Communicating with Contractors

It's essential for subcontractors to feel more comfortable with your company.
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This month I thought I'd share a story about a current project that has hardly been perfect. It is an example of how sometimes everything doesn't just fall into place.

Our first meeting was just with the contractor, during which we presented our range of services. He liked our presentation and introduced us to the client and his wife. They liked what we offered and agreed to hire us to perform our Phase I design, engineering and pre-wiring scope of work.

At first the client was not particularly interested in full home control; his focus was the audio entertainment systems, background music system and the security cameras. We enrolled him in the idea of a Phase I scope that would cover him and/or a future owner in a full technology package, which he was very excited about. He made it clear that he wanted us to prepare his house and coordinate with the contractor and other trades so that he would have the option to install as little or as much of a control system that he, or a future owner, might choose.

As the job moved forward, the client began to see the advantages of a system that would combine the operation of all his house systems, and would simplify the operation, so he requested a proposal for a touchpanel control system. We gladly complied.

In the meantime, we started having little problems with the contractor. He would push us to make progress on the job prior to his or his other trades completing work on which we were dependant. We've also have had awkward exchanges with the contractor about a number of issues. He would tell us to do something a specific way and then later contradict himself. He would ask the same questions about our scope of work over and over again.

Months ago, during the preliminary design phase, we provided information regarding compatible systems by other trades, as we always do to insure compatibility and full interoperability. This included security alarm systems, HVAC control, pool control and others. We sent all of the pertinent data in the form of e-mails to the contractor, along with our standard "division of responsibility" document. We believed that we had laid the foundation for proper integration of all related systems.

Only recently the contractor informed us that the HVAC zoned system that was in the process of being installed was not equipped to work with a third-party control system. It turned out that the HVAC contractor had told him months ago that his system could only work with ours for an additional cost of over $15,000. Then the contractor told us that the security company who had pre-wired the alarm system, and was to install the security systems, was unwilling to consider any connection to any other systems for "insurance reasons." Apparently, the information we provided about compatible alarm panels was never forwarded to them.

As of this writing, the client has chosen not to have his HVAC system interfaced with the control system, but he feels that the advantages of having his security system being interfaced are important enough that he is willing to change security vendors. He has expressed his disappointment that the lack of teamwork and coordination between the various parties has left him with options that are less than what he expected.

One thing we learned from this experience is that it is not enough to send information about compatible subsystems and then assume that the contractor will forward it to the appropriate trades. Nor can we assume that the trades will let us know if there are any problems. We should have insisted on speaking directly to the security and HVAC vendors early to confirm that they completely understood what would be required for their system to be interoperable with our control system.

Perhaps we could have found a way to make the contractor feel more comfortable with us. If we had made more of an effort to be responsive to his requests and concerns, even when we didn't agree with their importance, maybe we would have had a more effective partner on this project instead of an obstacle.

David Epstein (davidepstein@integratingdesign.com) is president of SEi/Sound Solutions, in Santa Monica, California.

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