Hard knocks

Don’t let your hardscape projects suffer by neglecting these five details.

One of the things I enjoy most about hardscaping is taking all the ideas in my head and turning them into reality for my client. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to turn design drawings into finished spaces, and have made five notable observations of commonly neglected areas on a hardsdcape project.

These items are deliberately subjective to help make an immediate impact in the safety, performance and profitability of your company. Share this list with your entire team and encourage their feedback and suggestions.

#5 Work-flow plan. Every hardscape project offers challenges when it comes to moving trucks, equipment, people and materials on the site. Consideration must be given for dumpsters, Porta-Potty rentals, large equipment and much more. Additionally, many project sites are small, have limited parking, limited access and even temperamental neighbors who are just waiting for you to make a mistake. Creating a work-flow plan will help you overcome these challenges and ensure a project runs efficiently.

A work-flow plan is a combination of a material list and a written scope of work, broken down for every day the project is under construction. Done correctly, this plan will dramatically improve profitability by breaking down large projects into a list of sequential operations. The work-flow plan is a living document that gets updated daily to reflect changes as work progresses.

To create a work-flow plan, begin by walking through the project in your mind. Imagine wheelbarrows moving material, masons chipping stone, concrete trucks arriving, dump containers filling up and more. In your mind’s eye, you’ll begin to see the logical order in which all construction activities need to progress. Continue by documenting all material deliveries, subcontractors, equipment needs and staging locations. A plan like this takes time to put together but goes a long way to ensure that you won’t have valuable resources (labor, time, equipment) being wasted.

#4Cleanliness. A hardscape job can be lengthy, loud and dirty, but that does not mean that getting from start to finish has to be a miserable experience for your client, or the neighbors.

As leaders in our company, we are not only trying to complete a project on time and on budget, we are also marketing our company to the surrounding neighborhood. The best way to begin doing this is to simply show respect for the look and cleanliness of the project site.

Managing site cleanliness begins by explaining to the client how long the project will take and how much dust, noise and trash will be generated by construction activities. Be sure to have a plan in place that assigns responsibility to your crew leader for making sure small trash is picked up and removed from the site on a daily basis.

All tools and equipment should be neatly stored in a designated area and in a manner that cannot pose a threat to children.

Don’t leave cleanup until the very end of the day. Unless you welcome visits from the local code enforcement department, a crew member should be assigned to keep the road and driveway free of loose dirt or debris at all times. Minimize dust by lightly misting the area with a hose. Airborne dust makes a mess on cars, windows, siding, plant material and nearly everything else it comes in contact with. So if you really want to earn more business and land valuable referrals, you’ll have to be respectful of the impact your work has on everyone in a community.

The job site should be immaculate, both during and after construction. At Sarros Landscaping, we contract with a pressure washing company to clean the street, driveway and any other areas that were impacted by the construction process. It’s a very small price to absorb to leave the area looking better than when we arrived. Consider giving car wash gift certificates as a way of thanking the client who had to park her car in the street while the project was under construction. Remember that these small gestures go a long way to earn trust and demonstrate your value to the client.

#3 Communication. Nearly 90 percent of stress, headaches, problems and “emergencies” are preventable in the presence of great communication. I see situations where clients, contractors, vendors, neighbors and employees are all frustrated and feeling deflated because no one is on the same page.

Communication is a two-part process: speaking and listening. Listening is the most important part. From the moment you first meet with a client, your ears should be open and you should be documenting the conversation. When a proposal is submitted, it should clearly outline the scope of work including sizes, shapes, colors and styles. If you agree to do something extra or for free, then include it in the proposal with a zero dollar line item. It can sometimes be several weeks, or even months, between the time a project is proposed and the time actual construction begins and having a detailed proposal will ensure that nothing is missed.

The best way to improve communication is to write a communication policy that outlines your plan to exchange information between clients, vendors and employees. For example, when handling potential clients who have expressed an interest in your services, you may want to create a new client communication policy that defines what steps should be taken in process.

#2 The “small stuff.” You don’t have to be detailed oriented to be a hardscape contractor, but you better have someone on your team that is. In the presence of time constraints and a hectic schedule, a contractor can be tempted to overlook a sloppy cut, misplaced stone or other small detail. It’s our job as leaders to build a company that places value in excellence, where each team member recognizes the importance of quality.

Attention to detail is a reflection on the leadership of the company. If you don’t care, then no one else will, either. If your employees see you throwing things around and being sloppy, then they will do the same thing. Conversely, when employees see that you pay attention to the small details, they will begin to do likewise.

Your job as a leader is to train your crews to take time and step back from their work to evaluate it. Be sure to walk the site several times each day. A worker building a stone wall or laying a paver patio has a different perspective than a foreman or client who is standing at a distance and seeing the pattern develop.

Upon completion of the project, encourage the client to continue to inspect the work and invite them to bring any possible mistakes to your attention. A final walk-through is not the last opportunity for a client to find your mistakes.

#1 Safety. You don’t have to look far to see jobs where workers have no eye protection, hearing protection, work boots, gloves and more. It’s one of the most overlooked and undervalued parts of our business despite statistics that clearly show the abundance of injuries in our industry. Due to the physical demands of our work, the nature of most injuries are generally very serious and yet, in the same breath, they are entirely preventable.

There is a wealth of online resources that make written safety guidelines and policies available for small-business owners. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. At a bare minimum, every company should have a documented safety policy specific to the work conditions of each employee class (e.g., laborer, foreman, operator, receptionist). No employee should be allowed on a job site without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

Imagine someone calling your house to tell your spouse and children that you just died because a skid-steer ran over you while you were texting on a job site (true story). Look folks, the work we do is incredibly beautiful and rewarding, it is also very dangerous. We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent or comfortable. Job site vigilance is a must, and having a written policy will dramatically reduce your risk for accidents.

The author is president of Sarros Landscaping in Cumming, Ga. He can be reached at psarros@giemedia.com.

For more safety information, a PPE handbook can be found by visiting OSHA’s website: http://1.usa.gov/zni53K.

February 2012
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