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The Hard Way Every Time

How exactly does one learn to be The Brick Chick?  In a simple and accurate answer that I can say with certainty from my own pain staking yet valuable experiences on the matter – the hard way.

I’ll never forget the first IDOT project we were awarded back in 2002 in downtown Western Springs back when I was a green little paver pup.  I was so excited to land what we considered at the time one of our largest and most significant projects to date.  We officially entered the public market by getting our first IDOT subcontract.  It felt like we were hitting the big time.

The project consisted of both paver and segmental block retaining walls, the only two types of services we offered (and still do).  We were installing pavers at various corners and intersections of the streetscape that was being constructed and block retaining walls along the train tracks.  This was our first experience with unit price work, as we had come from mostly performing residential and lighter commercial installations that were not structured in this capacity.  Our experience was limited to seeing a set of plans or working through the details of a project with the end user and then pricing it based upon that as a lump sum job.  What we established as the scope is what we priced in those situations.  How could this really be that different?  Oh boy, did I learn the only way I could at the time…  you guessed it, the hard way.

We had the walls designed by a structural engineer that provided for all necessary considerations.  These plans were approved and we began construction of the walls.  Because of the load and vibration of the train tracks, a decent sized footing (block buried below grade) was designed for these walls to support the height of the wall that was exposed (above grade).  The installation went smoothly and we completed the project as intended.

When it came down time to be paid on the project, we noticed something was drastically off.  We installed and provided 2,200 SF of block walls on the project but were only being paid for 1,800 SF.  How could this be?  After much head scratching and assuming, we contacted the RE on the project to discuss.  We were informed there was a special provision in the pay item specification for the wall that limited payment to only the exposed qty of wall installed.  What did this mean?  All of that block installed/provided below grade was NOT going to be measured or paid for and was considered incidental to the qty measured above grade.  What?  How could this be?  This doesn’t make any logical sense and doesn’t seem fair.  The RE very kindly and matter-of-factly explained to me that this didn’t need to be fair, it just needed to be known and provided for in our UNIT PRICE that we bid.  And just like that, the importance of obtaining, reviewing and interpreting every single piece of the construction docs was learned and would never be forgotten.

While I have taken my fair share of bumps, bruises and losses on learning this way, I have used these experiences to make sure that my posse does not have to undergo such pain staking ways of learning that I did.  I try to bestow my knowledge on them intimately and without barriers to prevent them from having to experience the financial and mental losses that I had to endure.  We also continually participate in education to stay ahead of changing times and ways, as I know how important it is to be prepared and proactive rather than regretful and reactive.

This year, we took part in reconstructing the train track platforms in Western Spring at the same locations as my first IDOT job we did 16 years prior.  When I visited the site, those same walls that we built still stood… not only structurally, but as a blaring reminder of how learning things the hard way is so costly, yet some of the most valuable lessons one could ever obtain.