Jeff Jungsten: The importance of TEAM

We recently had the opportunity to interview Jeff Jungsten of Caletti Jungsten Construction on subjects surrounding construction planning, team development, and management.  Jeff is an experienced professional and a leader in green building and sustainability in this ever evolving industry.  Jeff was on the panel at a local National Association of Remodeling Industry meeting where discussions on these topics inspired me to gather more information.  A special thanks to Jeff for his efforts in pushing the envelope in green building, team building, and improving the way General Contractors are perceived and do business.

What are some advantages to working in a negotiated format?

One prime advantage is found in the construction documentation, in that it is initially presented in a less structured format.  With less bid rigidity to conform to, all elements of the team cooperate, working to agree on the best options to pursue, and when best to accomplish them.  This saves money up front, and almost without exception, engenders greater trust and understanding within the team.  In a competitive bid scenario, the contractor is mandated only to reflect in the budget what is shown in the plans.  This often forces change orders during the life of the project – and is frequently found to add unnecessary cost and contentiousness.

Negotiated contracts also are accompanied by some level of preconstruction, and in this initial work activity valuable information is provided at the very outset, assisting all phases of decision-making, the production process, and the evolving design.

Please list some factors you find most helpful that lead to successfully completed projects:

Trust, ethical information exchange, due diligence, careful selection of team members, consistently favorable weather, timely delivery of critical path details, good listening skills, and a healthy dose of humility.

What do you look for in an Architect?

I look first for a firm that is team oriented, operates with full integrity, shows appropriate attention to detail, and is thorough in their presentation.  We respect and welcome a firm that holds us accountable to our high standards of quality, to our inventive sense of design, one that fully understands building science, and one that follows certifiably sustainable methods in their work.

We also seek to ally ourselves with those outfits that have built solid reputations showing great process for the client BEFORE a team is chosen.  Invariably, these firms also exhibit great understanding of the true costs of construction, and can be found to rely on the team to present information in an honest, unbiased way.

At the end of the day, we seek to form a team that meshes perfectly with the architectural firm, one that can accurately convey information and deliver results when operating under any sense of urgency associated to the project timeline.

What do the best Architects do to help project delivery?

It begins at the first meeting with the client, when his/her expectations are expressed, refined, and recorded.  The best architects are those that capably manage those expectations to the degree of satisfaction the paying client demands, and to what is realistically do-able by all parties involved.  They understand efforts not only in terms of money costs, but in the time necessary to achieve, they perceive the level of design understanding the client can grasp and assist in, and perhaps most importantly, they embrace how the client wishes to experience the project upon completion.  The team then drives to produce the client’s imagination in three dimensions, concurrently managing the emotion of the project.  It is tough to do right, but when it is, it’s pure magic.

What are some challenges you face working with Architects?

Some of the most difficult situations arise from incomplete communications that then result in assumptions not equally understood.  Information cycles that take too long, and a lack of focus on team add difficulty to a process that doesn’t match the delivery intent of the project.  There is a gap in sustainable design in my opinion, in that some architects believe that architecture is art and sustainability is an “overlay”.  This can create a big gap in trying to create an environment that is much more focused on sustainable design intent first. I see that there is a need for more diligent design intent toward the entire system of a project.

What do you look for in a Client?

Someone who understands the process, who is willing to make tough choices, who is willing to hold us and themselves accountable, who can make clear decisions and stand by them, and most importantly someone who can trust their team.

What are some of the challenges you face working with Clients?

Oftentimes it is simply the lack of time.  People are busy and they don’t have the time it takes to make all of the decisions needed to accomplish a project. Some times it is a level of trust that might be missing, or a lack of understanding for a certain portion of the project that leads to confusion. Some people have situations in their lives that add stress to the project which is understandable, but still provides some level of challenge. In the end it is simply working together over periods of time that can create more stress than they are accustomed to.

Where do most conflicts arise during construction and what practices do you have in place to combat them?

Changes in scope are one, colors and finishes are another. Time and cost management are some others. For each of these steps we have a deliberate and complete system to make sure that the process is understood upfront and meetings are held regularly to review.  It all comes down to having an automated system that prioritizes and manages the critical milestones of the project.  Our system of scheduling, cost control review, and alterations to scope assessment ensure that project priorities are kept in proper order, and insures the information will be delivered in a timely fashion.  This avoids the stress and inevitable cost overruns associated with a critical construction phase being approached, with too little time to accurately confer and find agreement with all parties.

