CivDesignr Journal

A collection of articles and ideas on construction and maintenance. By Alan Howard BSc. Civil (UWI - Trinidad), MEng. Civil (U of Toronto)
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Posts tagged "contractor"

How fast should your project progress

Source: Wikipedia

I first heard this line in a class at university on civil engineering materials and my lecturer was relating how important material selection was.

In my working life, however, I have realised that Engineers, Contractors and othe building professionals have a perception that people want evertything fast good and cheap all the time but this is a misconception.

What some professionals don’t realise is that most home owners:

a) know that they can’t have everything and

b) really do want the best end product.

All they need is the knowledge and that is what the builder should provide.

This may seem a bit silly but a good building professional should be like my favourite and current dentist.

She makes my visits so easy to deal with because she keeps me in the know. She lays out what is going on and my options and what the costs are. While she is working she lets me know what is happening and what decisions need to be made along the way.

Most home owners are willing to pay a little extra to secure their investment. If they don’t take the option you present at least they know the risks and consequences. And this makes for a happier customer in the end.

Which two would you pick?

How a short term fix becomes a long term solution

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As I was driving home today I saw a house with a typical split system unit. The indoor portion (evaporator) of the unit had all the lines running through a hole in the window back to the outside portion (condenser).

Seeing that made me wonder how a situation so obviously “makeshift” could have become a permanent solution to a problem and I remembered all the conversations i’ve heard consultants and contractors have over the years about how soon they would “get back to that” and “this only temporary” only to find that years down the road the temporary solution was lost in the crush and no-one got back to it.

Never let a consultant/contractor on a site push temporary fixes as a way to “put to bed a thorny issue” or brush aside a concern. That little extra effort to make a permanent fix in the first instance will pay dividends later in your project when you realise you don’t have the time or energy to enact the permanent fix.

How to Deal with Changes in Structure

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The “structure” in a building can be considered equivalent to the bones or skeleton of the building. The structural components are those parts of the structure designed to keep the building up.

Like the bones in your body from head to toe there needs to be firm connection from foundation to roof in the structure.

Aspects of renovation which require changes to structure therefore must be carefully considered, planned and executed. You should engage an engineer or a contractor with engineers on staff when dealing with major modifications to your structure.

During the planning phase the engineer will advise the contractor of how final structural modifications will look like and ALSO what the structural modifications will look like during the construction phase. It is vital that this second point isn’t overlooked because the contractor can’t just cut structure without making sure that structural loads are properly transferred during the construction phase. Failing to do so can lead to dangerous structural settlement or worse a collapse.

How to tell when something is wrong on your project


There are three quick “rules” i use to quickly assess whether there is a problem on your construction project.

Visit site regularly - There is no way around it you need to visit your site to monitor progress. Take pictures so you can record progress as well. This will be important to protect your investment should your contractor try to pull a fast one.

Beware of crowds - You should be wary of crowds on your site. Especially if crowds disperse on your arrival. This is a tell tale sign that something is up on your project. Ask questions and take a first hand look at the area.

Stalled progress in one area - Another bad sign, this usually means that the contractor is stuck for one reason or another. Ask a question here as well.

Just remember these quick and simple rules and you will be able to pretty quickly figure out whenever something is up.

When should you engage a building professional?


So far in most of my posts I’ve tried to give a bit of information so that home-owners /clients etc. can have a little more confidence when dealing with contractors and know better how to make sure that their project works out well for all involved.

However, there comes a point in time when professionals do need to get involved. these may be architects, civil/mechanical/electrical engineers, lawyers, accountants etc. Knowing when to call in the big guns is critical to know when you are out of your depth.

Most governments do provide some guidance through building regulations but these are only guidelines and can never be drafted to suit all scenarios.

For the lawyers its not too hard. Basically call your lawyer when dealing with interpretation of contractual terms about which there is a disagreement.

For the Engineers and other building professionals an impartial party like an independent home inspector should be able to guide you as to the aspects of your project which require professional advice.

Lastly, as client you should consider engaging at least a Civil engineer/Architect with experience in the industry to advise you on the major elements of your project and help you make a good decision on whether you need the additional help. Just an hour of their time will give you great insights and the costs will be insignificant relative to the cost of your entire project.

How to handle changes to your design


Inevitably on any project there are changes. These can be due to changes in design and from the client side or may be due to the conctractor having to make a late change in the products used in the job. Either  way there should be a defined procedure for handling changes and this procedure should be outlined in the contract.

Changes, called change orders, are used by unscrupulous contractors to make more money on a project. This is done by overpricing the change and penalising the client when the changes occur.

By way of example here are a few tips that can help make changes go more smoothly.

1. A change from the client should be passed in writing to the contractor. In the letter the contractor should be explicitly requested to price the change before starting any work. The letter should be dated and signed both by the client and a contractors rep. The client should retain a copy of the letter in their records.

