Construction Management of Renovation, Remodels, or New Construction in Thailand.

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Construction Management and Quality Control on residential new construction or renovations/remodels in Thailand is a real challenge for the average Westerner.  Approaching western standards for construction quality – especially finish work – takes experience and a LOT of energy to supervise – especially if you are on a time schedule.

This page lists some of my observations as I move through a current renovation project in Chiang Mai, Thailand (and the general conclusions I make are backed up with the experiences of other farang who have done the same thing).

  1. If you are a first-timer, consider a small project such as a bathroom remodel or a bedroom renovation that you can write out and detail all specifications and have tight control over them- you will need to micro manage things unfortunately,  and micro managing a small project is better than a project spanning multiple rooms and specialties (tile, carpentry, waterproofing, windows, plumbing, painting, finish work, decorations, jobsite cleanliness.  Specifications include, the exact tile and grout, plumbing fixtures, lighting, decorations and placement, paint (maker, type, color, and scheme (preferably a photo mock-up showing what paint goes where).  The more specification homework you can do ahead of time, the easier you will have supervising the work is being done according to specification.
  2. Having an English-speaking and on-site construction manager that has authority over contractors and workers and can communicate owner’s wishes is essential.  In this project, when I met with the lead construction manager and had detailed, document based discussions, the next day the project would take a big leap forward in momentum and work done according to spec (note – this is when I met with the “Main Boss”, who was english-speaking and educated in the USA.  Most of the time there was only a junior construction manager here on site who spoke little english and seemed to have little authority over the contractors/workers. He smiled a lot, but seemed to not be especially involved in scrutinizing details – I would have to catch all of them).  The ability, availability, willingness, and authority of the construction manager, along with the owner providing judicious oversight backed up with organized documentation makes a big difference, in the timeline and quality of a project (but is still exhausting for the owner).
  3. Timelines do not matter in general it appears, and its truly best not to have a hard-and-fast one.  Do not make moving or business/travel plans based on the construction manager’s or contractor’s completion estimate.  Even the construction manager does not know when the project will be done, or be able to give you an accurate time estimate.
  4. You had better be ok with YOU being the construction and project manager, and being here 6-7 days a week – especially for the finish work.  Either you or your english speaking subordinate will need to do rounds every 15 minutes during the finish phase to ensure that finish work is done according to specification, otherwise, you will get the worker’s choice of finish quality.  Do not expect the Construction Manager to be diligently running around double-checking that things are being done properly – they seem to prefer to not be too intimately involved and will be hanging out outside the project.
  5. The owner will be the Qa/QI, and will have to have a means of keeping track of outstanding quality or project issues.  The can be done by spreadsheet possibly, but me personally, i did it by building a custom website which stores all my pictures of issues, requests, hardware and furniture specifications, etc.  This is hugely helpful because all information about an outstanding question or item can be sent directly to one’s cell phone, leaving a *paper trail*.
  6. After observing the workers for a while, you will find out who is diligent and knows their trade – these guys are valuable to get into your back pocket – get their information and see if they are available to help with other projects down the road – at least you know they understand your quality standards, and you can probably get them to work for you for a very reasonable amount (I am guessing, but 700 baht a day is probably a good premium over what they normally get).
  7. Architectural firms may present you with gorgeous and perfect 3-d computer renderings of the proposed finished product, and say there are precise specifications for every item in the drawing, such as windows, furniture, tile specs, wall colors, etc – this is part of the sales process, and makes you feel a sense of certainty you will *get* what is rendered in the drawings.  Understand, the devil is in the details – such detailed specifications to make your life easier do not exist really – they will take you *shopping* for fixtures and furnishings and ask what you like, but not provide you with the specification in the drawing used to convince you to sign the contract.  This equates to more work and decisions for you.
  8. Another note on 3-d renderings – they only show a wide-angle view. They do not show all the details that must be supervised in order to approach the quality and presumed high-level function of the rendering – precise floor elevations, bathrooms properly sloped for drainage, doors and windows hung straight and with western-standard fit (good luck), plumbing fixture placement and installation heights, grout colors, wall smoothness, clean paint lines, etc.  That is not to say these renderings do not have value – they absolutely do from a design consideration and conceptual perspective – just understand that especially in a remodel/renovation (vs. new construction), the rendering cannot take into account everything existing inside the walls, and the real construction likely will need to be adjusted from the utopia of the rendering.
