As the owner of an NYC construction company, I am repeatedly asked two questions, “How soon can you start” and “How long will it take”. Time, like most things in Manhattan, tends to be in short supply and fairly expensive.
My responses to these questions will oftentimes determine if I am asked to quote the job. I have learned to avoid over-promising, and when pressed with these questions I do my best to give the prospective client some basic indications of what to expect. Most importantly, I’ll try to establish whether or not there is a clear understanding of the process we are getting ready to embark on together. Laying the foundation for realistic expectations by establishing a clear roadmap of the pertinent steps is paramount to a smooth construction project. I will lay out the steps here and explain the purpose of following them right from the beginning.
Step 1 – Choose an architect:
Now that you’ve decided to take on a construction project in your home or business, it’s important to know what the rules are. The prerequisites involved in your specific project will vary by location. However, generally speaking, you will need a work permit provided by the applicable building department anytime you move a substantial portion of wall and/or modify your plumbing or electrical services.
The permit application will typically require a set of plans (including a complete Scope Of Work) stamped by an architect. There are varying degrees to which you might utilize an architect’s services ranging from a very basic floor plan to an all-inclusive design package. In NYC, we often include the permit application process in our architect’s purview. We do this because they have a deep knowledge of the building code and can, many times, “Self Certify” the job freeing us from the scheduling constraints of dealing with DOB inspections throughout the process.
A complete set of plans should include detailed lists (schedules) indicating all of the specific building materials (cabinets, countertops, floors, tile, trim, doors, paint, etc.). Getting estimates from General Contractors without these material schedules will lead to inaccurate pricing, unrealistic timelines and more often than not, change orders (aka billable change extras). In certain instances, a client will have very specific and well defined material selections and will act as their own designer. Even in these cases, I strongly recommend that the architect be involved in assembling the actual schedules and getting them on the plans.
Step 2 – Finding a General Contractor:
When selecting a General Contractor, there are various factors to consider. Let’s start with the obvious, quality and cost. Establishing a prospective GC’s level of quality should be your primary concern when shopping for a construction estimate. Try to consider the wasted money and heartache of a job completed in a subpar fashion: materials being torn down and re-installed, time wasted, and collateral damages during repairs, to name a few.
Next, with complete plans in hand, your potential GCs (3 is a safe number) should be able to provide you with a comprehensive and easily readable job estimate. It’s very important that you read through these estimates line-by-line. Oftentimes, the more detail-oriented a contractor is while pricing the Scope Of Work, the better prepared they will be to carry your project through completion without cutting corners, stalling timelines and billing for extras which should have been on the estimate to begin with. The old adage, comparing apples for apples is critical when reviewing multiple estimates. Look closely, the devil is in the details. Remember, avoiding change orders is the best way to keep your project on-budget.
Another important characteristic to look for when making your selection is basic conduct and demeanor. When embarking on any construction project, it’s important to consider the interface with neighbors, building officials, managing agents, coop boards, etc. This applies whether you’re upgrading your kitchen in the suburbs, doing a gut renovation of your two bedroom apartment in the city or building a municipal parking garage. Your GC and their team will be interacting to some degree with the surrounding environment, and the benefits of having competent, courteous and professional individuals in charge and on site can make or break a job. From the moment each prospective GC shows up for their initial walkthrough, be cognizant of their attitude and the basic gut feeling you’re left with. Throughout the estimating process, try to gauge the responsiveness and consistency of the various candidates. Ask yourself, how might you envision this individual responding to unforeseen issues with the neighbors, building inspectors, etc? Of course, it’s not possible to predict. That having been said, I believe that instinct should not be left out of the equation
Step 3 – Tracking progress and budget during the project:
Although it may seem much easier to sign, scan and email your contract back to your GC, I have found that meeting in person and reviewing the entire job together on paper is the best way to start with everyone on the same page. Take this opportunity to review the payment schedule along with as detailed a timeline as your GC can provide. Discuss contact numbers and any pertinent contingencies. Depending on the size and scope of your project, I would recommend scheduling periodic review meetings. These meetings are your opportunity to stay abreast of any challenges, time/cost improvements, unforeseen expenditures, etc.. Like it or not, it is unrealistic to expect that nothing unforeseen will occur throughout the duration of your project. The best anyone can ask is that due process and careful consideration have gone into mitigating the extent of the unforeseen. A competent GC will have no problem reporting any such events to you promptly and providing you with legitimate options for course correction. Through communication, you should be able to avoid surprises. Don’t hesitate to check in with your GC and ask them how the timeline and budget are looking. No one likes being micromanaged but a professional should be open and ready to provide accurate reporting on a reasonably regular basis.
Step 4 – Closing out the job:
You’ve almost made it and the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter every day. We call this punch list time and it can either be hugely stressful or a celebration depending on how well the job was scoped. Either way, painters doing touchups after the brand new floors have received their final clear coat tends to be a little tense.
By this point, you can expect to have paid the bulk of the contract with some sort of final payment left for completion. The little things are getting finished up and the crew is focused on the finish line. You’ll want to take some time to do a punch list walkthrough with your GC and carefully go over the entire written scope to make sure neither one of you will have any surprises coming to you. Talk about where your leftover (attic stock) paint, flooring, etc. will be stored. Discuss any final cleaning that may need to take place prior to their completion. This is also a great time to share any positive feedback you might have in an effort to boost moral through the finish line and remind everyone of how proud they are to be doing such fine work.
Construction is a kind of controlled chaos. We take rough materials and turn them into finished spaces. We make a huge mess and (hopefully) create the pristine environment of your dreams. Indeed, a lot could go wrong, but if you follow the proper steps and chose the right teammate (GC) a lot can go just right and yours can be a success story. Before starting this process, it’s important to understand that choosing a GC needs to be a decision made from an educated standpoint. Taking a little extra time at the beginning to understand exactly what you’re looking for will save you exponentially in the end.