Woodworker's Central
Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 10/20/97
Job Management - An Overview: by John Wiant

In three parts:
1) What is the Architectural Woodwork Industry?
2) What is the job of a Project Manager?
3) How can any woodworker benefit by developing the skills of a project manager?

1) The Architectural Woodwork Industry has many meanings, however, I only want to deal with the 'custom' woodwork aspects of it.

Architects (or interior designers) design architectural woodwork for two groups:

a. Residential customers (homeowners).
b. Commercial customers (business people, - frequently owners and tenants in office buildings, restaurants, shopping malls, etc.)

The industry provides products and services to the people that need custom woodworking items. The items are nearly always both aesthetic and functional; they look good and actually do something.

The examples of the work provided by those in the industry are all around anyone who has ever been in any city. Just walk into the lobby of three or four buildings, and look at the walls and the front desk. Do you see any wood? Chances are some General Contractor had their own carpenters buy and install those wooden items, until it required special skills and/or could not be purchased; then it had to be custom made.

In most cities there are several companies that do nothing else but make custom items for these clients. The craftspeople in the shops that build these items work in many materials, and almost always build from blue prints provided to them. They work in shops that are usually nicely equipped and most of their training occurs on the job.

2) The job called Project Manager consists of wearing lots of hats and is slightly different in every company. The primary function of this position is to define the items that need to be produced in ways the craftspeople can understand

The research needed for every single item to be built quickly and profitably is often slightly overwhelming. The project manager is the "answer man" who is there to get the answers - ideally before the craftsperson ever sees the drawings.

Here is a brief summary of the process a project goes through in order to make the job ON TIME and WITHIN BUDGET, which is everyone's goal:

A. The estimator looks at the blue prints for the entire space (such as the tenth floor of an office building, where some lawyers are ready to move into) and, with the help of the General Contractor, identifies the custom millwork items. The estimate for these items creates our "bid" and one big price tag (maybe $5,000 or maybe $500,000).

B. We haggle. The contractor talks us down - or not - and we may get the job - or not. If /when we get the job, it is now fun to discuss the schedule. (You want it WHEN? :-).

C. The project folder is turned over to the project manager with a "good luck" sort of hand off. It feels like becoming a head coach of a new team - every time. The blue prints that come with the folder show little 1/8" scale drawings of what might be woodworking stuff, and here thus we start.

D. We do Shop drawings that are much larger scale drawings with a lot more detail and plenty of questions and "assumed to be OK" methods of construction.

E. These shop drawings get submitted to the contractor for approval. The contractor reviews these drawings for things like: are all the items the estimator said he'd include on the drawings (for "scope")? And do they want any blocking in the walls? Etc.

Then the contractor sends the drawings to the Architect or the original designers of the woodworking items (often called Millwork) and these are the people who customarily "approve" the drawings. They get out red pens and scribble on the drawings with lots of silly comments, and usually say things like "glue in shop" even if they have no idea if the thing will fit in the elevator or not.

F. We get the "approved" drawings back and the clock starts. Now we have between one and eight weeks to get the drawings into the shop and everything built, finished, shipped, and installed. To get the drawings into the shop is easier said than done. Frequently the drawings need to be revised, and there are many other mini -research projects that slow this down.

Having been a cabinetmaker for several years, I can see at a glance most of the questions the "guys on the bench" are going to ask. Since there is nothing worse than the shop guys standing around waiting for answers, (or for drawings, materials, etc.) I try to insure our ducks are in a row.

G. Meanwhile, there are many related things that need to happen right away which all relate to defining the project. These are: ordering special materials (especially those "long lead items" that take weeks to arrive), getting field dimensions (where are the walls - really?), and clarifying some things the Architect (or contractor or customer) - could reject.

Here are some classic examples of things that go wrong:

A shop drawing shows a credenza in the president's office of the fourteenth floor. The materials of this unit are not specified on the architectural drawings, and were not questioned on the shop drawings either. The Architect approved the drawing without noticing this oversight. The project manager calls the contractor for the answer, and he says, "Well, the Architect is out of town, but I think it will be the same crotch mahogany as the desk." This can be an expensive answer, so I go back to our estimator and ask him how much money he allowed for this item. He says he put $xyz on it - so its covered. Now, I need to order the crotch mahogany panels right away, so I order enough to do the credenza as well. We need to wait three to five weeks for the panels to arrive, so I have 'plenty of time' to cancel this order or to modify it if needed.

I go to the field, and discover that this wall to wall credenza fits in a space five feet wider than the drawings show, so I call the contractor, who calls the Architect. We decide to simply make the credenza wider, with three extra doors, and some extra drawers, and a much longer top. I call the people laying up the crotch mahogany and find out the top can't be that long without a joint because the veneer flitch (bundle of veneers from the same log) is only 10' long. I call the contractor, and so on.

Guess what, three weeks just went by. Now I can guarantee this unit will be late, and the response is, "I don't want to hear it!"

H. Finally, the drawings go into the shop, complete with the field dimensions and all the materials in the shop or on the way. The cabinetmaker starts doing lay-outs and cut lists, and begins making parts. Suddenly one of the items has an apparent conflict or a question the shop foreman can't (or won't) answer. I go into the shop to find that reality has once again reared its ugly head, and there is something none of us has anticipated. For example: There may be a space designed for a computer screen to fit beneath a desk surface and there may not be sufficient space to do this. One shift might change one dimension, and yet another may change several dimensions.

