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The Ryan Report: Do as I say, not as I do.

February 27, 2024

By Steve Ryan

I’m a typical teacher: Do as I say, not as I do

My day job, if you want to call it that, is counselling contractors on business practices and running a professional operation. A central theme in all of this is that both contractor and their customer will be much better off when certain fundamentals of business are maintained. It’s reasonable to expect if I am dispensing these pearls of wisdom that I should follow my own rules when embarking on a personal renovation project.

We have just wrapped up an extensive kitchen renovation and I am going to confess that I broke, or allowed to be broken, quite a few of those rules that I preach as being so critical to success in construction. It wasn’t all down to my own negligence though. Some rule breaking happened before I became aware. Thankfully, the project was a success, and we are very happy with the result, but there is a lesson here worth sharing.

We got away with it, but that doesn’t mean we did it right. Along the way somebody paid a price either through stress, wasted effort or in real dollars. Luckily quite a few opportunities for major conflict were avoided through the goodwill and patience of all parties.

Lesson 1: While goodwill and patience should be present in any project, depending upon it to smooth over poor practice is a risky strategy.

Before going on, I will offer a few words in my defence. I dropped my guard on some bedrock rules, like starting out with a clear scope and contract because the initial plan was for a gentle facelift. Silly me! When did a kitchen makeover ever start small and stay that way. We engaged a designer, and we did have a formal agreement with them, but limited to colour and finish selections. Of course, once that conversation starts, the wish list grows, and at that point ‘the horse is out of the barn’. We slipped sideways into modified floor plan, lighting plan, additional cabinetry, and a larger, more complex countertop. To her credit, the designer contributed a lot more advice and insight than our agreement stated, without any additional charge.

Lesson 2: Make sure your contract reflects what is really going on. Change orders, as essential as they are, sometimes aren’t up to the job. If a project scale fundamentally changes, perhaps it is time for a new contract that addresses the new reality.

Did I say change orders? Simply put there was no such thing. Lots of changes but none of them documented. The root cause here was that there was no formal scope to reference. As clients, we were given too much freedom to make decisions on the fly. I mentioned the role patience and goodwill played in the success of the project and here is where it showed in spades. Cabinet and countertop fabricators graciously re-drew their plans as we went through different interpretations. I could feel their pain though, worrying about whether their work would align with the other’s. We, in turn, were taking it on faith that undocumented changes would not be an opportunity to tack on big additional charges. All in all, a real recipe for mix ups.

Lesson 3: Document, document, document. Everyone who touches the project stands to lose big if they don’t have a clear and precise design to work toward.

Tied closely to that and it should be obvious enough that further commentary isn’t needed here. Get decisions made in a timely way and compel (guide) the client to know where they are going before work starts.

Lesson 4: Sometimes a client needs some tough love. Perhaps, when our wish list expanded, our designer should have put on the breaks, recognized this as a project that needed a general contractor and called for an agreement that reflected that.

Perhaps I am the reason that didn’t happen because of the dreaded ‘work supplied by owner’. We would replace the floor ourselves. We would arrange some minor plumbing and electrical work and do painting and a tile backsplash. This was enough to turn any scope into something of a Swiss cheese. It went smoothly but probably because we were always clear on our obligation to dovetail with the timeline of other trades. I had a few sleepless nights worrying about being ready for what tomorrow would bring, but it always got done. You know that isn’t typical.

Lesson 5: Beware of work supplied by owner. Back to that tough love theme. Some contractors refuse to expose themselves to that risk, and if you are one of them, I respect your position. Things worked for us, but I was always conscious that our failure to meet commitments would derail everyone else.

What would I change if I had it to do over? As far as the outcome, I wouldn’t change a thing. But there were so many opportunities for things to go sideways, I am very grateful we didn’t suffer any of them. As I say, down to goodwill and patience of those who worked with us. What I would say though, is this project should have been paused and redefined. It should have been subject to an appropriate contract and scope. The result would have been fewer changes while in process, and those changes would have been properly documented and costed. We made it through, but I’m not sure we deserved to.

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