Lessons Learned

Once the timber frame is up then the outside and inside wall framing and roof decking is done.  This is primarily done with 2x4’s to structure where windows, doors, and inside walls go.  We are going to name this section “Lessons Learned” and hopefully someone will learn from the mistakes we made in this area.  Now to be fair, the lessons learned below are not all the “fault” of the unnamed subcontractor, we are going to take ownership of these trials and tribulations since we certainly paid for them one way or another.

Lesson One

We only received one bid and this was received only a few days before the work was scheduled to start.

This put us in an extremely difficult position, because of the time of year the building had to get enclosed before winter was upon us.  If we did not get the frame covered it would become damaged from the rain and then subsequently snow.  We were obviously put in a position that we did not have a choice but to go with the only option that was brought to us.  

Takeaway: Do not allow anyone to put you in this position.  Get multiple bids, interview the candidates and check multiple references.  After the candidate gives you a list of references ask for a reference from their last job, the current job they are on or their biggest nightmare.

Lesson Two

The bid received was 65% over the budgeted amount but no alternative competitive bids were received.

Our budget for this section was $35,000; the bid was for $57,600.  When we asked why it was so much over what was projected we were told the detail on the work was more than originally anticipated.   Well, quite frankly, since we only received one bid and we had to start work immediately or risk damage to our timber frame we were forced to accept the bid without having a comparison bid or more detailed explanations.   This may have been a fair price, we do not know, if you think we felt *&^%$&*ed, you are right.

Takeaway: Get multiple bids way before the work needs to begin and get a full explanation and understanding of what the work is supposed to include and what it is not supposed to include.  Granted, some parts of a project are too small to get competitive bids, you need to be the judge of that.

Lesson Three

Work was scheduled to be completed in 26 days and wasn’t completed for more than 100 days.

Wow, just writing that last sentence makes me feel the frustration all over again.  Commitments were made multiple times and reasons were given again and again.  I was personally told by the owner of this unnamed subcontractor that he would assign five people to the project by Monday.  Well, Monday came and went but he was right five people did show up for a while and then it went down to two.  One of the workers that he put on the project was actually quite good.  The framing contract was scheduled to start on September 11th and was supposed to be completed by October 16th, it wasn’t deemed done until the first week of January.  

Takeaway: Put a start date and a completion date in each and every contract with each and every subcontractor.  Add a penalty clause if they do not start and finish on time.   Add on top of the penalty clause a bonus for on time completion.   Mark my words, you will hear time and again that no one wants to have this clause in their contract.  I just have a hard time agreeing with this, now I am not in the construction business but have been in the computer business for over 30 years and it is standard practice for us to have SLA’s (Service Level Agreements) even with penalty clauses that are $1,000 per day to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties if we do not fulfill our commitments. 

Lesson Four

We directed that all wood come from Green Woodlands property yet strapping was bought from a lumber yard although only used on one wall.

One of the main criteria we had for the building, which was put in writing many times, was discussed many times, and was so unusual that it would be really difficult to forget was nevertheless not followed.   The principal was that ALL wood used for the building would come from Green Woodlands property.  We would harvest the trees from our property and we would cut the boards on our portable sawmill.  To be fair a couple of exceptions were made, the wood for the windows came from an FSC certified forest and the borate treated wood for the lower layer sill was commercially supplied.  We have no trees that have the preservative borate in them and it was not practical make our own windows. 
Well, when the framing started and one side wall was framed I walked onto the job site and noticed a stack of thin boards that had an ink stamp on the end of each board.  Well I am absolutely sure that we have no trees growing on Green Woodlands property that have an ink stamp inside of the tree.   After asking a lot of questions I was told that the boards were bought at a lumber yard and they were only used for one wall so far.
I can imagine what was said about me when I told them that all of the store bought boards must come off the building.  I then took all of the store bought boards and guaranteed that they would not be used in the building, by then it was winter and I use a wood stove for heat.  


Takeaway: If you want something done a specific way put it in writing and check up on it on a regular basis.  Don’t totally depend on anyone to insure that your requirements are followed; double check it yourself until you have consistent repeatable proof that what you have asked for is being followed, after that check again.

