I was at a pre-construction meeting for a large, mixed-use building a few years ago with several other people. The architect, developer, general contractor, subcontractors, third party consultants and manufacturers were all present and all had input on how the stucco, windows and other penetrations should be done. Lots of ideas were thrown around and some were very complex. I was arguing that a more complex design may not always be the way to go. I went on to explain that the more complex the design, the greater the potential for errors and likelihood of leaks and other problems.

As others started to argue back and forth to support their position, the principal of the large architecture firm (who had not said a single word up to that point) suddenly spoke up. “Alright” he announced loudly, “I agree with Mr. Fowler. I have been around a long time and making things overly complicated does tend to lead to problems.”

Wise Man

I had heard of this architectural giant in my city but never met him until that day. Immediately after the meeting, he waved me over. “Let’s go for walk young man” he said as he led the way out of the room. I had a great afternoon as I walked and talked with this true master of architecture who had graced magazine covers and won design awards. Moments like these give me the inspiration to continue the good fight for reasonable construction practices.

Do not believe I refuse any and all innovation, but I am very cautious. I am reminded of being a kid and going with my dad to purchase a car. He refused to buy a car with electric windows and other gadgets. He would say, “All those bells and whistles cost extra and they always break down.”

He had a point. Cars with those extras did seem to have a lot of problems back then. However, today that is not true. Cars have lots of bells and whistles with extra features and for the most part, they work quite well and for years. But is the same trend true with construction and if not, why not?

Apples and Oranges?

I believe it is hard to compare assembling cars to constructing buildings. Cars are mass-produced in a controlled factory setting; many even use computers to fabricate the various sections and are assembled under close and consistent supervision. The key to their success is repetition and quality control. Both of these factors are also much easier in a controlled factory environment.

Construction does not have either luxury. Every detail is slightly different-windows are all different and varying conditions in the field force installers to adapt to these differences. We do not have the luxury of consistency or a controlled environment. If you think the assembly line is pressure packed for time and the construction site is not, you’d better think again. If you are perceived as holding up the schedule, you will be liable and find yourself in a no-win situation.

Quality control is another issue where a subcontractor in construction is at a disadvantage compared to the factory manager. A general contractor once told me I had it made compared to him. He explained that he had to watch many trades, not just one and that I had it easy by only having plastering. I thought about it and replied that he had a point, but I had several projects under way and it was not physically possible to visit each project every day. All he had to do is walk out of his trailer and survey the entire site in a few minutes. While I am driving across town, I had no idea what my guys may be covering up or what problems just arose. To add to the mix, I had zero authority over the other trades that impact my work. The general contractor has the authority to control all the trades, which is why he is called the “general.” He did not like my statement but I also noted he had no comeback.

It's Not the Same

Another difference between manufacturing a car and subcontracting on a job site is the price. The auto manufacturer sets the price for his product and while it could be argued so does the subcontractor, it is not in the same realm. In subcontracting, it is typically the lowest bidder who wins. When a car is sold, price has a place, but most buyers have a list of criteria and shop for the vehicle that meets the criteria. If you believe it is all about price on a car, why do car manufacturers spend millions on ads? Why not save the advertising dollars and just reduce the price, like say, we subcontractors do?

Building owners and architects want those bells and whistles and this just adds to the challenge of being a subcontractor. Keeping it as simple as possible will generally lead to fewer problems. Remember this is not a car you are building, selling or buying; it is construction and those bells and whistles that are so nice on that factory-made car, may be more trouble than they are worth.