As I discussed in the June installment of this column, the construction of a backyard watershape environment requires careful and clear coordination – and sensitivity to the fact that watching the process unfold can be unpleasant or even traumatic for your clients.
Without a doubt, the key to managing the process so that your clients don’t become unhappy requires purposeful, up-front communication that sets realistic expectations for how the project will progress – and when. Similarly, you should also set up expectations for the inevitable changes that will arise as the project moves forward.
That all may seem obvious, but it’s plain to any casual observer that the importance of managing expectations is, unfortunately and amazingly, missed by a great many designers and builders. Here’s the key: To set up realistic expectations with other people, you yourself must have your own grip on reality. Otherwise, there is no way you and your clients can ever wind up on the same page.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
As a dramatic and important example of how off track things can get, let’s start by considering what’s involved in obtaining building permits – and how much variability there is in the construction-permitting process in different parts of the country.
Where I live and work in Florida, the requirements for obtaining building permits for swimming pools are far more extensive and stringent than those observed in many other parts of the country. Even within the Sunshine State, the permitting process will vary some from city to city – but it almost always seems tougher here compared to the many other jurisdictions in which I’ve worked in other states.
The upshot in Florida is that when you’re setting up a project, the permitting process can represent a significant block of time that is largely out of your control. I’ll go so far as to say that in some areas in the state, the authorities seem quite enamored of their power to reject or deny. The contractor has no real power, and for that reason it’s never a bad idea to set clients up with an expectation that lining things up will take an uncertain amount of time.
That’s why I’ve always preferred to start the project “clock” based on the acquisition of the necessary permits – not the date on which the contract was signed.
Others in the trade will debate this policy with me, but it’s been my experience that my clients often go through a lengthy, complex process to arrive at the point of signing a contract: interviews with multiple contractors, debates over various features or design options, hard work in budgeting and weighing costs against true desires. It’s a big decision, and there’s something of a standing joke that when these folks sign on the dotted line, they’re expecting you to start digging that evening – or the next day at the latest.
This is why I am very clear in my discussions with clients, well ahead of contract signing, in describing what the process is like in their specific area. Yes, there are places where this isn’t much of an issue – Texas, for example, where I’ve heard you can obtain approvals in a matter of days or even hours in some cases. Where I am, however, it’s always a matter of weeks and can take as long as three long months. (See the sidebar below for more timeline-extenders.)
Back home in Florida (which I’ll stick with as an example because I know it best), building departments in most areas require sealed structural plans drawn by a licensed engineer. Because those plans won’t be created until there’s a signed contract in hand, the time involved in generating those drawings must be added to the time tied up in the permitting process, which means it’s not unusual for the plan/permit phase to stretch way beyond the limits of clients’ patience.
Giving them all the bad news up front is what I call making them “pre-annoyed.” They may not like what I’m telling them, but they’ll be far less unhappy if they’re given the opportunity to consider the real time frame and factor it into their thinking.
These problems come up despite the fact that most contractors in the business know how long it takes to obtain permits in their working areas. A big reason why so many professionals underestimate the time frames – even though they should know better – is that they are overly optimistic and live in the hope that things are going to break their way.
Perhaps it’s a matter, cutting back to my June column about open and honest communication, that these contractors are afraid to tell the whole truth for fear of having clients seek better (and even less-truthful) schedules elsewhere. But I prefer to think that this “optimism” is usually a sign that few contractors, busy in the day-to-day flow, pay much direct attention to how long these processes really take.
In some areas of my home state of Florida, there’s an added step in the permit process – the so-called “Class 1” permit – which must be obtained before the construction permit can be pulled. This step seems to have no other purpose than to generate an additional licensing fee.
There are other jurisdictions that further attenuate the process by requiring you to send letters to all neighbors in the immediate area to notify them of the pending inconveniences of construction.
And the plan process can be dragged out even further if the pool is going in as part of new-home construction or as part of an extensive remodel, which in both cases you need to seek a whole separate layer of approvals for the overall construction that must come ahead of the watershape permit.
Wherever there’s a way to drag out the process, there’s generally a regulatory agency of one sort or another that’s happy to get involved – thus making it even more critical to get up to speed yourself on what can happen so you can be crystal clear in working with your clients, especially when they’re champing at the bit to see their project get under way!
If you find yourself getting caught in situations in which you are frequently underestimating the duration of the plans-and-permits phase, I encourage you to look at the dates on which contracts are signed and the dates when permits are actually obtained. You may be surprised at what you see.
Sometimes, errors made in setting up expectations may be innocent, but it doesn’t make them less harmful. And make no mistake: There are some clients who will become more than a wee bit agitated when their self-established expectations aren’t being met – a key reason I don’t want to leave them guessing.
Just this week, for example, a design client called me to express outrage that the selected contractor has not been able to get started in a timely fashion. The contractor, one of the biggest in the area, had originally told the client that construction would start six to eight weeks after contract signing. At this writing, it’s been 12 weeks, and the contractor is nowhere near ready to go.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for the delays, including a city requirement that called for raising the equipment pad several inches above grade – something the contractor says came out of the blue.
The bad news to the client was not only the delay, but an added cost. The client called the city and asked if the contractor should’ve known about the requirement and was told that, yes, the contractor certainly should’ve known – which speaks eloquently to the fact that building-department officials are just as adept as contractors at covering their behinds.
