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Effective Planning for Contractor Materials

Earlier this year, contractor Bill Shaw found himself running to the lumberyard on several occasions. His company had employed a new framing crew for a residential job that included a fresh roofline and a front-porch addition, but the outfit failed to follow the material plan and burned through the lumber package quicker than expected. As a result, Shaw shuttled between the lumberyard and the jobsite just to keep everything moving forward. Could he have prepared his supplies differently to avoid this pitfall?

Investigate the work 

Taking time upfront to study the scale of a job — regardless of its size — provides a contractor with critical information about the material requirements. The best place to collect these details is the jobsite, where contractors should frequently walk the premises, speak to subcontractors and take as many photos as possible, says Tony Szak, regional business development manager for TCI Architects, Engineers, Contractor in La Crosse, Wisconsin. 

“It is good practice to bring in your lead carpenter to talk through the production,” he says. “Just because it is a small project doesn’t mean it will take less time to prepare.”

Effective communication with field personnel and a record of all existing conditions on the site can help guide a contractor when planning materials. This proactive approach also can uncover any problems such as rot damage or poor construction techniques that might ultimately affect the type and quantity of supplies needed.

“The goal is to discover these issues as soon as possible and update your material takeoff accordingly,” says Shaw, who founded the design-build company Remodelers of Houston and also served as the 2013 chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Remodelers.

Consider the calendar

Formulating supply lists at the beginning of a job enables a contractor to hone the schedule and set realistic expectations for both clients and trades. Shaw starts developing an outline during the design process and continually revisits the material plan as the job progresses.

“We adjust the material takeoff to reflect the construction drawings, and the production department visits the site to look at potential problems,” he says. “After the demolition, the material takeoff is updated again to reflect any issues that we discover when the walls and ceiling are opened up.”

Some items such as windows and doors tend to have longer lead times; therefore, establishing target dates for ordering these materials in particular can alleviate the stress of a possible oversight. “If you know the cabinets are six weeks out, that should be noted clearly on the schedule,” Szak says. “So if you miss the order date, you know you have time to manage the effects because you found other ways to make it up.”

Building additional days into the schedule for the delivery of certain materials, especially special orders, ensures the job can get back on track if a product proves to be out of stock. “You have to work around those delays and try to complete other tasks on the job until those items can be installed,” says Anthony Tripp, owner of Tripp Builders in Chicago.

Question the practicality

In some cases, the purchase of extra supplies makes sense if a contractor wants to guard against the possibility of damaged or misused items. When buying flooring or wall tiles, for example, Tripp typically orders 10 to 15 percent more to cover for any defective product as well as future repairs.

“If you ordered materials and did not order enough, you might have to wait for that product, which can delay the job and cost you money,” says Tripp, who advises maintaining a list of extra supplies so contractors can monitor their inventories and avoid overbuying the same materials for multiple jobs.

In most cases, though, ordering additional product remains undesirable unless a contractor knows for sure the supplies can be used on a concurrent job. Otherwise, the company could incur cost overruns for purchasing extra materials, and the supplies will just sit idle in a warehouse.

“Remember that every mistake costs you money,” Szak says. “Be sure to rely on information from your subcontractors and those in the field to get as much detail upfront so you don’t run into problems down the road.”

Seize the moment

Contractors must scrutinize a job from the outset and strive to secure the correct materials on time every time in order to maximize profitability. Some jobs, however, will continue to challenge even the finest preparation.

“If there is an instance when you do run short, be sure to make a list and grab it at the end of the day or the beginning of the day,” Szak says. “Leaving the site in the middle of the day will cause work delays; not only does it take someone off the project, but it takes that much more time getting back into a groove when you come back to the site.”

Despite a thorough lumber plan for a new roofline and front porch, Remodelers of Houston underestimated working with an unfamiliar framing crew, which illustrates both the importance and difficulty of managing materials for a job.

“Running a project without planning and preparation opens the door to a disaster in scheduling and meeting a client’s expectations,” Shaw says. “However, there are many factors that can change your best intentions and force you to adapt.”


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