One of the most striking things about our industry is just how
many chances there are to make mistakes. For every opportunity
you have to get something right, it seems, there are a thousand
more to get it wrong.
For instance, several years ago we had problems with an
addition we built that contained a master suite above a garage.
Even with a high level of insulation in the garage ceiling, the
bathroom pipes froze over the unheated garage.
The experience left us determined not to make that particular
expensive mistake again, so we made a change in how we did
similar projects. Not only would we insulate the garage, but
we'd also hang an industrial-style heater from its ceiling. The
goal, of course, was to keep the temperature of the garage
safely above freezing — 45°F to 50°F or so. With
this approach, we could pretty much guarantee against frozen
pipes. Plus, clients loved the warm cars in the morning and the
warm floors in the upper rooms. Problem solved and everybody's
To download a complete copy of the CDRC,
Wrong. Recently, we built the same sort of addition, insisted
on putting in the garage heater, and found that this time the
vibrations from the heater traveled right up through the floor
into the bed posts and kept the homeowners awake on cold
nights. No cheap solutions here, unfortunately (at least none
that were acceptable to the homeowners).
Heading Off Trouble
Such problems are frustrating but inevitable. The very nature
of custom building and remodeling is that you're constructing
the prototype and the finished product all at once. You can
only debug as you go.
What you can avoid, however, is the excruciating and
needlessly expensive frustration of making the same mistake
twice. We've found over time that the best way to avoid repeat
mistakes is by using what we call the construction document
review checklist — or CDRC, for short.
Our CDRC is a 25-page (and growing) list of construction
issues that we want to make sure we've not only covered in our
drawings and specifications but also accounted for in our
budget. For example, we want to make sure we've specified
— and budgeted for — tempered-glass windows
wherever they're needed, whether near a tub or shower, beside a
door, or close to the floor. The CDRC includes questions that
address this issue and hundreds of others just as
The checklist is organized into 19 sections, each
corresponding to a category in our estimate spreadsheet:
foundations and masonry, electrical, hvac, cabinets and
countertops, and so on. Some categories, like painting, have
relatively few questions; others, such as electrical, have
several pages all to themselves.
Although most of the issues in the CDRC are dealt with in the
normal course of designing and estimating a project, we find
that it's essential to do at least one thorough review of the
documents just to make sure nothing slipped through the cracks.
This review happens at a meeting that involves the architect,
the lead carpenter, the estimator, the product selection
person, and me (as salesperson). We do not include the client,
principally because we don't want the meeting to become a
The document review consists, quite simply, of going through
the 25 or so pages of the CDRC line by line. The process, I
have to admit, is really boring. It's tempting, just to speed
things up, to gloss over or rationalize away any gaps in the
project information that we uncover while reviewing the
We've learned, though, how important it is to plow through the
list and deal with the issues that need to be dealt with then
and there. The location of the vacuum breaker for the hand-held
spray at the whirlpool tub is not on the elevation? Let's put
it in — these are very picky clients and we can't leave
something like that as a surprise at the end. They've chosen
brass finishes for the faucets? Let's make sure the brass
disclaimer is in the specifications, so the homeowners aren't
surprised when the finish starts showing wear.
Yes, it's a tedious process — but, as I frequently
remind myself, it's also the most important and profitable use
of my time that I can possibly be making at that particular
Timing the Meeting
On large jobs, we'll sometimes break the CDRC review into
three or four meetings, each covering just some of the
categories and including appropriate key subcontractors.
But for most jobs, we go through the list in one two- to
three-hour sitting, typically at the house we'll be working on.
We try to have the meeting about four weeks before the
anticipated contract signing, so that the documentation we're
reviewing (drawings, specifications, list of products and
finishes) is substantially complete.
If we have the CDRC meeting too soon, we sometimes find we
have to do it all over again later because of changes in the
project. (Even if we have to do it twice, though, it's time
well spent). On the other hand, if we hold the meeting too
late, we often find we're not leaving ourselves enough time to
alter the documents and pricing as needed to respond to any
gaps we uncover.
When we were first implementing this process, we occasionally
found ourselves holding the CDRC meeting pretty late —
even after the contract signing, in a couple of cases. The
surprising thing was that the meeting was still incredibly
useful, even though it was too late to change the contract
price. It let us know what we had missed early enough that we
could still head off lots of problems and expenses and cut our
A Growing List
We're constantly adding items to our checklist. Whenever we
run into a problem or a mistake on a job, our first instinct is
to consider whether there's a question we could add to the CDRC
to head off that issue in the future.
We recently had to buy an extra roll of expensive vinyl
flooring, for example, because we hadn't accounted for the fact
that it can be laid in only one direction. To make maximum use
of the material, we had budgeted for two perpendicular runs in
a T-shaped space. As soon as we realized our mistake, we added
a question to the CDRC to help us anticipate and budget for
that situation in the future. In another instance, I found
myself the reluctant owner of a whirlpool tub that had the
special-order pillow attachment at the wrong end.
Those are two costly mistakes we will never make again, as
long as we use our checklist.
"Regular, disciplined use of the checklist not only saves us
money in avoided mistakes and averted misunderstandings —
it also gives us much greater project control."
Another prime opportunity to add things to the CDRC is at the
project recap meeting we hold after each completed job. At this
event, which involves the same cast of characters that attended
the CDRC meeting, we go through the job step by step, with an
eye toward identifying issues we could reasonably avoid in the
future by asking the right CDRC questions. Each job postmortem
yields a handful of new items for the CDRC, and each of those
items represents a potentially expensive mistake we've managed
Regular, disciplined use of the construction document review
checklist saves us lots of money in avoided mistakes and
averted misunderstandings. And not only that — we've
discovered yet another, unexpected benefit to using the
checklist: It gives us much greater project control.
I always tell our clients that we will not start their project
until we're ready to finish it — that is, until we know
everything we need to know for successful completion. I can now
define "ready to finish it" by giving a client a copy of the
CDRC — all 25 pages — and telling them that we will
start their project when we have satisfactory answers to every
question in that document. This way, rather than coming across
as arbitrary and obstructionist, I come across as thorough and
professional. All but the most immature or impatient clients
understand the value of that level of project planning and
preparation. The others either would not hire us to begin with,
or will fire us once they realize we're serious about our
process. I am comfortable with either outcome.
Our CDRC helps us position each job for success by ensuring
that we have a clear exit strategy from the very start of
construction. This improves estimate accuracy, crew morale, and
client satisfaction. It's our single most valuable document
— far more essential to our profitability than any other
form, contract, or template.
For a time, in fact, I felt the CDRC was so valuable I had to
protect it like an essential trade secret, or possibly try to
cash in on its value and package it for resale to the industry.
I've since come to realize that I'm much better off sharing the
concept and the content with anyone who thinks he or she might
be able to make good use of it.
In return, I ask only that those of you who do use our CDRC
occasionally share with me any items, warnings, or questions
you add to the list, so that I can benefit from your expensive
mistakes in the same way that — I hope — you'll
benefit from mine. That would be the best possible outcome for
all of us in this industry.owns Byggmeister, a design/build
remodeling firm in Newton, Mass.