’t be done. It is the architect’s job to show them that it can be done. We’re a bit like cheerleaders in that regard.

    The pipes have to go somewhere.

  4. Owner selected finishes aren’t here. Having something be OFCI (Owner Furnished, Contractor Installed) is seen as a great way to save some cost as you get to pick out your finishes and buy them yourself and probably save a little money. Sounds great! It does, except for when things don’t arrive. At my own house, I’ve been chasing down a shower fixture that has been canceled and back-ordered more than I can imagine. When it is own you as an owner, it truly is on you. Construction is a team job!

  5. Lack of Shop drawings. Construction drawings are meant to be, in many ways, design intent drawings. Architects rely upon submittals, or shop drawings, to help us understand how things will physically be built. We don’t (often) show every nail or connection on our drawings, we rely upon the people building to convey that information. When we don’t have shop drawings to review, surprises can show up on site that can be less than pretty.

    I don't usually wear my hardhat while looking at drawings.

  6. Well, actually, that might look better if.... Here’s one that isn’t talked about much. Sometimes, every now and then, something goes in and it just doesn’t look the way an architect envisioned. Or maybe it does look that way but maybe we’ve changed our minds. Whatever the reason, there’s a time and a place to say, “you know, this isn’t quite right. Let’s pause, re-design (quickly), get a change order, and fix this before it is too late”. Ignoring a better solution isn’t the answer but owning up to the reality is.

  7. That tile looks really weird cut like that. I like to draw tile patterns on my interior elevations as I think it is critical to think through how it all works out. Drawings that look simple and straightforward take a lot of time to get that way! Tile is one of the biggest pains in the butt to make it all work and get outside corners hidden and grout lines aligned with adjacent materials. Even with all of this work though, there will be unknowns. An architect there can help think through all of the issues as to why it was designed the way it was and avoid the tile setter having to guess.

    Tile patterns should be thought through carefully and then reviewed on site with actual conditions.

  8. While you’re at it... A classic! This is classic budget, cost, and scope creep and is something everyone who has ever gone through a construction process has gone through, guaranteed. You see a big wall opened up and you suddenly realize that even though you ruled out putting that window in during design that you suddenly realize how much more sense it makes to do it now. You open your wallet, quickly make a change, and get a change order going. It is never ideal but the sooner you realize a change in direction, move forward as quickly as possible!

  9. I didn’t see a dimension! Did you open the rest of the set of drawings? Sometimes a plan isn’t the right spot to convey dimensional information. It often works better on an interior elevation for instance. When I see trades looking at only one drawing and not the whole set I get really, really, really worried.

    This is me pointing at something trying not to look too snarky doing it.

  10. I didn’t see that on the drawings! Did you look in the spec? The project specifications are basically a book that describes things that can’t be clearly conveyed on drawings. They go along with every project and they’re notoriously filled with boilerplate. A big project can have thousands of pages, while a single family remodel is going to be around 30 so. Still, they’re often not fully read and critical bits of information can be missed. Often it isn’t even on the job site. All of those words are written or in there for a reason and it is helpful when everyone reads them first to at least save having to ask a question!

No project is perfect but every project is better when someone is on site acting as your advocate to help get things exactly the way you want it. In the end, we’re all be much happier for it!

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