Canadian Contractor

From commercial pilot to general contractor: (5) Mistakes will be made

"My professional background in aviation doesn't like mistakes. But in my new career, in construction, 'reduction' in mistakes is a more realistic objective than elimination of them."

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June 27, 2014 by John Bleasby

EDITOR’S NOTE: Meet John Bleasby. John is a retired commercial pilot transitioning to life as a general contractor. Now, as he attempts to do his first solo on a new home build, north of Toronto, he has kindly offered to share his experiences with us here in a series of blogs. Veteran contractors, go easy on him – but all comments are most welcome.

If you missed John’s previous posts, here they are:

(1) Flying by the Seat of My Pants

(2) Oh, the Things You Can’t Control!

(3) Half-Load Restrictions, Half-Speed Construction

(4) How I Became an ICF ‘Block Head’

One big upside of being the G.C. on my own house-building project is that I oversee every aspect of the construction and know where every penny is being spent. The flip side however, is that I also know where and when any mistakes are made!

And there will always be mistakes. Although my professional background in aviation doesn’t like mistakes, I also realise that construction is different. ‘Reduction of mistakes’ is a more realistic objective than elimination.

However, how the mistakes are fixed also matters. Mistakes can occur through either carelessness (hard to tolerate) or unintended human error (more tolerable). All are fixable. To me, it’s a matter of taking responsibility for those errors and dealing with them immediately; NOT pointing fingers at someone else and backing away.


The ‘replacement’ support beam is welded onto its steel base plate, cast into the concrete pockets of the ICF wall.

The ‘replacement’ support beam is welded onto its steel base plate, cast into the concrete pockets of the ICF wall.


Example 1:
The joists for the main floor level of my house are supported by two large steel beams that span the entire width of the foundation wall. On installation day, the supplier brought in a very large crane to move the largest beam (38’) into position, only find that it had been mis-measured and cut 15” short! A few expletives were muttered under the breath of the supplier as he quietly packed everything up and took the useless beam away. Next day by noon, he was back with a new beam (the paint was barely dry). The replacement beam was installed with very little time lost. That’s what I call ‘Taking Responsibility’.

Example 2:
10 days before delivery my construction team noted a mis-match between joist and ledger specifications on the architectural drawings and called the joist supplier for clarification. Despite our efforts to clarify and correct the discrepancy and assurances that it would be corrected, we were shipped the wrong
 joists and ledgers and incorrect hangers! The response from our sales rep? The old Sergeant Schultz routine; ‘I know nothing, I see nothing!’ In addition, the supplier’s shop drawings were so small they were legible only by a magnifying glass (literally) forcing me to have them re-printed on a commercial printer! To make a long and difficult story short, it took five days of discussion, re-ordering protocol, credit memo generation, credit card processing and new delivery timetables, all supplier issues, to get the materials we needed on site to proceed with construction. This due entirely to carelessness at the supplier end combined with a sales rep unwillingness to fix errors promptly. Five lost days!

Lesson learned?
As the French would say: ‘Breathe through your nose!’ I hand-picked all my suppliers and trades for not only price but for their reputations for integrity and customer service. All, except this joist supplier, have been wonderful. However, this one sales rep’s indifference to customer service meant my project suffered a serious time-wasting delay. Perhaps such things are inevitable in construction, but my aviation instincts for discipline, precision and most of all responsibility were aroused.

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8 Comments » for From commercial pilot to general contractor: (5) Mistakes will be made
  1. Brian says:

    John, I’ve been reading your articles since you started just to find out how your adventure proceeded.
    You’ve done a lot of talking about principles you learned as a pilot and that these ideas should make you a successful project manager after completing one project. This being your own personal residence, nonetheless.
    In this article you have begun sliding down the slope that every fireman and policeman does when they decide to do the very same thing you are doing. You are counting on others to build this project for you because you, simply, don’t have the knowledge. Did you have your floor system designed at L/360 or L/240. Do you even have an understanding of what these simple terms mean to the structure of your home or are you just another homeowner believing that you can save a lot of money doing it yourself because anyone can build a house and contractors charge way too much. You have now begun to blame others (floor system supplier) for your lack of knowledge.
    I am a custom home General Contractor with a diploma in Architectural Engineering Technologies. I don’t rely on my trades and suppliers to build my homes for me. Building a house is so much more than choosing trades/suppliers, having drawings done and filing a flight plan. I’m 51 years old. I grew up in my dad’s construction firm. I went to school. I’ve operated my own residential construction firm for 28 years. I would never consider new home construction a retirement hobby.
    The idea of building one house, for yourself, then ‘project managing’ for others, really, is a hillbilly fantasy.
    I fully