Lesson Five

As a LEED residential building, the framing was to be done using what is called “Advanced Framing Technique”.  When the first wall was framed it was not done using this building principal.  The wall had to be deconstructed and redone using “Advanced Framing Technique”.

Even if you are an expert in the construction field you cannot be an expert in all of the areas of construction.  You need to choose the best consultants you can find and insist on the best subcontractors that you can hire.   The simple words “Advanced Framing Technique” had a definition that was certainly not one that I knew about until after a wall was already constructed.  

Takeaway: Ask questions, ask dumb questions, insist on long laborious explanations, do research and even ask what is meant by words such as Advanced Framing Techniques because if that question was not asked we might not have a LEED certified building.

Lesson Six

How does a computer guy check the quality of a construction project?  If you do not have the experience to judge quality you need to depend on someone else or you have to do enough research to know when someone is not being totally forthcoming with you or doesn’t know themselves.

I guess what might be quality for one person may be under par for another so it can be a matter of subjective judgment. But when you have to pay to redo parts of a project that you already paid for, I guess that could be objectively judged a quality issue.  

The architectural plans detailed the inside walls with 2x6 boards but because not enough were ordered 2x4 boards plus 2x2 boards were used and they were nailed together in a few spots.  Through the drying process, these boards separated in many places and had to be fixed or removed.  

 

When the drywall contractor saw the ceiling framing in the lower level he said it was impossible to nail drywall on the framing because the distance was so wide that the drywall would warp, additional nailers were installed at our cost.

When the insulation people came to install the insulation they could not see a channel between the wall and roof system.  We had to pay for the insulation people to come back to find this issue and reinsulated along this intersection.  Now, to be fair, I do not know whose issue caused this problem but I know that we received the invoice to fix it.

 

Takeaway:
Quality costs but the lack of quality can cost more.  The president of the general contracting company that we hired for the outside of the building has a similar quality standard as we do and was an invaluable consultant, the challenge was that he could not be onsite all of the time.  Look for someone like this who can be onsite virtually full time to watch every step of your project.  

Lesson Seven

We explained our working environment and location of the project, all of the subcontractors visited the location but the location and environment was many times used as the reason why commitments were not completed or why costs were higher.

The location of the Barn House is most certainly remote.  Entrance on one side of the property requires a four mile drive on dirt roads that are not always smooth.  Entrance on another side of the property requires a high clearance truck and it is very rough.  Once the snow comes, entrance to the property is by way of snowmobile instead of truck.  Now let’s combine this with a type A personality computer guy as one of the owners who wants to push the green building trades further than they are comfortable with, it was called the “Owner Effect”. So we absolutely will admit that this building has created a special challenge that exceeded many people’s expectation.

 

Takeaway: Remember to put an anti whine paragraph in your contract.  Insure that all subcontractors visit the site, get the plans and building specifications and sign off that they understand the project and limitations and special challenges of the construction site, including the “Owner Effect”.  

Lesson Eight

Don't Screw with Solar Panels.

We have used solar for the last eight years and have learned the old fashion way through trial and error. Actually, it was a lot of error and a lot of money to fix what I tried to do myself. Ok I admit it, I confess, I was just being cheap and I thought I could do it myself for less than it would cost to hire a professional solar company. For our first installation eight years ago we went out and got bids from all of the local companies that installed solar systems (actually all two of them). After looking at their bids I figured I was smart enough to do it myself. I went online and ordered all of the equipment via mail-order companies. I got lucky and stumbled across a company called Jade Mountain that was knowledgeable, had good prices and the patience to explain and design a system for us based on the budget I gave them. They were clear about their disclaimers that my budget and what I was trying to accomplish had a gap but I was determined to prove them wrong. 

