Last month, I began a discussion of things that those of us in the watershaping trades can do to improve our collective profile with the public – not to mention enhance our collective self-image.
Education, of course, is a huge factor. And so is the level of professional courtesy with which we treat both clients and prospects. But those two points, discussed in detail last time, have less to do with the way we approach the practicalities of our businesses than is the case with another point that bears discussion: that is, project management and how we conduct ourselves once a contract has been signed.
Although my business now focuses on design and consulting, I spent enough years as a contractor to be able to evaluate what goes on between contractor and clients. In fact, in my role as designer, clients often turn to me with comments about their contractors – and they’re not shy about complaining or in telling me about what makes them happy.
And it works the other way, too, because contractors, knowing that I have experience as a contractor myself, will often turn to me as someone who can relate to their experiences with their clients as a project moves forward.
In my occasional role as conduit, sounding board and intermediary in client/contractor relationships, I’ve come to see a variety of specific and obvious behaviors and actions that can make all the difference between a mostly positive experience during the installation of a watershape – and a process that falls apart and leaves everyone feeling unhappy.
When it comes to relationships between contractors and clients or subcontractors, it’s almost a cliché to talk about open communication or dialogue and their importance (along with education) to success in business and life in general. But it’s true just the same: If there’s one complaint I hear from clients more often than any other, it’s something along the lines of, “If he’d only told me it was going to take so long,” or “If we had only known what she meant.”
In other words, on a very basic and profound level, communication is what project management is all about.
This is something I learned from my former construction-company partner, Lars Wiren, back when I was more directly involved in construction. He’s brutally honest with clients, so much so that it would sometimes make me cringe. He seemed to enjoy saying, “I don’t know,” and he was never shy about giving the client the bad news on delays. More times than I can count, I saw him tell clients something they didn’t really want to hear, but because he was so clearly being honest, they went away with realistic expectations and typically had few further problems.
As I observe other contractors operate, I often see professionals who are reluctant or unwilling to give clients the unvarnished truth about how long the installation process will take or inform them about delays that are being encountered along the way. Invariably, I’ve found that what makes clients unhappy is not project duration or the delays in themselves, but rather that they had no idea what to expect. Frustration is the natural result – sometimes so sever that it leads to anger.
By contrast, my partner Lars would, in a very real sense, make clients part of the process by letting them in on the truth – and he did this in a detailed way with respect to both logistics and scheduling.
With Lars, I never heard clients say, “I didn’t know they were coming today” or “I didn’t know they weren’t coming.” The not knowing is what creates anxiety, and that’s the problem Lars always headed off by being candid and up front about the nature of (and complexities sometimes involved in) the construction process.
In this realm, down time is a huge issue – largely because of the clients’ reactions to it. If they’ve never been told that there will be days when nothing happens in their backyards, they can become upset as they survey a devastated scene and have no clear idea when crews will return. There’s no good reason that should be allowed to occur. Not to canonize my friend Lars, but that’s something he’d never let happen.
BAD NEWS FIRST
Building a backyard watershape is quite unlike building a new home: Instead of popping by daily or weekly to be amazed and delighted by progress, these clients actually live on the construction site. As a result, the process is viewed inch by inch, and as they stare at a mess through the kitchen window for weeks on end, it seems it will never end. That’s frustrating to a great many people.
I contend that a huge portion of clients’ natural anxiety can be avoided simply by giving them realistic expectations about how things are going to flow. And I wouldn’t be afraid to be conservative and offer cautious guesses on project duration. In other words, don’t tell them six weeks when you know that it could be twelve. If you tell them straight out that the project might take up to 12 weeks, it’s less likely they’ll plan a big pool party for week eight.
This may seem obvious, but it’s startling to me how often this imperfect sort of communication creates real problems. In my experience – which, as I mentioned above, has been informed by my partner’s uncommon brand of honesty – I’ve found it useful to lay it on the line in terms of what this process is all about. After all, homeowners are going to find out anyway just what a mess their yard will become, so why not tell them all about it up front?
So even before we sign a contract, I’ll tell clients that we’re going to bring in huge pieces of equipment and operate them very near existing structures, decks and walls. I assure them that we’ll be running over and ruining a good portion of the landscaping and dig up huge piles of dirt that will remain visible for extended periods of time.
I tell them that there will be workers in and out of the yard, often at very early hours of the morning. I tell them that we’ll be pumping water, which will make a muddy mess, and that there will be noisy equipment in front of their homes – making it likely that their neighbors will be irritable for the duration.
I’ve also been known to show clients construction photos as part of the sales process – including one particularly alarming photo in my portfolio that shows a backhoe in action within inches of a beautiful, picture-perfect home. In that picture, new clients can see the looks on the faces of old clients as they look at the gaping hole being dug by the backhoe. That one picture is definitely worth more than a thousand words.
Suffice to say that, in no uncertain terms, my goal is to let homeowners know that a substantial and complicated structure is being installed in their yard as they look out their windows over morning coffee.
