August 8, 2023

How to Address Change

My current renovation has not been easy to say the least. What was supposed to be a relatively straightforward kitchen and first floor renovation has turned into a much larger project with a far greater impact to scope, budget, and schedule. All of this started when we were asked to take a look at a leak that was coming through the first floor ceiling. We opened things up, and the project has continued to spiral since then. What we have found is that two additions were added without structural design and all of the roof and window flashing details were done incorrectly. The worst part is that this area of the home is stucco, so no one had any idea how badly it was leaking until we started peeling things back.

This blog is not intended to dig into the specifics of this project, but rather delve into how I have handled these conversations. How I engage with the customer, designers, and subcontractors to ensure that we are all on the same page and protected. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but especially not when the bad news continues to roll. 

First up, I think that it is critical to wait until you have a grasp on the overall impact of your findings before bringing it to anyone's attention. To reach out to every single person involved with the project every time you find something abnormal just heightens everyone's anxiety and offers little value or productivity. I do my best to peel back the area within my scope to gauge how extensive the issue may be and formulate a hypothetical best and worst case scenario with which you can approach the customers. I also try to address the situation from both practical and emotional vantage points. What would you do if it were your house? How much liability will I incur as soon as I touch this?  Offer options when options are available and draw a hard line when they are not. Remember, this is an emotional experience for customers as well as having heavy financial implications. Be firm yet compassionate.

Once you wrap your head around what is actually happening, you have engaged the help of your professional network, you have developed a best and worst case scenario, and created some options for moving forward, it is time to have the conversation with others involved with the project. In my instance, I spoke to the designers first and asked them if they wanted to be included in the conversations with the customers regarding our findings. It is not a terrible idea to have some idea as to cost at this point as well. Simply an order of magnitude should be sufficient. If we go with option A you are looking at $15-20,000.00, and option B could be double that, but we will not know until we devise an actual plan. I am not going to dig into the change order process and the legalities of such. You must do what works best for you and your business. 

Once we choose a path forward, I approach the added scope through the most minimally invasive means possible. Meaning if there are potential opportunities to remediate or fix what is there, I will explore that path prior to suggesting the most expensive or involved path which can often require starting over completely. We may end up eventually going with the extreme option, but generally I like to move ahead delicately and gingerly. It is critical to keep your customers in the loop at this point. Ensure they understand what you are finding, the options to move forward, the time it is taking, and how much it is costing them. I continue to move ahead (or backwards) engaging my subs, engineers, and designers, to ensure that we are all on the same page and not making decisions that impede the overall success of the project and design. 

It is imperative that your subs are involved with this aspect of the projects. For example I have already had my roofer and plumber to the job twice to reassess our options, discuss what we will own through scope, and ensure that we know the best path moving forward. This is more work for them, but in the end I want to protect them, protect myself, protect my customers, and ensure that nothing is being missed or done that will affect subsequent trades or processes. You have to ensure that you are not only fixing the problems, but protecting yourselves from issues outside of your scope or immediate work area that may affect what you are fixing. For example, it is amazing that we are fixing the roof leaks, but what if the windows above that roof are improperly flashed. If we do not account for this or address this with the customer, we will own that leak on the back end. That is a very scary and incredibly expensive thought. 

While continuing to uncover unforeseen issues, you should properly document them with the team and your customers. This is why it is so important to have a comprehensive and deliberate scope of work from the get go. I personally prefer to have the actual conversation with the customers on-site in person. You can follow up with an email to get things in writing if need be, but face to face is the way to go when laying the bad news on them. You can properly convey your concerns with no discrepancy of emotions that can be prevalent when communicating via email, text message, or even on the phone. Your customers can first hand witness the issues, discuss the potential fixes, and elect how to proceed. Trust me, this would be easier to do via email, but in my opinion that is not the right move. Again, this is an emotional experience for your clients and you need to treat them with empathy, ensuring it is not simply a transactional experience. 

I am not sure why we always make a mountain out of a molehill when we are forced to have these conversations, but my suggestion would be to have all of your ducks in a row prior to sitting down in person. Approaching your customers with a problem that lacks a solution or at least an idea of how to progress seems to provide little if any value. I can reach out to my customers to let them know that their roof is leaking and the roofer needs to come see what it takes to fix it, but I would rather meet with my roofer prior to having that conversation. Then the conversation has a lot more information from which to base your or their decision. 

“We realized that this specific leak is coming in from the lack of step flashing. In order to do this right we must remove the shingles against the house, remove the adjacent siding, install the step flashing, new shingles, counterflashing, and replace the siding. Your roof appears to be in decent shape otherwise, so we could potentially limit the disturbance of the repair to that area but we cannot guarantee it is not leaking anywhere else. If you are more comfortable tearing off this entire section and redoing it, we can do that as well. This will guarantee there are no leaks in this area. Here is the ballpark for both options, and I told the roofer we would let him know what we want to do by Tuesday.”

In the above example the customers are provided with information describing the problem, the possible solutions, the costs, and the pro’s and con’s of each option. We have protected ourselves, protected our subs, and protected our customers by providing them with all of the information they need to make the best informed decision for them. All of this being said, your plans and ideas may not work once you continue your selective demolition or progress further into the project, but as long as you continue to communicate with everyone involved and ensure your customers are a part of the solution and decision making process, this is nothing to be afraid of or dread. I understand that is easier said than done, and I continue to dread these conversations myself, but each time they get a little easier and less stressful. I learn that I do not know everything, I am doing my best, and each project is completely unique to me and my team. As long as I am fair, diligent, and communicative you can find a solution to any problem. That solution may not be the original plan or design. It may possess certain compromises, but as long as you make it to “the end” with everyone on board, it is a solution nonetheless.

- Tyler Grace