May 16, 2013

Homeowner and Contractor - the beginning

In today's still-recovering economy, I imagine many people think I am a bit crazy to insist that I am just as much an interviewer during our meeting process for a custom home project as are my customers.

I have to admit that it has cost me a few jobs.  I simply know that the contractor has to fit the customer or the job will not go smoothly. There are many types of builders out there - one for every nascent project.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Here are a few types, not all, for the curious…

Some are "paper contractors" who oversee the job with little or no actual physical participation.  They are focused on keeping a team flowing smoothly, and can work on the overview aspect from an office.  They will never know who scratched the floor...

Some are hard-working naturalized citizens who are the spirit of what has made America great, capitalizing on the open-armed and free policy this country offers - adventurous and outgoing.   They bring a bit of their country with them for better or for worse….

Others are men (and rarely, women) who climbed up through the ranks of our industry, starting as members of a crew and eventually finding their way to running jobs.  They can be rough around the edges, which makes the finer aspects of design a bit tricky for them at times.

There are also the SOB's.  Son of the boss who is born into the field and takes up the reins.  I have met great ones and not so great ones.  One factor could be whether or not the fit was truly a first choice for them I would imagine.  

All good paths by which to come to be a contractor, all with benefits and burdens.

I have come to the conclusion that a custom home can be done well in many ways, by any type of contractor, but few will be as successful as they could be, due to many of the same basic shortfalls. 

Its not a secret or anything like that, but it comes down to a bit more than "quick, cheap or fast - pick 2".  (Although that is a great way to explain how a typical construction subcontractor thinks) And while there is no real magic formula for beating the remodeling/new home gremlins at their own game, knowing where the wheels can fall off the cart gives one an edge in keeping them on the cart.

Of course, I can offer a few pointers as a guideline to help your job work out successfully.  This next pointer will help explain why I think it's just as important for me to interview the homeowner as well as vice versa.  And this important point to remember is…

Homeowners have a lot of responsibility.  Now they can avoid it if they like by assigning it to trusted professionals - that is, if they want to and can afford to do so.  A successful project needs a homeowner who defines - and maintains - their own role, even if it is just to approve a plan and leave it to the experts.  If the team is able to work well together and there are clearly defined roles, the homeowner can approve a 3D model and go off to do their own thing and come back in 6-12 months to a turn-key success.

Rarely, though, does a homeowner not want to visit the site and walk the job during the rough stages.  I think it can be fun and I encourage it, even though they will most likely second-guess their decisions (it is common) once seen in brick and mortar.   As a kid I always liked visiting our projects or those in the neighborhood to see the process of building materials forming to become a new family dwelling.

But to return to homeowner responsibility.  It'a fine line to be the boss of a project about which you really only know a limited amount.  This is why most successful executives will tell you that they learn to listen to their team experts and give lots of weight to their opinions.  Homeowners hold the pursestrings, so they have final say, of course.  No one wants it any other way - It's their home.  But from an exaggerated point of view, what if the homeowner had to design, build and decorate their own home?  Or even direct the subcontractors?  If you talk to people who have tried it, you will hear many tales of woe, or see a result that usually doesn't hold up to standards.  This allows us to conclude that their choices will not always be the best ones for their job.  That is why it's important to have someone trustworthy you can listen to and learn from before making large decisions.  Sometimes just moving forward with a choice will be less costly even if you tear it out later, rather than holding up work and slowing the entire process.  

So while the homeowner has ultimate authority, its important to keep it from backfiring on them in some form.  So, what is "appropriate" authority in a complex home project?  Not easy to define in a short article.

For this reason, I try to assess how reasonable a homeowner will be.  Drama will only result in a failure on some level, it's just a matter of degree.  Anger and yelling is one sure way to create friction and setbacks.  Insisting on micromanaging parts of a job is yet another path to a project derailment or train wreck.

My preferred position as a liaison to the homeowner is to help them coordinate all aspects of the job.  Often it seems that a bit of a tug of war develops between design side and build side, and the biggest loser is the homeowner.  This is where ego has to be set aside, and that will at least start with me, to set a humble example.  I don't want to be "right" for the sake of ego.  Often there is no right or wrong.  It becomes a matter of taste, and this is another criteria to see if your contractor is right for you - do you share similar enough taste?  Some design people would say the contractor's job isn't to judge design, and in many cases I would agree with them, but as a design-focused contractor I can say that it absolutely IS a part of my job.  There is another type of contractor, the "doozer" type who executes anything on the plan and doesn't give it a second thought on the way home.  I am not that guy.

I will admit though, that design is really the job of an architect. Can I design? Yes, I can definitely design if I want to, just as many architects can offer general contracting services.  In my case it isn't something I expect to do, except in special circumstances, but if a design is not flowing for me, I can't just ignore it, which is why being a part of the design process early is so important for my "type" of contractor.  For clients that come to me early in the process, I will help with design if I feel the situation is right.

Other pitfalls of being the boss - People who think they can throw money at a person and get them to do what they want are actually correct.  There are many people out there who will do that.  What they fail to realize is that they build no real reward for talent with that attitude.  Talent responds to being a part of the decision process and being acknowledged for their professional and artistic ability.   

Not to say that a great worker won't try to save that person occasionally from a huge blunder, no matter how unfavorably they feel they are being treated.  It is an act of graciousness (for the job at the very least) that typically can't be turned off.  But there will be no extra miles in those shoes.

To wrap up, it is not an easy task, the task of initiating a large home project.  Finding your contractor is a big part of making the job easier to manage, and they will be your go-to person throughout a challenging process.  Choose wisely!