After getting all of this equipment delivered we hired a local electrician who wanted to learn about solar systems. Well, after torturing the poor sales person at Jade Mountain to teach the local electrician how to install the system we finally got it working and the local electrician learned while I paid his hourly rate. And if you are going to ask did I save money, the answer is absolutely NOT. It does not stop there because over the years I have had other local electricians rewire the system and even a solar company rewire and fix the system. Fast forward to 2007. We had GroSolar, our solar company for the Barn House, look at the system again and low and behold they actually doubled the output of our solar panels! While I was singing the accolades to the service technician of GroSolar how he supercharged my system he let me ramble for about 30 minutes and just smiled and said, “Bob, only half of your panels were ever hooked up in the first place.” 

I figured over the last eight years I have screwed up every single part of the solar installation at another building so I vowed that this time I would hire the best solar company I could find, let them configure the top of the line system based on what was needed and have them handle the complete installation. In other words, I was looking for “one throat to choke” that was not my own. Since we were using a UniSolar panel that was adhered to the standing seam roof I also insisted that they totally take charge of working with the roofing company to insure the installation went flawlessly. Big day came after they meticulously wired every single panel, inverter, controller and the batteries so that it looked like a showcase they threw the switch and it worked beautifully!! We were generating enough electricity for half of the town! Ok I am getting excited again but it was enough for a full functioning three bedroom house.

Well, after only a week the system came to a screeching halt and the panels on the barn house were producing NOTHING!! Even with full sunlight. GroSolar is about thirty miles away but they heard the service call without the use of a phone. The technician, Dan, came out and after about three hours he came to me a bit perplexed and said he was stumped. It worked when they left and everything looked fine except the solar panels were just not working. He asked what has changed since the installation. Needless to say my type A personality was getting the better of me and I was not being very cooperative especially since I paid top dollar with the best company I could find and I certainly did not want a repeat of my screw ups over the last eight years. I said something to the effect of nothing except one of the building contractors put a temporary ridge cap on the roof to cover your solar wiring harness and protect the roof until the roofing company could come back and put the proper ridge cap on. I then went to another cabin to get some work done. 

About two hours later I had a knock on my cabin door and Dan deposited a fist full of screws into my hand. I figured he had had enough of my crap and this handful of screws was a metaphor for go screw myself. To the best of my recollection the exchange was, “Dan, what are you trying to tell me?” “Well, Bob you should not put screws into a solar panel!” Apparently when the construction foreman put the temporary ridge cap on the roof … you get the picture…. he screwed it into the solar panels and shorted them out.

 

Takeaway: No matter how hard you plan there is always the chance that Murphy’s Law will get involved. There may have been many ifs, ands, buts, and excuses why this very costly mistake happened but I will say the silver lining was the owner of the construction company did not utter one excuse. He replaced the roof and all of the solar panels at his cost without as much as a whimper let alone a scream out of me. That was a class act and a credit to the construction industry. Oh, one other thing, do not put screws into a solar panel.

Lesson Nine

Many times we were told that our expectations were unreasonable, that this was a custom house in a difficult environment using building products and techniques that were different and hard to control or estimate.  We were also told that many of the issues were “just part of the construction trade” and essentially we needed to put up with it.

Well, I fully agree, our expectations are high and to many they would be deemed unreasonable.  I also agree that we have a hard time accepting “it’s always been done that way” as a reason why.   We do not purport to know the construction trade and I guess that is a good thing because we are not constrained by the phrase “it’s always been done that way”.   We have been fortunate to be part of the computer industry that has reinvented itself many times over and whose biggest mantra is that if you do not change you will be put out of business.  
For example, a few weeks ago Apple just introduced their new cell phone.  Now Apple has never been in the cell phone business so they entered this multi billion dollar industry from a totally different place with different expectations.  If you have not experienced the new Apple iPhone yet, do it.  They have changed the whole paradigm of cell phones and have made obsolete the vast majority of cell phones on the market today.  Mind you they only entered the cell phone industry a few weeks ago.   

 

Takeaway: The Green building movement has a chance to revolutionize the construction trades, to take it to a new level, albeit maybe a different place.  Do not accept the status quo, surround yourselves with experts that take pride in their profession, are constantly learning and learning how to do things better and maybe differently than they have done in the past.