The GC is not always right, but subcontractors are learning to pay attention and dissect what they say.

By: Mark L. Johnson

February 2013


Imagine you’re at an industry conference. There you see a seminar entitled, "The GC Speaks—Are You Listening?” Intrigued, you decide to attend. What do you suppose the speaker is going to say?

"My take is that general contractors are pushing more of their duties downhill,” says Craig Daley, president, Daley’s Drywall & Taping, Campbell, Calif. "They ‘speak’ about getting submittal approvals, shop drawing approvals and revisions distributed properly, but lately we don’t have the information we need. And it seems all fingers end up pointing at us.”

Indeed, points of communication between GCs and subs seem to be diminishing. True, the GC speaks. But, not often in person. He issues directives. But, sometimes not so clearly. He distributes project revisions. But, not always in timely fashion. These days a subcontractor just has to know the drawings and hope, blindly, that they build to intended specifications.

"The paperwork shuffling that you’d think a general contractor would be responsible for suddenly seems like it doesn’t matter,” Daley says. "It’s become our problem.”

The Silent Treatment
Drywall subcontractors say that conversations between themselves and GCs remain amicable. But these days, they say less is being spoken between them.

"They think we read minds,” Daley says. "Rather than double checking and distributing information, we’ve become responsible for more things that we don’t even know exist.”

Here’s what can happen. A drywall subcontractor sends a submittal to the GC. The submittal goes unacknowledged. The lack of response is interpreted as an approval. So, the crews begin work. No news is viewed as good news.

But what if it isn’t good news? What if the architect has a problem with the submittal? The crews have begun building the assembly. Normally, the GC would help route the submittal to the architect and, within a reasonable period of time, either secure an approval or pass along any noted concerns.

"We’re finding on a number of projects where we need approvals we get nothing back,” Daley says. "Often, we move forward with what we submit, and pay the price when we find out the general never ran them through all the channels.”

Communication can be tricky. A subcontractor would generally not phone the architect to ask about clarifying information without first getting the GC’s nod to make such a call. Different contractors, of course, have different relationships with their architects and owners, but most prefer that they, and not subs, speak directly to owners and architects.

"That’s why we teach our guys to be proactive and check in regularly with the GC,” Daley says. "We have to be the drivers of information. We have to see that there have been no revisions and that our submittals have been approved.”

Tough Talk
Not long ago, drywall subcontractors used to be able to negotiate adverse contractual clauses. They could dilute some of the language or even get certain clauses stricken from the contract. Times have changed.

"The GC will say, ‘Look. We’re not altering contracts. Legal says we don’t do this anymore,’” says Jeff Burley, CEO and president, B&B Interior Systems, Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Then they add, ‘If you don’t sign there’s a big line of people at the door who are willing to take this contract at this number.’”

Burley says that most GCs have become construction managers—contract managers for all intents and purposes. It’s part of the GC’s work to point out the fine print of contracts while overseeing their projects. In some cases, however, the fine print has been exchanged for contract clauses that impute the architect’s "intent” even where details are missing. Such clauses protect architects and owners and place the onus on subcontractors to build such "missing” assemblies.

Suppose, for example, that you build strictly to the drawings. In this example, let’s say that the drawings show a standard wall assembly with no notations about it being a firewall. The GC comes through, notes your work on the wall and contacts the owner and the architect. Here’s what happens next:

The architect says, "Well, it was my intent for this wall to be a firewall.”

"Well, wait a sec. It’s not marked as a firewall,” you say.

"Well, similar walls on the job are firewalls,” the architect says.

"Okay, but you’ve denoted those other walls. This one was not denoted as a firewall.”

"Well, but it’s similar. We just missed it. It was the intent for it to be a firewall.”

"Okay. I bid plans and specs. I bid white paper with blue lines. I bid whatever is electronically sent to me. But, I can’t interpret what your ‘intent’ was.”

"Sorry, but we need a firewall here,” the architect says. The owner agrees. The GC agrees, too.

You look at them all and say, "Wait a second. I don’t have this in my bid.”

"Sorry.”

Later on, the general contractor says, "Look, I didn’t get any money from the architect or from the owner, so you’re going to have to eat it.”

"What do you mean I’m going to have to eat it?”

"Well, it says in the contract. If it is not approved by the architect or the owner and if it is the intent of the drawings to include this, then you have to include it. You’ll have to eat it.”

The GC has spoken. And, clearly, it’s not easy to listen. Perhaps adopting a simple point of view can help.

"They’re the client,” says one drywall firm president. "Do what’s good for them and have a no-problem attitude. If you’re not listening to what they want, they’re going to go to the next guy who is.”

GCs value cooperation and coordination. They need people who are team players and not, this same drywall executive says, "rugged individualists who only care about themselves and their companies.”

Of course, not all GCs take a tough stance on the job. In fact, several drywall subcontractors feel that many GCs try to manage both upstream and downstream. That is, they try to guide owners and architects’ expectations on scheduling, contract fulfillment and product quality, while also showing fairness toward the subs.

"If they have taken the time to scope you out, and they feel like you’ve been cooperative and have explained to them everything, and if there’s something that’s not on the drawings, even if they don’t get reimbursed by the owner, they will make every effort to at least make you whole—or close to it,” Burley says. "You may not get profits. You may not get overhead. But you may get some of your costs, because they realize that it was not on the drawings.”

Avenue for Connection
The book, The Lost Art of Listening—How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, states that "we define ourselves in conversation with others.” In other words, listening shapes who we are. It is an avenue for connection with others. While the book was written for individuals, and not companies, many of its points can apply in the high-energy, complicated and contractual world of building structures.

"The old saying is a general contractor wants price, quality and schedule,” says Tim Wies, president, T.J. Wies Contracting, Inc., St. Louis, Mo. "You can get price and schedule, price and quality, or schedule and quality—but not all three.”

So, find out what the job’s priorities are going to be. Create an avenue for connection.

"Do we really listen to our customers and what they want out of what they’re buying?” Wies asks. "Or, are we continuing to sell what we think they want?”

Wies believes that many drywall and ceiling subcontractors fail to pay attention to what general contractors would like to see from their work. He says that there’s a tendency to assume that GCs want strictly a low price. Wies says that’s not always the case. His conversations with GCs show that they often expect quality, safety, productivity and schedule adherence. Their priorities depend on the project.

"I guess the big question is, Are we hearing them?,” Wies asks. "Are we moving in that direction? Or, are we stuck in the thinking that they’re asking for everything and then they want this other thing on top of it all?”

As The Lost Art of Listening states, successful listening involves a struggle to suspend our own needs in favor of learning about the needs of others. The struggle is worth the effort.

"They are our customer. It’s our job to pay attention,” Wies says. "The GC is not always right, but we have to pay attention and dissect what they say. You have to be respectful. We have to listen.”

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.