The Five Essentials of Consistent Construction Quality

You never know what lies behind the walls of an existing home. Every remodeling project is unique. Renovating an existing home is much harder than building a new home. Finding a skilled remodeling carpenter is harder than finding that needle in the haystack. These are some of the proverbs of the industry, but they can also be used as excuses.

August 31, 2005

You never know what lies behind the walls of an existing home. Every remodeling project is unique. Renovating an existing home is much harder than building a new home. Finding a skilled remodeling carpenter is harder than finding that needle in the haystack.

These are some of the proverbs of the industry, but they can also be used as excuses. It's the first step on a slippery slope that leads to callbacks, profit slippage and unhappy customers.

Maybe it isn't possible to get everything right all the time, but it's sure worth trying.

Daily job checks by project managers, top, help to provide quality control for Siding-1 Windows-1 Exteriors, a Chicago remodeler specializing in siding, windows and roofing and other exterior work. Hiring certified installation crews and using only preferred products make the company's 900 annual jobs go smoothly.
Photos by Marc Berlow

"Do I want to be an OK company or do I want to be a great company?" is how Bill Conforti, president of Chicago specialty firm Siding-1 Windows-1 Exteriors, puts it. "We have to get better every single day. You have to raise the bar or you're going to get left behind."

1 A culture of excellence

If you take it for granted that every job is plagued with misunderstandings, damaged supplies, inept subcontractors and infuriating architects, and that it's not a remodeling job unless at least one item has to be installed twice — well, you're right. It's easy to fulfill low expectations.

From day one, Conforti didn't want to be that guy. "I always said, 'We're Marshall Field's,'" he explains. Midwesterners will appreciate what he means: an established name brand with a reputation for top-notch products and quality services.

In his opinion, "Quality's got to start from the top. Then it flows."

Jerome Quinn, president of design/build firm SawHorse Inc. in Atlanta, agrees with that attitude. "Sawhorse is an exclusive club, and you need to demonstrate that you can play at that level before you come on board," says Quinn. "We want people who have the same values. We are intense about what we do, and we have a lot of pride. That takes care of a lot of legislation."

The owner sets the tone for quality, but must maintain it by hiring excellent employees and subcontractors, then helping them to build on their skills.

2 Skilled field workers

Siding-1 employs several project managers, but subcontractors do all of the hands-on work in siding, roofing, windows and carpentry. Many of the crews have been with the company for years, but Conforti still has rules for screening new crews.

  • They must be specialists. With 900 annual jobs, his firm doesn't need people who know a little about a lot; it needs experts with deep skills and knowledge in one area.
  • Don't just get references; view subcontractors' prior work. Past performance predicts future behavior.
  • If your company works with particular products on a regular basis, and the manufacturers offer installation training and certification, look for subcontractors that have the certification.
  • Offer in-house education opportunities to staff and trades. Siding-1 has a training room with tables, chairs and a television with videocassette recorder.

Bill Conforti
Siding-1 Windows-1 Exteriors

Like Conforti, Quinn requires certain basics from subcontractors: business license, proof of insurance, trade license when relevant and references. To prove technical competence, he looks for examples of prior work on older homes and installation certification, although it's not required. SawHorse employs in-house project managers, carpenters and laborers, but the bulk of its work is done by outside trades. Quinn expects his subcontractors to know more about their field than the staff does and to share their knowledge with SawHorse.

"It would be a Herculean task for me to keep up with all the changes in construction," he explains. "I've got a tile installer that lectures around the country. In our contracts, we say that tile is installed per the American Tile Council. Part of our agreement is to specify that minimum level of industry standards."

If a field has recently undergone change — a flood of new products or new codes — a trade contractor might suggest a "lunch and learn," where he comes to SawHorse to educate the in-house employees over lunch. At the same time, Quinn returns the favor. For example, SawHorse is heavily involved with Atlanta's EarthCraft House remodeling program. Following EarthCraft's green building guidelines required project managers and other staff to learn about different building methods and materials, then share that information with the trades. SawHorse educated its framers on advanced framing techniques that allow improved insulation and sent other trades to classes on mold and moisture control.

In addition to EarthCraft training, SawHorse provides International Code Council and OSHA training and certification to project managers, carpenters and laborers.

Budgeting time and money for staff training, perhaps especially when you don't sub out much work, is an essential component of quality construction, says Shawn McCadden, education director of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen by Worldwide and former owner of Custom Contracting in Arlington, Mass.