By the time the client had reached the point of calling me, he was so livid that he wanted to fire the contractor. I advised against that step, given that it wouldn’t make the requirement go away and that bringing in a new contractor would only further delay the project – likely at a premium in cost and with added stress.
The requirement for elevating the pad may have been arbitrary, but there’s no doubt the contractor should have considered more carefully what the client was expecting and done a better job of keeping him in the loop as circumstances changed.
The notion that situations change unexpectedly and that you need to keep clients apprised of what’s going on is terribly important. Indeed, change is inevitable in the vast majority of projects, and how you manage it can have everything to do with your success in keeping the client happy – and protecting your profit margins as well.
The challenge is that changes take many forms and by their very nature present issues that can only be handled on a case-by-case basis. If there is one rule that applies to most changes, however, it’s that they’re best accommodated earlier in the process rather than later.
That’s why another critical step in the early going of a project is the initial site layout. This is when we stake out the body of water and the other major elements of the project so that everyone – clients especially – can see where everything is going.
There are various techniques for creating a working layout, and I’ve found that no matter which method you use, whether it’s spray painting the ground or laying things out with strings and stakes, it’s critical that the structures be laid out with care and precision. It’s amazing how a mistake in one phase of a project transmits to and is amplified in subsequent phases. Even though errors in layout can be caught down the line, it’s obviously preferable to start out accurately.
Once the project is laid out, it’s not uncommon for customers to reconsider size, placement or both. Of course there are costs associated with changing things at this point, especially if the changes are significant, but those costs are far less extreme when you’re working with spray-painted lines than they are when you need to jack-hammer steel, plumbing and concrete to do what’s required.
I use paint or string in laying out pools and find that either method works in helping clients visualize the space. Often, they’ll say that the watershape is somewhat smaller than they’d been expecting – and then when you dig it, they think it’s way too big because they can’t “visually” compensate for over-dig once the big hole has been dug.
Always at the ready, I prepare the client for this shift in perception. The last thing I want is a knee-jerk reaction and an unnecessary set of change orders. That said, however, this is when I expect and hope that clients will be making any significant adjustments.
I suppose it may be different for companies that work at mass-producing their swimming pools based more or less on standard templates, but in my experience I can comfortably say that there are always changes, no exceptions. And because addendums to plans are inevitable, it’s always important to anticipate plan changes and manage expectations of how they’ll affect both price and the construction process.
FOR THE GOOD
Because of the type of work that we do in constructing significant structures and environments around clients’ homes, we need to understand that changes are the norm – and that we can make money on them. I say this because contractors are often so focused on getting to the end of a project that they frequently become annoyed or even angry with clients who want changes.
I argue that changes should never upset us and that we should instead be looking at those changes as opportunities to expand projects and to give the client more of what they want. Welcoming changes in this way requires a shift in mindset for many watershapers. At the very least, you need to be aware of the inevitability of changes and set up terms for accommodating them ahead of time.
My view is that clients who ask for changes should know going in that they’ll pay for the cost of the changing the plans as well as making the changes on site – and that the schedule will be affected, often significantly. I’ll go into great detail, explaining all of the steps required to implement changes, and I’ll begin that discussion well before clients have a chance to reconsider the design.
I know many well-intentioned contractors who let changes go without much discussion in the belief that they’re making enough on the job to comfortably absorb the alterations. They do so, I suppose, in the belief that doing so will make their clients happy.
I respect those good intentions, but unfortunately, the result is that the clients often don’t fully appreciate the change, don’t expect an increase in the duration of the project, end up getting impatient with the process and, for no good reason at all, conclude by eating a good portion of the contractor’s margin.
A good, simple addendum spells out a change and its ramifications with respect to cost and timing. And even if you are giving a good client a change free of charge, that gesture should still be explained in such a way that the clients appreciate the benefit they’re receiving and understand that the change, even if it’s small, will likely add days or more to the project’s duration.
Just in practical business terms, I’d even argue that changes that don’t require time or money should still be approved in writing and included with the project paperwork.
WORKING WITHIN BOUNDS
The other side of the addendum issue, of course, is that clients don’t like to be “addendumed” to death. That’s why in my projects I try to anticipate the typical kinds of changes and set things up so not every change results in another addendum.
One area where this is particularly applicable has to do with fences around swimming pools.
In many areas, building codes require fences around pools, and it’s known from the outset of the project that someone will either put up a fence or repair an existing fence. If that’s not defined as part of the scope of work, however, or if the pool contractor isn’t specifically licensed to do that sort of work, the issue of the fence might fall by the wayside until the project nears completion.
When this happens, it’s unlikely that clients will be happy about having to pay hundreds or even thousands of unanticipated dollars for something that should have been identified as part of the project from the start. I believe it is incumbent on the contractor to bring such issues to the attention of the client early on so that needless addendums can be avoided down the line.
Unlike the weird requirement for the elevated equipment pad mentioned above, many of these things don’t come out of the blue.
What I’ve found is that it’s one thing to learn from experience and quite another to apply what we’ve learned. In other words, designers and contractors who’ve been at it a while tend not to be surprised when these things crop up. What I’m arguing for is taking that experience and using it to prepare clients for what might be coming in as forthright and direct a way as possible.
If you can spell it all out, alert your clients to the twists and turns of the plan-and-permit process and to the fact that changes to the original plans will cost them money, the page your client is on will have the same number on the bottom as the one you’re on, and the greater will be the likelihood that the project will move forward without undue stress.
With those realistic expectations firmly in place, both you and your clients will be well prepared to move into the construction phase on solid footing.
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].