2. When the price is received you should, as client officially give the contractor approval to proceed in writing on the change for the price agreed on.

In monitoring these changes you should make sure that the price is added to your overall cost so you can keep track of your budget.

When your contractor needs to makes a change you should receive a similar notification. however, unless the change is something you requested you shouldn’t feel obligated to pay for any contractor requested change unless it was either the result of something done by the client or something which was unforseen and unforseeable.

Stick to these general rules and changes on your project will be much much smoother.

Important facts about Construction contracts


On one of my earlier posts i spoke about extraordinary or force majeure events in contracts. Now I’d like to go through a few general contract issues and look at what the primary components should be for any minor works/home construction contract.

What is a contract?

A contract is a formalised agreement between persons to do something. There are some legal requirements before a contract can be considered to exist.
1) Offer - This describes what is to be done and the price of the work
2) Acceptance - This is where one party accepts the offer being made
3) Remuneration/consideration - This is another way of saying payment

In construction contracts there is an another phase which precedes these three steps called an invitation to offer. This is the stage at which the client/home owner submits plans to the contractor and requests a price for construction. The contractor then submits a price (the offer) and the client accepts (the acceptance) and pays for the work as the project progresses (remuneration).

Since the contractor has more construction experience they are usually the ones who draw up the contract for the client. The client should however make sure that certain bases are covered.
The contract should include some of the following things:
  1. Payment schedule - This should balance work done by the contractor with payment requests 
  2. Bill of quantities - Priced list of work to be done
  3. Project schedule - A chart showing how long the work should take and indicating any milestones by which client decisions should be made.
With this and solid background checks on your contractor you are will on your way to having a positive experience during your project.

How to avoid conflict with your contractor


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Stressed clients or home owners, deserted half done construction, frustrated unpaid subcontractors. These are some of the outward signs of a project with deep unresolved conflict. By virtue of the large sums at risk, construction projects are known as some of the most contentious when things go wrong. Usually by the time the parties to the conflict reach the stage of taking each other the court there is usually so much bad blood that the subject of the conflict has become loaded with baggage and is so costly that there is no real winner. 

The key to avoiding conflict which can end a project is to plan for it. To set aside a course of action for when a disagreement happens. Before the project starts outline responsibilities and expectations. 

1. Outline a clear procedure for making changes with responsibilities and deadlines for both the client and contractor.

2. Outline the clients payment obligations and associated deadlines.

3. Determine a completion date and ask the contractor to amend the completion date as the project progresses.

4. Establish a portion of the project sum to be withheld in case of late completion by the contractor. This amount is called retention and is usually 5% of the overall project cost.

5. If possible, nominate an impartial third party to make decisions when you and your contractor can’t agree.

6. Choose your contractor carefully. Many bad contractors have a history of poor performance and a bit of digging can help you make a better choice

By using these steps you can far more easily avoid conflict with your contractor and should conflict occur you will have a much easier way out.

The importance of good surface preparation



Today as I was driving around I took a look at some of the houses I passed and noted the variation in the quality of the surface. Some were pristine and obviously new structures while others were clearly showing the wear and tear of time.

Some others were raw concrete and the surface which was never painted and was now covered in mildew. Seeing that reminded me of what one of my old professors used to say.

When it comes to how long any paint, plaster or glue lasts that longevity is greatly affected by the quality of the surface preparation done.

Surface preparation refers to how clean a surface is and also how ready it is to receive the material you are trying to apply. Anyone who has baked in a non-stick pan without greasing it before knows first hand the benefits of good surface preparation.

Surface preparation is also, in my experience, is one thing that is frequently overlooked in the application of any surfacing.

Most people will buy high quality material and adhere strictly to the required environmental conditions for placement but pay little to no attention to surface preparation.


  1. Because surface preparation can be hard,
  2. It can be tedious, and
  3. Frequently the benefits are not immediately apparent.

However, good surface preparation is often critical for the longevity of products which rely on adhesion to another surface usually called a substrate.

Fortunately, manufacturers of high quality products realise this and put plenty of information in their literature on the required steps for adequate surface preparation. A simple review of this information will put any client/owner in the know.

I have seen contractors skimp on surface preparation or underestimate its importance and lose tens of thousands in the process.



Lets examine some common problems encountered with surface preparation.

1. Moisture - Most building materials are porous and good construction involves redirecting moisture away from vulnerable building materials. This can be achieved by painting a moisture resistant material onto concrete/wooden surfaces.

2. Contamination - Most surfaces are contaminated with dust, oils and other materials that prevent the coating from properly bonding to the substrate. In a nutshell these must be removed. Stripping compounds, solvents, pressure washing can all be used to 

3. Old Coatings - Old coatings really are a form of surface contamination and should be treated this way. Never try to bind new coatings to old. This makes the new coating last only as long as the old one can bind to the substrate.

So, the moral of the story? Know your coatings’ requirements for surface preparation and never let a contractor skimp on it.