Mark Fowler: The "Gotcha" Generation
The gotcha game, and why it needs to be stopped.
I think this forthcoming word best sums up today’s world of construction—“Gotcha.” Competition is at an all-time high and regardless of what phase, parties are looking for the “gotcha” moment. Designers need a hook or catch to get the owners inspired to hire them. They push for greener, more sustainable or outlandish means to get attention. Contractors bid on razor thin margins and look for design errors and employ the change order to recoup lost profits. They too are looking for the gotcha. The epitome of the gotcha game is forensic investigation and the hunt for that defect.
In all cases, when the plan comes together, the team can shout “gotcha” in joy, as the other side winces. It was not always like that. We used to understand the intent and worked together to make it happen. The gotcha generation has changed things and there seems to be no let-up in sight.
Refusing to Play the Game
I worked as a project manager for an architecture firm that was removing windows, siding and other trims on several condominium buildings. The gutter contractor came to me and asked if I wanted 3- or 4-inch gutters. I was puzzled by his query. He explained the drawings our firm produced showed 3-inch gutters but they had just removed 4-inch gutters. I asked the homeowners association president which size he wanted. He replied “four,” and that our firm would be paying the extra $10,000 because we screwed up. This young president of the condominium association was sure he had that gotcha moment.
I then spoke to the entire condominium board and explained it does not work that way. Three-inch gutters are code-compliant; 4-inch gutters are an upgrade that will cost extra. They responded they should get what they had previously installed on the building and the code was irrelevant. I explained that if we had asked the gutter contractor for a bid for 4-inch gutters, he would have submitted his bid based on that, $10,000 more. I pointed out that you are not harmed or damaged in any way. You should pay for what you get; the change order now or in the bid phase is irrelevant. They mentioned they could take us to court. I explained, “Courts are meant to right wrongs and make people whole if they have been damaged. How were you damaged? If you can explain that, I will agree.”
But to play the gotcha game will not work with most firms: “Use 3-inch gutters and save or pony up the money for the 4-inch gutters.” The board was not pleased but relented. In a few weeks, all was forgotten and we moved on. The architecture firm had a great reputation with subcontractors as we also did not play the gotcha game with them either.
I have seen this from the other side too. An elevation has no control joints and the contractor bids per plans and specs. Then just as the lath is finished, they want control joints and point out the specifications call to follow ASTM or other reference standards. This is their gotcha moment.
They expect the contractor to give them free control joints. It is really simple—if the owner wants control joints, they should pay for them. This then brings up the question of the code and what a contractor is to provide. The code cannot and does not cover everything. Contractors are required to provide an installation suitable for its intended use. While the code may be referenced, many things are not mandated by the code or ASTM. The code is about life safety and most building departments are very good at ensuring this happens. Most have little interest, as they should, in aesthetic control joints. In addition, the stamped set of plans is the code for that project, subject to revision only by the local building official. There are limits to this and one should be careful.
I had an architect call me in a panic. He had specified only one layer of building paper for stucco over wood-based sheathing. The plastering contractor sent him a change order for a second layer of paper. I called the contractor, who was experienced at stucco, and asked if he had bid for two layers. He admitted he bid for two. I said, “This is not a game of gotcha—give him two layers.” He withdrew his over-priced change order.
What’s in Store?
The increasing complexity makes the gotcha game too appealing, unless of course, you are the one being stung. The gotcha generation has created a cottage industry called, “Risk Management.” A general contractor at a national seminar recently said, “Risk is the biggest challenge at my firm.” That is a shame. It used to be education, craftsmanship and team work. I fear what the next generation brings. W&C