The Site Superintendent, your MVP

Many perspective client’s have called me to ask if I am familiar with a particular builder and the quality of home that they construct. All builders have had good projects and not so good projects but what makes the biggest difference? I always say check out the site superintendent. You may engage a builder, but the site superintendent is the person who will oversee the construction of your house and ensure its quality. He’s the one on whom the reputation of every builder ultimately rests. He is your “most valuable player.”

This job is often characterized by home builders, home inspectors and site superintendents themselves as “the builder’s quarterback.” What exactly does the site superintendent do that makes his performance so central to the home building operation? The site superintendent schedules the 30 to 40 different trades subcontracted by the home-building firm, and he oversees their work. He also orders materials, schedules deliveries and frequently confers with the on-site sales agent and the purchasers of the houses he’s building. This may sound easy, merely a matter of scheduling all the trades in their proper sequence over the 90 to 120 days required to build a production-built house and coordinating the timing of each trade with the delivery of the materials it will use.

Things will go wrong and then it is up to the super to unravel and establish order on the site. Work delays — most often caused by the weather, but sometimes because a tradesman did not complete his work, did it incorrectly or didn’t have enough material to complete the job — mean frequent rescheduling. Not only must the site superintendent notify the next two or three trades due to work on each house affected, but he must also tell those due to come two to four weeks hence and reschedule the delivery of all the materials. In many cases quality gets sacrificed for the schedule because the super knows that he can fix the issue before the home is complete.

Clearly organizational skills and the ability to tolerate stress well are musts. So is stamina. In the course of a typical 10- to 11-hour workday, which normally begins at 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m., a site superintendent makes about 40 phone calls, spends about two hours on routine paperwork and e-mail, and deals with 25 to as many as 80 people as he checks each house at least twice, or more if it is nearing completion.

Supervising the construction does not require an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of home-building — though many do have this — but a site superintendent must know enough to ensure that the work of each trade is done to an acceptable level of quality and that it is 100 percent complete, not the 96 percent that many tradesmen are inclined to deliver.

Riding herd on the crews can be daunting. Most of them are not salaried workers; they are hired by a subcontracting firm, which usually pays them by the job and even by the piece (for example, by the number of roof shingles put up in a day). Since this often creates an attitude of “I’ll do this well enough to get paid” rather than “I’ll do the best I can,” the site superintendent has to clarify for each incoming crew what “well enough” means on his job and then check back to make sure that his instructions are being followed. This can be time-consuming and, occasionally, exasperating, so a site superintendent will try to get a crew that he has worked with on previous jobs. With constant rescheduling, this is not always possible.

The experience required to be an effective site superintendent depends on the type and complexity of the house being built. In a production-built subdivision, the houses generally have fewer details and the firm has already built the same house many times. All the glitches in the design will have been long since worked out. For this type of house, the site superintendent does not need years of experience, but he must be tenacious. If he sees something is wrong, he has to insist that it be done correctly.

If a subdivision has houses with many customized details — not uncommon in the higher price ranges — more experience is required. A general rule of thumb in the industry is that after five years, a site superintendent should be able to build anything.

If a project has many houses going up at the same time or if each house is large and complicated, many production builders have both a “front end” and a “back end” superintendent. The front man takes the house from the initial excavation and foundation work to the installation of the drywall. The back man, usually a more junior person, supervises this phase plus the painting and the finish work. Though the first man’s job is tougher from a technical standpoint, the second man’s work is what the buyer notices, and in that sense it’s more critical.

As a prospective home buyer, how can you tell if a project has a good site superintendent?

One. The first thing to look for is cleanliness. Does the site look orderly or is trash thrown about? Subcontractors can be like teenagers who never pick up after themselves, so the site superintendent must continually prod them to clean up. If the site is a mess, it’s a sure sign that he’s not in control of the job.

Two. Does there appear to be activity every day? There may be legitimate periods of inactivity for two to three days and sometimes as long as a week. But if nothing happens for 10 days, the job is very likely to be mismanaged.

Before you sign the sales contract, ask to meet the superintendent for your house. Many building firms set up a formal meeting with both the sales agent and the site superintendent before the job starts and periodically during construction. Asking to meet the superintendent before you sign on is unusual, but a builder should be able to accommodate this.

Here are some questions to ask him when you meet:

  1. What does he think of you hiring a home inspector to make periodic inspections? A good site superintendent will be confident and open-minded. As the house goes up, he’s likely to say to your inspector, “Just make a list and leave it for me” knowing that he can handle whatever comes up. A less confident and experienced site superintendent will be less sanguine about your inspector poking about.
  2. Has the site superintendent run other projects for this firm and, if so, where? Go there and ask the residents about their experiences with both the firm and the superintendent. If any of the houses are occupied in the location where you want to buy, talk with these residents also. Be sure to ask how promptly the site superintendent responded to their queries and concerns. You should get a response by phone or e-mail within a day.
  3. How many houses is the site superintendent supervising? The larger and more elaborate the houses, the fewer he can supervise effectively. If you want a large, custom-built, 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot, $1 million house with elaborate everything, a site superintendent can’t look after more than two or three and do a good job. Even a smaller custom-built house will have many details and unique features, so looking after more than three is still pushing it.

If you’re looking at a 2,500-square-foot, $500,000 semi-custom built house with less elaborate details and finishes, the site superintendent could likely look after as many as 10 to 12 at a time if the houses are all at the same site. If the lots were scattered, trying to supervise any more than eight would be difficult.

If you’re considering a production-built house, the lots will all be in one location and there will be far less detailing. An experienced site superintendent can comfortably look after 12 houses. With 15 he’ll be stretched, especially if there are labor shortages, because when this happens, many crews will be inexperienced and require much closer supervision.