Communication key to a successful build

In many of my building-related articles during the course of this year, I have made mention of a number of elements that lead to a better understanding of the building process and which, hopefully, will result in less stress. More often than not, when things do go off plan it is due to the most important factor of all – lack of communication. Besides the fact that communication is our daily means of making sense of what is going on around us, it is astounding how small things can escalate into huge problems if communication is not clear or properly understood.

At the start of any building process, clarity of communication is critical, as it largely involves the owner and the architect engaging with each other at a very detailed level to produce a plan that becomes the foundation for the rest of the process. Ideas are shared, preferences discussed, practicalities considered and likes and dislikes negotiated. These discussions are generally vigorous, sometimes bordering on challenging when different opinions are tested. In the end however, once compromises have been made and decisions agreed, the next step in the process can begin. And this is where caution is advised.

Once an architectural plan has been finalised, the next round of conversation is with potential builders who will hopefully have a clear understanding of structural needs, based on the architect’s plan.

At this stage you will need to factor in budgets for the dreaded ‘PC List’ (Provisional Costs) which represents all the costs outside of the physical build itself e.g. flooring, tiles, light fittings, shower doors and panels, sanitary ware, security and home automation systems, air-conditioning, balustrades, swimming pool, fireplace, solar installations; the list is endless, but clear communication is critical in order to get a detailed quote.

So many iterations and choices will be made at this stage that we would recommend regular written communication between all parties involved to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. If this is not in place, you will feel the impact at a later stage when budgets get tested – and they always do.

One key consideration is that if you are building in an estate with defined building and design guidelines, make sure that your architect and builder are fully au fait with these as there is nothing worse than having to rework something at a later stage which does not comply with these stipulations.

As part of the negotiating process, make sure that you fully understand the builder’s contract before signing it, and particularly how the payment plan will work. In larger builds, the generally-accepted method is a monthly draw based on work completed in the previous month, which ties back to the agreed quotation.

If a builder proposes a hefty deposit and weekly draws, then we would suggest that you be very cautious, as it is often in cases like this that horror stories of lost deposits and vanishing builders emerge. It goes without saying that this contract must be documented and if in any doubt, get a legal-sanity check on it.

Once you have selected a builder (and hopefully have chosen one that has a track record, which you can verify with site visits and satisfied customers), communication needs to be formalised, documented and maintained. Our recommendation is to have weekly site meetings with the builder/project manager to identify any problems that may crop up during the build. Any concerns or issues coming out of these meetings must be documented and shared with all parties to avoid unnecessary or unpleasant comebacks at a later stage.

As many builders are notoriously bad at written communication, make sure you cover yourself as misunderstandings happen very easily when messaging is only verbal.

The further you go with the build, the more critical this communication becomes, as it will start impacting on all your personal choices and the selection of finishes. The less you have to compromise, the happier you will be with the end result. The level of detail you have to manage increases at the same rate as your funds decrease as a result of payments made to the builder and sub-contractors. Many builders are not admin-focused so the onus does fall on the owner to make detailed notes of everything and to keep tabs on the status of any items raised as concerns.

Once you get to the finishing stages of your build, you will find that everyone’s nightmare is the dreaded ‘snag list’ which, depending on the builder (be prepared for the infamous Hermanus disclaimer, ‘weather dependent’), could result in a protracted and frustrating extension of timelines. Make sure that you have negotiated an acceptable retention of funds, as trying to get service providers back on site once the last of the budget has been paid out can be more than a battle. Credible builders will walk the snag-list journey with their clients, as protracted as it may be. Others may not be that willing, so be aware of the potential pitfalls.