How to Deal with Construction Problems

It's inevitable. At some point during all construction projects, the phone is going to ring. At the other end of the line someone will be informing you there is a problem.

Buildings are complex things. Even simple residential structures can be maddeningly complex, and remodels tend to be the most difficult of all. Houses in America are handcrafted items. Almost every other item we own is mass produced, but not the single most important and expensive one. Compounding this problem is the fact that codes and building materials and standards constantly change. There is no such thing as a standard home design either. Over time walls go out of plumb. Sometimes the original contractor cut corners during construction. Age related deterioration occurs. Insects can damage structures, or water can penetrate them and do the same. The as-built survey is never able to to cover every aspect of an existing structure. By its very nature, the process of assembling a building tends to conceal its structural materials, as well as its plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems. Waterproofing and insulation materials are concealed under finish materials.

What this means is that remodeling is the most challenging type of design and construction work.

The first thing homeowners need to understand when working with architects on such projects is that the architect must be a part of any discussions with the contractor regarding problems. Industry standard contracts between architects and owners and contractors and owners are clear on this. The gold standard is the American Institute of Architects B101-2007 agreement:

The B101 agreement incorporates AIA Document A201–2007, General Conditions of the Contract for Construction,  by reference:

The basic principal underlying these contracts is to avoid conflicts of interest between various parties, and treat each party fairly. If anyone steps outside of these contractual relationships bad things usually happen. The basic relationships are as follows:

1) There is a contract between the owner and architect for design and construction administration services. The architect prepares drawings and specifications for the construction contract. During construction, the architect acts as the owners representative when dealing with the contractor.


2) There is a contract between the owner and the builder. This contract is prepared by the architect on behalf of the owner. It consists of drawings, specifications, and various other legal documents. Taken together, this package is refereed to as “contract documents”. It defines the scope of work using drawings and specifications. It also contains the construction contract and all of its provisions, conditions, costs, and schedule. This package is used to obtain building permits and bids from contractors.

Standard AIA contracts direct that all questions during construction go through the architect. This is to protect the owner, reliving them of the burden of making decisions that they might lack the expertise to make. It also prevents the owner from being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous contractor. Unscrupulous contractors might try to cut corners by using cheaper materials or inferior workmanship. Having an architect evaluate the work periodically for conformance to the contract protects the owner from shoddy construction, cost increases, and construction delays. Having an architect evaluate problems as they arise avoids aggravation and insures that the solutions are compatible with the project and have minimal impact on other disciplines. It also insures that all work is properly coordinated. Any questions regarding engineering must go through the architect for this reason. The architect is an impartial 3rd party. Think of your architect like a lawyer you've hired to protect your interests during construction.

This is important: Architects are not a party to the construction contract in a traditional project delivery scheme. This means architects do not profit from cost increases during construction. The architect is paid a fee directly by the owner. Architect's fees are not tied in any way to project costs. This avoids conflicts of interest. If the architect works on a fixed fee negotiated prior to construction, he has a vested interest in making sure the contract documents are accurate and complete. This insures a smooth construction process, and thus less involvement by the architect. The architect is there to advise and arbitrate. To help facilitate a smooth construction process.

Ideally, when construction problems arise, the owner does not get involved unless the problem will cause an increase in cost or a delay in construction. The contractor works directly with the architect who answers questions and solves problems as they arise. If a cost increase is incurred or a construction delay anticipated, the owner is notified, advised and decides how to proceed. These are called “change orders”. They can be generated by unforeseen conditions, or by the owner changing their mind during construction about a design feature.

Unfortunately, this process is often circumvented in residential construction. Owners have a natural tendency to defer to contractors during construction. After all, the contractor is on the site every day. They are in charge of a large crew, and are actually building the project. They a big guys with big pick-up trucks and all sorts of powerful, dangerous tools. Very impressive. Architects are usually skinny bookish types like me. We have nice shoes and we wear black a lot. How much can we possibly know about construction? (A hell of lot more than appearances might suggest – trust me...)

So when a big sweaty contractor in a hard-hat approaches an owner and says:

“That architect doesn't know what he's doing – I know how to do this in a way that will save you a bunch of money” assured: that the method will save the contractor much more money than it saves you, and is most likely inferior, and perhaps even dangerous. The same goes for building materials and hardware. Worse, the change may impact the integration of other systems that the contractor doesn't fully understand, like earthquake resisting elements, or waterproofing. Architects carefully evaluate and select every system and material in a building, and coordinate it with everything else. Taking the advice of the contractor only under such circumstances is a lot like negotiating a complex business deal with the other side's lawyer, without your own lawyer present. You are likely to get rooked. It's like giving a used car salesman your check-book, and saying “you pick a car you think is right for me, and then cut yourself a check for whatever you think its worth – I trust you...”

Only construction costs a lot more than used cars.

Sophisticated property developers know this, and never speak to contractors about construction issues without an architect present. They expect the architect to handle most issues that arise. Developers understand that time is money during construction because the terms of construction loans specify exactly that, as does the construction contract. They understand that any changes will cost much more during construction than during the design phase and will usually result in project delays, costing yet more money. They know that contractors aren't necessarily bad guys, but that they are in business to make money, and that some are less than scrupulous.

So – how do you deal with problems during during construction?

Act as though you are a sophisticated developer. Hire an architect. Delegate construction administration to him or her.

...and if a contractor starts a conversation with “architects don't know anything” beware....


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