I. Now there are several urgent things I need to do if I haven't done so already. Any wood finishes that get stained and/or lacquered ("stain grade" items) must have an approved finish sample to show our finisher. Any materials that are supposed to arrive probably won't if I don't call to check the status of the order. Any field dimensions which were not previously available will now need to be taken (often with templates at curved walls, etc.) in order to insure we don't slow down progress at the shop end.

Simultaneous with the above tasks, the project manager must:

1. Review shop drawings and architectural drawings for other projects that are about to start.
2. Send off other submittals for the other new projects (plastic laminate samples, finish samples, specifications for hardware, etc. )
3. Answer questions for the contractors, estimators, Architects, cabinetmakers, shop foreman, and "the boss" about anything technical and everything controversial.
4. Take field dimensions and templates at multiple projects.
5. Actually produce some of the shop drawings.
6. Send off letters, schedules, requests for information (RFIs), and various clarifications.
7. Locate specialty items and submit for approval and/or order them.
8. Inspect some of the complex items in the shop as the construction starts, to insure things are going well.
9. Attend meetings that help to schedule manpower use in the shop and/or in the field (where carpenters install our completed items).
10. Visit sites that have installations on-going, to insure the quality and timing are good.
11. Document if/when the contractor is responsible for delays or has caused a proposal for a change order. (A change order is essentially a request for more money and often requires more time as well.)
12. Process any change orders requested by the customer; add an item to the original scope of work, and try to get it done right away. This often happens when a tenant sees the space needs a few extra items they did not originally foresee.
13. Compare shop drawings to architectural drawings and specifications to look for conflicts.
14. Draw and/or educate all involved - about details to resolve any really challenging areas. Examples are lobby-paneling details at corners and transitions of one material to another (maybe a Corian top with a solid wood edge, etc.)

J. Most projects consist of several items that need to be installed over the span of weeks. Once the installation process starts, the General contractor wants the other sub contractors to magically coordinate with our installers. So if the carpet isn't already installed, or the painter hasn't painted the area of our millwork, we have all sorts of complaining to deal with.

K. At the end of the job, we get a "punch list" that identifies all the things the owner/Architects/General Contractor think we should repair or do over. Often this is a minor thing the painter can touch up but it is major pressure because they still have our money.

L. Following most successful projects the average General Contractor will call our estimator back to bid more projects, and the whole process starts over.

Sometimes, a well-off tenant will be so impressed with the woodwork in his/her new office; we will get a request to work directly with that person (or the designer working with this person) on a residential project. Some of these can be worth a contract of up to $200,000 in custom woodworking.

3) How can any woodworker benefit by developing the skills of a Project Manager?

The primary skills outlined above are:

*Visualizing the completed items.

Lets take this one at a time, and use examples of these skills in the context of a one-item project. Let's say I am trying to build a fireplace mantel for myself in my own house. I start sketching and quickly decide to find something already designed (in a book or a magazine). I find a design and show it to my girlfriend and she says, "Yes, but I'd like more decorations and I want it in an orange color - not painted."

Swell. I need to now locate some catalogs of trims and things to apply that are not only "decorations" but I also need to find out what she means by orange. I get out to the local hardwood suppliers and find there are cherry, mahogany, padauk, pear wood, redwood, cedar, and maybe even pine or something with an orange finish on it.

I also need to consider the material of the "decorations" though, because I'm not interested in learning to carve just because those may not be available in "orange".

So, here we are clarifying away. I decide not to ask my girlfriend any more questions, although I know there is tremendous risk in this decision. :-)

Soon, I anticipate that I better start looking at my brick fireplace and the relationship of the walls and floor around that. As I measure and sketch these, I also notice there is an air duct nearby and an electrical outlet which I need to consider. I also thought it might be nice to find out if the brick is level and plumb; it is not.

So now I know the mantel has some limitations that need to be incorporated into the design. Pretty soon I'm doing some serious head scratching about the methods to consider for attaching it to the wall - regardless of the design. This leads me to think about moving the ductwork and the electrical outlet, until my girlfriend walks by and says "Forget about it!"

Now I suspect the fluted trim on the front (vertical trim pieces) require a router, so I call about that trim and its availability in "orange". Not happening. So I sneak off to the best hardware store around and buy a new router and a bit (or three) to do the job. Here we are anticipating up a storm.

Next, I feel the need to "see" what I am, as yet, imagining myself to be making. I start looking at the design again, and the other catalogs, and the router bits, and the wood I bought, and my friend the artist comes over. Great! I bring her down stairs and show her the bricks and start talking like an idiot who just got in a car accident. She asks for paper and, Voila! She draws a terrific mantle, just like my girlfriend and I want, and now all I need to do is build it!

In visualizing each detail of the actual mantle, I consider the ways I could cut the boards and the different appearance at every turn. I go through dozens of ideas and finally start to see results.

For the individual woodworker, as your project comes together you learn lots of things you didn't know before and increase your knowledge of materials, tools, techniques, finishes, sources of materials, and lay-out methods. The toughest of these is probably the lay-out methods (systematic decisions about how to build things). I will discuss these in my next article.

John Wiant

John is Project Manager at Commercial Woodwork, Landover, MD (301) 773-0333

He received formal training at Leeds Design Workshop, Easthampton, MA, and Sheridan College of Crafts and Design, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

He's been a professional cabinetmaker and/or shop foreman for approximately 8 years; project management within the woodworking industry for 7 years.

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