By: Michael Casey, NICET II, Construction Project Manager — Why can’t they just move it over there? Why can’t they just use a different product. It won’t take long. We just have to move it over a little. I don’t like it quite like that.

Change. It’s just a small change. And it appears so innocuous. Often, owners may not understand the implications of changes and how it effects the construction process. Many owners have the feeling that the project does not really start until the groundbreaking, when the truth is groundbreaking is closer to the 80% completion for the overall process.

Construction work is set in motion months in advance of actual work in the field. Contracts are written, supplies are quantified, purchase orders and contracts are written and shipments are put on trucks. By the time an owner sees work going on in the field they are a month behind on construction time.

A simple change is like sand in the gears: construction happens fast. A well laid out coordinated plan in the hands of a good contractor is extremely productive. While some owners may have the feeling that “construction takes forever” the truth is the actual physical construction work by a skilled crew is very fast. Job Superintendents have been known to show up to work with pneumonia because they understand just how quick work can be done and they don’t want to miss anything. A change to the plan means the entire process needs to change.

When there are too many changes in a project it effects the entire job. Field people lose focus and stop making decisions based on the plan set. They begin to question the plans and double check correspondences concerned that they may miss a change directive. If documentation isn’t clear they may have two directions and not know which one to follow. At that point they stop work – to figure it out.

Many owners have never experienced a tradesman dropping his tools and giving up when there are too many changes. “I’ll be back when you figure it out.” It can be very discouraging to the morale of the construction team. Behind the scenes contractors may hesitate coming back to the job to ensure the changes are worked out as they attend to other projects where the direction is clear. Contractors like to be productive with their time and change orders make it difficult.

When contractors have to deal with change orders it means they have to follow-up with the General Contractor or Superintendent who is trying to get the next day or week’s work in order. This may result in materials not being ordered or delays in delivery. A delay in one small item may result in a critical part of the work not being complete. This has a cascading effect on project costs and time to complete.

How can you avoid running into time-dragging changes? Keep the following in mind:

  • Clearly discuss the importance of design review to the design and construction process with the owner.
  • Good Decisions Stick: Good decisions by the owner during design have a tendency to stick. Poor decisions lead to changes.
  • Ensure the owner understands what decision they are making.
  • Clarify what is designed, what products or layouts and why they have been selected.
  • Point out specific attributes of products and equipment that the owner may be sensitive to – for example-space, noise, color & finish
  • Describe how the design will work; engage the owners imagination for a clear understanding of what they will get in the end.
  • When acceptance is not acceptance: Try to get a sense of the owners feelings in accepting the design. If you don’t sense that they like it- even if they say it is ok – it will likely be a change order.
  • Guard Against Excessive Changes: Assist the owner in understanding that small changes may lead to big problems on a project. Often owners don’t see all the follow-on work related to a change – mechanical, electrical, gas, drainage, ventilation, structure. A good understanding at the first thought of a change may result in the owner understanding that sometimes their ideas are just that – good ideas, and, once a project is in construction they should just stay a good idea.