  9. Architectural firms may provide add-on “construction management” services and interior consulting – all in one package.  Really get into the details of what this means:  how much supervision is provided, do they speak english, what is the experience level of the construction manager (are they qualified as building inspectors), what their authority level is, and can they really drive a project to the finish line and do solid QI – in my experience, my firm was very weak in the regard.  Be prepared to hire your own construction project manager to assist you, or you will go nuts.  Regarding interior design and things like furniture *consulting*, ask it this means the firm prepares a visual presentation of different furniture and styles to help you choose, and can then take you to the live example.  Basically, find out how much homework the do ahead of time to make your life easier.  What passes as helping with furniture selection (a detailed process in its own right), may be little more than dumping you in the middle of a showroom and asking, “What you like?” and expect you to do all the thinking, ask all the design questions.  That is not to say these services do not have some value, but you still may need to hire additional staff to fill in the gaps (in my case, an interior architect/interior designer, and a Project Manager).
  10. What an architectural firm can provide is construction cost estimating and negotiating with contractors – this was very useful.  it will give you a spreadsheet breakdown of what individual items in a project cost, wich may be helpful if you choose at some point to negotiate with contractors on your own – you will have some written documentation outlining what different scopes of work cost.
  11. Seldom will contractors or workers ask question how you want something done – you have to be proactive and detail all of it, preferably with pictures and through a translator.
  12. Expect to have to tell the construction manager up to 5 times things you want done differently, once per day until it gets done.
  13. If not managed by you or your own separate project manager, finish quality standards will be set by the workers, may need to be redone, and will delay the project further.
  14. Real-time communication, and general communication accountability with construction managers is sparse and needs to be lobbied for – and even then, getting an answer when a construction manager will be on site is hit-and miss (sometimes they do not want to meet with the owner, which makes the owner question their agenda – almost like they are withholding information).
  15. The old adage, “On-Time, On-Budget, and According To Specification” is not the standard in Thailand.  In my experience, the only thing you can really fight for is “According to Specification” – and you will have to provide that specification in most instances.
  16. Work days here run 9a-430pm,
  17. When planning for the week ahead, ask what days will be missed due to festivals and holidays.  Expect to miss a 2-4 work days a month due to festivals and holidays that nobody told you about beforehand.
  18. Having construction experience is a huge plus.  If you do not, you will need to qualify a construction management firm.  I went on a fellow American’s recommendation – and that was not enough of a qualification – this project is a circus, primarily because there is no english-speaking construction manager on-site most of the time who has the experience to drive a job with good quality.
  19. You will never know one day to the next who if anyone will be coming to the construction site.
  20. When asking what the timeline is for a specific item to be completed or work started, “tomorrow” is a common answer.  That does not mean it will be done tomorrow.  In my experience tomorrow means definitely NOT today, possibly tomorrow, but more likely you will be asking the same question a few days down the road (to which the reply will likely be – “tomorrow”).
  21. Expect timeline to run at least 50-100%+ beyond original estimate; this project was closer to 100% late.
  22. Being upfront about expectations for quality and schedule seem to have little value – you will get what they give you if you, the owner, allow it, and have to correct it later – they will not ask you what quality level you expect.
  23. “Construction manager” is a misnomer, and not equivalent to a CM in Europe or USA.
  24. The CM does not give progress updates of his own volition – you must be proactive.  You will have to ask questions about everything.
  25. Written specifications do not exist – the owner must research and collect/store them (this is a primary purpose of this website).
  26. Specialty items such as western-level door and window hardware has 2-4 week lead times – nobody will tell you this ahead of time.
  27. Furniture and decorations can take a long time to shop for, order, and have delivered.  You may even need to go to Bangkok to shop as Chiang Mai’s selection and especially local stock is limited (even though they will have tons of out-of-stock items on display).  Consider hiring a local interior decorator to help simplify the process.
  28. Workers will sand things without regard for moving things like mattresses, electronics – you will need to be on top of them to make sure your belongings are protected, things get moved.
  29. Consider hiring your own laborer to clean up after the workers and keep the construction site tidy.  A clean construction site sets an observable standard of quality and site management, accountability.
  30. Tile work – after the floor tile is laid, take a bucket of water, pour it at the high point of the floor, and ensure that it is sloped and there is no standing water, and that the drain works properly!  If there is…  Redo it!!
  31. Seldom do meetings happen on time, so it is best not to stack daily meetings one-after-the other like back in the USA/Europe.
  32. On-site construction manager (owner’s advocate) must be on site and doing rounds every 15 minutes during finish work to make sure workers are doing finish work according to specification.