How Many Hats Do I Have? — A Short Essay On Project Management

Yesterday, I was picking up some materials at one of my local suppliers (Home Depot). I got there just when the store opened (0600), yet I wasn’t ready to do any “real” work until 0900. What’s up with that?

Actually I was engaged in a lot of activity because I had to rent the truck, wait for the materials to get forklifted to the truck, drive back to the house, unpack, unload, dispose of the packing material, drive the rental truck back, top it off with gas, and then drive back to the house.

Turns out, that whenever you take on a home improvement project of any size, one of the critical tasks is to get your materials. In addition, there are a number of other tasks that need to occur before you commence “real work”. (By “real work” I mean doing the deed. Measuring, cutting, digging, assembling… whatever your concept of “real work” may be.) My Dad always said: “Always have a plan.” For simple tasks, this can be a drawing on the flap of an unused cardboard box. I did this today when I was laying out a manifold for my irrigation system. For more complex tasks, you might need dimensional drawings or a 3D model. Yet, this kind of “plan” is only one-dimensional. Well, really 2-D, but it oversimplifies the task of planning. Planning includes ALL of the tasks necessary to complete a project (of any size). Here is a list of common tasks that are necessary predecessors for “real work” in the context of DIY home improvement:

  1. Define your task. This is the fulcrum around which everything else rotates. Do you want to remodel your kitchen? Do you want to have an accessible bathroom? Do you want to have a water-conserving landscape? Do I want to put in new flooring? (Yes to all.)
  2. Make a drawing. A drawing will force you to detail  critical information. What kind of cabinets do I want for my kitchen? What kind of shower to I need to make my bathroom accessible? What kind of irrigation system do I need to have a water conserving landscape? What kind of flooring do I want? How big? How much? What shapes? As you answer these questions, your design will become increasingly more detailed, and from this, you can not only get an idea of how you’re going to put things together, but also be able to extract a list of materials. This is crucial to the next step.
  3. Source and obtain your materials. I remember before the Internet that I used to spend hours roaming the aisles of the big box stores just seeing what materials were available for my project. Now, I spend hours roaming the Internet. The cool thing is that I now have access to exponentially more choices of materials, and most come with free shipping, so I don’t even have to leave the house. Stuff just shows up. As a matter of practice, I develop my material list in conjunction with the design process, so by the time I have finished the drawings, I also have my shopping list.
  4. Perform a cost estimate and obtain financing. OK, for simple projects, that may mean taking $200 from your savings account. But for bigger projects, like a home remodel, this step is more integrated with the planning process as you will be making trade-offs with your design. Cost estimation is a science unto itself, and there are some good software tools out there when it comes to estimating residential construction projects. I did a detailed cost estimate using an online program called Clear Estimates just before I had my plans approved. Not only did I get a good figure the cost of my remodel, but I also was able to get estimates for the work I plan to contract out. Now I have some benchmark costs so I can better evaluate the bids of the subcontractors.
  5. Set aside time for the project. You want to have a block of free time that allows you to have an uninterrupted workflow to make the job go faster, and minimizes repetitive set-up times. Planning when to work on the project also helps you schedule your material procurements and deliveries. Frequently, deciding on when I’m going to do a project is the first thing that I do because it helps me plan and complete all of the predecessors (task definition, design/drawing, and material procurement). Deadlines are an effective motivator.
  6. GET TO WORK! Finally!

The steps above are the essence of what is called “project management”. It’s actually pretty straightforward if the project is simple, and if the project is larger, you just have to break it down into smaller chunks until what you’re left with are a bunch of simple projects. Here is where it gets interesting. This collection of simple projects, representing a much larger project, is not just a “honey-do” list. These sub-projects are interrelated. Some tasks have to be completed before others can start. Some tasks can be done in parallel. Some tasks require specialized skills which are best left to professional contractors. So, answering the questions of “where to start” and “what’s next” can become quite complicated. Large commercial projects develop what is called an “Integrated Master Schedule” (IMS) which typically uses computer software (e.g., Microsoft Project) to logically link all of the sub-tasks and assign labor and material resources to each task. In theory, you can get an accurate estimate of how much the project will cost and how long it will take. In reality, there are ALWAYS cost overruns and ALWAYS schedule delays, largely due to the facts that (a) there is always a measure of uncertainty in planning any project, (b) the bosses will tend to be overly optimistic because they want to win the bid, and (c) the customer frequently has a change of mind, which results in a change in the plans, and things just cascade from there. I actually have experience with doing this, and I made up an IMS for this home remodeling project about a year ago. That schedule showed that I would complete the project sometime later this year (2015). Alas, the IMS was difficult to keep up to date, and since I’m the only guy working the project, I made a choice to ditch the IMS in favor of doing “real work”. Needless to say, I now only have a vague idea when I’m going to finish, and I’m not quite sure what the final cost is going to be. All I know is that I’ve been stopping by Home Depot almost every day to pick up yet another part that I seemed to have overlooked in planning.

