The Element of Surprise

One of the most rewarding projects a design-build general contractor can take on is one in his own town and neighboring community. I have recently been able to complete a project just like this and was honored to start the project, as well as see it to completion.


Contractors don’t only take more pride in a project because it’s within their district, but they also take pride in knowing when people talk about the new construction. When contractors hear how “magnificent” or how “unique” it looks they can unequivocally say “I know, I worked on that project.”

We as contractors want to pour our hearts into every project, but the simple fact is local projects mean more. That doesn’t mean the local projects are easier. Every project has its ups and downs and every project deserves to be treated the same on the scale that it resides. The upcoming paragraphs are a few breakouts of the most recent unforeseen items that can hinder your next project. These are not catastrophic problems that shut a project down, but rather problems that can be worked through with proper communication, negotiation and understanding of the broad situation.

Before you or your neighboring stations start construction, please heed these warnings as these difficulties could be lingering within your construction project.

#1 Bad Dirt

Enough said, right? We all understand bad dirt. We have bad dirt in our yards, as we can never grow grass under trees. Due to these bare patches, we dump bags of lime every year into the yard and spread seed to ultimately have grass that never grows in certain spots. It’s all because of bad dirt. With the increased commercial special inspection requirements, dirt is constantly pulled off properties every day. Bad dirt out and good dirt in; seems simple. Not so fast. Since contractors can’t see the dirt underneath, the bad dirt cannot be quantified. Since it can’t be quantified, it can’t be calculated nor added to the budget. So, what do we do?

Most design-build general contractors will calculate an allowance for grading purposes just for this reason. The allowance should incorporate the known items above ground and a contingency plan for the unknown, underground items. This contingency could be upwards of 10 percent of the grading price but never lower than five percent, depending on the surrounding environment. On your next project, ask your design-build general contractor what they have included for bad dirt.

#2 Low Water Pressure

Again, enough said, right? We all understand low water pressure. If you have a well you likely don’t have much over 10 gallons per minute, unless you live in the mountains. Ten gallons per minute means only two showers per hour and make them short. One of the hardest parts when dealing with rural fire stations is low water pressure. Since stations are building for the future and adding bedrooms to allow the option for full time staff, sprinklers are required for safety and code reasons. Sprinklers take water and low water pressure means holding pressure tanks; sometimes big holding pressure tanks. Recently, I’ve seen tanks range from 50 to 450 gallons that when the tank no longer fits within the confines of its space, something has to give. This is a prime example of considerable communication between the client and contractor. A quality and respectful relationship between the two entities will ultimately lead to a successful solution to the circumstance. 

#3 Larger Than Life Septic Field

If you have ever seen a septic system installed, you may have said to yourself: “we will never fill that up in my lifetime” and you would be true. Systems are designed, just like buildings, to be 50-years plus, and if you are partnering with the same septic system for 50 years, you have done a remarkable task. To coincide with bad dirt, septic systems get larger the worse the dirt is and finding good dirt might mean pumping uphill to find quality soils. Of course, pumping requires power and power is more expensive than gravity. Again, another unforeseen matter within the construction project that can only be resolved with a contingency plan of monetary backing. Ask your contractor about the last five systems installed that fit your station’s qualifications and find the price range in which they were installed. Keep these numbers in mind and have a backup plan if your project costs start to increase. 

#4 Bad Weather

The always dreaded “wet summer” or the location where the wind always blows 25 mph. Sometimes it feels like we should build a tent over our projects, so we can work when it rains. Ironically, this is exactly what my eight-year-old said about the baseball field during the summer, and in both cases it’s not possible. Bad weather is going to happen and when it does it will slow your project significantly. A rock-solid date of completion is hard to satisfy when working in the rain is impossible to do. Understand that weather is only a stumbling block and will not remain the hold up for the entire project. You will get done and harping on the conditions is only going to prolong your frustrations. Ask your contractor what the next step is in the process and feel confident they are doing everything in their power to push the project forward.

#5 Scope Gap

The worst of the worst. The “he said, she said” game or the “I thought you had it.” This is a project’s worst nightmare and simply a conversation that can be avoided if proper communication transpires. Some of the most common scope gaps between clients and contractors are:

  1. Furniture/appliances — anything that falls out of the building if hypothetically turned upside down
  2. Computer wiring — I’m not your IT specialist so have that team of people take care of your internal needs as they know your needs better than I
  3. Special signage — labeling of offices for certain members of your staff

Ask these questions to your design-build general contractor and have them explain their position on buying these items for you. Read your Project Exclusions and understand why they are written. Most design-build contactors will willingly include these items, under special request. 

Overall, projects that are detailed in scope and are communicated properly will go smooth, but if careful assessment is not taken from past experiences, the unforeseen needs of a project could have your fire station holding a much larger bag than expected; a bag full of bills. A quality contractor that makes their living working with emergency service clients doesn’t want anyone strapped to a larger loan that is a product of poor communication. Ask your design-build general contractor their opinion of the most common elements of surprise. Once they give you the answer you can prepare for those situations and when they come up you will be ready.

Goosie Kennedy is a Project Manager for D. R. Reynolds Company, Inc., a Design-Build General Contractor

Goosie Kennedy is a Project Manager for D.R. Reynolds Company, Inc., a Design-Build General Contractor.

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