Jeff makes some really great points about the importance of team building and using systems to navigate through the long list of decisions made throughout a project.  A lesson I learned recently was never substitute price for dependability.  I decided to go with a couple subcontractors that I hadn’t worked with in the past simply because their price was lower and it helped with the budget. I won’t bore you with the details but it was a mistake I won’t soon forget or duplicate.  I guess it just goes to show you get what you pay for and nothing changes that, not even a down economy.  And oh yes, never hire someone who’s answering machine is full…..or in my case, doesn’t have one at all. 

Thank you for your interest on this topic.

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5 Architects 5 Questions Part II

The planning and construction management process.

Ever heard someone talk about the construction project from hell?  Chances are many of us can recall hearing such tails of misfortune.  As a Contractor I can attest to hearing more complaints about bad contracting than one would like to admit.  When speaking with potential clients I often incite past experiences to see what worked well versus what could’ve been handled differently.  I have found this is a great way to learn about Clients and how the process should be implemented based upon personality, expectations and experiences.

So why the low success rates?  There are a number of ways to break it down but I believe it has to do with the number of unethical companies in the industry. Couple this with preconstruction decision making driven by budget constraints and its no wonder the project has pitfalls. The recession is hopefully helping to weed out the surplus of unethical organizations that thrived in years past.  When work was more abundant the quality of the workforce was diluted.  With less work available today there are more reputable companies vying for projects which they would not have considered in years past. The whole “sifting” process is leading to higher levels of service available and over time will help improve industry standard assuming of course the Client is willing to pay for it.

Following is a list of 5 questions and responses from 5 local Architects on subjects surrounding the planning and construction management process.  This is the second installment of this informative Q & A.  It is our hope that it will guide you to informed decision-making while planning and building your next project.

A special thank you to our local Architects for their participation:

Ron Kappe of www.kappedu.com, San Rafael, Ca.
Robert Swatt of www.swattmiers.com, Emeryville, Ca.
Jonathan Feldman of www.feldmanarchitecture.com, San Francisco, Ca.
Steven and Cathi House of www.houseandhouse.com, San Francisco, Ca.
Michael Rex of www.rexassoc.com, Sausalito, Ca.

When negotiating design fees how do you explain the importance of detailed drawings up front and proper management through construction?

Kappe: We need to establish our experience with the process, that we are aware of the level of detailed drawings that are required and try to justify our fee proposal on that basis. We are getting the same “low ball” pressure in this economy as Contractors are experiencing and the Owner who is not aware of exactly what is required will tend to go for the lower price.

Swatt: We simply explain what our role is on the project and that our services include detailed construction documents and an active role during construction, which includes reviewing shop drawings and submittals, reviewing the progress of the work.

Feldman: I explain the wide range of service and quality a client can receive and what they will be getting in regards to detailed plans.  I like to show examples of our drawings and encourage clients to look at others for comparison.

House+House: We explain to our clients that they will get a more accurate bid with fewer change orders from the Contractor if our drawings and specifications are thorough and detailed.  We always tell our clients that many questions come up during the course of construction that they are not qualified to answer.  We also explain that we act as a mediator between them and the Contractor over the course of the project to help resolve issues.

Rex: I explain that proper preparation and management prevents poor performance.  In construction there are too many variables and I prefer to answer questions from the field, not from my desk.  The Architect is the keeper of the essence of the design and sees the finish product from day one, without that perspective you’re judging with limited information.

In terms of specific project management practices what does your firm do to ensure communication between Contractor and client?

Kappe: A clear paper/electronic messages trail is necessary. A steady pattern of meetings help to insure accountability for all parties. Requests for payment need to be well documented. Potential change order requests need to be brought to the attention of the Owner early. It is important to try to maintain a spirit of cooperation and goodwill. The Owner wants to feel that the job is being taken care of in a professional manner.

Swatt: We hold weekly or bi-weekly site meetings and we expect that the Contractor, Owner and Architect will attend.  Meeting minutes, with action items are generally prepared and distributed by the Contractor.

Feldman: We take good notes and regularly distribute to everyone.  We also use software to track open ended items, what has been communicated, and who needs to do what in regards to follow up.

House+House: We encourage each party to always ask questions and keep everyone updated on the status of the project through regular emails and phone calls.

Rex: We encourage a pre-construction meeting between the Contractor, Architect and Client, so we can map together the best course ahead.  Site meetings between Architect and Contractor weekly or at least every other week is ideal.  Keep the Architect in the loop, particularly if changes or substitutions are considered, so the Architect can offer feedback about their potential impacts.

In terms of specific project management practices what do the best General Contractors do to ensure communication with the team?

Kappe: These are some of the issues that concern us:
Submittals in as early as possible, resolve substitutions early as possible, written communication, good methods of tracking things important for the Owner as well as Architect.   Good communication patterns tend to cost more and the Owner needs to understand this point and be willing to pay for this level of service.

