Canadian Contractor

John Bleasby   

Meat in the sandwich: How contractors get caught in the middle

Canadian Contractor

Pitfalls abound between architect, contractor and homeowner

Timeline management and clear lines of communications are keys to the successful completion of a new custom home build or major renovation. A recent article in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail outlined a stunning example of how bad things can get when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. No one ends up looking good in this story, but the contractor was clearly caught in the middle.

“You would have thought someone would have looked at the HVAC plans”
The architect, contractor, and homeowner of a new 2700 square foot custom home under construction in west end Toronto fell out of sync on several fronts, most notably when it came to the HVAC system. For reasons that might puzzle an experienced contractor, the architect’s plans for home’s climate control system were not properly analysed and discussed until after the build had started. When the client, the general contractor, and the G.C.’s HVAC subcontractor subsequently reviewed the architectural plans, they realized something was seriously off.  “The design inexplicably called for two furnaces and two central air-conditioning systems, even though the house itself is relatively small by new build standards,” the Globe and Mail story says.

Meat in the sandwich: Contractors need to be wary of getting caught between the architect on one side and the client on the other

The G.C. and sub-contractor were stumped as to how to install the specified, complex dual system. “You would have thought someone would have looked at the HVAC plans, but we didn’t,” the clients told the Globe and Mail. It turns out the architect felt that in order to maintain distinct climate zones on the home’s two levels, each required a dedicated mechanical system. The homeowners asked their architect to redo the plans for the HVAC systems three times before the equipment could finally be installed. Ultimately, the mechanical contractors recommended a second option – single high-efficiency furnace/air-conditioning system with specialized zone dampers. This was not an isolated example of a communications breakdown; there were other areas of poor communication and last-minute decision- making on this project, as described in the article.

Avoiding the common failures in the architect-contractor relationship
Proper review of plans at the outset by all parties to the project —architect, contractor, related sub-contractors, and homeowner — might have nipped this situation in the bud rather than have it delay and confuse all concerned. For general contractors caught in the middle, it is another example of how badly things can go off the rails when architects work in isolation.


Estimates from designers need to be taken with a grain of salt
A number of things can wrong in the architect-contractor relationship, right from the start. “How much is this going to cost?” is a pretty standard question from clients considering a new home or a major renovation. Architects who feel cocky enough to estimate costs at the planning stage can often mislead their clients, guiding them towards dreams and expectations that are hard to cut back when real-world estimates arrive from contractors. Combined with an architect who acts as the “objective third party” arbiter of multiple quotes from interested builders, it can lead to disappointment and frustration when costs are higher than anticipated. That result can also lead to only the lowest bid being considered. As a matter of protection going into a bidding war like that, contractors need to be aware both of any previously estimated costs given to the clients by the architect  and of the number of contractors being asked to bid on the project.

It is critical that contractors and architects not work in isolation from each other during planning and during construction

Are the plans actually complete and approvable?
Incomplete plans and drawings can also cause problems. Perhaps the drawings provided to interested contractors are not customized to the client’s actual site conditions, local zoning and personal budget, but are plans that are only general in nature. This can lead to misunderstandings as to what can in fact be built on the specific site, and at what cost. Perhaps the architect has also specified products or materials that are not appropriate to the climate or the conditions, or are materials with which the architect has little product understanding. Contractors need to ensure that the plans from which they are developing quotations are appropriate to the site and sufficiently complete to be approvable by local authorities. If further approvals are later found to be required, the contractor can find himself on the hook for the added costs.

Meeting the potential client can be a heads-up for issues ahead
Developing a direct relationship with the client is important as well, even at the pre-bid stage. When contractors are not permitted to meet with the customer prior submitting their bid, it undermines the contractor’s ability to judge whether the project plans, the budget, and homeowner expectations are properly aligned, a sixth sense that those with experience have developed over time.

Once underway, the project needs disciplined, achievable, and strategic timelines in addition to good communications at all levels. Learning later that, for example, an HVAC system specified by an architect is un-installable, as was the case in the Globe and Mail story, adds significantly to costs and causes ripple effects that impact all trades waiting for their turn to work on the project. Who ends up taking the heat from the unhappy homeowner? Often it’s the contractor. He’s the one on the front line, the who wants to keep the project moving, the one who needs to be paid without dispute.

Design-Build looks better and better
In other words, due diligence from the project get-go is very important, as is the establishment of an effective three way dialogue from that point onwards. Of course, it brings up the recurring theme of Design-Build, a growing trend amongst some of the most successful contractors in Canada and one that has been covered in depth recently by Canadian Contractor. Even for those contractors not ready to take design services in-house, a strategic alliance with a designer or architect who is familiar with the builder’s business and construction style can help avoid many of the pitfalls that befell that project in west end Toronto.

Talk to us!
Do you have an architect-contractor horror story you are willing to share?
How do you as a contractor protect yourself against these types of problems?

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