We have all been there, on a site inspection with an owner’s representation when things take a bad turn—the architect sees something he doesn’t like. You did the work, fought to make a small profit and then see your profits begin to dwindle away. The architect might even state that you failed to meet industry standards and/or project specifications. Then a third party is asked to come in and review.

I have been in all three pairs of shoes at one point in my career. I contracted work and found myself frustrated by overzealous architects with what I believed to be unrealistic expectations. I have been the third party who provided an evaluation report to determine if the work met “industry standards”. I have also been the project architect where my job was to represent the owner’s interests and sign off on subcontractors workmanship. How can we manage expectations?  

Ironically, being in different shoes did alter my perspective. It may seem hard to understand the overzealous architect picking your work apart. However, as a project architect, I was charged to look out for my client—the building owner. I lived with the fear of walking the site with an owner that could be very picky. Your design firm losing future work means you lose your job.

I have done many site inspections or observations as a third party. What we call it is not as important as understanding the difference between an opinion and a fact. A wall not meeting industry standards for aesthetics is an opinion; a wall out of level per industry tolerance is a fact.  Opinions can be powerful or weak depending on who is making them.  

The Low Bid

Contractors generally bid work, attempt to meet expectations and hopefully make a profit. At the end, they hope the final walk-through goes well and the punch list created is within the budget of the original estimate. All good contractors allot some budget for pick-up work.

During inspections, I noted that people are different. What I see and find objectionable may be perfectly fine to someone else. An architect may pick apart minor imperceptible flaws, yet pass on a wavy corner. Sometimes it was if we were not looking at the same wall. I once tried to get an architect to give me a clue as to their “hot issue.” Then the crews could apply extra focus on those areas. The reply was always the same “I want everything perfect”.  This is unrealistic and could beg the question, “Why did you take the lowest bid then?” I had to find a better way to manage expectations.

I learned to walk a completed project or wall and pay close attention to the architects, not the work. This is important as they give all kinds of clues to what annoys them or they never notice. I knew my walls, but I did not know them. The hard part for most subcontractors is to remain quiet, because too many of them want to either show off their knowledge or become defensive. I have been there from all sides. Of course on major projects this has the added complexity of multiple owner’s representatives. You please the first one who walks through to only have another next week find a whole new set of issues. While it does prove my theory that everyone sees it differently, it is little consolation to a contractor pulling his hair out watching his profit go down the drain. Finding those hot issues is worth it. 

I try to help around the house and reluctantly agreed to vacuum. My wife appreciated my effort, but quickly became disappointed. Apparently it is in my lack of attention to detail to such an important task. To meet project specifications, I ended up spending twice the time vacuuming. 

As a contractor who bids, you can go broke trying to meet specifications with high expectations.  I finally decided to shut up and stop defending my failed attempts at modern domestic engineering and watch her inspect my work. I discovered what her hot issues were and gave them a little extra care. My time at this “fun” task, is back to being tolerable. Now I just have to remember to hide this issue when it comes to my house. Seeing her glare at me with the open magazine in hand will likely result in me tripling my time with the family Hoover.

Managing expectations may be the toughest job contractors have. We all want to do perfect work, but perfection is simply unrealistic. I do recommend walking the project well before the official walk-through and fix any eye catching imperfections. I have found that hoping they let it skate by too often results in them looking even closer and then searching deeper for other issues they would have otherwise passed.