Sustainable Home Building / A Collaborative Process

(Part 3 of a series: Quality is more than the absence of defects… it is the presence of value)

Written by Jay Gentry

This third and final blog in the Sustainable Home Building series addresses essential elements of the collaboration process, necessary to successfully design and build a high quality, high performing and sustainable home. The intent of the series is to help those who are considering building or remodeling a high quality and high performance home to make informed choices throughout the process, especially your choice of the right builder for your project.

Part 1 of the series addressed the continuum Code Compliant to High Performance. Part 2 addressed the continuums for both Workmanship to Craftsmanship, and Completed to Resolved. Both can be found at (

Part 3 explores the continuum from “Cooperation” on the left, referring to the minimum requirement for Quality Construction while on the right; “Collaboration” refers to the optimum. Basically:

  • Cooperation is the division of labor among participants in an activity where each person is responsible for achieving a portion of a shared goal
  • Collaboration is a coordinated process in which participants work together to create something new in support of achieving a shared vision 

Effective Communication is the Key

Ongoing communication among participants is required for any level of teamwork.  Effective communication during the design and building (or remodeling) of a high quality, high performing and sustainable home is dependent on the timing of that communication and the tools employed to drive and enable the process. Based on my experience and observation, I consider the following to represent best practices for effective communications throughout the design and construction process.

Timing of Communication

When the goal is a collaborative process, when you begin, how often you meet, and how quickly you can reach one another make a significant difference.

Early involvement of the contractor: In order to enjoy the benefits of collaboration it is important to have a qualified contractor involved as early as possible. Building or doing a major remodel has historically been approached something like a relay race. The homeowner works with an architect or designer through the planning process and then solicits bids from multiple contractors. As performance factors (energy efficiency, comfort, healthy indoor air) have become more important, the industry has moved toward a team approach as a best practice. For a full explanation see Tip #1 of my earlier blog on Choosing the Right Contractor here.

You can see from the graphics below that the achieving your vision is largely dependent on the alignment among three key stakeholders – Homeowner, Architect/Designer, and Builder.

You Want This


Not This

Regularly scheduled meetings: Collaboration requires periodic meetings of the team on a pre-agreed schedule – for multiple reasons:

  1. A pre-set meeting schedule helps keep a project moving forward while the alternative, arranging for meetings based on progress (planning set complete, budget ready for review, etc.) or when decisions are needed both allows and encourages delays and is a recipe for going more slowly – the whole industry is deadline driven, and a meeting schedule provides deadlines
  2. It is true that some meetings will wind up canceled because there is nothing that needs discussion, however it only takes moments to cancel a planned meeting but takes days or weeks arrange for an unscheduled one
  3. The meeting times are set but the list of attendees can vary depending on the stage of the project and the meeting agenda
  4. The meeting venue can be set based on the project and agenda (jobsite, architect or builder’s office, vendor showroom, client’s current home, wherever makes sense)
  5. If the homeowner or architect is remote, they can attend by telephone and, if appropriate, video sharing technology (FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Zoom, etc.)

Ongoing communication in real time: Today’s technology enables information flow and interaction 24/7, 365 days a year – a web-based communication platform provides several benefits that save time, enable collaboration and provide clarity:

  1. Messages, questions, documents and/or photographs can be posted at any time and from almost anywhere
  2. They can be specifically directed to groups, sub-groups, or individuals… with automatic email notification
  3. They can be responded to at anytime and from almost anywhere
  4. The process provides a documented string of comments regarding who, what, and when so that there is a record for reference and/or to minimize miscommunication or finger pointing

Scheduled reports from the jobsite: Once a project is in the construction phase, and particularly if the owner or architect is remote, best practices include a periodic (I recommend every Friday) update from the person supervising the jobsite – including text and pictures that keep the stakeholders informed of progress and next steps. This can be an email but I recommend that it be posted on the web-based communication platform.

Communication Tools

By “tools” I am referring to the elements, means, or processes by which you enable collaboration. These represent best practices, based on my experience and observations.

Pre-construction consulting agreement: As the industry has moved toward the collaborative team approach, described earlier, leading residential contractors have adopted the concept of a consulting agreement for involvement during the design process. The best of these agreements include:

  1. An hourly rate schedule (management and staff) for time spent working on the project in a consulting capacity (meetings, research on options and pricing, developing budgets and schedules, etc.)
  2. A cap on the investment based on a specific amount or a small percentage (0.5% to 1%) of the projected construction budget
  3. Tracking of fees associated with specific deliverables (planning and/or construction budgets for example) that are required as a part of the design and approval process – this tracking makes it possible to credit the fees for these deliverables to an eventual construction contract assuming the contractor is selected for construction of the project(Note: The expectation is that the relationship developed during the consulting phase will likely lead to the construction contract (in my experience, this is nearly always true), while allowing the homeowner the freedom to seek other bids and/or choose another contractor, if desired. It also protects the contractor from investing significant time without compensation. It is a win for all involved in that it enables everyone on the team to focus on the best outcome from the beginning.)

Budget and Schedule: While the architect or designer is most experienced in developing the design, it is the contractor who is most experienced in creating the budget and the associated schedules. The best practices related to budget and schedule include:

  1. Multiple iterations, based on increasingly accurate information, can help set priorities and guide decision making during the design process in order to keep the scope within budget realities – Preliminary cost analyses based on estimates; Planning budget based on unit pricing; Construction budget based on actual pricing, sub-contractor bids, and allowances; and Budget comparisons between iterations to provide insight into what is changing, why, and options for controlling increases
  2. Budgets should provide a summary spread sheet based on Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) categories for all applicable line items – line items should include cost estimates material, labor, and sub-contractor – and links, by line item, should be provided to a projected scope of work and detailed cost calculation
  3. Construction schedules (Gantt chart) should include the projected start week and duration for each construction activity, indicate overlaps as they occur, and identify the critical path items so that the schedule can be kept up to date should changes or delays occur
  4. Schedule of decisions: It is important to know well in advance when different components (tile, cabinets, windows, flooring, etc.) need to be selected in order to allow for lead times and stay on the construction schedule (you can’t install cabinets or windows until they arrive at the jobsite) – to enable the highest possible level of craftsmanship (you need to know the tile size and layout during rough plumbing in order to ensure that fixtures emerge from the tile according to plan rather than off center) – and avoid problems (the increased height of your wall mounted toilet might interfere with the operation of the already installed window)

Meeting Agendas: Printed agendas should be prepared and distributed (by posting and/or email) a few days prior to each scheduled or special meeting. Best practices include:

  1. Date, time, location, and expected attendees of the meeting
  2. Site Progress/Status, Decision Progress/Status, Issues/Opportunities Identified, Other Topics for Discussion
  3. After the meeting, I recommend that the Agenda be annotated with decisions and comments (in another color) and posted for clarity and record keeping

Web-based real time communications: The benefits of using this tool were described above under Timing of Communication but some specifics of the tool include:

  1. It should allow for controlled distribution to any or all for each posted entry
  2. Postings should trigger an email to the specific distribution list for the post
  3. It should allow attachment of photos, documents, videos, and/or links to information
  4. It should be possible to create discussion strings for different topics or issues so that all related comments are accessible in sequential order
  5. It should be accessible from any location, any time of day or night

More on the Quality Construction Continuum

It was mentioned at the beginning that this blog focuses on the continuum from Communication to Collaboration. If you would like to reference the two earlier blogs on the Quality Construction Continuum you can find the first blog here Blog 1 – High Performance and the second blog here
Blog 2 – Resolution and Craftsmanship