Close Me Out ... I'm Done
Somehow the term 'closeout documents' in the construction industry has become a four-letter word. Why do we have such a difficult time providing these documents and 'finishing the drill?'
How do you take care of collecting and submitting final closeout documents and creating and working off the punch list? The old adage that it takes 95% of your effort to finish out the last 5% of a project is alive and well. But why is that? Why is it so incredibly difficult to finish things? It's not just a construction problem.
At any given time, my mother had ten to fifteen open bottles of perfume sitting on her dresser, some of them ancient with only a few drops remaining. She had several unfinished sewing projects in various stages of completion lying around her sewing room, draped across chairs and tables. I am a self-admitted procrastinator, and I come by it honestly, obviously. Many of us are.
I briefly looked up psychological reasons why people don't finish things. While there was a myriad of reasons, my personal favorite was the one that made me chuckle when thinking about it as relating to my job: having too much fun and not wanting the fun to end. Believe me, as much as I enjoy my job at times, I can almost always think of something more fun to do than work, and I can certainly think of something more fun to do than prepare closeout documents. And for those who work in the private sector, obtaining payment for that last pay request, calculating a well-deserved financial bonus, and having a new project to charge costs to should be reason enough to want to finish a project. No, it's not because of having too much fun.
I also learned that psychologically, our brains all want closure. I probably inherently knew that, but seeing it in print, well, it just makes sense. How many times have we all woken up in the middle of the night, nagging thoughts of construction activities and to-do lists pinging through our grey matter? These thoughts have a voice, they want your attention, and they want it now, seeking some resolution, very much like most Owners' representatives.
I have also heard, and am guilty myself, of thinking and saying that I work better under pressure and that it helps me manage my time better. The reality is that it is not time that needs managing; it's us. We need to figure out how to manage ourselves better.
So I am going to ask again, how do you finish out a project? My answer is this: the same way you started it, with a plan and a schedule. When treated as a mini-project, the closeout process becomes something to celebrate rather than an obligation. It is no longer the tail end of an old project stuck like toilet paper on the bottom of your shoe trailing behind you. It is the beginning of a project and the fresh start of something new. And how do you set up your new project for success? You set it up the same way you set up every project; you make a plan, and you start early.
Effective communication is the most critical tool any construction professional should possess. To that end, you should make sure that you clearly understand your Owner's requirements for closeout deliverables and the intent for use. As an owner's representative, I do my best to clarify our specific requirements/requests during the design phase of the project, and again during the pre-construction meeting at the initial project kickoff. Still, I can assure you that no one pays much attention when talking about the closeout process in the pre-construction meeting. Even if they do, they won't remember what was said when the project achieves substantial or material completion many months later. That is why I recommend holding a closeout kickoff meeting about halfway through the project. Those who work with the Georgia State Finance and Investment Commission (GSFIC) should be familiar with the closeout kickoff meeting presentation. I am sure they look forward to it from the time of notification of the project award. The closeout kickoff meeting doesn't have to be a large formal event; however, it just needs to occur. If you want to make it a fiesta, though, please do. Just don't forget the margaritas and the tacos.
To prepare for the meeting, all project team members should review the construction documents to refresh themselves on what the Owner has asked for (because, quite truthfully, occasionally, the Owner is surprised to find out what they asked for). Sometimes the Owner has design standards for their facilities. In that case, it is also an excellent idea for all project team members to review those as well (because, quite truthfully, occasionally, the Owner is again surprised to find out what they have asked for).
The contractor, who will be submitting and logging the closeout submittals, should also make a submittal register for closeout documents, similar to the original submittal register. If creating the document simultaneously as the initial submittal register, I would advocate making it a separate log, partly because some of the closeout documents aren't in the specifications and won't be on the original log.
I would also recommend collecting as many closeout submittals as possible when requesting the regular submittals and 'filing' them until you start your mini-closeout project. A schedule should be prepared to list all activities associated with managing the closeout submittals, the submission and reviews related to them, and the punch list activities, particularly those that may be fairly involved and impactful on the Owner's daily operations. During the closeout meeting, it is important to review the submittal log, the schedule and to clarify the Owner's expectations for submission format for the closeout documents.
One of those nagging grey matter thoughts that I periodically toss about is that I will tie the submission of closeout documents to the initial 5% retainage release that is allowable at 50% complete. As an owner's representative, it sounds like a great idea to me! I have a feeling; however, there might be just the slightest bit of opposition from those on the other side of the table.
To address the punch list most effectively, handle it just like the closeout documents… prepare a plan and a schedule. However, before you ever get to the end of the project, minimizing the punch list's length is a fantastic idea. I don't mean you should take the architect out to lunch or dinner and become their buddy so that they only put the obvious items on the list. I suggest you should keep up with quality control throughout the entire project.