So, as the only person who is working this project, I need to wear many hats. Designer, draftsman, planner, scheduler, estimator, finance manager, procurement specialist (shopper), shipping and transportation (bring the stuff home), warehouse manager (store the stuff), general contractor, and finally tradesperson. I’m sure I left something out, but I think that’s enough to illustrate the point.

Now, when you see a construction crew at work, realize that there is a lot of action behind the scenes that is necessary to support that work. Even if that construction crew is a crew of one.

Here are some pictures of my warehousing operation:



WAREHOUSE  Do you see my ShopSmith?

Do you see my ShopSmith?


Shopping for Parts — What Else Would I Do On Black Friday?

As the last bits of excavation and site preparation come to fruition, the project is now entering the phase where I have to actually start buying materials. When I was making my plans, I did a lot of research on the Internet to make sure I could source the critical parts that I needed, and I did some preliminary estimating. Even though it was quite helpful, things become more serious when you start putting cash on the table. Back in the day, I would spend hours perusing the aisles of the big box stores, writing down prices and in general figuring things out. Now I spend hours on the Internet, copying and pasting prices and in general figuring things out. At least I don’t have to waste time travelling to and from the store. And I can sip a beer without fear of arrest.

All kidding aside, the Internet and stores with an on-line presence are the best thing that has happened to DIY’ers since, well, DIY. Not only can I check inventory and prices, but I can also source difficult to find products and have them shipped to me. For example, I was looking for an irrigation controller that was set up for a smart home, and I found one for sale directly from the manufacturer (Irrigation Caddy). It has an ethernet port, controls 10 zones, and has a rain sensor option. Boo-Yah! In addition, many of these stores have a lot of how-to’s. I completely figured out my outdoor 12v lighting system from a website that sold lighting parts directly from the factory (Landscape Lighting World). They had tons of how-to videos and some very practical advice on landscape lighting. Their products seemed pretty good as well, and when I compared prices, they were reasonable, so I ordered from them.

The big box stores also have significant online presence, and the ones that I use (Home Depot and Lowe’s) have convenient features on their websites that allow you to develop lists. However, sometimes navigation of that all that stuff is tricky. For instance, if you type in a key word on the Home Depot site, you get results that are typically incomplete. The best way to search is to drill down from the home page once you find the department where the product is located. The other hassle is that sometimes you get things that are in the store, which get pulled immediately, and other things which have to be shipped to the store. So I get several e-mails and texts urging me to hurry to pick up my in-store order (and being threatened that they will cancel it) while they haven’t even shipped the balance of the order to the store. I eventually straightened that out, but really, HD should figure out a way to let me know when the complete order is ready for pick-up. Then some items they won’t ship to the store and they’ll charge you to ship it to your home. For example, I wanted to order some drain pipe, and the price was $28, but the shipping was $55. No thanks.

Of course, sometimes they won’t have what you want. Mostly, I try to figure out a way to order it from someplace that has free shipping like Amazon, but in some cases, that’s impractical. So, it’s back to the big box store where you can ask if they can do a special order. My experience with these is pretty positive, because the folks at the special order desk typically have a lot of experience, and they will do thorough research. If they can order the part, you’ll have it in a few days. If they can’t they usually will give you good advice about who may have it.

Lastly, sometimes you really need to see the product in person. Thus far, I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve been looking up the product specifications on line while I was in the planning phase, so I have a very good idea of what I want and how much I need. This works fine for commodities (pipe, wire, fittings), especially if they’re hidden. If they’re not, then you have to start worrying about color and texture, and shape, and … all that stuff that I’m not very good at. So, because my wife has a far superior sense of style, I enlist her help when it comes to these things. She also has a vested interest because she doesn’t want the house to look like I dress. Well, ok,  like I USED to dress before she started picking out clothes for me. Now, I have to busy myself in obtaining “samples” so we can carry them around when we look at materials. These samples go beyond paint samples, although that’s included. We’re talking brick, retaining wall blocks, roofing shingles, … etc.. I hope I don’t need a truck to haul this stuff around! Actually, I exaggerate. All we really need are paint samples and a piece of roof shingle. Be that as it may, my wife is correct about getting all this stuff together to see what it looks like in person. Pictures on the Internet can fool you when it comes to colors because there are so many variables (lighting direction, lighting color, camera settings). Sometimes you can get the data, such as RGB values, for colors, and that can help with computer rendering. But bottom line is that you need to see things in person to make sure. Especially if you’re buying several pallets of bricks for a brick wall. I have a feeling that would be WAY more difficult to return than a pair of bunny slippers.