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Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional Remodelersal.alfano@gmail.com, 202.365.9070

Shockwave Jam

Autonomous vehicles are already on our roads, but your company will never run itself

December 23, 2019

During a couple of days spent driving to visit family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I experienced a phenomenon that I’m sure is familiar to most of you: An interstate highway traffic jam with no apparent cause. After cruising along smoothly in moderate traffic for miles, I would crest a hill or round a bend and suddenly be faced with a sea of brake-light red threading its way far into the distance. I used to think bumper-to-bumper standstills like this were caused by an accident up ahead, but often, as was the case here, when traffic starts moving again, there is no evidence of an accident or anything else that might have caused the backup.

The phenomenon, I learned several years ago from Tom Vanderbilt’s book, Traffic, is called a “shockwave jam.” It’s a chain reaction that can be caused by a single driver slowing down, changing lanes, or even just tapping on the brakes.

We’ve all experienced this wave in reverse while waiting in a long line of cars at a traffic light. When the light changes, only the first car has room to move forward. A beat later, the second car starts to move forward, but all the other cars are still stopped. This “wave” of motion slowly moves through the line of cars until the light changes back, infuriating any drivers who never made it through the intersection.

The wave has the opposite effect on the interstate. Even with restricted access, no stop lights, and 65 mph speed limits, traffic not only slows down but often comes to a complete standstill simply because, for example, someone changed lanes. That causes the driver they pulled in front of to tap the brakes, which causes a chain reaction as all of the cars behind, one by one, tap the brakes. Even if each car slows down just a little, eventually the whole line of cars slows to the point that the next car in the wave must actually stop, as must the car behind, and the next car behind, and so on. 

Part of the problem is that cars are too close together. (Way too close together, in fact. According to the “three-second rule,” cars moving at 65 mph—a travel rate of 96 feet per second—should maintain a spacing of … wait for it … 19 car lengths or 288 feet.) With more space between cars, a slight slowing of one would decrease the spacing but not necessarily cause the following car to slow at all.

There are other issues, of course—inattentive drivers, speeders, joy-riders, etc.—but even in a highway occupied only by model drivers, one problem remains: Lack of communication. No one knows what other drivers are going to do, or when and why they are about to do it.

One solution is autonomous vehicles. Whether on the highway or downtown, when every vehicle is communicating its location, speed, and travel route to every other vehicle, shockwave traffic jams would be a thing of the past.

Unjamming Remodeling 

It remains to be seen whether autonomous cars solve more problems than they cause. But the root cause of the shockwave jam may also explain why many, if not most, remodeling companies miss their deadlines. Like highway drivers who don’t leave enough “following distance,” remodelers who don’t allow enough time for the effects of unknowns are vulnerable to a scheduling pileup. 

Unknowns are myriad: an error on the plans; an incomplete, damaged, or incorrect delivery; a failed inspection; a no-show trade contractor; a jobsite injury; a meddling homeowner. Like a driver tapping the brakes or switching lanes, almost any delay or change early in the process ripples through the whole project. And these days, the problem is exacerbated by increased reliance on subcontractors, all of whom have their own shockwave jam of backlog projects and service work to attend to.

Lack of communication is also the root cause of the remodeling shockwave. Autonomous vehicles are already on our roads, but your company will never run itself. Systems are essential, but they still need people to monitor them and make adjustments. In a world where streamlining the sales cycle, and reducing or eliminating delays and punchlists are increasingly important, unless you are constantly communicating with your team, your vendors, and your subs, one day you’ll come around the bend to find your project calendar backed up for miles, bumper-to-bumper. 



We will never get rid of Shockwave Jams in remodeling. It can be avoided with new home construction because new homes and remodeled homes are two different animals.

The easiest homes to build are cookie-cutter stock plan homes with three different floor plans and three different facades. Herein lies the issue with those projects. Builders and developers love them because they are cheaper and faster to build and the turnaround time is short. The downside is that we have cookie-cutter homes in cookie-cutter subdivisions that all look much the same and the residents have been conditioned to accept the culture that you have to get in your cookie-cutter automobile to get anywhere, including driving long distances to work, and that creates Shockwave highway traffic jams. However, every third home has the same floor plan and every ninth home has the same facade. The upside is that builder-brokers can sell the homes to buyers who are anxious to move in as quickly as possible. If they want to make minor changes to a home that is still under construction, that comes with an added price tag and a delay in moving into the new home.

Then there are custom homes, which take more time, are not repetitive and get more input from the homeowner, who may want to make changes after the contract is signed, a substantial non-refundable deposit has been paid, the plans have been approved and a building permit is issued. Most contractors will state in their contract that once the permit application has been submitted, there will be no further changes without substantial cost increases and delays, which will also cost substantially more. Many contractors will state in their documents that if changes are expected after a certain date, they will walk away from the job and keep the deposit. That keeps the client in line and out of the way. The owners are also not allowed on the project site without the contractor there with them by specific appointment. These rules keep Shockwave Jams out of the picture more readily. The only jams come from subcontractors.

Then there are remodeling projects. Nearly half of my forty-plus years design career has been on remodeling and additions, and these are the projects that nearly always create Shockwave Jams. The only design-build projects that I have built have been my own projects. I am the owner, designer and builder and I have only done six of these projects in my entire life. I am on project number six right now and it has been the most difficult one to date. I think this will be the last one for me to build. It was in design for two years, engineering for almost a year, permitting for six months and nearly five years in construction. Why so long?

The house appeared to have "good bones" and was practical as a small cottage, yet with every swing of the demolition hammer we uncovered so many cans of worms that it boggles the mind just to think about it. Nothing in this house has been level, square, plumb or undamaged. When we first tore into it, we found covered-up termite damage, covered-up fire damage, illegal electrical work, illegal plumbing, an illegal septic system with no drain field, an unpermitted addition that was not built even close to the building code and the list continues. We had to go through two design revisions just to make the project workable, and the projected price tag of $65,000 has escalated to more than $125,000 to date and we're still not finished. The finished price tag will probably exceed $150,000.

That's where Shockwave Jams happen. I have not seen any remodeling project in my career that went smoothly from start to finish without something unexpected happening, and I have designed nearly 300 of them. Clients come to me with all kinds of ideas; with tunnel vision and rose-colored glasses they see a palace at the other end of the tunnel. However, when they get the price tag for construction after the design phase is complete, they either 1: abandon the idea of remodeling and sell the property to one of those investors who advertise that they will buy your house for cash with a quick closing, the seller loses money and the profit goes to the professional real estate flipper who does a quick remodel for a quick resale, or 2: dummy down the design, do a cheap remodel and resell it themselves after living in it for a year, or 3: keep the house and remodel again in five years. In between all that are the roadblocks to intelligent design and I am just as much a victim of my own design intelligence.

In remodeling, the ONLY way to do it is to do it right the first time. Those people call me for my professional opinion BEFORE they buy the property, then they can decide which way they want to go and move forward.

My dad had a sign in his garage at his car lot, which stated: "It takes less time to do a job right the first time than it does to do it over again. . .and then to try to explain why you did it wrong the first time." Never were truer words spoken. When it comes to remodeling a home, owners should take the time to investigate the issues clearly before proceeding, move forward with a clear vision of the finished product before you start, then act on your decision with intelligence, forethought and a practical expectation of the final outcome with a reasonable budget. BUT (and this is a big but), expect Shockwave Jams along the way. Why? Because they WILL happen, no matter how much you try to prevent them. Just like Shockwave traffic jams, keep you eyes on the road ahead, your hands on the steering wheel and be prepared to hit the brakes before someone gets hurt.

That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

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