    • Robert Koci says:

      Brian: First I want to thank you for commenting on John’s blog. As the pubisher of Canadian Contractor, I believe it’s critical that we get the attention of experienced contractors and give them an opportunity to have their say, share their expertise and advocate for the industry.

      I am surprised that you would take exception to John’s reliance on experience to ensure the work done on the house is of the highest quality. You have sufficient knowledge to build a house yourself without relying on others. Great. John does not and has the foresight and character to realize it and play to his strengths: organization, management and high intellegence. As a result, his house, I promise you, will be the equal of anything you have built.

      The reality is, building is NOT rocket science. It’s not even flying a commercial plane. Your acreditations are great, and good for you that you have them and you use what you have learned to build quality homes. But dont’t be upset with John because he can do just as good a job as you by appreciating his limitations and working within them.

      I might add that if you have a build to tell us about; if you are willing to write a blog on a build you think will help contractors understand better the process of consruction, I would happy to give you the space you need to tell your story. Writing, like building, is not rocket science either, as much as I would like to think otherwise sometimes. It is humbling sometimes to realize that what you do just isn’t that hard.

      • Gail, Skylight to Flor Inc says:

        “Writing, like building, is not rocket science either, … It is humbling sometimes to realize that what you do just isn’t that hard. ”

        C’mon Bob, we both know writing is only slightly less demanding than rocket science. And I know a bunch of folks who would rather try to build a house, than write a blog about doing it.

        • Steve Payne says:

          Gail, thanks for your comment! Rob wrote a piece in 2010 called “10 Things We’ve Learned in 10 Years” (it was the tenth anniversary of our magazine). One of them was “It’s Not That Hard!” I think Robbo was talking about the mental game – whether it’s building or blogging about it… Too many of us DO then to underrate ourselves, no? I like the confidence-boost in “It’s Not That Hard.” Even if it IS that hard, some days… Keep in touch…

    • John Bleasby says:

      Greetings Brian,

      Thank you for your thoughts regarding my efforts as my own General Contractor on my house project. You claim to have ‘been reading’ my installments, yet you have clearly missed the message:
      1. I did not take on this project because contractors ‘charge way too much’. As I stated in my first installment, it was because the contractor I had intended to use was not prepared to discuss using materials such as ICF, and could not/would not submit meaningful costs for the project.
      2. My most recent installment does not attempt ‘to blame others [for my lack of experience]’. I was making the point that mistakes can and do happen, and that those who make them should accept responsibility. Sadly this does not always happen.

      However, it is also clear that your approach to contracting is different from mine. Since you ‘don’t rely on [my] trades and suppliers to build [my] homes for me’, I must conclude that you are a multi-talented and accredited architect, engineer, designer, framer, electrician, plumber, mechanical installer, drywaller, painter, flooring installer, trim carpenter, concrete and foundation expert (to name just a few trades and suppliers). I am impressed, and also pleased your approach works for you.

      On the other hand I am guilty as charged. I possess none of your experience, accredited skills, certifications and degrees. Therefore in recognising what I cannot do, I have instead assembled a team of experts in all those areas. My role is to keep them organised, keep them on schedule, coordinate them so that each can do their best work for me, and to keep on budget.

      I am somewhat puzzled that you would mock a pilot (or a fireman, or a policeman) for having the temerity to cross into your world of general contracting. However, I can assure you this: I will have far greater success in this, my first attempt as a contractor, than you would have in your first attempt to fly an airplane.

