The Construction Document Review Checklist
By Paul Eldrenkamp
One of the most striking things about our industry is just how many chances there are to make mistakes. For every opportunity you have to get something right, it seems, there's a thousand chances to get it wrong.
For instance, several years ago we built an addition with a garage below and a master suite above. We had problems with bathroom pipes freezing over the unheated garage, even with a high level of insulation in the garage ceiling. Having made that expensive mistake once, we now in such cases insulate the garage and hang an industrial-style heater from the garage ceiling. The goal is to keep the garage safely above freezing—45 to 50 degrees or so. We can pretty much guarantee against frozen pipes now, and clients also like the warmer cars in the morning and the warmer floors in the rooms above. All problems solved, and everybody's happy, right?
Wrong. We recently built the same sort of addition, insisted on putting in the garage heater as usual, and found this time that the vibrations from the heater would travel right up through the floor into the bed posts and keep the homeowners awake on cold nights. No cheap solutions here, unfortunately.
Such problems are frustrating but inevitable. The very nature of custom building and remodeling is that you're building the prototype and the finished product all at once. You can only de-bug as you go.
What can be avoided, however, is the excruciating (and needlessly expensive) frustration of making the same mistakes twice. We've found over time that the best means for avoiding repeat mistakes is by careful implementation of our Construction Document Review Checklist (CDRC).
Our CDRC is a 25-page (and growing) list of construction issues we want to make sure we've not only covered in our drawings and specifications but also accounted for in our budget. For example, we want to make sure we've specified—and budgeted for—tempered glass where needed—near a tub or shower, in a window near a door, or close to the floor. The CDRC asks this sort of question—and hundreds of others just as important.
We have the CDRC organized into 20 sections, each corresponding to a category in our estimate spreadsheet (concrete and masonry; electrical; HVAC; cabinets and countertops; etc.). Some categories (such as painting) have relatively few questions; some (such as electrical) have several pages all to themselves.
Regular, disciplined use of the Construction Document Review Checklist saves us lots of money on mistakes avoided and misunderstandings averted.
Although most of the issues on the CDRC are dealt with in the normal course of designing and estimating a project, we find it's essential to do at least one thorough review of the documents just to make sure nothing has slipped through the cracks. This review happens at a meeting that includes the architect, the lead carpenter, the estimator, the product selection person, and myself (as the salesperson). We do not include the client, principally because we don't want it to become a design meeting—the objective is to review the design and documents just as they are at that point.
The document review consists, quite simply, of going through the 25 or so pages of the CDRC line by line. I have to admit these meetings are really boring. It's very tempting to gloss over or rationalize away any gaps in the project information that we uncover in the course of reviewing the checklist, just to speed the thing up. We've learned, though, (more specifically, I've learned—the rest of my staff seems to know this intuitively) how important it is to plow through the list and deal with the things that need to be dealt with, then and there. The elevation of the rod for the hand-held spray in the shower is not on the elevation? Let's put it in—this is a nervous client and we can't leave something like that as a surprise at the end. They've picked brass finishes for the faucets? Let's make sure the brass disclaimer is in the specifications, so they're not surprised when the finish starts showing wear. It's a tedious process, yes—but (I frequently remind myself) it's also the most important and mutually profitable use of my time I can possibly be making at that particular moment.
On very large jobs we'll sometimes break the CDRC meeting into 3-4 meetings, each covering just some of the categories and including appropriate key subcontractors. But for most jobs we go through the list in one sitting, typically at the house we'll be working on. It takes 2-3 hours to run through the list. We try to have the meeting about four weeks prior to the anticipated contract signing, so the documentation we're reviewing (drawings, specifications, products & finishes list) is substantially complete. If we do the CDRC meeting too soon, we sometimes find we have to do it again because of changes in the project (but even if we have to do it twice it's time well spent). If we do it too late, we often find we're not leaving ourselves enough time to alter the documents (and pricing) if needed to respond to gaps we uncovered in the documentation in the course of our CDRC review. On occasion, when we were first implementing this part of our process, we did find ourselves doing the CDRC meeting pretty late—even after contract signing, in a couple instances. The surprising thing was that the meeting was still incredibly useful, even though it was too late to change the contract price. It let us know what we had missed early enough on that we could still head off lots of problems and expenses, cut our losses considerably, and move the project along more efficiently and satisfactorily.
We're constantly adding items to the CDRC. Whenever we run into a problem or a mistake on a job our first instinct is to consider whether there's a question we could add to the CDRC to head off that issue in the future. We recently had to buy an extra roll of expensive vinyl flooring, for instance, because we didn't account for the fact that it could only be laid in one direction—we had budgeted for two perpendicular runs in a T-shaped space to make maximum use of the material. We immediately added a question to the CDRC to help us anticipate—and budget for—that situation in the future. In another instance, I found myself the reluctant owner of a whirlpool tub that had the special-order pillow attachment at the wrong end. Two costly mistakes we will never make again, as long as we use our Construction Document Review Checklist.
Another prime opportunity to add things to the CDRC is at the project recap meeting we hold after each completed job. At this meeting, with the same cast of characters who attend the CDRC meeting before the project starts, we go through the job step by step, with an eye towards identifying what sorts of issues we could reasonably avoid in the future by asking the right CDRC questions. Each job post-mortem yields a handful of new items for the CDRC, and each of those items represents a potentially expensive error or omission we won't make in the future.
Regular, disciplined use of the Construction Document Review Checklist saves us lots of money on mistakes avoided and misunderstandings averted. One additional and unexpected benefit of using the checklist, though, is that it gives us muchgreater project control. I always tell our clients that we will not start their project until we're ready to finish it—that is, until we know everything we need to know for successful completion. I can now define "ready to finish it" by giving a client a copy of the CDRC—all 25 or so pages—and telling them that we will start their project when we have satisfactory answers to every question in that document. Rather than coming across as arbitrary and obstructionist, I come across as thorough and professional. All but the most immature or impatient client will understand the value of that level of project planning and preparation. The immature and impatient clients will either not hire us to begin with, or will fire us once they realize we're serious about our process. I am comfortable with either outcome.
Our Construction Document Review Checklist helps us position each job for success by assuring that we have a clear exit strategy from the very start of construction. This improves not only estimate accuracy but also crew morale and client satisfaction. It's our single most valuable document—far more essential to our profitability than any other form, contract, or template.
For a time, in fact, I felt the CDRC was so valuable that I had to protect it like an essential trade secret, or possibly try to cash in on its value and package it for re-sale to the industry. I have since come to realize that I'm much better off openly sharing the concept and the content to anyone in our industry who thinks they might be able to make good use of it. I only ask in return that all who do use our CDRC would, on occasion, share with me with any items or warnings or questions they add to the list—in other words, that I be able to benefit from your expensive mistakes as I hope you'll be able to benefit from mine. That would be the best possible outcome for all of us in this industry.