Truth in Budgeting
By Paolo Benedetti
Putting a residential pool project out for bid can be a perilous undertaking for a property owner - especially when the home in question is new and architects or custom-home builders are involved in the process.
Quite often, the architect or home builder will reach out to a local volume builder who, for free, will come in and provide a quote based on a calculation of cost per square foot or per perimeter foot. Usually working off either a flat plan or an architectural rendering (that is, a pretty picture rather than a formal set of construction plans) in preparing a bid, the volume builder takes a shot in the dark and generally aims low.
Matters get worse when the architect and/or custom-home builder relies on the volume builder's lowball figure when preparing a construction budget for the property owner. At this point, no structural engineering has been performed, no hydraulic calculations or plumbing schematics have been developed, no equipment has been defined - and neither finish materials nor installation practices have been mocked up, approved or in any way specified.
In other words, none of the fine details have been worked out, nor has any true scope of work been defined.
Let's put the shoe firmly on the other foot: Show that same architect or home builder a pretty picture of a house and ask him or her exactly how much it will cost to build it. After the hysterical laughing ceases, he or she will rattle off a long list of questions and will at best provide a broad range of possible costs - "It'll be somewhere between $100 and $1,000 per square foot, and there would have to be major allowances for key line items."
This is great for the "budget" - until, of course, the property owner recognizes that life will involve shopping at flea markets and second-hand stores to work with the allowances.
Part of the problem, of course, is property owners' insistence on defining budgets in general and on pools specifically. This is why false, misleading and arbitrary figures work their way into construction bids and end up being quoted to property owners - who invariably, of course, assume the numbers are both true and accurate and actually think something nice can be built at a bargain-basement price.
Imagine the disappointment of these same clients when the time comes and they find their visions of imported, hand-cut mosaic tile and resort-style waterfeatures are nothing but pipe dreams - something they discover as the change orders pile up and everyone finally acknowledges that the budgeted figures were unreliable and invalid.
Some property owners never come to grips with this reality, but most begin to see the light when the structural engineering and geotechnical reports are completed and selection of finish materials confronts them. Suddenly the pool is way over budget - and of course greedy pool contractors must be to blame.
Things quickly begin devolving when the home builder gets around to seeing just how small the budget is for the pool (based, of course, upon invalid figures set by the low bidder way back when). So the home builder is trapped, forced to rely again on the low bidder for construction to preserve profit margins. Ultimately, in other words, the project goes to the pool contractor willing to work with the figure and degrade the project the most - that is, right back to the volume builder who set the bar somewhere in the basement to kick off the process in the first place!
A Way Out
The scenario I've outlined above happens all too often. This is why, whenever I have the opportunity, I advise property owners to get a watershape designer involved during the home's design phase.
An aquatically oriented design professional will know which questions to ask and will work - as do the architect and the home builder - toward a budget that reflects the actual realities of quality design and construction as well as the clients' desires.
The key here is finding a watershape designer who insists on following the proper path - one who will insist on commissioning engineering reports and will prepare construction documents that specify in exact detail how the project is to be built. That last point is critical: If the designer leaves a builder with any wiggle room, the bids will come with no assurance to the property owner that apples-to-apples comparisons can be made.
It's a simple matter of consistency: Just as the home builder's subcontractors prepare bids to specification - this roofing material, that specific wall veneer, this insulation material and so on and on - so should prospective pool builders. Why on earth would a home builder ask another contractor to provide construction pricing based upon a flat plan or a pretty picture? Let's clarify the process by providing detailed structural engineering, plumbing schematics, equipment specifications, finish materials and installation specifications for all bidders!
As always, it's necessary for the architect or home builder to align reality with the clients' expectations and keep things at budget. Quoting invalid or fictitious pool-construction figures only serves to undermine clients' faith in those involved, and it also makes competent pool builders seem like greedy gold diggers who live only to pad their bids.
Quite the contrary: These contractors live to produce top-quality pools - watershapes that merit consideration as works of aquatic art.