I’ve always found that when clients receive the bad news ahead of time, they’re better able to adjust to the idea of total disruption and prepare themselves for the ordeal. In many cases, the process turns out to be less bothersome than they imagined, and they end up being pleasantly surprised. Some will complain, of course, but because they’ve been prepared, their concerns are seldom long-lived or much of an ongoing problem.
And of course, this same principle of setting up expectations extends to other players on the project. As I’ve discussed in previous columns, much of my work these days, especially at the upper end of the market in terms of price and sophistication of design, requires the involvement of a large number of professionals each of whom has expectations to manage, schedules to set and meet and serious functions to perform.
Coordinating everyone, including the clients as well as architects, landscape architects, interior designers and a full range of expert contractors and subcontractors, is essential on a variety of important fronts. Sitting down with all of them and talking about who’s to do what and when makes all sorts of good things happen.
I suppose that’s easy to say, but when you get down to nuts-and-bolts construction issues, it’s my contention that pre-construction project meetings are of absolutely paramount importance to project success.
Consider as a basic example what it takes to set up a remote-control system. Most projects I design these days include one, and it’s not unusual for someone other than the pool contractor to install the required wiring and conduit. Perhaps it’s an electrician, or maybe the general contractor has a qualified person on staff.
Sure, it’s not unusual to see the remote-control system spelled out in the contract, but so often no one will mention any details to the electrician because it’s perceived as peripheral to his or her main work on the project. And believe me, nobody, including the general contractor, will consider as a matter of course the need for running a dedicated, low-voltage conduit from the equipment area to the house and to the side of the spa – let alone know specifics about locations.
The solution is obvious: Those involved need to know whether the electrician or the general contractor or someone else will be doing the job. And the same goes for conduits for pool lights or landscape lighting: As a group, the on-site team needs to know where the junction boxes are going and whose job it is to put them there. These are not huge issues – unless, of course, they’re left to the last minute and you discover that you’ve got to punch through a perfectly good wall somewhere to run a last-minute piece of conduit.
FILLING THE GAPS
There are lots of smallish matters just like the decisions having to do with remote controls that run through each and every project.
Another common case – one to which I’m sure many of you reading this will relate – involves gas lines. I can’t count the number of projects in which I’ve been involved where nobody stopped to think about who was going to run the gas lines. Along the same lines, I’ve seen big gaps in planning for such details as vents for gas heaters and the fact that ducting and some sort of structural penetration will be required.
Irrigation is another area where communication is truly helpful. There’s often a need to run sprinkler lines under decks, for example, at a point long before a landscape contractor would ordinarily come on site. If that’s the case, the project manager needs to identify who’s responsible, what size lines are needed, set exact locations and terminal points and find out who will pick them up from there.
In other words, even for rather simple projects, an effective, efficient, well-conducted project meeting is always in order. A good one can move quickly through the small stuff, and I think you’ll find that they often carry a surprise or two about project elements as important as lighting.
In fact, I’ve seen a staggering number of watershape projects where lighting installation is completely ignored. Heck, I’d guess that 90% of my own projects in the past were completely devoid of any lighting consideration, but nowadays I bring up and consider lighting as an integral part of the setting and make sure the need for conduit runs, junction boxes and fixture locations are all accommodated.
This need for an all-encompassing vision of the project leads me to double back to my April 2003 column on the importance of being able to read plans and specifications: Including a high level of detail in project documentation radically simplifies the process of being thorough and up front in developing the sort of coordination needed for a project to run as smoothly as possible.
That’s why I produce drawings and written specifications that call out such items as dedicated 3/4-inch conduit for a low-voltage wiring run from the control system at the equipment pad to a selected location in the home and to a spa-side location with a recessed deck box at a location to be approved by the client and the architect or watershape designer.
I know that these details may change, but at the very least it’s there and must be the subject of some sort of discussion by the team. And as I get better at what I do, I find that my plans all include vastly increased levels of detail – mostly for the sake of coordination – for such things as plumbing specifications for surge tanks, vanishing-edge details or special touches including fire-and-water effects.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
In setting up my specifications, I try to put into basic language what I think should occur on site. I’ll call out components such as main drains, for example, generally specifying a split configuration with a minimum three-foot gap and anti-vortex drain covers with three-inch lines and inch-and-a-half safety vents. I also call out lots of details for spas, leaving little to chance when it comes to return fittings and directional jets, right down to make and model.
I’ll call out, in plain English, details for perimeter overflows, with notes on the drawings that list specific pipe sizes, specific locations relative to water level and such details as the 3/4-inch vacuum breaker on top and union-mounted check valves.
You get the picture: None of these points is terribly complex or difficult to understand, but they all can create traumas if left for last-minute or casual consideration. In other words and in conclusion, it’s safe to say that on the list of things we can do better, communication and coordination are right at the top.
Next time, we’ll look at some additional on-site management issues.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].