      • Steve Payne says:

        John, when the project is over… want to get some photos of you and Brian at your jobsite, and then you and Brian heading for the private plane, and we’ll try to arrange a nice dinner for all of you guys. I’m pretty sure this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship! (see Brian’s later post, as you will have done so by now…)

  2. Brian says:

    I must commend you, Rob, and all of the editorial staff on the professional and timely manner in which you follow up on the comments posted to your site. That takes commitment.
    You may find this hard to believe but I am aquainted with the concept of being humble. You see, I suffer from a life-long condition commonly known as ‘DonCherryitis’. The symptoms are, typically, being very opinionated and possessing a big mouth with occasional bouts of verbal diarrhea. The only known remedy, so far, is frequent large doses of apology and humility.
    That being disclosed, I must say to you, John, that you have committed yourself to a very large undertaking full of personal responsibility and, to top it off, you have the courage to publicize your efforts, by stages, to the entire world. That takes some very large, uh, confidence. I didn’t take this into account in my comment and I apologize.
    Regarding rocket science. I need to differ here. I have been an eager student of ‘Building Science’ for many years. One aspect of construction that is, in fact, a science is vapor, air and thermal barriers. This is an ongoing area of research that numerous academics and scientists are working at, on a daily basis. The constant introduction of new products and technologies make this one area almost impossible to tie down. Our industry, from the street, looks like a bunch of sweaty, dirty people making noise. This is a simple, yet incredibly effective, bit of technology borne of 28 years in this industry. ‘Prior to floor framing, the top of all foundation walls and all above grade walls must be scraped and swept to ensure that all deleterious materials are removed’. Regardless of the knowledge, experience and good intentions of our tradespeople, time is money. If there is mud or stones within the joist cavities, and the floor system is installed, what happens to the thermal barrier? There will always be a thermal break that, even, sprayed foam won’t alleviate. Joist cavities are one of the points of most heat loss in a building. So a dirty, sweaty person on a ladder or walking the top of a wall with a scraper and a broom, is that the outcome of science and technology? I could cite a hundred other, similar, applications. It all depends on whether your focus is on building the most perfect structure you can or just building a house.
    Regarding your success, John, in building a house for the first time as opposed to mine in flying a plane. First, and foremost, I think we would both agree that it would be foolhardy to attempt to fly a plane without, at least, a little education. I acknowledge that I allowed my mouth to run faster than my good sense in my comment. The point I wanted to make was that building a house for yourself, with your own money, is a whole different world from building a house for a customer with their money. I’m a firm non-believer in project management. The responsibility for a project, always, must lie completely on the GC. Period. Email me and I’ll send you the best and most current thinking on this subject.
    Regarding writing as a science. Rob, in the past, I have been offered the opportunity to write for online journals. I’ve always declined because, it seems to me, that the inherent qualities of good writing, such as, objectivity, good research, and, at the very least, knowledge of grammar and writing basics, to name just a few that I know that I know nothing of, would be like myself thinking that I could fly a plane (how hard can it be?). I don’t know if writing is a science but I do know that it takes an intelligent and educated individual to do it properly. I believe that you and your team are, obviously, of the caliber to call yourselves writers. I understand, now, that your venue may not be where I should be addressing my comments.
    I wish you all prosperity and excellent reading.

    • Steve Payne says:


      Thanks for your post! You’ve made John Bleasby’s weekly blogs that much more interesting… he’s got quite an interesting reply to your earlier comments, as you can see, and the whole thing is just a great conversation to eavesdrop on…

      And food for thought.

      I don’t think you’ve got Don Cherry-itis. Never heard Don apologize, or only very, very rarely… and you were gracious here and you’re obviously going to be a huge asset for John B… I hope you guys are in touch by email by now… If you’re not, email me at and I’ll connect you guys that way…

      The Building Envelope stuff… very interesting points about the clean up and scraping and junk in the wall cavities – we defer to your knowledge on that stuff. Would love Steve Maxwell to weigh in on that one, too, if you’re reading Steve…

      Class act here, Brian. We only disagree on “your venue may not be where I should be addressing my comments…” No, please keep addressing them here because we can all learn something from both you and John B.