Learning From My Recent Construction Activities
When I passed the baton to Dick Ryan as our CEO three years ago, it allowed me to move on and do some other things I have always wanted to do. One of those activities is speculative redevelopment of old houses close to the downtown and University of Arkansas campus here in Fayetteville.
I don’t like to use the term “flip” because we do so much more than change the counters and paint. Most of our projects are instead “strip to the studs” affairs— sometimes taking an old house that may have been used as a multi-family and turning it back to a single family— but always completely rebuilding the structure into something far better than it was before. As many of you who have done this type of work know, it’s incredibly rewarding (and fun) when the project goes well. And each project we do gets better.
I learned a few lessons from this experience over the last three years that I thought I could share with our A/E/P and environmental firm readers. Here they are:
It’s impossible to design everything from afar. You have to be on site, and spend plenty of time there, to come up with the best design. Photos and as-builts are simply no substitute for physically being there. One house we are doing now was so cut-up it was impossible to visualize what it should be until we gutted it. More design professionals need to spend more time in the field, on site.
Constant involvement of the decision-maker (me) at the project site is critical! Again, you have to be there. People want to see you. There are many details that will require a decision. Everything is not and cannot be in the plans! If you are the boss, get out there where those who work for you can access you.
Communication is everything. Quick response to phone calls, having a BlackBerry, and in general being super-responsive are qualities I look for in everyone I do business with. If they cannot do this, they are simply not a good supplier.
The fewer the subcontractors, the better things go. There are fewer people to coordinate and fewer potential conflicts. This is why clients like one-stop shopping with qualified, multi-discipline firms. And that’s also why I may ask my stone masons to pour a sidewalk, even though it’s not their specialty.
You have to take care of your workers. It’s amazing how just a little compassion and care goes so far with construction workers. Just buying ice and bottled water is incredibly appreciated, as is paying $11 an hour to laborers who are lucky to get $9 an hour. Design professionals are coddled compared to these people!
There’s no substitute for experience. I have found that our best workers are our older workers. Whether it’s my 60-year-old master carpenter or the stone mason in his late 50s, these guys frankly get twice as much done with half the effort of the younger workers. It’s not that the young people won’t work hard. They do. But their inexperience causes them to spend more time planning their work and fixing mistakes. Experience goes a long way toward higher overall productivity.
Project budgets will always be exceeded. It doesn’t matter how much you do this stuff— it seems like budgets are almost always exceeded. I find that if we start with a project in the best location, at least you can recover from your overruns when it comes time to sell.
What you don’t do right you will always regret. I have felt this way from the very first bathroom I remodeled for $200 in the 1870 Victorian I was living in when we started ZweigWhite. I always wished I had done it better. Nowadays, that happens less often. You have to be willing to spend the money it takes to do what you are doing properly. Cheaping-out is always cause for regret, embarrassment, and future problems. Do it right the first time and don’t look back.
Newer materials aren’t always better. I am known around here for being the guy who loves cedar shingles and natural stone. I never use vinyl anything nor do I use aluminum soffits or fake stone or cedar shingles pre-made into planks. The bottom line is that a lot of the newer materials are over-hyped. They say they will save labor or be maintenance-free, but too often cost a lot or look ugly. Real is better and the marketplace pays more for it.
Quality sells. See my points above. If you do things right with good design and good materials and people who care, the end product reflects it. Even in a bad real estate market, there are buyers who want something good. They also want something different. The same old product everyone else does because they want to be sure it doesn’t offend anyone (even people with little or no architectural taste) is not selling. There’s too much of that and not enough that’s different. Doing this stuff for profit only confirms what I have always known. Differentiation is the key to success in every business.
Originally published 8/20/2007