During many construction management interviews, I have listened while contractors have stated that their goal is 'no punch list.' Whenever I hear that my immediate thought is that they are setting unrealistic expectations for their project team, and when that occurs, they are setting everyone up for failure. I will add that often, a contractor's biggest hurdle is the Owner because we are out of their control, and, like it or not, last-minute changes sometimes make the punch list length out of the contractor's control. But minimizing the punch list is an attainable goal. So how does the team get set up for success in reducing the punch list?
I am sure it will come as no surprise, but I have an opinion on that! My suggestions are as follows:
- Immediately before a subcontractor begins work on-site, re-read the specifications and review all of the critical project details. In other words, re-familiarize yourself with the quality expectations for the project and clearly state these expectations to the subcontractor. Likely, the subcontractor foreman was not the person you performed the scope review with six months before the actual work began.
- On the first day that the subcontractor starts putting work in place, watch them. I don't mean pull up a 5-gallon bucket of sheetrock mud and scan Facebook and Instagram, or tell them stories of your weekend while they are trying to work. Please check the work as it is being installed, look at the material they are working with to ensure they comply with the specifications, check their work method, and check their quality of work, so that the contractor can make corrections while adhesives are still wet or before they get going too far in the wrong direction.
- Schedule weekly team quality walks. On several of our major projects, we do weekly quality walks. We check for contract document compliance, but also check for maintenance access, such as insuring that terminal unit access panels are not rendered inaccessible by conduit routings. Yes, I am well aware that BIM exists and is often utilized. However, there is always human error, and there is no substitute for good old-fashioned Jobsite walk-throughs. Sometimes, as much as some people want to stay at their computers all day, answering emails and reviewing electronic paperwork, some things just cannot be visualized without physically looking at them on-site. Besides, how else are you going to get your 20,000 steps in?
- For those that have that 'no punch list goal,' this is the part that you are familiar with…make corrections along the way! Please don't wait until the end of the job to fix all those things pointed out during construction. While this might seem logical, I can assure you that so many items remain on a list until the end of the project that would have been easier to correct along the way that become more difficult as the project progresses. (Perhaps I should re-think tying the closeout documents to the 5% retainage release and instead link the open items list to that retainage release!).
- As the project nears the end of construction and everyone begins dreading…I mean…thinking…about creating the punch list, the contractor should create a punch list mock-up room that is in ‘finished condition.’ This will allow the design professional and the Owner to identify the items they wish to see addressed. This exercise will go a long way towards effectively communicating everyone's expectations and working through any disparities between those expectations.
- And finally, when you are tracking the punch list to completion, it is very effective to post on the door of each room (using a QR code, piece of paper, or any tracking method) a list of all of the punch list items for that room. Also, include a way for each subcontractor to mark things off as completed so that the rest of the team can do a final review after completing all items.
I will add one more critical thought: do not be afraid to discuss with the Owner all punch list items where there is no solution or for which the contractor does not have a solid plan. A team approach and consensus are best for these punch list items, and the sooner discussed, the sooner resolved. A good example of this occurred on one of our projects: We had some less-than-ideal concrete finishing work placed on a large area of an exposed exterior concrete surface. After months of being told by the contractor that they could and would fix the concrete and bring it to an acceptable finish, we learned that this meant they would be coating the concrete. We found this out only after the contractor had performed several samples and created a very large sample mock-up from the best of these. This solution was unacceptable, and we reluctantly agreed to accept the originally placed concrete (for a deductive change order, of course). We were not in favor of the coating, partly because it looked like a coating and partly because we were concerned about long-term maintenance. In this instance, functionality took priority over aesthetics for the longevity of our project. Unfortunately, we are still saddled with several samples and a giant mock-up of a potentially permanently adhered coating, left for random passersby to quizzically ponder.
So how do you best perform punch list work? You make a plan, you create a schedule, you coordinate with all team members, you complete your job just like you said you would, you meet your deadlines, you manage yourself, and in doing so, you manage your work.
Why have I rambled for so long trying to explain the closeout process? Because it was fun and I didn't want it to end! But in all sincerity, please, please, don't be like me… don't procrastinate, and don't delay closing out your project. If it was fun and you didn't want it to end, then do a great job on quickly closing out the project so that your Owner's representative will want to work with you again, and you can have even more fun on the next one.
(If you want to learn more about the closeout process or to educate your staff, contact COAA to learn about the Owner Training Institute!)
Melanie is the Director of Construction for the University of Georgia in the Office of the University Architects for Facilities Planning. She provides oversight in managing the capital construction projects and major renovation projects at UGA.