Swatt: The best General Contractors follow the same practice – weekly meetings and meeting minutes.  Additionally, the best Contractors update the project schedule on a regular basis.

Feldman: There is a difference in quality of note taking. The best GC’s have proper procedures in place which allow for weekly meetings, well documented list of changes and action items, and follow through tracking the details.

House+House: They keep us and the client informed on a continuous and regular basis about the progress of the project and about upcoming issues requiring decisions.

Rex: They call the Architect frequently and promptly when issues arise so they can be resolved quickly by working together.  They anticipate events and activities well in advance, refer to the Construction Documents frequently, remain organized, order materials well in advance, and hire skilled, professional subcontractors and supervise them well.

What do you tell clients to consider when choosing a General Contractor?

Kappe: The Owner needs to look for an experienced problem solver who has been through similar projects before. Trust, honesty and personal compatibility are also important issues for the Owner to consider

Swatt: First, we make sure that the GC is a good fit for the project in terms of size of project, expected quality standards, cost, and location.  We suggest that the homeowner contact other homeowner references, tour completed work, and review the GC’s upcoming schedule and availability.  Most importantly, we want to know who the superintendent will be, and what his / her qualifications are.

Feldman: The main things I suggest considering are personality type, their experience in the industry, solid references, and most importantly happy clients.

House+House: Quality of workmanship, experience in the specific project type, good project supervision, excellent communication skills, accurate bookkeeping and overall integrity.

Rex: Experience is what counts, talk to past clients, ask questions and get creditable answers. Do all your homework and then go with your gut…..be excited about it, if your ambivalent somethings wrong. Common values are always good….ask yourself what they are. Consider someone local who is familiar with codes and departments.

What percentage of clients chooses the low bidder in today’s climate?

Kappe: For public side projects, it almost always goes to the low bidder in this climate. The Owner needs to watch out for too low of a price because this usually leads to problems later on in the project. Demonstrated experience by the Contractor is always an important factor.

Swatt: For our residential work, we rarely use competitive bidding.  Almost all of our projects are negotiated.  The obvious advantage is that with the negotiated process, the Owner and Architect (with the Contractor’s help) have the ability to analyze cost and constructability issues before it’s too late to modify the scope or design of the project.

Feldman: I don’t feel it has really changed. If the client understands you get what you pay for and that there is a difference in levels of thoroughness in the bidding process they are often willing to pay for better service.  Only when the client has unrealistic budget expectations do they set themselves up to go with the low bid.

House+House: Approximately 75%, although we would only ask Contractors to bid a project who are well qualified, are similar in size, and have a proven track record.

Rex: Very few.  While price is important, having trust and confidence in one’s Contractor is the most important deciding factor.  Clients look for both good value and dependability.  They also need to feel confident that they can communicate well with their Contractor.  They also select people to work with they like.  Good referrals are essential too.  The Architect’s recommendation is an important key.  Having a positive past relationship with a Contractor is also a major factor in the selection process.

One thing I have found instrumental during planning is the Architect’s ability to set expectations early. Some Architects believe in the negotiated format while others use the competitive bidding process more frequently. Ultimately it is the Architect who shapes the Clients view and has the power to implement process in ways he/she believes will work best.

Having seen the negotiated format work so well vs. the pitfalls of competitive bidding it’s a shame more Architects don’t bring Contractors in early and push for the team/transparency approach.

Do both bidding and negotiating work? Yes. Does one work better then the other? I think an honest answer leans in favor of the latter.

Process aside there is one thing we must not forget and that is the importance of team and keeping the process fun. There are challenges in every project and the way in which we respond together is paramount.

Thank you for your interest on this topic.

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5 Architects 5 Questions

Working with Clients and Contractors.

With a goal of finding ways to improve the building experience for Clients, Design Associates, and General Contractors we gathered a list of questions and hit the streets.  Since the Architect is often the first point of contact for the Client we started by interviewing some local players to get their feedback. To keep content brief we have provided their responses in a shorthand format.

A special thanks to the selected Architects for their participation:

Colleen Mahoney of www.mahoney-architects.com, Mill Valley, Ca.
Michael Heckmann of www.heckmannarchitects.com, Tiburon, Ca.
Jared Polsky of www.polskyarchitects.com, Larkspur, Ca.
Patrick Lepelch of www.lepelcharchitect.com,, Mill Valley, Ca.
Elizabeth Suzuki of www.suttonsuzukiarchitects.com, Mill Valley, Ca.

1. In your experience what leads to the most successful construction projects?

Mahoney: Trust, trusting the team, I feel the most trusting Client gets the best job.

Heckmann: The Client staying engaged through the entirety with a total commitment to make the project the best it can be.

