What (average) professionals can learn from (better than average) builders

What (average) professionals can learn from (better than average) builders


Karen and I recently built a new home for our seachange on the coast. Well we had a builder build for us actually. No big deal for many I guess but it was for us not only because we have lived in the same home for 38 years but we have never built before.

the initial decision

Didn't really know what we wanted initially (at least I didn't) except a modern beach home that would also accommodate-and encourage- family and friends to drop in.

We soon learnt that making the decision to build was the easy part. What to build, when to build, how much to spend and who to build it for us were quite difficult and at times overwhelming decisions. We had no shortage of advice from family and friends-mostly helpful.

our first crack

We were originally attracted to a quality volume builder. We looked at their menu of designs and prices online (several times), visited their display homes (several times) and eventually found a design we (mostly) liked.

Meetings with various people in various roles from the building company followed, mostly to choose finishes and materials from selected offerings. We realised we could essentially choose from their initial offerings (representing the published prices of our chosen design), or "upgrade" if we wanted to better quality fittings & materials. We seemed to be picking the upgrade offerings and understandably the final price was starting to bear little resemblance to the original pricing ( "Jetstar" pricing?).

We received a breakdown of all the pricing line by line and what was included and what was included not in the build. When we started to have some doubts about the original design and discussed some possible changes in design it was apparent that changes:

a) were not really encouraged, and

b) if "allowed", were going to add significantly to the price and timeline.

Ultimately- and this is no reflection on the quality of this builder- we decided the designs offered weren't really going to satisfy our needs entirely. At our age we felt we really only had one crack at this and wanted to build a home we really liked with as few compromises as we could afford.

next crack: new builder and the value conversation

Six months down the track and we had to start all over but as it turned out those 6 months were far from wasted as the experience had made us focus much more on what we liked and what we didn't like.

This time we met with a local builder whom we didn't know (but knew of) and had seen their builds over many years. Our first (long) meeting was mostly all about why-whydo you want to build a new home?why now? why this many rooms? why us? etc. We also moved onto the whats-what are you trying to achieve? what do you like? whatdon't you like?

Then came the master of all what questions -what is my budget for this?

We had some questions of course- mainly the when questions (when will it be completed?), a few how (how will you construct this or that?) but I can’t remember us asking any who questions, such as who is going to be our project manager, who are the tradesmen working on our home, etc? Even though some of these who answers were volunteered by our builder we really didn't care who was working on our home so long as they produced the outcome we were anticipating.

feeling comfortable: mutual understanding

With no legal commitment but with a "good feeling" to go on (we hoped reciprocated by our builder), we proceeded to the next step which was some design drawings based on our initial value conversations and a general understanding of scope.

Karen and I were both very surprised as to how close the initial concept drawings came to what we wanted. The builder came up with some things we had not even considered but which he thought fitted in with what we are trying to achieve. We were grateful we spent a fair amount of time with the builder beforehand asking and answering many questions.

Our builder also showed us his gantt chart not just of our project but also the other projects they were working on so we could see where our project stood timewise compared to the others to allay any fears that our builder might be overstretched. A nice touch.

Off and running: terms agreed

The next phase as they say is history. Terms orally agreed to (including timing, price, payment terms, communication, etc), contracts signed, and demolition followed by construction.

Needless to say this was not a cost plus but a fixed fee contract. Sure there were processes for agreed variations and we had read all the horror stories about builders’ variations, but we were reasonably confident (hopeful?) that the considerable time spent up front with the builder would minimise the chances of any major variations and "misunderstandings".

We of course didn't know what our builder’s actual costs were-we couldn't care less-but we did know the price. (The price was higher than the original builder but was within our budget).We assumed the builder was making a profit on the build as the last thing we wanted was a builder under financial stress maybe having to cut corners, not engaging the best tradespeople-or worse still.

project management

Of course once construction started we wanted to see the finished product asap. We were interested in the progress and spent many weekends visiting the site and looking at the weekly photos our builder posted on an online portal for us to satisfy our curiosity.

We not only talked to our builder and our project manager when on site but also the tradespeople who were often working at weekends. We formed the opinion that each of them took great pride in their work, genuinely liked working for our builder (some have for many years) and were enthusiastic about our project.

Our builder and project manager kept us regularly informed as to progress, especially if there was a delay on anything of note, but otherwise we kept out of each others way.


Nothing ever goes according to plan exactly and as it turned out we did have a couple of variations to scope and price but our builder gave us plenty of forewarning, some options to consider and we were satisfied any price increases and change of scope were entirely justified-and needed.

Scope creep?

I don't know if there was additional scope creep although I do know there were several things we asked the builder to do and some other things our builder did voluntarily, that were not specifically included in the contract and which we were never charged for. Another nice touch

After Action Review

Our builder sought feedback from us at regular intervals as well as immediately prior to and after handover. If being picky there were a couple of minor issues but overwhelmingly we were absolutely ecstatic with our new home, the timeliness ( 1 week later than the initial date), the quality of the build and how we as customers were treated. So much so that last week we organised drinks and nibbles for our builder and his tradespeople and their partners to thank them sincerely for making our home a reality and to show them the finished product.

Would we recommend our builder? You betcha. Unreservedly for anyone valuing a quality custom build from someone who knows the ins and out of the local environment and "culture". Equally I understand that will not be important to everyone. After all value is subjective.

Lessons Learned For Professionals

So what you may ask has any of this got to do with a professional firm?

Much I think. What our experience with this builder showed us was:

  • the critical importance of a value conversation(s) upfront before any commitment by anyone and how asking the right questions showed us both how much our builder knew and how much our builder cared,
  • we were not price sensitive buyers-a mistake made by the volume builder-but we were value sensitive,
  • we wanted something tailored to our needs-not off the shelf-even if we didn't appreciate that at the beginning,
  • go with your gut feeling which came early on for us from a sense of trust and empathy,
  • regular communication of the things that really matter took away a lot of our anxiety,
  • going that extra mile and not "nickel and diming" us on everything additional added markedly to the trust factor,
  • we didn't care about our builders actual costs nor how many hours he or his tradespeople worked on the job.We agreed the price up front and the only time we cared about was turnaround and completion time.
  • outcomes and results trump inputs & activities every time from a customers perspective, and finally
  • if a builder can quote a fixed fee for building a custom designed house, surely all professionals can give a price up front for their work?


Again this whole experienced emphasised for me that value is truly subjective. Not everyone will like our new home-but we are not everyone. Neither are your customers.



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