BPA Insights

Building QA/QC Problems:
To Find, or Not to Find? And How to Report?

In QA/QC work, there is an inherent tension, which sometimes turns into outright conflict, between wanting to find problems, and wanting to demonstrate perfection. Both desires are geared toward delivering maximum value to the client, but they can create a delicate balancing act at times.

In existing buildings, we typically want to find problems, like air or water leaks, and study and understand them well enough to make solid recommendations for how to correct them, thereby delivering value to the building owner. The more problems we find, the more value we can create by helping the owner save energy costs, or improving safety or comfort, which can have major financial benefits.

In new buildings, we want them to achieve their high-performance goals, which can be things like specific testing results or program certifications. In those projects, illuminating the path for the construction team is critical, because we’d rather see everything done right the first time, which minimizes construction cost and time.

So even at the most basic level, there is a clear contrast between existing building diagnostics and new construction, in terms of whether we want to find problems in the building.

Beyond the basic differences, there are endless subtleties and nuances. In an existing building, if we identify too many problems, we may overwhelm the owner, causing them to lose hope for the project and decide not to move forward. When an existing building has a number of issues, it becomes important to break them down into manageable-size pieces, and prioritize the solutions based on potential return on investment.

In new construction projects, while we’d rather not see problems, it’s also important to look carefully, conduct appropriate tests, and call out problems as we see them. Only by making sure there aren’t significant problems can we be confident that a building will actually meet its performance targets. If real problems in a new building go unseen or unmentioned, the building may not perform as well as the owner and design team expected, and the problems may create unacceptable conditions, either in the short term or longer-term. No member of the project team wants to do or pay for repairs on a building they were involved in constructing, when the underlying problem could have been corrected earlier, more fully, and at lower cost.

Because of the sensitive nature of QA/QC work in both design and construction, over the years, we have found some principles that are highly important, reflecting insights from wise individuals both within and outside the building industry:

Do not hold back from identifying problems. It is better to know than not know, and essential for delivering high-quality buildings.

Do your best to fully understand the problem. Get educated and bring your education to bear. Without this, solutions will be partial at best.

Make sure the recommended solution is appropriate. If you are not sure what to do, or whether your idea is correct, get advice from someone with expertise in that specific area, so you can make a confident recommendation.
Clearly communicate the issue. Do not mix the solution recommendation into the problem description; this magnifies the tendency for different people to come to different conclusions. First, state only the problematic condition, and the past or potential future effects. Then stop. Then, separately state what you recommend to solve the problem, if that is in your scope of work.

Keep other people’s perspectives in mind, and engage in dialogue to help the team determine the best course of action. Empathize with the owner of the existing building. Empathize with and respect the contractor who has lived and breathed every aspect of the new building for months or years. The way you say things can dramatically impact how the Owner, Designer, or Contractor will respond. By understanding and communicating well with others, the QA/QC professional has a much better chance to catalyze the process that leads to problems being fixed.

At Building Performance Architecture, these are some of the issues we experience regularly, and the strategies we have developed to handle them. We’d be curious to hear your perspectives and stories related to finding and solving quality problems in buildings. How do you make decisions about whether and how to report problems?