One of most important decisions you’ll make on that next construction project is who builds it. For a multi-million dollar project, this is the decision that will affect everything from the fit and finish of the space, how well the building stands the test of time, to how much stress you feel during construction. At the end of the day, every construction project consists of people working with people. With this in mind, only the right combination of skillsets and attitude will get your project to where you want it to be.

By skimming over the selection process, will you accidently hire a builder who:

  • Shoots from the hip each day instead of carefully planning the work in advance?
  • Brings trades to the table who don’t care about your schedule?
  • Lays every issue at your doorstep with the comment: “Let me know when you (or your designer) figure out a solution and we’ll tell you what it costs”.
  • Plays a “broker” role, pushing paper between the consultants and the trades and without ever truly leading the construction process?

This blog has been created to help you make better choices when it comes to hiring your next builder. Receiving written proposals will certainly shed some light on how one firm differs from another. While this is helpful, a written proposal will only give you half the story. I believe conducting interviews of each shortlisted proponent is an essential step – and the best way to protect yourself from entering a long-term contract that you wish you hadn’t.

The following are five questions I recommend you use in the interview process. You can mix them in with other, more questions related to your specific needs. With each question, I’ve also provided some context as to why these questions work and what they will reveal.

Question 1: Tell me about some of the problems and challenges you’ve faced on projects similar to ours. What lessons-learned did you take away from those experiences that will help you be more effective on our project?

Every project has issues and every experienced builder has learned hard lessons along the way. With this question, you are looking for a demeanor transparency and honesty. An obscure or defensive stance will give you insight on what you can expect from this builder during construction. An unwillingness to accept responsibility for mistakes made in the past will also be telling. An answer that clearly outlines situations where the builder would have loved “a do-over” will not only indicate that they have real-world experience in similar projects but also point to a learning culture – all things you want in a construction partner.

Question 2: Explain how you treat the planning process on your projects. What specific steps do you take to establish reliable timelines and ensure these timelines are kept to?

Here you want to receive a response that proves the builder goes beyond the limitations of a Master Schedule. In the real world of building, the Master Schedule is usually too detailed and complex to be digested at the site level and converted to a weekly plan of action. A competent builder will know exactly how to describe the layers of planning and communication required to make a construction project finish on time. In my books, an excellent answer will include tangible evidence that the builder is well-versed in what is known as “make ready” planning.

Question 3: What systems and processes do you have in place that will help our project team uncover issues early?

A blank stare from your interviewee on this one is not good. As mentioned above, every project has issues. Yours will be no different. Real stress happens (for everyone) when issues are discovered only at the last moment and there is no time to react. In these cases, work must stop until a solution is identified and communicated to the trades. When a solution is found, the site team has to scramble to ensure all the trades understand the changes that have been implemented, taking away from their day to day bandwidth needed to plan and lookahead. It quickly can cause your project to descend into constant firefighting. Put enough of these situations together and you can watch your schedule go out the window while the change orders pile up. What you want is a builder who sees the massive benefit of putting real energy into finding and eliminating issues before they become urgent. This is the builder who is prepared to spend hours pouring through the plans, and then working cooperatively with your designer to find and eliminate issues well before the work is happening on site. This is surprisingly hard work and it always pays off – for your project and the entire team. Final word: Try to come away from this question with a sense of whether the builder sitting in front of you is interested in eliminating change orders on your project or creating them.

Question 4: Providing specific examples, explain how you will communicate important information throughout the project. How and when will we receive information and project updates?

Spoiler Alert: The key to a smooth construction project is receiving timely decisions from a well-informed client. Ok – there is slightly more to it than this, but this is a key ingredient and falls into my top 5 factors that make projects successful (coming in a future blog). As the client, your stress levels are going to be inversely proportional to how well your builder communicates key project information to you. Communication goes up, stress goes down. This is because your stress is directly tied to not knowing what is going on out there on the jobsite. A competent builder will be able to articulate how they boil down the complexities of the project into manageable chunks of information that clients can effectively act on. You should come away from this question with more than: “We hold site meetings”. Without exaggeration, 80-90% of the issues that will arise on your project will be communication related (meaning there has been a missed opportunity to communicate important information at the right time). Press your interviewee to elaborate on this subject if you are not getting enough detail. If you are still left wondering if they have strong communication practices, you may want to keep looking for your builder.

Question 5: How will your firm create phenomenal results on our construction project?

This is a great, open-ended, wrap-up question if you haven’t come naturally to this subject during the interview. Any construction company worth their salt will be able to articulate the unique and specific combinations of strengths that allow them to produce consistent success on their sites. Be wary of high level, ambiguous, boring answers that sound like claims anyone would make. You are looking for a clear indication of what makes these individuals passionate about what they do and why they do it. Although large scale construction is a complex process, the firm behind the effort should be able to demonstrate a simple mindset. This part of the interview will help you ensure your builder’s organization is a cultural fit with yours.

The five questions above provide the ingredients for a deeper conversation during this critical process called “interviewing proponent builders”. Putting these questions to work during each interview, you can rest easy knowing you have empowered yourself to select a construction team that understands the relationship between planning and execution, will uncover issues early (reduces the number of change orders required), will communicate well with your team, will mesh seamlessly with your corporate philosophy, and deliver phenomenal results.

Sean Lundy is President and CEO of M.P. Lundy Construction, a commercial construction management firm based in Ottawa, Canada. He is passionate about creating high performing project teams and inspiring them to deliver exceptional results.