Polsky: Listening, meeting people’s expectations, good communication, and an experienced site superintendent.

Lepelch: Weekly meetings with the team, a tight set of project documents, and being vigilant in pre qualifying the right Contractor.

Suzuki: The Architect and the Contractor managing the Clients expectations with budget as well as the scope of the project in mind.

2. What are 3 challenges you experience working with Contractors?

Mahoney: Not insisting the Architect be engaged in construction, setting the Client up for change orders, and not anticipating problems in advance to enable Architect to come up with solutions.

Heckmann: Not keeping Architect involved, Contractor altering the design intent, and lack of experience and communication.

Polsky: Lack of communication, change orders in an untimely fashion, and needing answers too quickly.

Lepelch: Lack of experienced foreman, not communicating in a timely manner, missing details in the specifications, and unrealistic schedules.

Suzuki: Doing what you say your going to do, letting people know when things aren’t going as planned, and a lack of communication about issues.

3. What are 3 challenges you experience working with Clients?

Mahoney: Husband and wife not engaged throughout project, leaving decisions to Architect and Builder, not doing the work to make decisions in advance.

Heckmann: Expect design solutions too quickly, don’t make decisions fast enough during construction, phase out Architect involvement through the course of the project.

Polsky: Lack of timely decision-making, an unwillingness to understand things happen, and unrealistic to budget.

Lepelch: No added contingency to the budget, second guessing decision-making, a lack of trust in the Architect and his/her ability to make decisions based on past experience.

Suzuki: A lot stems from the Clients uncertainty, or difficulty with making decisions.
Lack of decisive, committed decisions…each decision lays ground work for the future.

4. What are some of the advantages to a negotiated contract?

Mahoney: Familiarity with the builder, better understanding of complexity, Client informed and involved, need less detailed plans.

Heckmann: Client is an integral part of the team that usually provides end result balancing quality, scope, value, cost. When Client brings Architect and contractor into discussion…they control areas of project where pricing is not right….takes more time and engagement by the Client…better result in the end.

Polsky: Team atmosphere, subcontractors weigh in on process, technically avoid change orders, superintendent understands the project.

Lepelch: Cost estimating with builder to come in on budget, Client negotiates with Contractor upfront and gets competitive numbers through subcontractors, build trust early on during trial period and learn how the relationship will work.

Suzuki: Client involved in selecting team members and plays active role. Working through pre-construction the contractor knows the project and Client gets to build the know, like, and trust factor….the Contractor needs to be right for the project.

5. What are some disadvantages to the competitive bidding process?

Mahoney: Builders are forced to consider the job based on low price vs what is best for the Client and the original design intent.

Heckmann: Going with low bid can lead to more inexperienced team…usually happens when Client solicits proposals from under qualified builder.

Polsky: It is an inefficient process. Must be diligent to get apples to apples comparisons.

Lepelch: Need a complete set of bid documents to ensure proper pricing and comparisons.

Suzuki: Contractor chooses team based on price. Need a complete set of drawings to make sure bids are comparable and to minimize surprises down the road.

Anyone who has gone through a construction project, whether it be a simple bathroom remodel or full house makeover knows the important decisions are made very early in the process.  Some big questions are:  Who can I trust?  Who should I work with? How much will it (really) cost vs. how much can I afford? How do I know I’m getting a good value?

Most people start by talking to friends who have gone through a similar project to learn about the process and what worked vs. what did not. Unfortunately this is not always the best route considering the influence it will have on decision-making as well as the pre-construction format.

The project is designed to meet a proposed budget but often fails due to lack of realistic pricing and evaluation.  Hiring a Contractor for pre-construction services is an invaluable tool but often met by the Clients unwillingness to invest early.  Next is the all too common “competitive bid scenario”.  The problem is not so much the bidding but the way in which the process is implemented.  Hopefully the Client has invested in detailed bid documents and will let the Architect select and manage the bidding process. Often in a rush to get construction started the Client does not spend the necessary time to secure (final) design and product specifications which leads to inaccurate pricing.  General Contractors (often varying in caliber and level of service) prepare estimates that will (supposedly) be good for comparison and a final team selection.  At this point not only has the Owners expectations been compromised due to budget shock but the collaborative process forfeited as well.

Lessons Learned

Don’t underestimate the importance of a qualified team and doing your due diligence in the pre qualification, pre-construction process. The more time, money, and effort vested in the planning stages will determine the overall success of a project. Have faith in yourself, your decisions, and more importantly your team. Try not to entertain your neighbors view and how his approach failed and find industry leaders with proven track records who enjoy going the extra mile for Clients who trust them.

Thank you for your interest on this topic.  To receive your monthly post remember to subscribe to The Triangle.

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