Building Principles: An Inescapable Truth

Richard “Rick” Stryker, PE

Mark Twain’s reported to have observed that when he was fourteen, his father was so ignorant that he couldn’t stand to be around him. But he was amazed at how much his dad had learned by the time he was twenty-one! Almost every day, it amazes me to discover how many really bright people have brushed by my professional and personal life along the way and, even more, the number of gems that have made it through my pretty stubborn hide. For example, a boss once told me: “You can be right, but you can also be dead right.” Armed with that, I learned to let certain details go unmentioned in a dispute, since all they’d do is rub someone else’s nose in the fact that I was right, and they were not. After all, what’s gained except a momentary smug feeling followed by a long period of resentment and hostility? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate how much smarter my previous bosses have gotten. So while this column is usually laden with facts, figures, and how-tos about the site and the facilities that support your programs, this month we’re going to visit the philosophical side of building and grounds management with what I hope are a few pearls of wisdom for you to use throughout your organization.

“How do you want that: right, fast, or cheap?” Hardly a week goes by when I’m not struck by the way that these three values are interrelated. Let’s look at each term and agree on some definitions, and I think that you’ll begin to see what I mean.

“Right.” I have heard countless times about things being “over engineered” with the idea being that someone, usually a contractor or a customer, believes that the design is too robust, too heavy-duty, or otherwise just more than the application requires. When faced with that objection, I’m usually pretty quick to offer this: An optimist says that the glass is half full. The pessimist says that the glass is half empty. But the professional engineer observes that you’ve used too much glass. The point here is that engineers by trade are in the business of using only exactly what they need, with neither shortage nor excess. For example, properly engineered construction sites are planned to take advantage of earth-moving work so that excavation volume equals the fill volume. If that is achieved, the earthwork is said to be “balanced.” A whole-log structure, like cabins or a dining hall, is very massive and usually has a very solid feel. Often, the pegs or other connectors between the building components are visible, and people will remark that the contractor built it “right.” Ultimately though, “right” is a term whose meaning is different for each person. For a plane crash survivor trying to hike out of the wilderness, “right” gets him through the night, dry. So each perspective of “building it right” is correct for a certain situation and person; it doesn’t fit every solution.

More to the camp perspective on this point, let’s look at a very common example: asphalt paving. Very few camps have access to the knowledge or expertise to specify pavement types and thicknesses. To most, their parking lots, roadways, and driveways are simply black just like the township road that provides the access. Further, many camps work very hard to present as simple and no-frills an appearance as they can, spending money where guests or donors can see and appreciate the expense. From a marketing standpoint, that makes great sense (and “cents”). But that perception and mindset can work against the camp when a paving contractor quotes the job. He knows that the customer doesn’t really understand the details. His eyes tell him that appearances are the priority, and without any other instructions from the owner, his experience tells him that the work needs only to make a year’s warranty. So from his perspective, “right” may vary from a seal-coat of asphalt bitumen to an inch or so of surface coat of asphalt paving mix. Even without understanding drainage, pavement design, or roadway repairs, it’s clear that this project is well on the road to disappointment. That disappointment has begun with a failure to make clear what everyone thinks is “right.” Paying a consultant to translate the needs you communicate into detailed instructions and standards for the work goes a long, long way toward getting the most value from every dollar that’s spent. And if the price for the whole job is more than the camp can afford, your engineer can work with you to adjust things, like paving in phases over several years, or reducing the amount of paving altogether to meet your budget. In some cases, that review may open an opportunity to reduce the level of “rightness” — in this case perhaps specifying a thinner layer of asphalt. You’ll know what trading that amount of “right” for cost will mean to the camp, and your choice will be well informed.

Which leads us to the second leg of this discussion: “cheap.” It shouldn’t surprise you that “right” and “cheap” are very close cousins in this discussion. In general, people perceive that those ideas are mutually exclusive, since if you pick “cheap” over “right,” something will suffer, but that’s not at all true. Car-loving readers over forty should remember a groundbreaking vehicle called the DeLorean DMC-12. (Younger readers will know it as Doc Brown’s time machine in Back to the Future.) The story goes that the designer and company founder, John DeLorean (previously an executive with General Motors), thought that a top-quality vehicle should last as long as its owner wanted it to. Aside from cool features like flip-up doors, it was made of stainless steel. His cars were not going to rust to dust. Yet only about 7,000 were ever made. The reason: List price for a new DMC-12 in its only production year (1981) was $25,000. In 2013 dollars, that’s over $63,000. Clearly, there was nothing “cheap” about that for either the manufacturer or the consumer. DMC went out of business the next year. So DeLorean’s effort to avoid “cheap” and build his cars “right” made them too expensive for the market, even if they were going to last forever.