"The lead carpenter system doesn't always afford the ability to teach someone below you things," he says, noting the amount of hands-on work expected of most leads. "A guy knows how to frame, but does he really understand how the grain of the wood works and where to place the nails so it won't split?"

In the short run, keeping leads' focus on the job at hand might be more profitable, but in the long run, making time for them to share knowledge will enhance the business.

"Can you afford not to train people?" he asks. "Does it just eat away at your bottom line? Do you put money in the estimate to be able to redo it twice?"

One last comment from Conforti: Pay your people a good wage and give them the time to do their work properly, or it will cost you time and money later.

3 Reliable products

You and your customers want building products and materials that look good, work hard and don't crack, fade, rot, mold, or fall apart. There are a couple of ways to get this.

One is to work only with proven products with which you've had prior success. Siding-1 installs Alcoa, Wolverine and James Hardie siding; GAF and CertainTeed roofing; and Schüco or Marvin windows. "The products we work with are the best in the industry," Conforti asserts.

At DreamMaker, McCadden also works with preferred products and manufacturers. Full-service contractors as well as specialty remodelers can go this route, but with high-end jobs or demanding customers, it's hard to stick to that path. When installing a new product or trying a new application, McCadden suggests the following steps:

  • Find other remodelers who have worked with the product and get their input. Call your local sales representative for help and ask for additional resources.
  • Save the installation instructions for future use. If possible, scan them in so that they can be printed out and shared in advance next time.
  • Invite the local manufacturer representative to the office to explain the product and installation over lunch.
  • Include language in the contract to cover yourself in case installation instructions aren't adequate to a retrofit application. McCadden suggests: "includes installation per manufacturer's instructions at the time of the creation of this proposal."

Quinn relies on trade contractors to keep the SawHorse team apprised of product developments, noting that years ago he didn't dream that plastic molding would one day be of such quality that SawHorse now regularly uses it. Still, he adds, "As new products come on the market, we don't let them practice on our customers."

4 Clear, frequent communication

It begins with a detailed proposal or contract that addresses construction standards and product selections to ensure that the final product is both well built and in accordance with homeowner requirements.

"In an ideal world, a contract would include all specifications, no allowances," says McCadden, who acknowledges the ideal usually isn't possible. "You don't want specifications to get in the way of closing the deal, but you don't want it so up in the air that after closing the deal you've still got to sell the job."

As some people think more visually than verbally, 3-D drawings may provide homeowners with a better understanding than floor plans, while detailed working drawings or schematics may be more useful to the production staff than the proposal itself.

SawHorse recently implemented a TCM — trade contractor management — system to support its existing ZeroPunch program. Quinn began by meeting with subcontractors to develop trade-specific checklists of construction standards and expected behaviors.

"The idea of the checklist was to put down those things that are important so it was easy for somebody on the job to look at and figure out," he explains. "You've got well intentioned people working as hard as they can; it makes sense to have a list to back up their memory."

5 Quality control

Despite the best prep work, mistakes can and do happen. Completing great projects on a regular basis requires a system to catch and fix mistakes during production. Conforti's project managers check each of their projects daily. The last day, the project manager checks the job against a job-type-specific quality control list of guidelines. The crew leader is responsible for doing a walk-through with the homeowners and obtaining a client signature on the completion letter.

On big, multi-trade jobs, quality control is more complex. McCadden recommends having lead carpenters put together a "pre-completion quality control checklist" rather than a punchlist. It changes the attitude of both employees and homeowners, he says.

"The punchlist is like caulking or molding: It covers up something we shouldn't have done during the process," says McCadden. "Moldings used to be decorative; now they're excuses for inadequacy."

The pre-completion list should be signed by both contractor and homeowner; items that come up afterward would go to warranty.

Though project managers usually stop by each job daily, Quinn doesn't want them to have to micromanage the subcontractors. Instead, subcontractors are given the checklist at the same time they receive their agreement for each job. The trades must check their own work, complete the form, sign it and submit it to the project manager.

"We are their client. We expect them to look at existing conditions, alert us to things we need to know and look at the site before their people go to work," he explains. "No check goes out the door unless we've got a signed checklist with a counter-signature from the project manager."

In addition to serving as an objective rating system of subcontractors, the checklists have also helped SawHorse reduce slippage to less than 0.5 percent. That's quality.

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