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May, 2007

Building by the Numbers

For builders and material dealers, real profit always comes from proper preparation and improvement.

By Gary Katz

I’ve written a whole book on efficient techniques for custom finish work, and you might think that’s what this article is going to be about. But it’s not.

The real money in construction is always made before any tools are pulled out of a truck, before a crew arrives on the job, and before any material is delivered to a job site. Real profits stem from being organized and prepared, and that means ordering your material without making errors.

Few of us are perfect when it comes to organization; most builders and distributors I know are frequently overwhelmed by paperwork, phone calls, or putting out fires. This holds true for dealers' installed sales divisions, too. (Many of them haven’t realized that spending a little more time on preparation is a good "fire-prevention” policy.) Oddly enough, this is where both builders and distributors can learn a lesson from finish carpenters.

For the high-end work I do, every mortise is critical, every miter is important, and every wall of well-installed wainscoting means another happy customer—and potentially more work.

A combination of speed and quality (and neatness!) is key to succeeding in my business. That’s why I use templates and jigs and automated systems. And the first step I take on any new job is right to the front door.

Productive Bids and Orders

Here’s a tip I’ve learned from working on commercial jobs: When you’re taking off a set of plans, if the house has more than 10 windows, I number every one of them. I always start my numbering at the front door and then move to my right. I number the exterior doors, the windows, and the interior doors, too. I use a red pencil and write directly on the plans. I don’t try anymore to count how many 2/8 left-hand, 2/8 right-hand, 2/6 right-hand, 2/6 left-hand, doors there are on my fingers!

And I use colored pencils to mark similar-sized doors and windows, so it’s easy to understand the plans at a glance.

Once I’ve numbered each and every window and door—including any swinging doors, sliders, bi-folds and arched doorways—it’s time to start a spreadsheet list on the computer.

A spreadsheet is the single most important jig I use, and I use a lot of them for estimates and bids, for change orders, and for billing. I throw together a spreadsheet much as I would throw together a router template. I do this any time I have to create a list and total some numbers since I want my list and numbers to fit my job like a latch mortise.

If you’re not using spreadsheets yet, take the next few days off of work and attend a computer class. You’ll never regret it, and it will be the best investment you can make.

A spreadsheet can be as simple as this list of interior doors. When you’re working with a list like this, it’s tough to make a mistake on handing or custom jamb width; you won’t end up with a door that goes to a closet double-bored for a passage lock and a privacy turn knob.

Adding columns to your spreadsheets for material cost and labor costs will also produce a detailed bid, as well as track costs and changes throughout construction. More than any other tool, spreadsheets provide small builders with job control. You can use similar documents for windows and exterior doors, too.

In the same way that router templates can be re-used on future jobs, a spreadsheet pays off long after a job is finished. These job-specific files are useful for organizing new jobs, too. At the very least, current pricing can be used to ballpark future bids and save valuable office time, which provides a large-business bonus for small contractors. The payoff in fewer phone quotes is valuable to material sales staff, too.

Produce Every Detail

While walking the plans during the bidding phase, and later at the job site once construction has started, contractors can profit by making notes for all finish flooring elevations right on the plans. That means exterior units will be installed correctly the first time. Windows and exterior doors must be ordered prior to framing—but before ordering interior finish material, check every rough opening: For pre-hung doors, check light switches against floor plans; doublecheck wall conditions for additional sheathing, and note wide jambs and jamb extension sizes at each door number. Include these notes on follow-up communications with your sales person, so that each window or door is ordered properly. While ordering the pre-hungs, measure all arches and special-order trim, too, so that the complete finish package is available at the start of work.

Productive Job Sites

Numbered door and window schedules and order forms are effective job site tools for both builders and material dealers. Used properly, these lists cut down on confused orders and follow-up phone calls. They also speed up installation time and reduce rework.

Follow another lead from the commercial material dealers industry: Number every item that is shipped to the job site to be sure the job order is complete when it ships. Numbering windows, doors, and hardware also ensures that everything ends up in the opening where it belongs—so that a builder’s crew won’t install a special order "near-the-floor window with tempered glass” in an opening 3 ft. off the floor, or a custom egress unit in a living room instead of the bedroom where it’s needed.

Productive Material Dealers

Builders, and many of the dealers I’ve met, aren’t the best when it comes to organization. Many of them believe they can’t do any better, and that after years of developing routines, there’s little room for improvement. Phooey!

There’s always room for improvement since improvement is where real profits are made. I’m a strong proponent of continuing education programs at local lumberyards. I think our industry needs to take responsibility for educating itself and for improving our reputation. That’s the best way to ensure customer loyalty and healthy profits. Part of our continuing education should include business classes for contractors and sales staff that show how to improve office organization, how to develop better paperwork systems, and how to use spreadsheets.

These improvements will streamline material installation, too. Ultimately, they’ll save time on job sites and reduce construction costs and delays, both of which, as the market tightens, will become increasingly important. And for readers who expected to learn more about production finish work, here’s a few tips that have always made me money:

  • Scatter all doors and windows before installing the first one.
  • Cut all long casing legs and large window packages before cutting shorter head casings.
  • Scatter all casing before installing any of it.
  • Use cut lists for baseboard, chair rail, and crown.
  • Scatter all hardware to every opening before installing anything.

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