Managing Expectations

I am often asked, in conversation or when interviewing for a project, how our firm goes about the operation of constructing a project. After discussing the roles of project manager, superintendent, foreman, etc, I am invariably asked, as the manager of the construction business, what my role is in the operation of constructing individual projects.

With quite a few years now in the business playing just about every role along the way, I have come to the successful conclusion that my role is to play that of the client or client’s advocate.

When it comes to successfully building residential estates of the highest caliber it is imperative that job one is to manage the expectations of the client at all times. The construction business is fraught with endless chances for misunderstanding and monetary loss by the contractor, so the construction staff is trained to protect the business’s shareholders.  This is necessary to the survival of the business.  However, the vigilant protection of the company does not guaranty a happy client or design professional — or even that their expectations are managed correctly.

This is where I come in.

As the leader of the firm, I work very closely with our operations manager or “manager of the project managers.” I look at every issue as if I am the homeowner or design professional.  What would I think if I were being presented with this proposal or request for information? Is this something I should be paying for?  How will this affect the schedule? Is this what I am expecting?

Don’t misunderstand, our project managers and superintendents are highly experienced, capable, and extremely sensitive to the wants and needs of our clients and design counterparts.  However, there are times when client expectations collide with that of the general contractor.

The tendency of the project manager is to strive to build extreme quality within budget and schedule. When there is a change causing extension of budget and schedule to provide for the extreme quality it is up to the operations manager to scrutinize these situations so that fairness to the client is maintained. At times, this creates confrontation and then compromise within the office prior to releasing information to the client. Compromise might include eating some costs that might otherwise have been imposed improperly onto the client. It also might mean arriving to the conclusion that due to certain documentation, our take on the situation is correct and the client must bare the brunt. In the latter case, some explanation from me directly with client could come in handy to explain the situation or reason for our course of action. There we go managing expectations again.

Performing the tasks required by the client in the process of constructing a building is every bit as important to the outcome as the performance of the project manager. In our market segment, that of the very high-quality estate home, most clients act in this capacity few, if only one time. How can we expect them to make the right decisions or understand the point of view of the contractor without any experience? Having been a client myself, who has also acted as a professional client representative on large estate projects, I have a pretty good understanding of the contractor/client relationship. I believe having the ability to view the process from a client’s perspective and using it as a tool to manage client expectations sets our firm apart when it comes to client retention and referral.

It’s the water, stupid.

It is inevitable. The setting is the client, architect, contractor meeting. We are discussing the design development drawings for building the new estate home. Construction start is many months away but program elements must be decided upon far in advance in order to move forward with design. At some point in the discussion we come across that one bit of program that always gets my defenses up; the exterior deck placed directly over indoor living space.

These decks are quite desirable to clients as private outdoor retreats or lookouts or even gardens for unusual plantings but they come at a price that in the long run cannot be entirely prevented by even the most experienced and well-intentioned contractor. Water intrusion will eventually become an issue.

Water is one of nature’s ways of reclaiming man’s constructs. Every system that either prevents water intrusion into a building or carries and delivers the liquid to a place of use has a lifespan. It may be a lifespan longer than the average human life, but it will cease to adequately perform its duty at some point.

The point here is not to discourage clients from including special amenities in their high-end design plans. It is to highlight the potential pitfalls of their inclusion and the costs associated with their proper construction, continued maintenance and eventual replacement. Decks over living spaces violate a combination of basic rules; don’t walk on the roof and don’t invite wind-blown rain into sensitive places (Sensitive places would include deck-to-wall intersections over the 150-year-old Steinway). To properly plan for the construction of this sort of amenity, the contractor must take into account the coordination of the desired materials with the correct systems to prevent water intrusion. To properly prepare the client for the deck, the contractor must explain the reasons for the costs of construction, maintenance and possible future replacement. Informing on what to expect is, as they say, “Where the waterproofing meets the flashing”.

There are other amenities that present water hazards; steam showers, pot fillers, swimming pools and indoor hot tubs are to name a few. All can be fantastic features, but all must be handled delicately in the planning and management of expectation and execution.

Water is necessary and luxurious to our wants and needs but its barriers and conduits must always be questioned and tested. Swimming pools, pot fillers, swimming pools, roofs, air conditioner condensation, waste pipes, windows, aquariums, indoor hot tubs, decks over living spaces, storm drains, gutters, even potted plants, are all potentials for water intrusion. This list doesn’t even come close to being complete and every single building trade can have a direct role in water defense or is possibly affected by water.

As an owner, when considering any sort of home improvement always associate each facet with the word “water” and ask the hard questions. Do I need this amenity? Can I manage it properly once the project is complete? As a design professional, one must always double check the potential for water to play a role in any system design.

As a builder of high-end estate homes, the checklist for any and all building system analysis starts with the word Water followed by a frank discussion with both home-owner and architect and a AAA rated insurance policy.