Building rapport

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Clear communication throughout the build process is essential, whether a domestic or commercial contract.

In the July/August 2011 edition of AEC Magazine I wrote about my house extension project and complained about the serial process that most builders want to work to. Now, it is January 2012. It is cold. It is time for an update.

My story examines parallels between domestic and commercial builds. The underlying theme is communication — between different groups of trades — whether a chippie and a plumber or a building services contractor and a steel contractor, problems happen everywhere due to poor communication.

On small-scale projects problems can be minimised by getting all trades to sit round a drawing once a week to plan properly. On a multi-million pounds construction project, investment in simulation software, such as Synchro 4D or Navisworks Timeliner, could save thousands. However advanced we like to think the modern construction process is, there are still plenty of horror stories where major clashes are only noticed once on site, bringing construction to a halt. Construction simulation software can help iron out major problems before they happen.

During my house refurbishment project (see image) there have been many examples of poor communication, but the most recent was the electrician who forgot to put a wire trench before the floor was laid. Yes there was a drawing that clearly showed the electric hob was supposed to sit in the middle island but of course nobody looked at that. One very big drill later the cable was fitted.

Between sessions of tearing my hair out, I have been trying to work out why these things happen. It is obvious that each trade only focuses on what they know. A plumber will notch out a joist to get pipes in, not realising that the structure is being weakened. When the carpenter realises what is happened it is too late and then big decisions need to be made over time/cost versus safety.

When a tradesman has been in the business a while, he understands more about how the trades can work together and becomes a main contractor. But he does not always have the time management skills to pull it off. Being mindful of the impact one tradesman can have on other trades is where time and money can be saved.

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So why not pay more attention to co-ordination?

In my never-ending house extension project the doors are on and most of the kitchen is in, but we are still missing the odd pane of glass up high. We sourced a shallow heating trench to overcome the slab problem and watched the plumber fail to read the instructions before trying to use plasterboard to level it where it had adjustable feet; and should be facing the other way.

What I have found is the value in having the architect around to the end of the build. Ours has been there to chase the main contractor and help keep the original design intent.

There is generally so much going on in construction that job swaps for each trade or general apprenticeships as they do in Germany would help the process a lot. Even to the extent of getting architects building something so they can see some of the issues faced.

During the past year I have learned a lot — that main contractors need to be good with money and time, and how they interact. This is no mean feat.

I have also learned that there is a hierarchy in types of jobs each trade does with carpenters and plumbers near the top and general labourers at the bottom. I am not sure if this is down to intelligence or the rarity of some of the tradespeople and the reliability of them turning up to the job on time.

What else have I learned? Well radio stations played loud helps plasterers do their stuff and not all the younger tradesmen drink tea (fizzy pop is preferred).

The most important lesson learned is that every type of job has some form of hierarchy, and, as a customer, it is essential to be part of that. Keeping an eye on what has been done and being vocal about why something is being done a certain way is essential.

Problems can be compounded if you let them go the first time. It is all about communication in the end.

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