So at camp, why would someone choose stainless steel washers over carbon steel when they cost more than twice as much? Why because, in certain circumstances, that’s the “right” selection! Of course those circumstances would include potable water and wastewater systems. Under the right environmental and atmospheric conditions, you may even choose them when building a deck with treated lumber! Otherwise, hot-dipped, galvanized, cheap, carbon-steel washers will probably do 95 percent of what you want to do at camp.

Continuing on the earlier paving example, depending on how “rustic” camp is kept looking, your quoting contractor may also interpret its simple appearance to mean that there isn’t much money to be spent. Lacking specific technical directions on what’s expected, he may certainly prepare his quote with an eye toward saving camp money in the short run. As we’ve seen, though, that savings (being “cheap”) may well cost more money in the long run if paving is redone every few years.

The last part of this discussion is the concept of “fast,” and it may surprise you to find out how closely it, too, is related to “right” and “cheap.” Let’s illustrate with another example. Anyone who has done any house painting knows that applying paint to a wall is not complicated. Despite the expression “watching the paint dry,” which suggests something is long and boring, it doesn’t take very long; however, experience teaches every homeowner that time spent preparing to paint — including washdown, patching, sanding, priming, masking, tarping, etc. — really does save time in the long run. In fact, professional painters will tell you those preparatory steps, which largely guarantee a first-class result, are where shoddy competitors (and homeowner amateurs) will cut corners to try to save time. How quickly you want (or eventually “need”) something done will often determine whether you will get the finished product you’re after. Whatever the project, it seems that time is always the element that’s most taken for granted. After all, why else would the U.S. Postal Service have midnight service on April 15? Choosing time as a priority means that work needs to be done on your schedule and not the contractor’s. When they can manage the schedule, time then becomes your advocate.

Here’s the part of our examination of “right,” “fast,” and “cheap” that’s going to surprise you most: You can’t have all three at the same time. At most, you can pick two of three, and often only one remains. The reality of the world in which we live is that when planning leads to decisions, two of the three values have to be chosen over the remaining one. Think about the statements that follow. You can have your project:

  • Right and fast, but it is going to cost a lot.
  • Right and cheap, but it’s going to take a long time.
  • Cheap and fast, but it probably won’t meet your standard for right.

I’ve yet to come across a situation where these don’t hold true in almost everything that requires some thought, planning, and a budget.

Further, many times you can choose only one of the three because other choices have already been made by default. Revisit our paving example. Last September, we got a very reasonably priced quote for the paving, but other things got in the way and the work was never ordered. Spring’s come and gone now and the new camp season’s approaching. Even if the quote didn’t have an explicit expiration date, the contractor isn’t likely to honor that reasonable price now that he’s faced with the other two elements. “Fast” is effectively already chosen because fall, good winter, and spring are lost time: The work needs to be done right away. Now how do you define “right” and “cheap” and still meet your standards? Further, the cost of crude oil plays an enormous role in the cost of asphalt paving, and crude oil prices are up. It seems that “cheap” is out of the camp’s choosing now as well. Notice now what element has been left out. It’s “right.” In the end, if the project is going in this year, it’s going to be more expensive, (not cheap), and corners will need to be cut (not right) in order to meet the deadline (fast). So instead of camp leadership setting the table and choosing how the project is to proceed, indecision, delay, and simple economics have forced the leadership to choose only “fast” and live with whatever excluding “right” and “cheap” brings.

That’s no way to run a rodeo and surely a short road to ulcers, gray hair, and insolvency. As you consider future projects at camp, whether facilities, programs, or whatever, remember the three elements that will determine your satisfaction with the outcome. You can have it right, fast, or cheap. YOU pick two of three.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at campfc@ptd.net or 570.828.4004.

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine.
 

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