Getting What You’re Paying For

Building Principles

by Michael Weeks, P.E.

There are few things more frustrating for a consulting engineer than to have an owner spend money needlessly. Unfortunately, we do a miserable job educating clients about what we can do to help save them money and time in the long run. This month, we’re going to try to change that by using another real-world project to illustrate how being penny wise can lead to a pound of foolishness.

Often, we go through years of planning, design, and permitting, and then — in the owner’s rush to get the project under way — making certain that the product matches the plan is forgotten. The excitement of your project coming to life and the "keep things moving during construction mentality" causes many owners to make or accept major changes to the original design without understanding what the effects could be. An unsupervised contractor (or even a supervised one!) may not be following the approved plans and details that you have hired him to build. Unless you can read construction drawings, how will you know that you’re getting what you are paying for?

A Real-World Project

Some time ago, we completed the design and permitting of a roadway construction project. It involved setting the roadway geometry, pavement components, grading, sedimentation and erosion control, and storm-water management. Our contract with the owner ended with the township’s approval, since he didn’t want to pay us to help him choose a contractor or to check the work as it progressed. "After all," he reasoned, "the township is requiring that the contractor provide as-built drawings, so they’ll have to do it right." When we delivered all of the permits and plans required to bid and build the project, he paid his bill and left — and we heard nothing from him or about the project for almost a year. In his opinion, how hard could it be to build a 24-foot wide strip of pavement with 4-foot shoulders on either side? As construction moved along, the contractor made some "minor changes." When the owner was nearing the end of the project, he asked us to visit the site and check the contractor’s "as-built" drawings. As it turned out, the changes hadn’t been minor at all, and apparently construction was much more complicated than he had thought.

On my first site visit, I saw immediately that the road had been constructed without shoulders. Just beyond the edge of the pavement, the drainage ditch dropped off several feet. Without shoulders, there would be no place to stack plowed snow or to have a car parked with traffic getting by. I looked at the plans. I looked at the road. Back to the plans and then back to the road. Clearly, this wasn’t right — and this was just the first of a number of issues which were plainly incorrect.

As I drove through the "completed" project, it became clear that the high spots in the road were too high and the low spots were too low. Normally, roads are built using special survey stakes set at 25-foot intervals along the project that show the contractor how high the dirt and stone and asphalt should be. This ensures that the roads are not too steep, there are no blind spots for drivers, and that everything drains properly. In our case, it turns out that our owner had selected a contractor who believed that he was good enough to do without those guides and so had built the project "by eye." And while he hadn’t done a very good job building by eye, it was easy to see how wrong it was. Road slopes were eroding, sending runoff and earth onto adjacent property. One culvert was set so low that the road would flood. The incorrect vertical grade was caused by the contractor trying to avoid moving dirt and by grading without stakes, which completely changed the road profile from the design. While it made it much easier to construct, we ended up with an unsafe and unstable final product, which was encroaching on the neighbor’s property!

I wondered why the owner had me do a design at all.

I returned to the office and prepared a letter for the owner listing all of the deficiencies that I could see. Although the contractor at this point seemed very agreeable to resolving these issues and correcting the road, it took four more tries, four more reviews and deficiency letters, and two months to finally correct the problems.

Here’s a hypothetical question: Do you think that a site excavation contractor, who has been in business for twenty years or more can read a tape measure? Would you trust him to build according to the plan that you paid for? While this may over simplify the issue, our contractor was told, and was shown four times, that the roadway width was not in accordance with the plan. Each time he acknowledged this and agreed to make it right. But talk about déjà vu, every time I went to the site it still wasn’t correct.

Many of these deficiencies may have very well been our (dumb, like a fox) contractor trying to cut corners that would have otherwise saved him a significant sum of money. However he had agreed to a contracted price based on the plans, and certainly he was not offering the owner a credit for these changes. In fact, the lawsuits that would have come from the adjoining property owner would probably have cost far more than the contractor was paid for the whole job.

In the end, our owner received a project which generally conformed to the plans as had been agreed. Although our contractor appeared incompetent at times, we were fortunate that he stayed on site to rectify the situation. (Often times, contractors will get angry and abandon the site, holding the owner hostage.) This could be attributed to two things — either morally and ethically the contractor felt obligated to provide the owner the contracted product, or the owner was smart and had yet to pay for the completed work. I’ll bet you know what I think.

What Did We Learn?

Although my example is specific to a new road project, it can be easily translated to any project, small or large, that you have going on at camp. Let’s review some of the things that our owner did both right and wrong that could have drastically changed the outcome.

  • What if our owner had been willing to authorize the additional expense of periodic construction observation? A single site review, weekly, comprising of a couple of hours by his design professional could have identified these problems before work had to be undone and redone, saving our owner the delays at the end of the job, as well as reducing the waste of the contractor’s time and materials.
  • What if our owner hadn’t asked the design professional to complete a final review of the finished product? Without this review, he would not have known that the road slopes were extending onto the neighboring property (before the neighbor’s lawyer filed suit) or that the stream would flood the road (before it washed out).
  • What if our owner had paid the contractor the majority of the contract amount, because . . . "Well . . . It looks like it’s done?" The owner probably would have never seen the contractor again, and the owner would have been left with an incomplete project and out a bunch of money.
  • What if our owner had done some additional research on the contractor he hired? This was not just a freak occurrence by one particular contractor or a pattern? If the owner had not worked with this contractor before, he should have insisted on the contractor securing bonds to be certain that the project would be completed on time and in accordance with the plans. (For refresher information on what bonds do or how they work, read the Building Principles column, "Construction Contracting," in the May/June 2002 Camping Magazine.)

How Does This Apply to Camp?

Maybe you’re thinking, "So what? What does all of this have to do with me and my camp?" Let’s put it all into a camp context. What if this was your project that you brought back to us for review on June 1, just before camp opens? Could you afford to stop all traffic at the entrance to camp until August 1 because the road isn’t built according to the plan?

There are several morals of this story that you can take to the bank for camp:

  • By engaging an engineer to prepare a design, you are purchasing knowledge and skill of how all the project pieces work together.
  • By keeping your engineer on the job to monitor construction on your behalf, you can rest easier knowing that your contractor is building what you’re paying to have built.
  • With regular checks during construction, you will have the benefit of being better able to gage how far the contractor has progressed, how much he should be paid along the way, and whether the project is on schedule.

With all of the other responsibilities you manage preparing for, during, and after camp, why not let the folks who prepared the design help ensure that you get the project that goes with the design you paid for?

Michael Weeks, P.E., is a professional engineer with Camp Facilities Consulting, providing specialized study, design, permitting, and construction consultation services to the camp and conference center community. Camp personnel may contact him at 570-296-2765 or by e-mail at campfc@ptd.net.

Originally published in the 2005 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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