Home Features TECHNICAL: Be prepared to explain a difference

Understanding and explaining industry approved finishing standards and co-ordinating effectively with other trades will improve efficiency and customer perception. This month Steve Halcrow, from AIS FPDC, gives a plea from the heart of a world-weary technical consultant who has seen one battlefield too many.

It is said that Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’; if that is the case then regrettably I witness insanity on a daily basis on construction projects I visit.

Some examples I encounter include; the constant battle of drywall versus M&E, two packages with primary interaction on every single site; the misuse of onerous inspection methods for finished plastering and drywall, probably the most common issue of them all; and the misunderstanding of expectations between contractor and client around the finished product, misuse or neglect of benchmark samples. The last three are in fact all different symptoms of the same disease.

We have more control over these things than we perhaps care to admit, and with a little applied effort we can start to re-establish control which, at the end, cost our members time, money and goodwill.

Allow me to begin with the matter of finishes and inspection. It is perfectly clear that, as expert contractors, you should know what is expected of you when you take on a new contract, but equally the client should be made fully aware of what they have bought when they appoint your company to carry out the work. Not only is this fair to all parties, but it is a sensible measure to protect yourself from harm.

All too frequently I get called to situations which have escalated to dispute levels only to find that the work is 70 per cent complete and the dispute has only just arisen. This of course means that any work necessary to rectify matters is far more complex and costly and it is the subcontractor that foots the bill, for their own work and often contra charges
for others.

You, the trade contractor, should know your contract specification, and if you’re not happy with it you need to be asking for it to be amended; otherwise you have little cause for complaint later when the client calls the finish into question. The vast majority of specifications merely call up the tolerances laid out in the British Standards, so you must know those too.

A specialist contractor without a copy of BS 8212 or BS EN 13914 in a prominent position in its office is, frankly, as ill-equipped as a plasterer without a trowel. Do not remain silent on the matter at the opening of the works; bring up the subject and get the conversation over early rather than avoid it and get a nasty shock later. It could be a tough conversation to have because the client is discovering that the tolerances are more generous than they thought, and the first thing they will say is that they expect better.

Fine, but a contract has been agreed on the basis of a stated standard and unless the specification tells us differently, that is what has been priced. An improved finish might be possible, but it might carry some additional cost. It might not, if for commercial reasons you decide to make a concession, but if we shy away from the fact we are asking for a dispute later.

The next thing specifications often ask for are control samples, but lip service is often paid to these. They are built, passed, and then everyone forgets them and gets on with things. This is your opportunity to set an expectation level; if you put four operatives on it for a week and achieve an incredible finish your client may well expect the same standard when you are being pushed for 15 units a week among the muck and bullets as the contract progresses, with various trades vying for space and the programme calling.

Make your client aware of what is realistic, agree with them what is acceptable and make sure that is understood and recorded, then use it when assessing your finished work later. Show the operatives the sample, tell them that is what is expected; be transparent. Avoid these issues at your peril.

The same applies to inspection methods. Be clear from the outset with your client as to what is or is not acceptable, and refer to the Standard; it’s what it is there for. Agree a procedure and record it; a good client will realise there are benefits for both sides.

Use your experience; if you know that coordination with M&E is a common problem, bring it up and ASK for early meetings with the M&E contractor. Agree procedures, including handovers, and review the situation regularly rather than forgetting all about it once the work starts and programme once again takes over.

We end up in a furious sprint to the line, each trade wearing its own blinkers and elbowing each other out of the way. All too often we reach the last furlong and find the client has altered the course because nobody clarified it enough at the start line.

Don’t be the one labouring up the hill behind the pack because they were all fitter and smarter than you. Do your preparation and be ready for the race, for the prize is worth the effort.

Steve Halcrow is a technical consultant to AIS FPDC and a director of Brunel Construction Consultants